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Notes on Roland Lebeg
Townley Clarkson (1889-1954)

The following page summarises research by members of OASI into the life of Roland Lebeg Townley Clarkson (1889-1954), a Suffolk astronomer, founder of Ipswich and District Astronomy Society (IDAS), and occasional user of Orwell Park Observatory. A much more comprehensive biography, by Dr Richard McKim, is available [1]. If you can provide additional insight into Clarkson's life, please get in touch: info@oasi.org.uk

Born in Suffolk in 1889, Clarkson became interested in astronomy as a schoolboy. He kept notebooks and sketches from 1906, when he began observing in earnest, for almost the next 50 years. The British Astronomical Association (BAA) holds all his observing notebooks in its archives.

RLTC_election_FCS.png Clarkson's certificate of election as FCS.

He was elected FCS (Fellow of the Chemical Society) in 1918. He is last mentioned in the register of the Society in 1927. His election certificate provides clues to his activities during the Great War. It describes him in 1914 as Chemist to the Burgh Castle Cement Works; however, this is contested by other references which indicate that the works closed in 1912. In 1916-17, the certificate indicates that he was employed in the munitions factory of the Cotton Powder Coy Ltd near Davington in Kent.

Clarkson joined the Ipswich Section of the Chaldaean Society. The records of the Society refer to his observations in the early 1920s as follows.

In "The Chaldaean", vol. III, no. 10, spring 1921, p.22-23, a large fold-out table lists observations reported by members of the Society of the annular solar eclipse of Friday 08 April 1921. Clarkson was among the observers from Suffolk who reported observations.

"The Chaldaean", vol. IV, no. 14, spring 1922, p.22-3, reports on observations by Clarkson of planetary shadows as follows:

Roland Clarkson on "Planetary Shadows"

The note on the visibility of the shadow cast by Venus that appeared in the last number of "The Chaldaean" has an interesting letter from Mr. Roland L. T. Clarkson, of Beccles, Suffolk, who sends us the following extract from his note-book:-

At 4 a.m. G.M.T. Nov 21st 1919...."Venus was shining very brilliantly and threw a clear shadow of my window on the opposite wall, frame and cross bars being all clearly out-lined, nearly as much as by a crescent moon sometimes."

Mr Clarkson adds that Venus was then in Virgo just below the star γ and not very long after inferior conjunction, probably at about her greatest brilliancy. He remarks with regard to the last part of his note that at 4 a.m. in November, with no Moon, the sky was quite dark, and Venus' shadow would be correspondingly distinct, while a crescent moon though probably actually brighter, would only be shining in twilight.

We are very much obliged to Mr. Clarkson for the note of his interesting observation, which gains greatly in value from the fact that it was immediately recorded. It would be difficult to find a better illustration of the importance of recording all observations at once.

Following on the observation of the shadow cast by Venus through the window frame, Mr. Clarkson has made further observation in the case of Jupiter, and reports as follows:-

I took the opportunity on Feb. 19th, 1922, to see whether Jupiter like Venus threw any perceptible shadow.

The observations were made at 11.30 p.m. G.M.T. on a very clear night, with a strong south-westerly wind, after a rainy day. There was a good deal of northern light (aurora) visible, but no artificial lamp anywhere, Jupiter was in Virgo, rising E. S. E. altitude about 21°.

I found that on a sheet of white paper held about eight feet from the window (which is about three feet square) the whole outline of the window, bars, etc., were plainly visible. When the paper was moved outside the line of Jupiter-visibility, nothing was seen. The shadow therefore must have been cast by Jupiter. Close to the window no shadows were obtained, only a confused illumination from the sky generally. At the other side of the room, twelve feet from the window, the shadows were visible but not so sharp or plain. But in the middle of the room (about six feet to eight feet) the shadow of the bars and window, etc., could be seen as often as desired, as well as that of any object placed between the paper and the window.

Roland L. T. Clarkson

February 20th, 1922.

We are again indebted to Mr. Clarkson for his interesting observation and prompt report. The experiment might be repeated with Mars about the time of opposition. Mars will be exceptionally bright (mag. -2.1) but as there will be a summer sky and "no real night", the success of the observation may be doubtful this year. An attempt might also be made with Sirius in the late autumn or winter.

The observation through a small window, excluding light from all other directions, has several obvious advantages. Up to the present, however, Venus remains the only planet or star the throw any shadow in the open. Venus attains her greatest brilliancy this year as an evening star on Oct. 20 and as a morning star on Dec. 30. On the former occasion there is a new Moon and Venus will be in the rich constellation Scorpio, but in order to get a good observation free from twilight it would be desirable to look for the shadow a month or six weeks earlier, as soon as the light of the Harvest Moon has ceased to be a hindrance. There will be a far better opportunity at the end of the year. The mornings will then be quite dark, and Venus rises 3½ hours before the Sun on the edge of Libra and Scorpio. Her brilliancy is estimated at -4.4 or thirteen times Sirius, and her altitude 12° higher than in October. Jupiter in Libra will not be far away.

It promises to be an interesting search. Such information as we have suggests that an intensely clear atmosphere, following heavy rain, is most likely to lead to success.

The Journal of the BAA [2] reports a contribution by Clarkson to a meeting of the Association on 28 April 1926: Report of the meeting held on Wednesday, April 28, 1926. No papers were read, but lantern slides were shown on the screen, and among the exhibits were the following...... model of Mars and a small Gregorian telescope, by R. L. T. Clarkson.

In the 1920s-30s, Clarkson appears to have moved several times around Suffolk and Essex. According to Kelly's Directory 1922 [3], he and his father [4] both lived at 25 Ballygate, Beccles, Suffolk. Some two years later, it appears [5] that they moved to "The Old House", Dedham, Essex, where Clarkson Snr. ran the "Old House Private Hotel" [6] (and is also listed at this time as a "land agent".) In 1930 [7], he is listed as resident at "The Poplars", Oakley, Suffolk, and in 1932 [8] at Brome Road, Yaxley, Suffolk.

Clarkson was proposed for membership of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) by W H Steavenson [9] and was elected a fellow on 13 December 1946 [10].

By the 1950s, Clarkson moved to "The Bungalow", The Avenue, Trimley, Suffolk [11]. He was a founder and president of the Ipswich and District Astronomical Society (IDAS). In the early 1950s, the Society occasionally met at Orwell Park Observatory to use the Tomline Refractor. IDAS was a precursor of OASI and some of its members later joined OASI.

The Lunar Section of the BAA was instrumental in mapping the lunar surface. The Section worked under the guidance of H P Wilkins, a leading lunar mapper, as Section Director. Clarkson had a particular interest in the Moon and was a prolific contributor to the work of the Section. He developed great skill in sketching details of the lunar surface over 30 years at the eyepiece of his 6½" reflector; the dedication and quality of his work earned him great respect amongst his contemporaries. So great, indeed, was the esteem in which Clarkson's colleagues held him, that, in 1954, he joined an elite group of distinguished astronomers when Wilkins named a lunar crater in his honour. The crater is easily observable, situated immediately to the north of the large crater Gassendi [12], on the north-west rim of Mare Humorum. Crater Clarkson is 33 km in diameter and ringed by 4 km high peaks. The East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Evening Star of 18 February 1954 [11] carried articles on Clarkson and his crater.

In subsequent re-mapping of the Moon, the International Astronomical Union removed names of some of the contributors to lunar astronomy who were less well-known internationally; unfortunately Clarkson was amongst them and, as a result, his crater reverted to its original name, Gassendi A. Although Clarkson did not live to experience the ignominy of "his" crater being returned to its earlier name, it seems that his final years were not happy. Research (which has not been widely publicised) by Dr Richard McKim, Director of the Mars Section of the BAA, has established that, by the early 1950s, Clarkson had fallen on hard times and a fund was set up, shortly before he died, to assist him. Patrick Moore was treasurer and collected some contributions from well-wishers.

Clarkson died on 10 April 1954 [13] in Felixstowe General Hospital, aged 65. Monthly Notices of the RAS [14], referring to a meeting of the Society on 08 October 1954, record the receipt from Clarkson of a legacy of a "Photographic Atlas of Auroral Forms" by the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics.

Evening Star 18 Feb 1954 Naming the crater, Evening Star, 18 Feb 1954.

Obituary Obituary, Evening Star, 10 Apr 1954.

RLTC.jpg Clarkson with his 6½" reflector. (Courtesy of Kevin Fulcher.)

19990625_Humorum_4_JMA.gif Gassendi A. (James Appleton, 25 June 1999.)

Correspondence With Dennis Fulcher

Dennis Jack Fulcher (1918-75), a founder and active member of IDAS, corresponded with Suffolk astronomers in 1951 to compile a history of the science in the county. Clarkson was among Fulcher's correspondents, and two items of surviving material held in the Suffolk Records Office are transcribed below. (The second item, notes on astronomy, is item reference GC14/B1/2.)

Letter from Clarkson to Fulcher, 04/11/1951

Clarkson's address at this time was The Bungalow, The Avenue, Trimley, Suffolk.

...for some years I was a member of this [The Chaldaean Society], and I find I still have copies of their quarterly journal, vol. 1, nos. 10, 11, 12 (in 1918)...

Two distinguished Suffolk astronomers were associated with it, Miss Grace Cook and Mrs Fiametta Wilson, FRAS. Miss Cook I have met once or twice, Mrs Wilson I knew well and was the daughter of a Lowestoft doctor who was a friend of my father.

Astronomy In Suffolk. Notes by Roland L T Clarkson.

The first important astronomical event which I recollect was a lecture by Sir Robert Ball at the Memorial Hall, Beccles, in, I think, 1905.

My own observing career started in January 1906.

In 1907, a course of six lectures under the auspices of the Cambridge University Local Lectures was given at the Town Hall at Lowestoft by the Rev. T E R Phillips MA, FRAS, Rector of Headley near Epsom, and afterwards such a well known Director of the Jupiter Section of the BAA.

Mrs Fiametta Wilson, who in those says was a very active observer of meteors, and lived at Totteridge and later persuaded me to join the BAA, was a daughter of Dr. J H Worthington, a very well known Lowestoft doctor, who lived on the Marine Parade, and a sister of Dr. "Dick" Worthington who followed his father into practice.

James Blyth, who was the author of a number of novels dealing with Suffolk fishermen and natives, "Juicy Joe", "Celibate Sarah", "Deborah's Life", "The Same Clay", "Amazement", "Rubina" and others never heard of now I suppose, lived at Pakefield near Lowestoft, and about 1908 bought a 3 inch telescope from Newton and Sons for £5 new, with which he and I used to observe Jupiter, Saturn, Orion Nebula, people on the pier, and other things, but I do not think he did much serious astronomy.

From 1912 to 1920 I was away from Suffolk. Knew Mr. Denning the famous meteor observer when I was at Bristol, and the Maunders when I was at Blackheath, but they have nothing to do with Suffolk.

Round about 1922, Mr. H G Tomkins CIE, FRAS, FRPS, retired from the Indian Civil Service where he was, I believe, Head of the Financial Department at Calcutta, and bought, and came to live at, East House, Dedham, on the extreme northern edge of Essex. When I first knew him in 1924, he had converted the coach-houses into extensive workshops, had built two observatories in the paddock, in one of which he had installed an 8½ inch reflector which he already owned, and had started the construction of a 24 inch reflecting telescope. The mirror actually was commenced in 1911, but owing to accidents, illness and the war was 14 years before it was completed. As originally tried it was of the Newtonian form, but was afterwards altered to a Cassegrain, with the camera at the side of the lower part of the tube. It had a focal length as a Newtonian of 18 ft 7½ inches, the flat was by Cooke of York, and a 6½ in convex mirror. Further information can be obtained from MNRAS vol. 88, page 158, Dec. 1927 where there is a paper by Tomkins.

On October 3rd 1925, one of the biggest astronomical-social events ever held in East Anglia took place at East House, Dedham, when the 24 inch was officially opened, tea was served in large marquees, and some hundreds of invited guests spent the afternoon viewing the various exhibits. There were 23 of these, which included models of the planets, models of lunar craters, drawings of planets, large numbers of photos, a scale model of the solar system stretching across the paddock, a demonstration of sun spots in a dark room, projected through my 3½ inch Wray on to a screen the other side, giving a six foot diameter image of the sun and magnificent pictures of the spots, mottling of the Sun, faculae etc. and in another dark room Miss Vera Reynolds gave a similar demonstration of the solar spectrum using a 3 in of Tomkins.

I continued co-operating with Mr Tomkins on lunar work until 1932, and although I have apparently no note, I believe he was taken ill and died in 1933. The 24 inch was sold to a Japanese observatory, and the 8½ inch reflector presented to the BAA. See instrument no. 46, page 223, BAA Journal vol. 60, no. 8, Oct. 1950.

Sir George Biddle Airy, Astronomer Royal from 1835 to 1881 was, I think, born at Playford, near Ipswich. There is a memorial to him in the church. No doubt full details about him can be obtained from reference books.

E H Collinson, also of Playford, is well known to you, so I need not go into further details. His father was a very well known and respected Felixstowe resident, living in Bath Road, where EHC was living when I first knew him. He joined the BAA in 1920.

Another Suffolk astronomer of some note was A F Bennett of Leiston who was a member of the BAA for several years in the 1920-30's. I never met him, only knew of him by repute, but doubtless there are many older BAA members who knew him. I have an idea he was a variable star man. A paper by him appears in the BAA Journal vol. 40, no. 2, p.81 and no doubt there were others.

Of less importance is Basil J Brown who, at the time he was living at Rickinghall near Diss, had a small telescope and was a member of the BAA and wrote a book, now out of print, on the ancient astronomical maps and charts (? a copy is in the BAA library). He afterwards gave up astronomy, took to archaeology, and can now be found as one of Maynard's staff at Ipswich Museum if you want further information.

Two other distinguished Suffolk astronomers of course are Miss Grace Cook and J P M Prentice, both of Stowmarket, and both meteor observers.

Gleaning though old lists of BAA members occasionally a name occurs with an address in Suffolk, but I have no knowledge of any of them and do not fancy they were active observers, merely people with an interest in astronomy.

Of activities, I can recall very few. At intervals I have given astronomical lectures to the I & D Nat. Hist. Soc. during the last 25 years, and there was that series of 10 sessions on Astronomy at Christchurch College in Bolton Lane which I ran from Sept. to Nov. 1946. Capt. R F Harrison of Trimley St Martin gave a number of astronomical talks to the troops during the war, but he was not an astronomer himself.

One matter that ought to be followed up and which I personally know very little about is a series of lectures given by I fancy, but am not sure, Sir George Airy, to the old Mechanics Institute, which was the forerunner of Ipswich Museum. Mr G Maynard could probably tell you something about these, they were about 100 years ago, and caused a great stir at the time I believe.

The above details are merely such memories as occur to me. In all cases the details want filling out (Prentice for instance was the discover of Nova Herculis) from reference books, and possibly from the folks concerned, where still alive.

Roland L T Clarkson
March 1951.

Notes And References


Richard McKim, "Roland L T Clarkson: A Suffolk Astronomer", JBAA, vol. 36, no. 2, pp.83-94, May 1926.


JBAA, vol. 36, no. 7, p.217, May 1926.


Kelly's Directory of Suffolk, 1922.


Clarkson's father was Laurence Townley Clarkson, born in Wangford 1857, died 1943.


Essex Record Office holding T/P 270/1 is a small notebook containing handwritten notes in fountain pen. The first page states "Notes on the History and Archaeology of Dedham and Constable's country, Essex. Collected from various sources by R L T C, 1924." About half way through there are written notes on "The School House", the final one of which reads: "On Feb. 1st 1924 the contract for the sale of the whole property and contents to Mr. Laurence T. Clarkson was signed, and he took possession and Mr. Smale left on March 19th 1924."


Kelly's Directory of Essex, 1925.


Ipswich & District Natural History Society Journal, vol. 1, part 2, page 74, July 1930. (Suffolk Record Office Holding Holding GC444/6/2.)


Ipswich & District Natural History Society Journal, vol. 1, part 3, page 146, November 1932. (Suffolk Record Office Holding Holding GC444/6/2.)


MNRAS vol. 106, p. 341, (referring to a meeting of the Society on 11 October 1946).


MNRAS vol. 106, p. 469, (referring to a meeting of the Society on 13 December 1946).


"Moon Crater Named After Trimley Man", Ipswich Evening Star, 18 February 1954.


Crater Gassendi is well known to lunar observers. It is 100 km in diameter with high walls, a prominent central peak and numerous clefts on the floor. The presence of a central peak is interpreted as evidence that it was formed by a meteorite impact - in fact most, if not all, lunar craters are thought to originate in this way. Part of the north wall of Gassendi has been demolished by a subsequent impact which formed Gassendi A. Gassendi is famous for a widely-observed Transient Lunar Phenomena (TLP) seen on 30 April 1966. TLPs are strange features - mainly colourations or glows - which are seen from time to time on the otherwise unchanging lunar surface, most often appearing in crater floors. TLPs are controversial and many observers discount them as optical illusions while others claim that they are manifestations of real events - such as the seeping of gasses from beneath the surface. According to Patrick Moore's Guide to the Moon, the Gassendi TLP was a wedge shaped orange-red streak extending from the wall of Gassendi right across to the central peak.


"Trimley Astronomer Dies", Ipswich Evening Star, 10 April 1954.


MNRAS vol. 114, p. 502.


We are grateful to Kevin Fulcher for providing the photo of Clarkson from his late grandfather's collection and giving permission to reproduce it.

Pete Richards, Bill Barton, FRAS