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Literary Map Makes Planning a Cultural Break Easy

Jane Austen News

Literary Map Makes Planning a Cultural Break Easy

Continue reading Literary Map Makes Planning a Cultural Break Easy

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The 10 Places All Austen Fans Should Visit

Jane Austen News

The 10 Places All Austen Fans Should Visit

Continue reading The 10 Places All Austen Fans Should Visit

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The effects of the family’s misfortunes on Jane Austen’s death

Jane Austen's Death

By Caroline Kerr Taylor

Jane Austen's death

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. She is one of the world’s most popular literary giants. It was a tragic loss that she died at 41, just as her star was gaining traction in the literary firmaments.

We will never know for sure the exact cause of her death. The medical community has conjectured Addison’s disease, an adrenal insufficiency, or some form of cancer such as lymphoma. Any one of these diseases would have been exacerbated by long periods of extreme stress. Though she enjoyed a good deal of literary success in her last years, there is much evidence that they were also filled with insecurity and worry.

Family was the centre of Jane’s world. As she never married, she lived her entire life within the family circle. George Austen, Jane’s father, was a member of the clergy and Oxford educated. Their family was part of local genteel society; however, financially they were barely inside the bounds of polite society. Women of her class did not work. Jane and her sister Cassandra, as unmarried women, continued to live with their parents. While Jane’s closest and deepest connection was to her only sister Cassandra, she also enjoyed a close relationship with her brothers. As the boys grew up they left home, had careers, and raised families of their own. They did, however, keep a close extended family connection with visits between families, and corresponding when apart.

George Austen retired in 1800 and gave the Steventon parish living to their oldest son James. The Austens, along with their daughters, then moved to Bath. Here they rented various temporary accommodations. After living in a large house in the country it was not an easy adjustment. Continue reading The effects of the family’s misfortunes on Jane Austen’s death

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Rural England in the Age of Jane Austen

Rural England in the Age of Jane Austen

by Marc DeSantis


A Rural England

Though Jane Austen’s life of forty-one years was lamentably short, her time on earth, 1775 to 1817, was nonetheless one of great and momentous change.  England was still largely rural in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the rhythm of its country life was tied to the seasonal needs of agriculture.  The population of Britain at the dawn of the nineteenth century was nine million, with four-fifths of this total living in the country.  Fully one-third of the population of England was employed in agriculture.
Like farmers in all times and places, the rural folk of Jane’s English countryside were at the mercy of the weather, which was especially fickle in the late eighteenth century.  The winters were often very cold, and the springs very wet and late in arriving.  Summers could be either very dry or cold and wet.  Crops and livestock could be devastated by too much cold or not enough rain.  Poor weather also encouraged the spread of blights and rots.  When the wheat harvest was bad, the price of bread shot up, making it hard for the poor to feed themselves, and riots over food would sometimes erupt among the rural hungry.
Life in the country had other hardships.  There were highwaymen on the roads ready to waylay travelers, groups of gypsies robbed countryfolk as well, and thieves stole horses and other valuables.  On some occasions there were even murders, particularly when it was thought that a vulnerable mark might have some money on him.
Gas and electrical lighting still lay in the future.  Illumination was provided by candles, with the finest being made from beeswax, which burned with minimal smoke.  Ordinary candles were of tallow, made from animal fat.  Though cheaper, they were not as bright and their smell was less than ideal.  For the heating of homes, coal was increasing in use thanks to Britain’s developing network of canals, which made transporting the fuel much easier.
Wood was of course still in widespread use, especially where it could be had more cheaply than coal.  Though collecting firewood was a time-consuming activity, particularly for the poor, working in the mines digging coal out was even less appealing work.  The hazard of lethal explosions deep underground was constant.  Many other miners lost their lives when the roofs of their tunnels caved in or to other mishaps.


Yet country living was not without its charms and pleasures.  The boring toil of agricultural work was broken by seasonal festivals such as May Day.  Towns had markets which provided a venue in which country people could sell their food, including such edibles as poultry, eggs, and vegetables.  If these markets outgrew their original surroundings, then fairs were held outside the towns in nearby fields.
The fairs became ever larger when merchants selling tools, cheese, clothing, earthenware, and leather goods arrived.  With so many people present, other vendors began to sell food and drink to the visitors.  Sports and other games were also part of the festivities, with the fair becoming something far greater than its original purpose of being a place to sell farm produce.
Dancing was also included in a fair’s usual list of activities, and was a popular form of entertainment everywhere.  For a young middle-class woman such as Jane, residing in the country, dancing was a premier delight.  It was on the dance floor where she could meet people and make friends.
The countryside was not disconnected from the wider world.  When word reached the inhabitants of great victories won against England’s enemies, celebrations would erupt, which included parades, music, and fireworks.  Jane’s own brothers, Francis and James, were serving with the Royal Navy during the long wars with France, and each would rise to the rank of admiral.  Jane, along with her family, would spend the years 1806-1809 in Southampton to be close to the great navy base of Portsmouth where her brothers served.


War Abroad, Taxes at Home

Britain was to be at war for most of Jane’s life, first with her rebellious colonies in America, and then with France from 1793 to 1815 during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  This produced enormous demand for food which could only be met in the country, which was intensively farmed.  Not a single bit of arable land was allowed to go to waste.  The pressing need for money to pay for Britain’s army and navy also saw the levying of many unpopular taxes, including the introduction in 1799 of the much detested “Income Tax” of up to two shillings per pound (there were twenty shillings in a pound sterling).  This imposition was only repealed in 1815, when the era of the great wars came to a close.
Money was sometimes a problem in another way.  “Real” money in Jane’s day was still of gold or silver, and paper bank notes were often refused as tender when metal money was in short supply.  When there was not enough metallic currency to go around ordinary life and business could not be conducted.  This caused great anxiety when people found themselves short of coins and were left wondering how they were going to pay for anything.

The Regency

Britain underwent important political and cultural changes during Jane’s lifetime.  She would know only one king, George III, who would reign for nearly sixty years.   However, the king was beset by bouts of severe mental illness, with the last and most serious one arriving in 1810.  He was found to be incapable of carrying on his duties as monarch, and Parliament passed the Regency Bill in 1811, which made his son, the roguish and high-living Prince of Wales, regent of the kingdom until the king died in 1820.  It was said of the frivolous prince that he “was addicted to lying, tippling and low company.”  The Prince Regent also had an insatiable hunger for women and a startling propensity to land himself deep in debt.  He would nevertheless eventually ascend the throne upon his father’s death and become George IV.
These years came to be known as the Regency, an era deemed one of high achievement in art, architecture, music, and literature, but also of deep moral laxity.  The loose-living of the Regency was in many ways a reaction to the strait-laced and dull propriety of George III’s reign.  Not everyone shared the enthusiasms of England’s “Prince of Pleasure.”  At the forefront of these were the Evangelicals, who looked askance at many of the common amusements of the day such as dancing, prize-fighting, and card games, believing them dangerous to one’s soul.
Despite its often dour and puritanical outlook, Evangelical Christianity was a growing force for moral improvement around Britain, gaining strength from the need to correct the perceived immorality of the period and remedy the general harshness of life for the common people.  In contrast to the bad examples set by too many aristocrats, the Evangelicals preached discipline and personal responsibility.  This humanitarian spirit also sought to turn the Christian religion into a force for social good, with one of the movement’s leading lights being the abolitionist William Wilberforce, who founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1797.  Wilberforce’s Practical Christianity was one of Evangelicalism’s principal guides to a more moral way of life, and overall the movement was not without success.  The legal abolishment of the slave trade in 1807 is largely attributable to the efforts of the Evangelicals.


Toward a Middle Class Industrial Nation

Snobbery toward the prosperous middle class, growing in size and influence, was still very strong in Jane’s England.  “[W]e are not absolutely a nation of shopkeepers,” one gentlemen’s magazine sniffed, but “[w]e are much afraid that nine-tenths of the middling . . . sort of people among ourselves belong to this reprobated class of traders and dealers, and have much the same manners with their brethren in America.”
But the future would ultimately belong to the middle class.  Tectonic changes were coming to England’s economy far from the bucolic countryside that Jane knew, with merchants, factory owners, and inventors of the middle rank leading the way.  Cities were swelling as they drew ever more people to them for the opportunity to find work.
These were the years when Britain’s Industrial Revolution accelerated, with its multiplying factories consuming vast amounts of coal and producing ever-increasing amounts of iron and finished textiles made from cotton.  Industrial production shot skyward, doubling in just the twenty years between 1780 and 1800.  The demand for labor and raw materials for the factories would only increase, and Britain was well on its way to becoming the world first industrialized nation.
The increasing mechanization of work in the factories produced a backlash from disaffected workers known as Luddites.  They would smash the new mechanical looms not, as is commonly thought, because they wanted to stop technological progress, but because the machines they attacked were turning out inferior stockings that flooded the marker and depressed prices even for better quality items.  The basic dispute was not over technology but disgust that some employers were taking a shortcut to quick profits by knocking out substandard goods. Nonetheless, English justice was extremely harsh and unforgiving toward the Luddites.  After one 1813 trial in York, a dozen machine-smashers were hanged.
The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 marked the end of the long wars with France.  The Royal Navy was the unchallenged mistress of the seas, a preeminent position that it would hold for the rest of the nineteenth century.  The Britain that Jane left behind when she passed away in 1817 was now the most powerful and economically advanced nation in the world, sitting at the hub of a large and expanding overseas empire.

Marc DeSantis is a historian and author in want of a wife.  He lives in New York.

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Netley Abbey

We had a little water party yesterday; I and my two nephews [George and Edward Knight] went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the 74, and walked home, and it was so much enjoyed that I had intended to take them to Netley to-day; the tide is just right for our going immediately after noonshine, but I am afraid there will be rain; if we cannot get so far, however, we may perhaps go round from the ferry to the quay.”

Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra
Monday, 24 October 1808 “

Netley Abbey was founded by monks in 1239. If you find Southampton on the map, you can see why Jane Austen crossed over to it by ferry. Now the distance can be covered by bus. The Abbey is close to the water in a wooded area. There must have been some facility at the ferry landing when Austen visited but not much more. The little town that is near it was not developed until Victorian times. The ruins are quite substantial. One of the windows has the same characteristics of the window in Westminster Abbey and it is believed that the same mason worked on both windows.

By Gillian Moy, CC BY-SA 2.0

Richard John King’s 1876 guidebook, A handbook for travellers in Surrey, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight, offers a close hand look at the history of the Abbey:

Netley Abbey, about 3 m. S. of Southampton, must not be left unvisited. It may be reached by water from the Town Quay, or by rly. (post), or by proceeding to the Itchen floating bridge, and then either walking or taking a fly at the Cliff Hotel (fare to the hospital, abbey, and back, 5s.). The abbey is open every day but Sunday and Thursday. On the latter day it may be seen on written application to W. A. Lomer, Esq., 18, Portland-street, Southampton, the agent of the owner.

The name Netley, which has been called a corruption of Letley (or, de las to loco), is more probably connected with the “Natanleaga” or “leas of Nat-e,” a wooded district, which extended from the Avon to the Test and Itchen (the S. part of the New Forest).—Br. Guest. (There are other Netleys within these bounds, as near Eling, Rte. 26). A Cistercian abbey was founded here temp. Hen. III., either by the king himself, or by Peter de Rupibus, Bp. of Winchester; most probably, however, by the former, since it was dedicated not only to the Virgin, the usual patroness of Cistercian houses, but also to Edward the Confessor, the especial patron of the king.—Moody. The monks were brought here from Beaulieu. Subsequent benefactors much enriched it, though it was by no means wealthy at the Dissolution, when its annual revenue was 160£. The site and manor were granted to the compliant Sir Wm. Paulet, the 1st Marquis of Winchester, from whom they passed to the Earl of Hertford, son of the Protector Duke of Somerset, who entertained Queen Elizabeth here in 1560. By its new owner the abbey was fitted up as a private residence, in which Charles, second Baron Seymour of Trowbridge was born; he was baptized in the church. The abbey afterwards passed to the Earl of Huntingdon, by whom a portion of the church was used as a tennis-court, a small part still retaining its sacred character as a domestic chapel, while the nave became a kitchen and other offices. In 1700 the Abbey became the property of Sir Berkeley Lucy, who sold the materials of the great church (till that time entire) to a builder of Southampton named Taylor. Of this person a remarkable story is told, which Spelman would have inserted with no small pleasure in his ‘ History of Sacrilege.’ After Taylor had concluded his contract with Sir Berkeley Lucy some of his friends warned him against touching the remains of the abbey, saying “that they would themselves never be concerned in the demolition of holy and consecrated places.” Their remarks made a great impression on Taylor, who dreamt that, in taking down the roof of the church, the keystone of the arch, above the window, fell from its place and killed him. He told his dream to Mr. Watts, a schoolmaster in Southampton, and the father of Dr. Isaac Watts, who gave him the somewhat jesuitical advice ” to have no personal concern in pulling down the building.” This advice was not followed; and Taylor’s skull, it is said, was actually fractured by a stone which fell from the window.—Moody. The accident had the good effect of staying the destruction of the abbey, which has since been uninjured except by time and tourists. The ruins are now the property of T. Chamberlayne, Esq., of Cranbury Park, near Winchester, who has done much for their preservation. During the works several interesting discoveries were made, which are described by the Bev. E. Kell, Collect. Archxol, vol. ii., pt. 1, 1863.

By David Mainwood, CC BY-SA 2.0,
By David Mainwood, CC BY-SA 2.0

Much of the wood which formerly closed in the ruins has been felled; but the scene is still one of extreme beauty, and justifies Walpole’s raptures. “How,” he writes to Bentley, September, 1755, “shall I describe Netley to you? I can only by telling you it is the spot in the world which I and Mr. Chute wish. The ruins are vast, and retain fragments of beautiful fretted roof pendent in the air, with all variety of Gothic patterns of windows wrapped round and round with ivy. Many trees are sprouted up among the walls, and only want to be increased with cypresses. A hill rises above the abbey, encircled with wood. The fort, in which we would build a tower for habitation, remains, with 2 small platforms. This little castle is buried from the abbey in a wood, in the very centre, on the edge of the hill. On each side breaks in the view of the Southampton sea, deep blue, glistening with silver and vessels; on one side terminated by Southampton, on the other by Calsliot Castle; and the Isle of Wight rising above the opposite hills. In short, they are not the ruins of Netley, but of Paradise. Oh! the purple abbots! what a spot had they chosen to slumber in! The scene is so beautifully tranquil, yet so lively, that they seem only to have retired into the world.”

The situation, among woods, is the favourite one for Cistercian abbeys, and 30 years ago was quite solitary. A road now passes close to the ruins, and the vicinity of the military hospital brings great traffic under the old walls. Villas have been built, rows of ill-favoured small houses have sprung up all round, and the charm of the place is lost. There are many so-called “hotels,” and an abundance of “neat flys” offer themselves for hire. Until 1860 the ruins were utterly neglected, and the vicinity of Southampton brought crowds of visitors, by whom the place was horribly desecrated. Feasts of tea and shrimps were in constant operation: and the archaeologist,—

 “Exceedingly angry, and very much scandalized,

Finding these beautiful ruins so vandalized,”

might well have followed the example of Thomas Ingoldsby,—

“And say to the person who drove his shay (A very intelligent man by the way), ‘This don’t suit my humour—so take me away.'”

Since the ruins came into the possession of Mr. Chamberlayne they have been most carefully kept. An admission fee of 2d. has been established, which, however unromantic, has operated beneficially in promoting quiet and order. By Mr. Chamberlayne’s directions also, extensive excavations have been made in the ruins; tons of rubbish have been carted away, and the floors laid bare; and trees, which threatened the stability of the walls, have been felled, for a while depriving the ruins of some of their picturesque beauty, but time is repairing this, as young trees also have been planted. Many windows which had been blocked up have been opened, and much of the brick-work, introduced by its lay occupants, removed. The immediate result was a trimness, which contrasted unfavourably with its former romantic wildness, but the general improvement is undeniable, and will be thankfully appreciated by the archaeological visitor.

Crown Copyright, A. Hamilton Thompson - "Netley Abbey, Hampshire", Ministry of Works Official Guidebook (HMSO, 1952), inside back cover.
Crown Copyright, A. Hamilton Thompson – “Netley Abbey, Hampshire”, Ministry of Works Official Guidebook (HMSO, 1952), inside back cover.

The ruins consist of the outer walls of the church with the exception of the N. transept, which has entirely disappeared, but its outline is marked; the cloister court, with the chapter-house, day-room, and other monastic offices to the E. and S., and the shell of the abbot’s house. The whole are in the same style, E. E., verging upon Dec, but not of one date. The visitor enters at the S., and crossing the greensward, which conceals the foundations of the refectory (here, as at the mother house of Beaulieu, projecting southwards from the centre of the S. walk of the cloister), and passing through some modernised buildings, with the site of the monastic kitchen to the rt. and the porter’s lodge (modern) to the 1., deposits his 2d. and is admitted into the Cloister, or, as it is often called, from a conduit formerly existing in the centre, the Fountain Court, 114 ft. square, shaded by noble trees. The entrance is by the old refectory door; one of the E. E. shafts may be seen peeping out of the later work. The view here is most striking. To the N. is the wall of the S. aisle of the ch., with E. E. triplets. To the E., the S. transept, with its ivy-clad gable, and the 3 exquisite arches between the cloister and chapterhouse, and the adjacent buildings form a most picturesque group. The narrow slits between the larger windows of the later occupants, mark the monks’ dormitory, which ran over the buildings on this side. On the S. wall the remains of the lavatory may be traced. The weatherings of the cloister roofs, and the corbels that supported them, will be noticed. Two doors in the N. walk admit to the church, 211 ft. long by 58 wide. This is throughout E. E., but of more than one date. The choir and transept are the earliest. Then come the S. aisle, the N. aisle, and W. front. The E. window, not unlike those of the chapter-house of Salis. bury, was of 4 lights, with an 8-foiled circle in the head, the arch 5 times recessed. The caps and bases of 4 shafts remain in each of the jambs. The shafts themselves, and the secondary mullions, are gone. The side windows of the choir and transepts are of 2 lancet lights, with a common arch within, having E. E. shafts in the jambs. Those of the S. aisle are triplets, the centre light foliated. In the N. aisle the detached lights have developed into a 3-light window with real tracery. The W. window, fatal to Mr. Taylor, is the latest in the church. It has lost its mullions and tracery, but the arch remains. Of the arcade nothing remains but the stumps of the piers of the crossing, and one or two in the nave. The clerestory came down to the spring above the arches, and there was no distinct triforium. The church was vaulted throughout. In the S. transept the springing of a rich roof of late character, which was perfect up to a recent period, is still conspicuous. The nave was of 8 bays, the choir of 4, the transept of 3. The bases of the 3 chief altars remain, with piscina and aumbry. The E. aisle of the S. transept retains its plain quadripartite vaulting. The S. bay is said to have been the Lady Chapel. The clerestory here is perfect, and access is obtained to it by a spiral staircase at the S.E. angle of the choir. This is worth ascending for the sake of the view of the ruins it affords. The central tower is said to have served as a sea-mark.

Leaving the transept, we enter the Sacristy (with the Munimentroom above), plainly vaulted, where remark the altar-steps, the piscina, and aumbry, laid bare by Mr. Chamberlayne. Further S. is the Chapterhouse, 33 feet square, with its 3 beautiful open arches and clustered shafts, and 3 fine E. E. windows of 2 lancet lights, with foliated circles in the heads, “The arches are richly moulded with the round and fillet, deep hollows, and the scroll moulding.”—J. H. P. The bases of the 4 pillars which supported its vaulted roof are to be seen. Beyond this is the passage to the abbot’s house, which is succeeded by what is usually shown as the refectory, but was really the Monies’ Day Room, or locutorium, 70 ft. by 25. This was a vaulted room of 5 bays, divided down the centre by a row of pillars (a usual Cistercian arrangement, as at Furness and Beaulieu). One lancet remains to the E.; the other windows have been altered, and are 2-light square-headed Dee. with transoms. Proceeding still to the S., we are shown the buttery and kitchen, which, though they may have filled that character in the post-reformation days (when the buttery-hatches were opened), had a far different designation originally. The so-called kitchen, it is evident from the fireplace of domestic, not culinary character, the long drain which traverses it, and the small colls crossing the channel, was the monks’ calefactory and garderobe, a portion of the monastery always arranged with scrupulous care. It is a noble room, 48 ft. by 18, with windows that deserve notice, and vaulted roof peeled to the grouting. The fireplace is a good example of 13th-century work. “It is partly destroyed; but the trusses, part of the shafts, and a bracket remain, the chimney of which is carried up in the thickness of the wall to the corbel table, and terminates between 2 of the corbels,” a mode of contriving the chimney, of which many examples occur in Norman castles. The brickwork observed in the walls of the domestic buildings, which some authorities are disposed to regard as original, certainly belongs to the period after the Dissolution.

The abbey garden is on the E. of the cloister court, and commands the best general view of the ruins. The Abbot’s House adjoins. The vaulted substructures are lighted by E. E. lancets.

The Abbey was entirely surrounded by a moat, part of which may still be traced; and beyond it, E. are the hollows of two large fish-ponds.

The Cattle to which Walpole alludes, originally the gate-house of the Abbey, is now occupied as a private residence. It is close to the water’s edge, and was, at the Dissolution, strengthened from the materials of the Abbey and converted into one of the many small forts built by Henry VIII. for the protection of the southern coast. The tower was added in 1826, when it was altered into a dwelling-house.

Current construction may hinder some visitors from getting a close look at the ruins.

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The Elgin Marbles – The Partheon Marbles of Greece

The Elgin Marbles also known as the Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures (made mostly by Greek sculptor Phidias and his assistants), inscriptions and architectural pieces that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin claimed to obtain in 1801 a controversial permit from the Sublime Porte, which then ruled Greece.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine by Anton Graff (around 1788)


From 1801 to 1812, Elgin’s agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while others likened Elgin’s actions to vandalism or looting.

Following a public debate in Parliament and the subsequent exoneration of Elgin, the Elgin marbles were purchased from Elgin by the British government in 1816 and were passed to the British Museum, where they stand now on display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.

The Duveen Gallery of the British Museum

After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece began major projects for the restoration of the country’s monuments, and has expressed its disapproval of Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Greece disputes the subsequent purchase of the Marbles by the British Government and urges the return of the marbles to Greece for their unification.

In the beginning…
In November of 1798 the Earl of Elgin was appointed as “Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey” (Greece was then part of the Ottoman realm). Before his departure to take up the post he had approached officials of the British government to inquire if they would be interested in employing artists to take casts and drawings of the sculptured portions of the Parthenon. According to Lord Elgin, “the answer of the Government … was entirely negative.”

Statuary from the east pediment

Lord Elgin decided to carry out the work and employed artists to take casts and drawings under the supervision of the Neapolitan court painter Giovani Lusieri. According to a Turkish local, marble sculptures that fell were burned to obtain lime for building. Although the original intention was only to document the sculptures, in 1801 Lord Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures under the supervision of Lusieri. Continue reading The Elgin Marbles – The Partheon Marbles of Greece

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William Herschel and the Bath Museum of Astronomy

Sir Frederick William Herschel, KH, FRS  (15 November 1738 – 25 August 1822) was a German-born British astronomer, composer, and brother of Caroline Herschel. Born in the Electorate of Hanover, Herschel followed his father into the Military Band of Hanover, before migrating to Great Britain at the age of nineteen.

Replica in the William Herschel Museum, Bath, of a telescope similar to that with which Herschel discovered Uranus
Replica in the William Herschel Museum, Bath, of a telescope similar to that with which Herschel discovered Uranus

Herschel became interested in astronomy in 1773, and after constructing his first large telescope in Bath, in 1774, he spent nine years carrying out thorough sky surveys, where his purpose was the investigation of double stars. The resolving power of the Herschel telescopes revealed that the nebulae in the Messier catalogue were clusters of stars: catalogues of nebulae were published in 1802 (2,500 objects) and 1820 (5,000 objects). In the course of an observation on 13 March 1781 he realized that one celestial body he had observed was not a star, but a planet, Uranus. This was the first planet to be discovered since antiquity and Herschel became famous overnight. As a result of this discovery George III appointed him ‘Court Astronomer’. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and grants were provided for the construction of new telescopes.

A 1998 false-colour near-infrared image of Uranus showing cloud bands, rings, and moons obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope’s NICMOS camera.

Herschel pioneered the use of astronomical spectrophotometry as a diagnostic tool, using prisms and temperature measuring equipment to measure the wavelength distribution of stellar spectra. Other work included an improved determination of the rotation period of Mars, the discovery that the Martian polar caps vary seasonally, the discovery of Titania and Oberon (moons of Uranus) and Enceladus and Mimas (moons of Saturn). In addition, he was the first person to discover the existence of infrared radiation. Herschel was knighted in 1816. He died in August 1822, and his work was continued by his only son, John Herschel.

William Herschel, 1785 by Lemuel Francis Abbot.
William Herschel, 1785 by Lemuel Francis Abbot.

Herschel was born in the Electorate of Hanover in Germany , part of the Holy Roman Empire, one of ten children of Isaac Herschel by his marriage to Anna Ilse Moritzen. His family were Lutheran Christians. The surname, identifying his Jewish origin, is descended–according to Herhsel’s biographer Holden–from Jewish Moravians who converted to Protestantism in the 17th century. His father was an oboist in the Hanover Military Band. In 1755 the Hanoverian Guards regiment, in whose band Wilhelm and his brother Jakob were engaged as oboists, was ordered to England. At the time the crowns of Great Britain and Hanover were united under King George II. As the threat of war with France loomed, the Hanoverian Guards were recalled from England to defend Hanover. After they were defeated at the Battle of Hastenbeck, Herschel’s father Isaak sent his two sons to seek refuge in England in late 1757. Although his older brother Jakob had received his dismissal from the Hanoverian Guards, Wilhelm was accused of desertion (for which he was pardoned by George III in 1782). Wilhelm, nineteen years old at this time, was a quick student of the English language. In England he went by the English rendition of his name, Frederick William Herschel.

In addition to the oboe, he played the violin and harpsichord and later the organ. He composed numerous musical works, including 24 symphonies and many concertos, as well as some church music. Six of his symphonies were recorded in April 2002 by the London Mozart Players, conducted by Matthias Bamert (Chandos 10048).

Original manuscript of Symphony No. 15 in E flat major (1762).
Original manuscript of Symphony No. 15 in E flat major (1762).

Herschel moved to Sunderland in 1761 when Charles Avison immediately engaged him as first violin and soloist for his Newcastle orchestra, where he played for one season. In ‘Sunderland in the County of Durh: apprill [sic] 20th 1761’ he wrote his symphony No. 8 in c minor. He was head of the Durham Militia band 1760–61 and visited the home of Sir Ralph Milbanke at Halnaby Hall in 1760, where he wrote two symphonies, as well as giving performances himself.

"The Octagon Bath" by Ngw2009 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“The Octagon Bath” by Ngw2009 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

After Newcastle he moved to Leeds and Halifax where he was the first organist at St John the Baptist church (now Halifax Minster). He became organist of the Octagon Chapel, Bath, a fashionable chapel in a well-known spa, in which city he was also Director of Public Concerts. He was appointed as the organist in 1766 and gave his introductory concert on 1 January 1767. As the organ was still incomplete he showed off his versatility by performing his own compositions including a violin concerto, an oboe concerto and a harpsichord sonata. The organ was completed in October 1767. His sister Caroline came to England in 1772 and lived with him there in New King Street, Bath. The house they shared is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. His brothers Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob (1734–1792) also appeared as musicians of Bath. In 1780, Herschel was appointed director of the Bath orchestra, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist.

The front of the Herschel Museum.
The front of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath where the Herschels discovered many astronomical wonders, including the planet, Uranus.

Herschel’s music led him to an interest in mathematics and lenses. His interest in astronomy grew stronger after he made the acquaintance of the English Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne. He started building his own reflecting telescopes and would spend up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the speculum metal primary mirrors. He “began to look at the planets and the stars” in May 1773 and on 1 March 1774 began an astronomical journal by noting his observations of Saturn’s rings and the Great Orion Nebula (M 42).

Herschel's mirror polisher, on display in the Science Museum, London.
Herschel’s mirror polisher, on display in the Science Museum, London.

Herschel’s early observational work soon focused on the search for pairs of stars that were very close together visually. Astronomers of the era expected that changes over time in the apparent separation and relative location of these stars would provide evidence for both the proper motion of stars and, by means of parallax shifts in their separation, for the distance of stars from the Earth (a method first suggested by Galileo Galilei). From the back garden of his house in New King Street, Bath, and using a 6.2-inch aperture (160 mm), 7-foot focal length (2.1 m) (f/13) Newtonian telescope “with a most capital speculum” of his own manufacture, in October 1779, Herschel began a systematic search for such stars among “every star in the Heavens”, with new discoveries listed through 1792. He soon discovered many more binary and multiple stars than expected, and compiled them with careful measurements of their relative positions in two catalogues presented to the Royal Society in London in 1782 (269 double or multiple systems) and 1784 (434 systems). A third catalogue of discoveries made after 1783 was published in 1821 (145 systems).

An interior of the home at 19 New King Street, Bath, which is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.
An interior of the home at 19 New King Street, Bath, which is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.

In 1797 Herschel measured many of the systems again, and discovered changes in their relative positions that could not be attributed to the parallax caused by the Earth’s orbit. He waited until 1802 (in Catalogue of 500 new Nebulae, nebulous Stars, planetary Nebulae, and Clusters of Stars; with Remarks on the Construction of the Heavens) to announce the hypothesis that the two stars might be “binary sidereal systems” orbiting under mutual gravitational attraction, a hypothesis he confirmed in 1803 in his Account of the Changes that have happened, during the last Twenty-five Years, in the relative Situation of Double-stars; with an Investigation of the Cause to which they are owing. In all, Herschel discovered over 800 confirmed double or multiple star systems, almost all of them physical rather than virtual pairs. His theoretical and observational work provided the foundation for modern binary star astronomy; new catalogues adding to his work were not published until after 1820 by Friedrich Wilhelm Struve, James South and John Herschel.

In March 1781, during his search for double stars, Herschel noticed an object appearing as a nonstellar disk. Herschel originally thought it was a comet or a star. He made many more observations of it, and afterwards Russian Academician Anders Lexell computed the orbit and found it to be probably planetary. Herschel determined in agreement that it must be a planet beyond the orbit of Saturn. He called the new planet the ‘Georgian star’ (Georgium sidus) after King George III, which also brought him favour; the name did not stick. In France, where reference to the British king was to be avoided if possible, the planet was known as ‘Herschel’ until the name ‘Uranus’ was universally adopted. The same year, Herschel was awarded the Copley Medal and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1782, he was appointed “The King’s Astronomer” (not to be confused with the Astronomer Royal). He and his sister subsequently moved to Datchet (then in Buckinghamshire but now in Berkshire) on 1 August 1782. He continued his work as a telescope maker and achieved an international reputation for their manufacture, profitably selling over 60 completed reflectors to British and Continental astronomers.

NGC 2683 is an unbarred spiral galaxy discovered by William Herschel on 5 February 1788.
NGC 2683 is an unbarred spiral galaxy discovered by William Herschel on 5 February 1788.

From 1782 to 1802, and most intensively from 1783 to 1790, Herschel conducted systematic surveys in search of “deep sky” or nonstellar objects with two 20-foot focal length (610 cm), 12-inch aperture (30 cm) and 18.7-inch aperture (47 cm) telescopes (in combination with his favoured 6-inch aperture instrument). Excluding duplicated and “lost” entries, Herschel ultimately discovered over 2400 objects defined by him as nebulae. (At that time, nebula was the generic term for any visually extended or diffuse astronomical object, including galaxies beyond the Milky Way, until galaxies were confirmed as extragalactic systems by Edwin Hubble in 1924.)

Herschel published his discoveries as three catalogues: Catalogue of One Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (1786), Catalogue of a Second Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (1789) and the previously cited Catalogue of 500 New Nebulae … (1802). He arranged his discoveries under eight “classes”: (I) bright nebulae, (II) faint nebulae, (III) very faint nebulae, (IV) planetary nebulae, (V) very large nebulae, (VI) very compressed and rich clusters of stars, (VII) compressed clusters of small and large [faint and bright] stars, and (VIII) coarsely scattered clusters of stars. Herschel’s discoveries were supplemented by those of Caroline Herschel (11 objects) and his son John Herschel (1754 objects) and published by him as General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters in 1864. This catalogue was later edited by John Dreyer, supplemented with discoveries by many other 19th century astronomers, and published in 1888 as the New General Catalogue (abbreviated NGC) of 7840 deep sky objects. The NGC numbering is still the most commonly used identifying label for these celestial landmarks.

William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens, 1896 Lithograph.
William and Caroline Herschel polishing a telescope lens, 1896 Lithograph.

In 1783 he gave Caroline a telescope, and she began to make astronomical discoveries in her own right, particularly comets. She discovered or observed eight comets, eleven nebulae and, at her brother’s suggestion, updated and corrected Flamsteed’s work detailing the position of stars. This was published as the British Catalogue of Stars. She was honoured by the Royal Astronomical Society for this work. Caroline also continued to serve as his assistant, often taking notes while he observed at the telescope.

In June 1785, owing to damp conditions, he and Caroline moved to Clay Hall in Old Windsor. In 1786, the Herschels moved to a new residence on Windsor Road in Slough. He lived the rest of his life in this residence, which came to be known as Observatory House. It is no longer standing.

On 7 May 1788, he married the widow Mary Pitt (née Baldwin) at St Laurence’s Church, Upton in Slough. His sister Caroline then moved to separate lodgings, but continued to work as his assistant.

Herschel's 40-foot telescope.
Herschel’s 40-foot telescope.

During his career, he constructed more than four hundred telescopes. The largest and most famous of these was a reflecting telescope with a 49 12-inch-diameter (1.26 m) primary mirror and a 40-foot (12 m) focal length. Because of the poor reflectivity of the speculum mirrors of that day, Herschel eliminated the small diagonal mirror of a standard newtonian reflector from his design and tilted his primary mirror so he could view the formed image directly. This design has come to be called the Herschelian telescope. On 28 August 1789, his first night of observation using this instrument, he discovered a new moon of Saturn. A second moon followed within the first month of observation. The “40-foot telescope” proved very cumbersome, and most of his observations were done with a smaller 18.5-inch (47 cm) 20-foot-focal-length (6.1 m) reflector. Herschel discovered that unfilled telescope apertures can be used to obtain high angular resolution, something which became the essential basis for interferometric imaging in astronomy (in particular Aperture Masking Interferometry and hypertelescopes).

Herschel was sure that he had found ample evidence of life on the Moon and compared it to the English countryside. He did not refrain himself from theorizing that the other planets were populated, with an special interest in Mars, which was competely in line with most of his contemporary scientists.  At Herschel’s time, scientists tended to believe in a plurality of civilized worlds, while most religious thinkers referred to unique properties of the earth. Herschel went so far to speculate that the interior of the sun was populated.

"Sun in Samuel Dunn Wall Map of the World" by Samuel Dunn and Thomas Kitchin - cropped from (1794 Samuel Dunn Map of the World in Hemispheres). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Sunspots, 1794 Samuel Dunn Map of the World in Hemispheres. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Herschel started to examine the correlation of solar variation and solar cycle and climate. Over a period of 40 years (1779–1818), Herschel had regularly observed sunspots and their variations in number, form and size. Most of his observations took place in a period of low solar activity, the Dalton minimum. Therefore solar activity behaved very unusually. This was one of the reasons why Herschel was not able to identify the standard 11-year period in solar activity.  Herschel compared his observations with the series of wheat prices published by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations.

1801 Herschel reported his findings to the Royal Society and indicated five prolonged periods of few sunspots correlated with costly wheat.

The result of this review of the foregoing five periods is, that, from the price of wheat, it seems probable that some temporary scarcity or defect of vegetation has generally taken place, when the sun has been without those appearances which we surmise to be symptoms of a copious emission of light and heat.

Herschel’s study was ridiculed by some of his contemporaries but did initiate further attempts to find a correlation. Later in the 19th century, William Stanley Jevons proposed the 11-year- cycle and Herschels basic idea of a correlation between low amount of sunspots and lower yields to explain for recurring booms and slumps in the economy. Herschels speculation on a connection between sunspots and regional climate, using the market price of wheat as a proxy continues to be cited regularly till today.

According a study of the Israel Cosmic Ray Center about the influence of solar activity on the historical wheat market in England, all ten solar cycles between 1600 and 1700 show high wheat prices coinciding with low activity, and vice versa. The topic is still subject of controversies and the significance of the correlation is being doubted by some scientists.

Herschel was a man of science and has several notable discoveries to his credit:

  • In his later career, Herschel discovered two moons of Saturn, Mimas and Enceladus; as well as two moons of Uranus, Titania and Oberon. He did not give these moons their names; they were named by his son John in 1847 and 1852, respectively, after his death.
  • In 2007 evidence was cited by Dr. Stuart Eves that Herschel might have discovered rings around Uranus.
  • Herschel measured the axial tilt of Mars and discovered that the martian ice caps, first observed by Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1666) and Christiaan Huygens (1672), changed size with the planet’s seasons.
  • From studying the proper motion of stars, he was the first to realise that the solar system is moving through space, and he determined the approximate direction of that movement.
  • He also studied the structure of the Milky Way and concluded that it was in the shape of a disk. He incorrectly assumed the sun was in the centre of the disc, a theory known as Galactocentrism, which was eventually corrected by the findings of Harlow Shapley in 1918.
  • He also coined the word “asteroid”, meaning star-like (from the Greek asteroeides, aster “star” + -eidos “form, shape”), in 1802 (shortly after Olbers discovered the second minor planet, 2 Pallas, in late March), to describe the star-like appearance of the small moons of the giant planets and of the minor planets; the planets all show discs, by comparison. By the 1850s ‘asteroid’ became a standard term for describing certain minor planets.
  • On 11 February 1800, Herschel was testing filters for the sun so he could observe sun spots. When using a red filter he found there was a lot of heat produced. Herschel discovered infrared radiation in sunlight by passing it through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. This thermometer was meant to be a control to measure the ambient air temperature in the room. He was shocked when it showed a higher temperature than the visible spectrum. Further experimentation led to Herschel’s conclusion that there must be an invisible form of light beyond the visible spectrum.
  • Herschel used a microscope to establish that coral was not a plant, as many believed at the time, since it lacked the cell walls characteristic of plants.

William Herschel and Mary had one child, John, born at Observatory House on 7 March 1792. William’s personal background and rise as man of science had a profound impact on the upbringing of his son and grandchildren. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1788. In 1816, William was made a Knight of the Royal Guelphic Order by the Prince Regent and was accorded the honorary title ‘Sir’ although this was not the equivalent of an official British knighthood. He helped to found the Astronomical Society of London in 1820, which in 1831 received a royal charter and became the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1813, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

On 25 August 1822, Herschel died at Observatory House, Windsor Road, Slough, and is buried at nearby St Laurence’s Church, Upton, Slough. Herschel’s epitaph is

Coelorum perrupit claustra.
(He broke through the barriers of the heavens.)

Herschel’s son John Herschel also became a famous astronomer. One of William’s brothers, Alexander Herschel, moved permanently to England, near his sister Caroline and nephew John. Caroline returned to Hanover after the death of her brother. She died on 9 January 1848.




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The Foundling Hospital

Thomas Coram painted by William Hogarth, 1740
Thomas Coram
painted by William Hogarth, 1740

The Foundling Hospital in London, England was founded in 1741 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. It was a children’s home established for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.” The word “hospital” was used in a more general sense than it is today, simply indicating the institution’s “hospitality” to those less fortunate.

The first children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital on 25 March 1741, into a temporary house located in Hatton Garden. At first, no questions were asked about child or parent, but a distinguishing token was put on each child by the parent. These were often marked coins, trinkets, pieces of cotton or ribbon, verses written on scraps of paper. Clothes, if any, were carefully recorded. One entry in the record reads, “Paper on the breast, clout on the head.” The applications became too numerous, and a system of balloting with red, white and black balls was adopted. Children were seldom taken after they were twelve months old.

On reception, children were sent to wet nurses in the countryside, where they stayed until they were about four or five years old. At sixteen girls were generally apprenticed as servants for four years; at fourteen, boys were apprenticed into variety of occupations, typically for seven years. There was a small benevolent fund for adults.


In September 1742, the stone of the new Hospital was laid in the area known as Bloomsbury, lying north of Great Ormond Street and west of Gray’s Inn Lane. The Hospital was designed by Theodore Jacobsen as a plain brick building with two wings and a chapel, built around an open courtyard. The western wing was finished in October 1745. An eastern wing was added in 1752 “in order that the girls might be kept separate from the boys”. The new Hospital was described as “the most imposing single monument erected by eighteenth century benevolence” and became London’s most popular charity.

In 1756, the House of Commons resolved that all children offered should be received, that local receiving places should be appointed all over the country, and that the funds should be publicly guaranteed. A basket was accordingly hung outside the hospital; the maximum age for admission was raised from two months to twelve, and a flood of children poured in from country workhouses. In less than four years 14,934 children were presented, and a vile trade grew up among vagrants, who sometimes became known as “Coram Men”, of promising to carry children from the country to the hospital, an undertaking which they often did not perform or performed with great cruelty. Of these 15,000, only 4,400 survived to be apprenticed out. The total expense was about £500,000, which alarmed the House of Commons. After throwing out a bill which proposed to raise the necessary funds by fees from a general system of parochial registration, they came to the conclusion that the indiscriminate admission should be discontinued. The hospital, being thus thrown on its own resources, adopted a system of receiving children only with considerable sums (e.g., £100), which sometimes led to the children being reclaimed by the parent. This practice was finally stopped in 1801; and it henceforth became a fundamental rule that no money was to be received. The committee of inquiry had to be satisfied of the previous good character and present necessity of the mother, and that the father of the child had deserted both mother and child, and that the reception of the child would probably replace the mother in the course of virtue and in the way of an honest livelihood. At that time, illegitimacy carried deep stigma, especially for the mother but also for the child. All the children at the Foundling Hospital were those of unmarried women, and they were all first children of their mothers. The principle was in fact that laid down by Henry Fielding in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling: “Too true I am afraid it is that many women have become abandoned and have sunk to the last degree of vice [i.e. prostitution] by being unable to retrieve the first slip.”
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