Manchester Astronomical Society
Established 1903

Manchester Astronomical Society 1903 - 1978

by M. Duckworth, F.R.A.S.


Although the title of this article is Manchester Astronomical Society, this history should begin before the formation of our society as we now know it...

In the latter years of the last century a small group of enthusiasts were active in our area, giving lectures to local organisations and meeting at each others observatories or in city restaurants. 1890 saw the formation of the British Astronomical Association in London and these northern enthusiasts were quick to join the association. The principal members of this small group were Thomas Weir, Samuel O'Kell, Henry Champ, Dr Steele Sheldon, Edward Entwistle and Alfred Brothers. The latter was a notable photographer and one of the pioneers of photographic techniques.

The B.A.A. was largely restricted to the London area and it was realised that it would soon be necessary to form a branch in the North of England. Mr. Thomas Weir, a resident of Moss Lane, Manchester, was to attend the first annual meeting of the B.A.A. on October 28th. 1891. At the meeting he learned that E. Walter Maunder of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, would be visiting Manchester and would be interested to know if a Northern Branch of the Association might be formed. A meeting was arranged to be held at 7.00pm in the drawing room of the Y.M.C.A. Peter Street on January 18th. 1892. Invitations were sent out to 45 persons in the area, 20 of whom were already members of the B.A.A.

At this meeting E.W. Maunder gave an address on astronomical work, the chairman at the meeting was Samuel O'Kell and eighteen people attended the meeting:-
E.W. Maunder Eli Sowerbutts
Samuel O'Kell Abel Heywood
Alfred Brothers Thomas Weir
G.P.B. Hallowes H.J. Jones
Henry Champ Henry Plank
W.H. Skeltar Edward Entwistle
Dr Steele Sheldon J.B. Shaw
W. Banks Lavington Fletcher
H.B. Ellison Lavington Fletcher, Jnr

Thomas Weir was elected Secretary (and was to leave the Society a valuable record in the form of a beautifully kept scrap book). Before further plans were made the B.A.A. Council was asked if it would provide financial aid and meet the expenses of the local meetings, and it was decided to hold a further meeting following their reply.

This meeting was held on 1st. February 1892, at the Manchester Geographical Society library, 44 Brown Street, and the reply from the B.A.A. Council was "that the local expenses of any Branch should be met by special arrangements amongst the members of the Branch as they see fit". Due perhaps, to the financial position of its original members, they were not deterred by this news and it was felt that so long as suitable material for discussion was sent from London they would be justified in setting up the Branch.

The Inaugural Meeting on the 10th. March 1892 was advertised in the City News and the Manchester Guardian. Samuel O'Kell, who had already been elected as Branch President, requested Reverend Father Sidgreaves, S.J., of Stoneyhurst College Observatory be invited to take the Presidency and Fr. Sidgreaves gave the Inaugural Lecture. The meeting opened at 7.30pm at the Rooms of the Chartered Accountants, 65 King Street - 150 people attended the lecture which was illustrated with "limelight" slides and entitled "The New Star and its Teaching". This "new star" was a nova in Aurigae, discovered on 23rd. January 1892.

Fifty members were present at the first monthly meeting and the first council meeting was held at 19 St. Anne's Square. On the 24th. July 1892, the B.A.A. sanctioned the formation of the North Western Branch, which covered an area bounded by Preston, Clitheroe and Halifax to the North; Halifax, Huddersfield and Buxton to the East; Buxton, Macclesfield and Northwich to the South and the London and North Western Railway line to the West. At the first monthly meeting of the branch, Henry Planck was made Treasurer and subscriptions were fixed at 13/- per annum (10/6 to the B.A.A. and 2/6 to the local funds).

The second session was opened by a lecture given by Mrs. S.D. Proctor, the widow of Richard A. Proctor, and it was entitled "The Life and Death of Worlds" illustrated by slides using the "new" oxy-hydrogen light. 140 people attended this lecture in the Athenaeum Lecture Hall.

In 1894 an appeal was made to the B.A.A. for the return of 3/- of the half guinea subscription to help finance the Branch. Response was not favourable, but later an "ex gratia" payment of £5 was received and this helped to ease some of the difficulties of the Branch.

From the list of members it was evident that not all were living within the prescribed boundaries, indeed, one member lived in Mexico. However, in 1894 the boundaries were extended to include Southport, Liverpool, Chester and Birkenhead.

In 1895 Sir Robert Ball was asked to take the Presidency of the Branch; he declined and Professor Thomas H. Core of Manchester University was elected. During the following session a series of lectures was given at the Accountant's Rooms and in 1896 some of the members sailed on the Norse King to observe the Solar Eclipse on August 9th. in the Arctic Sea. Also in 1896, access was obtained to the 6" refractor at Didsbury Wesleyan College. In 1897 small council meetings were being held in Berisfords Restaurant in Market Street, situated at the end of Pall Mall.

An additional telescope was placed at the disposal of the Branch in 1900, this was the 10" Cooke refractor at Manchester University, but unlike the one at Didsbury only limited use seems to have been made of the instrument. The importance of the status of the Branch was shown in 1901, when Manchester Corporation were to seek their advice on the erection of the Godlee Observatory and its equipping with instruments, this was to be part of the new Municipal College of Technology. The observatory and its instruments were a gift of one of our early members, Mr Francis Godlee, of the firm Simpson and Godlee, cotton manufacturers and calico printers, of Manchester. Francis Godlee took a deep interest in the education and health of the public, having connections with many schools, college and hospitals in Manchester. For many years the Manchester Education Committee arranged for introductory lectures on astronomy to take place in the Godlee Observatory on Monday and Tuesday evenings.

A meeting was held on the 29th. October 1902 at the College of Technology following which an inspection of the new telescope was made. Council meetings had now been transferred to Schofields Restaurant in King Street.

Apart from the financial difficulties involved, dissatisfaction with the London control increased. The London administration had become indifferent to the branch, important papers which should have been passed to Manchester were either delayed or withheld. In 1903 a sort of rebellion took place as the London headquarters thought the Branch was asking for too much with an increase in local funds. In September, it was unanimously decided to withdraw from the B.A.A. and form an independent Society.

By using some expert manoeuvres, the small properties belonging to the Branch were inherited by the new Society. However, the local members retained their individual connection with the B.A.A.

Although the Branch had existed for only eleven years it had attracted a great deal of interest in astronomy and a number of notable people had lectured to the members. Sir Howard Grubb in 1892 and during the same year Thomas Thorp was elected a member. Thomas Thorp was a scientific and mechanical genius, who is perhaps best known for his invention of the "penny in the slot" gas meter, but in 1898 Thomas Thorp developed his celluloid diffraction grating replicas which he made from an original Rowland Grating and brought high resolution spectroscopy within the reach of the amateur. He demonstrated his multi-slit spectroscope, which at that time was unique in exhibiting objects both celestial and terrestrial, in monochromatic light and was a forerunner of today's spectrohelioscope.

Following the dissolution of the North West Branch of the B.A.A., a meeting was held on 18th. September 1903 in the Godlee Observatory and attended by former members of the Branch. This group, with its chairman, Professor Thomas H. Core, M.A., decided to form a new society to be called "The Manchester Astronomical Society". Professor Core was elected the first President, Mr. Samuel O'Kell the Hon. Treasurer and Mr. William C. Jenkins, the director of the Godlee Observatory, was elected Hon. Secretary. The annual subscription was fixed at 5/- with half subscription for ladies and students of the College of Technology.

On 7th. October 1903 the President gave the first annual address to the new Society on the "Solar Parallax" with an audience of 60, after which the meeting adjourned to the Godlee Observatory to view the instruments - as you may well imagine it was cloudy! Following the first meeting the membership rose to 76 and reached 98 by the end of the session, 41 being the original members of the Branch.

One of the members elected at this meeting was a young student of the College of Technology, E. Denton-Sherlock, later to become President, and a famous amateur maker of mirrors and telescopes. Indeed, one of Mr. Sherlock's telescopes is still in use in the Society.

In 1904 Mr. E.T. Whitelow became President and during his term of office Mrs. S.D. Proctor, now Mrs. Proctor-Smyth, with her daughter Mary Proctor, addressed the Society with an audience of 200. Mrs. Proctor-Smyth was to speak the following year, with Professor Arthur Schuster, Ph.S.,F.R.S., speaking about sunspots in March 1906, and Mr. J.H. Reynolds was elected about this time.

In 1907 Mr. Hesketh was elected president and during the session Thomas Thorp lectured about his further work with the spectroscope. By the following year there were 15 lectures each session.

Mr. W.T. Hesketh was the next president, serving from 1910 to 1911, and during this time a visit was made to the Liverpool Astronomical Society. Mr. Hesketh was popular for his open air demonstrations in Platt Fields, although then, as now, cloud often spoiled the demonstration. About this time the close association between the Society and the Irish Astronomical Society began, with a lecture by Arthur A. Rambaut, Royal Astronomer for Ireland, who had just become Radcliffe Observer at Oxford.

From 1911 until 1925 the Presidency was held by Reverend Father A.L. Cortie, S.J., a well liked person who did much for our Society. Attendance's at meetings remained steady between 1903 and 1911, only varying between 51 and 72, but in 1918 the subscription had to rise to 10/6, having been 5/- for 15 years. One amateur who was to become quite famous during these years was William Porthouse, who produced some fine drawings of the Moon and Planets, and a crater was named after him on the Wilkin's Map of the Moon. Another famous member who spoke to the Society in 1923 was John Hindle, F.R.A.S., who built many reflecting telescopes, the largest being the 25" and 30" reflectors for Dr. W.H. Steavenson, a 25" reflector for himself and a 17" reflector for Mr. H.L. Dilks.

Previously, in 1920, the Society and its library had moved its meeting place to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society rooms at 36 George Street, the former home of John Dalton.

Mr. A. Alfred Buss was elected President in 1925 and held the chair until 1928. Mr Buss was to become a world famous solar observer. In 1925 Dr. W.H. Steavenson, F.R.A.S., then Director of the Mars Section of the B.A.A. delivered a lecture to the Society and became a member. Following the 1926/1727 session, less access seems to have been available to the Godlee Observatory as a visit was only made annually. In 1928 a close connection with the Liverpool Astronomical Society was established, representatives from each Society attending two meetings of the other Society each session.

Mr. William Porthouse took over the Presidency in 1928 and held this position until 1931 when Mr. Lawrence H.A. Carr took office. This was the year that Professor W.L. Bragg, M.A., spoke to the Society on "The Constitution of the Atom".

In 1935 Reverend Father J.P. Rowlands, S.J., of Stoneyhurst College Observatory was elected President and that year the Society moved its meeting place to the Central Library. Another well known of this period was Professor William H. Pickering of Manderville, Jamaica, who produced very fine photographic lunar maps.

Mr. H.L. Dilks became President in 1937 and during his term of office World War II broke out. The Society's room was requisitioned for war service and the Society led a nomadic existence. Leaving the Central Library finally in 1943, but keeping the major part of the Society's library there, meetings were held at the Milton Hall, Deansgate, until 1944 and then at the International Club in George Street.

It was due to the President, Mr. H.L. Dilks, the officers and Council that the Society was to survive these difficult years and meetings were usually arranged to coincide with full Moon, as it was difficult to travel through blacked out streets.

In 1946 the Society was given unrestricted access to the Godlee Observatory by the College authorities and in March the first meeting was held in the Reynold Hall, with the Godlee Observatory being re-opened on 20th. June 1946 after being refurbished. The Society was back home again!

In December 1946 a suggestion was made that the Society should once again become the North West Branch of the British Astronomical Association. You will appreciate that this suggestion created a considerable difference of opinion amongst the members and was soon forgotten. One of our late members Mr. W.E. Wilson, a past Secretary, became a benefactor, leaving a small legacy about this time.

Mr. E. Denton-Sherlock became President in 1945 and held office until 1948, the year Mr. R. Lister was elected a Vice President. The Presidency went to Mr. J.C. Farrer, F.R.A.S., in 1948 and he served until 1958. Mr Farrer is remembered for his record of sunspots which are contained in bound volumes in the library. During his term Dr. A.C.B. Lovel, now Sir Bernard Lovel, O.B.E., F.R.S., spoke to the Society on 22nd, April 1948, and Professor P.M.S. Blackett lectured at our meetings in 1948 and 1950. A very active member during these years was Mr. Eric Burgess, who gave many talks about space craft and rockets, and who became a well known writer on these subjects. Mr. Burgess left Manchester in 1956 to move to the U.S.A., where he became a free-lance writer. In December 1951 Professor Z. Kopal gave the first of a long sequence of annual lectures to the Society and Professor R. Lipson became another good friend of ours. The syllabus for 1956/57 contains a number of famous names, Professor Z. Kopal, Professor F.O. Kahn, Dr. J. Ring and Gilbert Fielder. Professor F.O. Kahn was to give many more lectures and in 1958 Dr. J. Geake first spoke to us and became a member.

It was in 1960 that I made my first visit to the Society and Mr. S.W.R. Mottram had become President in 1958 and held office until 1964, after having served the Society for over 20 years as Secretary. Mr. K. Bispham, a very keen solar observer who had built up a valuable observing section, was the next President and served from 1964 until 1966, when Mr. A. Whittaker, who had been a hard working Secretary since 1958, took over and was President until 1970.

Mr. T. Hill became President in 1970 and he delighted us with many amusing and interesting lectures making simple and useful instruments and producing fine astronomical photographs with his 6" reflector. Mr. Hill handed the chair to myself in 1973.

Many visits have been made in the past to places of astronomical interest. In the early days a visit was made to France and in recent years members have visited Bidston Observatory, Preston Observatories, the RGO at Hersmonceux, Jodrell Bank and various local societies. Some members have visited observatories and rocket launching sites in the U.S.A. and in 1973 a party sailed aboard the Monte Umbre to observe the total eclipse off the coast of North Africa. Mr. Whittaker visited Mexico to observe the total solar eclipse.

In spite of the earlier breakaway of the Manchester Astronomical Society from London control, the B.A.A. has held a meeting in Manchester and the B.A.A. Lunar Section has visited us to hold joint meetings.

The legacy left by Mr. W.E. Wilson was intended to provide funds for the "Journal" for the Society and for a number of years a printed journal was produced, however, the cost of this was soon absorbed and the remaining money used to buy books for the library.

When regular meetings were suspended in 1939, Mr. H.L. Dilks began circulating "Monthly Notes" to keep members in touch with recent events. These notes continued for a period to be retitled "Current Notes" under the editorship of Mr. William Porthouse who incorporated "Post Tenebras Lux" in the title, translated "After Darkness Light", reflecting the difficulties imposed by war time blackout. Following Mr. Porthouse, Mr E. Burgess took over as editor in 1950 and carried on until 1956 when Mr. G. Taylor took over for 4 years. From 1960 to 1963 Mr. H. Burgess was editor. I took over the production of Current Notes in 1963 when it was decided to print our own copies to save expense. During this period the name was changed to "Journal" and covers added. Mr. A. Whittaker, the President carried this task until 1970 when Mr. J.K. Bolton took over. He was followed by Mr. K.J. Kilburn who edited the new restyled commercially printed Journal.

A number of years ago Mr. E. Denton-Sherlock spoke of the importance of producing such a journal and thought this would be a valuable asset to our Society, serving as a link between the active member and those who are unable to visit meetings regularly.


- The History of the British Astronomical Association (W. Porthouse) 1948 December Vol. 36 Part 2.

- Current Notes No. 109 (E.D. Sherlock)

- North West Branch and Manchester Astronomical Society Scrapbook. Thomas Weir - begun 1891.

- Other information fron the Minutes of the Society,

- The Society Log of Lectures and a collection of membership cards belonging to the late Mr. H.L. Dilks.

M. Duckworth, F.R.A.S.