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Manchester Astronomical Society
Established 1903

Manchester Astronomical Society

History - The First 100 years



The original History booklet was designed by the Audio Visual Production Unit & printed by the Reprographics Section of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology by the kind permission of the Principal Professor Harold C A Hankins, BScTech PhD CEng FIEE, to whom the most grateful thanks of the Society are extended.

The main text has been collated from Journals and minutes of the Manchester Astronomical Society and its predecessors by Mr Kevin J Kilburn, President of the Society in 1979-81 and again since June 1991, with the assistance of Mr A Cross.

The biography of Mr Francis Godlee (1854-1928) and his portrait have been contributed by Mr Nicholas Godlee, a great-nephew, through the good offices of Mr Richard Godlee.

The account of members' visits to the July 1991 total eclipse in Hawaii and Mexico and of the spectacular aurora display wtnessed at Wincle, near Macclesfield, on 8 November 1991 is contributed by Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, DBE DStJ DL FIMA CRNCM, Lord Mayor of Manchester 1975-76, Freeman of the City, a Vice-President of UMIST 1978-88 and Hon. Fellow of the Institute, who took up astronomy in July 1990 prior to the Finland total eclipse and who has undertaken the editorship of this publication.

The astronomy pictures are reproduced from current members' slides and are described and attributed separately.

January 1992

This 2017 web version of the History has been re-created by Graham Hodson from the original web version, with the addition of notes and equivalent metric and decimal currency values for the benefit of our international viewers, together with coding modifications to comply with current HTML5 standards


Part 1


"When present at the annual meeting of the British Astronomical Association (BAA) held in London on 28 October 1891, I learned from Mr E W Maunder that he proposed visiting Manchester at an early date and he intimated a wish - while there - to ascertain the prospect for the formation of a local branch of the Association. Some correspondence ensued on the advisability of arranging a meeting of the members resident about Manchester and this course was ultimately decided upon. The evening of the 18th January 1892 was fixed for the meeting and Mr Maunder undertook to deliver an address. Invitations were accordingly sent to 45 persons comprising local members of the BAA and others interested in Astronomical Science.
Mr Weir 16 January 1892"

"Dear Sir, Mr E Walter Maunder, FRAS (of the Royal Observatory) editor of the Journal of the British Astronomical Association being desirous of meeting the Members and others interested in Astronomical Science in this district, has requested me to communicate with you. His more especial purpose is to obtain an expression of opinion as to the desirability of forming in Manchester a Local Branch of the BAA. A meeting has accordingly been arranged for Monday evening next, the 18th inst. at 7 pm in the Drawing Room of the Y.M.C.A., Peter Street, Manchester and after disposing of the business Mr Maunder will no doubt be pleased to give a short address on some phase of Astronomical work, should time permit.

Thomas Weir
56 Parkfield Street,
Moss Lane East, Manchester
January 14th, 1892

Thus, at the next meeting on 1 February 1892, the decision was taken to form a North Western Branch of the British Astronomical Association. The history of this and its successor, the Manchester Astronomical Society, will be described here. It is the story of people from all walks of life who have one common interest: a love of the heavens.

At the end of the nineteenth century public interest in science was probably greater than at any other time in history, either before or since. Following hard on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, there was an optimism that science and technology were creators of wealth above and beyond the grass root economy based on farming. The Industrial Revolution had shown that the marriage of traditional production methods with mechanisation, fuelled by the exploitation of the coal fields in the North West, could generate wealth; albeit if for a minority. But there was a recognition that education of the workers in technical subjects could improve manufacturing efficiency and many towns in the region boasted technical colleges. Not only did this improve manufacturing efficiency by creating trained managers and workers, but, by raising the level of scientific awareness, it undoubtedly resulted in science becoming a fashionable pastime, particularly among the more well-to-do.


The history of the BAA goes back to 1881 when an astronomical society was formed in Liverpool. Being a city in the forefront of maritime trade with the world, many citizens were familiar with the problems of navigation and the direct necessity of using the sun and stars to circumnavigate the globe. Indeed to this end the well-equipped Bidston Observatory had been established since 1866 at Birkenhead to teach navigation and to provide accurate time signals against which ships' chronometers could be set prior to long voyages. Initially this had been provided at Waterloo Dock, Liverpool, but increasing atmospheric pollution had necessitated a move to the other side of the Mersey.

In 1881 the Liverpool Astronomical Society was created as a body of amateur astronomers who, by organising themselves into observing sections, would undertake to study the science of astronomy whether this be by the systematic observation of the sun, moon and planets or by discussion of these topics at regular meetings. The society was not only very active, but attracted a large membership from all over the United Kingdom and abroad.

However, the LAS had seriously declined by 1890 owing to financial difficulties and it was at this time that Miss Elizabeth Brown FRMetSoc, Director of the Solar Section of the LAS since 1883 (and greatly disappointed when the society had ceased to be a living organisation') in several letters to Mr Walter Maunder of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, urged the formation of a new amateur astronomical society. On 18 July a letter from Mr W H S Monck appeared in the 'English Mechanic', a then widely read publication devoted to technical and scientific matters. This advocated the formation of an Amateur Astronomical Association to be based in London. This was not to be a rival of the Royal Astronomical Society but was to cater for those amateur astronomers who found the subscription to the latter too high, or its papers too technical, or who, being women, were excluded.

Plans were already underway and on 8 August, in a letter in the 'English Mechanic', Dr W Huggins, one of the leading amateur scientists of the day, reported that a meeting was soon to be held. The formation of the British Astronomical Association on 24 October 1890 was therefore in direct response to the general interest in matters scientific, particularly at an amateur level, prevalent in the country in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Like the Liverpool Astronomical Society before it, the BAA was also organised into observing sections so that members could not only participate in the observation of the specific astronomical bodies in which they might have a particular interest but, by being organised into independent sections under directors, observations would be collated periodically into reports these would build up into an invaluable archived documentation of the objects observed. Even in the 1970s, memoirs of the BAA Jupiter Section were referred to by NASA in planning robotic space probe missions to the planet.


The first meeting of local BAA members was held in the Drawing Room of the YMCA, Peter Street, on 18 January 1892 to consider the advisability or otherwise of forming a local branch for Manchester and neighbourhood. There were 17 persons present and Mr Samuel Okell was voted to the Chair. After a brief review of the history of the BAA by Mr Maunder, including a consideration of the need for such an association, several questions were addressed to Mr Maunder, in particular an enquiry "as to whether the branch might expect aid from the Council (of the parent body) towards the expense incurred in conducting their meetings". As we shall see later, Mr Maunder's reply to this, by explaining that the cost of producing the Journal absorbed about nine-tenths of the half guinea subscription, was subsequently to colour the relationship between Manchester and London for the duration of the branch. Mr Maunder did not commit himself to adefinite answer at the time, but said that the question was under consideration and that this would be resolved at a meeting of the parent Council to be held on Wednesday 27 January. The first meeting was closed with the proposal to hold a second meeting on Monday 1 February when the decision about financial help would be made known and the formation of a branch proceeded with. At the offer of Mr Sowerbutts, the use of the Library of the Manchester Geographical Society at 44 Brown Street was agreed as the venue.

At the meeting on 1 February the communication from London regarding financial help was discussed. Their decision was: "that the local expenses of any Branch should be met by special arrangement among the members of the Branch as they see fit". Nevertheless, the members were not daunted by this and it was resolved that an application be made to the Council of the Association for leave to form a local branch, the title of which should be The North Western Branch of the British Astronomical Association with its headquarters in Manchester. The geographical area defined by the Branch was to be bounded on the north by the towns of Preston, Clitheroe and Halifax, on the east by Halifax, Huddersfield and Buxton, on the south by Buxton, Macclesfield and Northwich and on the west by the London and North Western main railway line "which here runs almost due North".

It was further proposed to ask the parent Association to waive the five shillings (25p) entrance fee for a few months in order to encourage new members to join the Association through the local branch. It was agreed that the annual subscription to the branch should be as low as possible and it was suggested that it might be fixed at 2/6d, (12.5p) this being in addition to the 10/6d (52.5p) required by the parent body.

By the fourth meeting (this time of the Council only) in Mr Brothers' rooms, 14 St Anns Square, on Friday 26 February, it had been agreed that the Rev Walter Sidgreaves SJ, FRAS, of Stonyhurst College, would become the president of the branch and that he would deliver the inaugural lecture: 'The New Star and its Teachings'. This would be on the evening of Thursday 10 March at 7.30 pm. The meeting would be advertised in the 'City News' of 27 February and 5 March and in the 'Manchester Guardian' of 8 March. Tickets of admission to the meeting would be printed. The secretary read a letter confirming that the Council of the parent Association had approved the formation of the North Western Branch and that the official warrant would be made out and forwarded. With regard to the waiver of the five shillings (25p) entrance fee, it was decided that although this had not yet been approved by London, any members joining the branch would be absolved from paying this fee. The venue of the inaugural meeting would be at the Chartered Accountants rooms, 65 King Street, which could be obtained for fifteen shillings (75p) a night.

The discussion on the rules of the Branch was next on the agenda and the rules, as approved, were as follows:-

The title and geographical area were as already stated; the Objects and Constitution of the Branch was to be the same as defined in Rule II and III of the B A A. (1891 edition), namely:

The association of Observers, especially the possessors of small telescopes, for mutual help, and their organisation in the work of astronomical observation.
The circulation of current astronomical information.
The encouragement of a popular interest in astronomy.

The Association shall consist of members to be elected as herein-after provided.
Ladies shall be eligible for election as members of the Association, and no expression hereinafter used shall be held to debar them from exercising any right or privilege of the Association, or from filling any office to which they may be elected.

The remainder of the rules described the method of election of members; the dates of the General Meetings (7 pm on the second Tuesday of the month) and various other administrative matters.


And so the North Western Branch of the British Astronomical Association came into being. During the first year growth was steady as BAA members in the region joined the branch. The arrangement was flexible, and while it was in order to attend the local meetings if a BAA member lived in the region and yet not pay the additional fee, this was exceptional. It also made sense for members living in North Wales, for instance, to join the branch even though technically outside the region. It was even claimed, although there is no direct evidence, that one member lived as far away as Mexico but attended the meetings when returning to Manchester periodically. Members were encouraged to contribute papers to be read at the meetings. In addition papers were sent from London on a regular basis for discussion. By the end of the year branch membership had reached 65 with a typical meeting attendance of 50-60 persons. Today's members of the Manchester Astronomical Society would feel quite at home in the company of the branch members of a century ago.

Mr Thomas Thorp was a vice-president. A local craftsman, employing at least two workmen at premises in Whitefield, he was a skilled instrument maker and inventor. His advertisements in scientific publications such as "The Journal" of the "BAA" included a range of replica gratings used in spectroscopy and formed the basis of a series of spectroscopes which he made and sold. One novel application of his celluloid replica grating was the direct observation of the solar chromosphere during the total eclipse of 1900. By placing the grating in front of one object lens of a pair of binoculars and viewing the eclipsed sun by looking downwards through the instrument at the sun reflected in a silvered mirror, he was able to watch as the spectrum at the solar limb suddenly reversed as the hydrogen alpha line in the chromosphere flashed into view. This so-called flash spectrum is caused by ionised hydrogen in the solar chromosphere. This phenomenon, which is very difficult to observe except briefly during total eclipses, was not well understood until the twentieth century. Mr Thorp is also credited with the invention of the coin-in-the-slot gas meter. As an amateur astronomer, particularly interested in solar work, he often brought his optical devices to the meetings, these included artifacts such as the 6.5" (163mm) object glass which he made having first calculated the curves of the optical surfaces; the solar spectroscope, also home-made, with which he could view prominences and many other interesting items.

Dr Steele Sheldon, of Macclesfield, was a keen astrophotographer who used a one-inch (25mm) portrait lens of 2" (50mm) focal length to record views of the constellations. He regularly brought slides and photographs to the meetings, mainly of the Milky Way which he was photographing systematically. A photograph of the Orion nebula took seventy minutes to expose and showed objects of tenth and eleventh magnitude. Another astrophotographer, Herbert Sykes, showed a 45 minutes exposure of the constellation of Cassiopaea going down to eighth magnitude. (Compare this with modern exposures on high speed films.)

From very early days members had an open invitation to visit the observatory of Mr R Wilding of Preston, which housed a 19" Newtonian reflector and also the Preston Observatory, of which Mr Wilding was Curator, containing an 18" (450mm) instrument. Many other members also owned telescopes, but as these were usually commercial instruments they were generally small refractors from 1" (25mm) to 4" (100mm) in aperture or 4" (100mm) to 6" (150mm) reflectors. With the exception of a few large instruments such as the 20" (500mm) reflector owned by Mr Samuel Okell, later replaced by an 8" (200mm) refractor, most big telescopes were then, as now, in observatories affiliated to universities.

The second session opened with a lecture by Mrs R A Proctor entitled "The Life and Death of Worlds". This expounded the theory then widespread that within the solar nebula could be found planets in various stages of development, from the gaseous young planets of Jupiter and Saturn, Earth was considered to be in the prime or life-bearing stage with Mars an old world. The moon was regarded as being dead. The lecture was well illustrated by many lantern slides, some having been taken with the great American refractors.

Another well attended lecture was that given by Sir Howard Grubb on Tuesday 13 December 1892 held at 65 King Street. Sir Howard described a new telescope his company had made for the BAA. It was a 4" (100mm) refractor mounted so that it could be used either equatorially or as an altazimuth; but its special feature was that the setting circles were arranged as a co-axially mounted disc surrounding the eyepiece from which both Right Ascension and Declination could be read without undue movement. The instrument was expected to sell for about £60. Sir Howard went on to describe what he considered to be an ideal observatory for a large telescope incorporating a rising and falling floor to follow the eyepiece at any position of the instrument. The telescope itself would be moved to any pre-set position on the sky by hydraulic motors coupled to electrical position sensors. Very large reflecting telescopes would be supported on mountings floated on water to afford ease of movement and whilst tracking objects the observatory dome opening would be automatically moved always to follow the instrument.

The rest of the 1892-93 session passed uneventfully with regular monthly meetings of the council, usually held in the rooms of the vice president, Mr Planck, at 19 St Ann Street, and eight general meetings in the library of the Chartered Accountants at 65 King Street. To the latter, members were invited to bring scientifically-minded friends, presumably with the underlying intent of boosting the paid-up membership which, by early 1893, had increased but slightly. No fewer than 24 members were in arrears to the parent association in March 1893 and the secretary was instructed to write to remind them that subscriptions were overdue. At the end of the session only 5/8d (28p) was in hand.

The first general meeting of the third session, on 17 October 1893, was devoted to a lecture by Mr Alfred Brothers FRAS, a member of the branch and a professional photographer of merit, whose work is still used to illustrate modern books on Victorian Manchester. His subject, astronomical photography, was well illustrated by slides from his own, Mr Okell's and Dr Schuster's collections. However, the main illustrations were from the extensive collection of photographs possessed by the parent association showing the development of astrophotography and its importance in astronomical research.

Part 2


The first intimation of financial problems appears in the minutes of the council meeting held at 19 St Ann Street on 8 January 1894. The secretary, Mr Thomas Weir, said that at a recent meeting Mr Maunder had mentioned the desirability of extending the boundary of the branch westwards to the coast "considering that there was now but slight prospect of a branch of the BAA being formed in Liverpool." However, it was the opinion of the council that, although this might be an advantage, the matter should stand over for further consideration. At the next council meeting, on 5 February, a letter from Maunder, dated the 3rd, was read in which he thought it better to defer the idea of extending the branch. This seems odd considering that it was he who had raised the suggestion in the first place a month earlier with Thomas Weir.

As the 1893-94 session drew to a close, the realisation that the accounts might end with an adverse balance was raised by the treasurer, Mr Henry Planck, at the council meeting of 2 April. It was resolved, on the motion of Alfred Brothers, that at the next council meeting it should be considered what steps, if any, might be taken towards increasing the resources of the branch. The secretary was instructed to remind again those members whose subscriptions were overdue. But there was concern regarding the finances and time was not lost in reporting this to London. After discussion on 30 April a letter was sent to Mr Philip Duke, secretary of the BAA, explaining the financial situation. The gist of the letter was that before the branch had been formed there were 22 members of the BAA resident within the geographical area and now there were 83, of whom 58 had joined the Association directly through the branch. This seemed to justify the original decree that the branch subscription should be as low as possible, but, unfortunately, the sum of 2/6d (12.5p) had subsequently proved to be insufficient to cover the financial outlay. A deficit of about £5 was forecast for the present session. Most of the outlay was for the hire of the room for meetings which, at 15/- (75p) a night, amounted to £12 a year whereas the income from 72 members totalled only £9. The letter went on to say that it would be detrimental to increase the branch subscription and that members thought it not unreasonable for them to have a room, as the London meetings had, without any further expense. It was thought that of the 10/6d (52.5p) subscription to London 3/- (15p) should be refunded to cover the hire of rooms in Manchester. Such an arrangement would have the effect of knitting the branch more closely to the parent association and would allow money towards the establishment of a library. Furthermore, it would be an important sign to other potential branches that, as agreed before the formation of the North Western Branch, there was an understanding that some assistance might be expected.

The reply to this letter amounted to a blow by blow account of the income and expenditure of the parent body which, when re-read today 97 years later, still does not explain why the not unreasonable proposal of the branch was turned down. As this matter which ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the branch has never before been described in detail, it seems worth doing so here. The letter received from London was as follows.

"Thomas Weir Esq. Hon.Secretary, North Western Branch.

Dear Sir,
The memorial from your Council was duly read at the meeting of our Council, as also a letter from Rev W Sidgreaves, your President of the Branch. Very careful consideration was given to the application re the possibility of making a grant out of the general funds of the Association in aid of the needs of the Branch. The sympathies of the members of our Council were entirely with you, and it was evident that all were quite willing to do anything that could be done in aid of the Branch, subject to what was possible. In the course of the discussion statistics and figures had to be brought forward. The annual balance sheet containing the accounts for an entire session, viz. that of session 1892-93, was referred to. In the light of the facts and figures submitted the members of Council reluctantly felt that they could not propose a resolution in favour of making a grant to the Branch. The Secretaries were therefore instructed to write to you and furnish you with a precis of these figures and statistics for you to lay them before your Council.

The reference to the balance sheet for 1892-93 showed that during that session we spent £397 on our publications. We had 817 members, each of whom received Journals and Memoirs to the value of 9/9d (49p) leaving 9d (3.5p) out of the half-guinea (52.5p) subscription to be otherwise accounted for. A sum of about £45 was received by the sale of our publications, but that sum barely covered other expenses viz. the cost of reporting the meetings for the Journal (2d [1p] per person); a proportion of the salary of the assistant secretary, much of whose time is taken up in matters relating to the publications, and 3d (1.25p) per person, cost of stationary and stamps supplied to observing sections. For purposes of discussion at our Council meeting, it was therefore taken that the cost of the publications to be defrayed out of annual subscriptions was £397.

During the current session the cost of our publications has been exceptionally heavy, and the proportion of subscriptions received back by each member in the shape of Journals and Memoirs will be larger even than the proportion during the previous session. The cost of the meetings 1892-93 amounted to £16 9s 0d (£16.45p) or cost of 5d (2p) per member and that includes charges for reporting. Under the most favourable circumstances that leaves only about 5d (2p) per member of a Branch in compensation for not being able to attend London meetings. In the interest of our widely extended membership the Council are of the opinion that for the general interest the chief item of our expenditure should be devoted to our publications.

To sum up, the sense of the meeting was that the association could really not afford a grant. If I may venture a conclusion, an entirely un-official remark, I should say I have reason to believe that members outside your Branch would follow the example of members within the Branch by aiding your funds by individual and private enterprise if acceptable. Also that the labours of the Branch have been much appreciated and the zeal and energy of you, the first Branch of the Association, greatly admired and esteemed.

I am, dear Sir, Yours-faithfully
(signed) Philip F Duke,
Secretary BAA
Hendon. 1894, June 9."

In response an equally blunt reply was sent back to Philip Duke on 22 June 1894. The gloves were off.

"Dear Sir,
The reply of the Council of the parent Association to the memorial recently forwarded by this Branch received careful consideration at a special meeting of the Branch Council, held on the 18th inst. Copies having been forwarded to the members a few days previously, the deliberation had the advantage of matured thought, and the situation was considered in all its bearings.

I am instructed by the Council to communicate their reply and in so doing would refer to one or two points raised in the course of the discussion.

1st. It was suggested that the London Council had possibly assumed, when considering our memorial, that most, if not all, those members who have joined the Association through this Branch would sooner or later have done so apart from the existence of the Branch: we would however assure you that such is not the case. Of the 58 members who have joined the Association, we should say that four-fifths have done so from one or other of two reasons, (a) of desire to support a local institution, and (b) the advantage of attending a local meeting.

2nd. In referring to the figures you quote it would appear that the net annual gain to the parent association from the 58 new members (whose annual subscription collectively amount to £30 9s 0d (£30.45p) is only about £1 4s 0d (£1.20p) and that consequently if they resigned the loss to the Association would simply be represented by that amount, but this in our opinion is not so.

3rd. The suggestion in the concluding paragraph of your reply, that we might receive help from friends outside for the simple maintenance of the Branch does not commend itself to us. For mutual satisfaction we desire it to rest on a more stable basis.

We also wish you to understand clearly that the advantages of our connection with the British Astronomical Association are not under-valued by us: nor do we wish to hamper the funds of the Association; and above all, we most earnestly desire that no ruptive shall take place to cause a severance from the parent association yet we feel that a just settlement of this question is vital to our existence as a Branch, and with the best interests of the Association at least we would urge you to reconsider the matter at issue with a view to adopting a policy more favourable towards Local Branches, even though for the present it should necessitate the curtailing of printing expenses. Such a policy would - we submit - eventually result in largely increasing the membership of the Association and in greatly increasing its usefulness.

The views of the Council may be thus summarised -

(A) That the financial basis of the Branch is at present unsatisfactory seeing that the Branch does not maintain itself, and it is essential that it be reconsidered.

(B) That we cannot exact a larger annual subscription from our members than at present viz. 13/- (10/6 +2/6) [65p (52.5p + 12.5p)] without the effect of at once reducing their number.

(C) That to maintain the Branch efficiently a proportion of the annual subscription of 10/6 (52.5p) - say 2/6 (12.5p) for each member resident within the geographical area should be allowed to the Branch to meet its expenses; the parent Association retaining say 8/- (40p) per member for printing and other expenses.

Again expressing the confident expectation of this Council that you will see your way to meet us in this matter, which we feel is vital to the existence of our, or indeed any, Branch.

I remain yours obediently,
Thomas Weir,
Hon. Secretary
56 Parkfield Street, Moss Lane East, Manchester"

The reply, acknowledged by Weir on 30 June, was succinct.

"Dear Sir,
The result of the deliberation of our Council on Wednesday is contained in the following resolution which was carried viz. "That as the rate of subscription fixed by the BAA at its formation only suffices to maintain its publications in their present state and to keep up the meeting and provide for the other minor expenses therefore we feel unable to make any allowance to Branches in aid of their local expenses." It is with great regret that this decision has been arrived at.

Yours Faithfully,
(signed) Philip F Duke: Secretary."

Nothing further was done regarding the financial state of the branch until September, when after discussing the general format of the meetings for 1894-95, for which reduced terms of 12/- (60p) per night instead of 15/- (75p) had been negotiated when booking the use of the Library of the Chartered Accountants at 65 King Street, it was proposed by Mr Brothers that permission be obtained from London to extend the boundaries to the coast, thus including Southport, Liverpool, Birkenhead and Chester. This was approved on 31 October 1894.

1895 - 1898

At the start of the 1895 session Sir Robert Ball was invited to be president but he declined the invitation owing to already excessive claims on his time. Instead, on 10 January 1985, Mr Thomas H Core MA, Professor of Physics at Owens College, Manchester, was unanimously appointed as president in succession to the Rev Sidgreaves SJ FRAS.

Although the branch did not own a telescope, access was given to the 6" (150mm) refractor at Didsbury Wesleyan College. The telescope had apparently fallen into disuse and Mr Thomas Thorp sent two of his workmen to check the instrument. It was useable apart from a general clean-up, and was made available to branch members under college supervision every Saturday evening. Unfortunately, the time spent on the refurbishment was hardly justified; the telescope was rarely used. No doubt the generally inclement Manchester weather played a part, particularly with the telescope being available only one night a week. But while the instrument was serviceable, problems with the dome shutter, which necessitated repairs in 1898, may also have had something to do with the lack of use. An additional telescope was placed at the disposal of the branch in 1900. This was the 10" (250mm) Cooke refractor at Manchester University, but, as with that at Didsbury, only limited use seems to have been made of it.

The activities of the branch continued steadily with regular general meetings held either at 65 King Street or, on occasion in conjunction with the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in their rooms at 36 George Street, the old home of John Dalton, one of the city's most famous scientists and originator of the atomic theory of matter. [2017 update: 36 George Street is now Devonshire House, an office block] There was apparently no further conflict with the parent association and we may assume that the request to extend the boundaries had been effective. Although the perennial problem of members failing to pay their subscription continued, this was tackled by striking from the register all those whose subscriptions were more than one session overdue. This saved on the expense of sending reminders. Notices of local meetings were no longer sent to those BAA members within the area who had not paid their branch subscription.

However, the financial deficits were increasing and by early 1896 had to be met from the pockets of the better-off members. Nevertheless, in October of that year, the secretary was instructed to write to the recently formed Scottish Branches (Glasgow 1894, Edinburgh 1896) to ask how they financed their meetings. The replies were enlightening. The West of Scotland members were charged 5/- (25p) per annum to cover the cost of their meetings whilst the East of Scotland Branch, while hardly yet established, proposed to charge members one guinea, half to be retained for the branch subscription and half to go to London. Thus both the new local branches were comfortably self sufficient on their subscriptions, which, in addition to being much higher than that in Manchester, paid for meeting rooms which were cheaper to hire. However, Manchester still held their subscription to 2/6d (12.5p) and nothing was done to improve the situation until the end of 1898 when, the possibilities of increasing the branch subscription or dropping one of the general meetings having been discussed, it was finally agreed, instead, to cease advertising the meetings in the local press. This saved about 5/- (25p) each month and effectively reduced by a quarter the outlay incurred for each of the general meetings. History does not record if these savings outweighed the loss of attendance revenue.


Then, as now, the event of a total solar eclipse could be guaranteed to generate a lot of interest. In 1896 some of the members sailed on the Norse King to observe the solar eclipse of 9 August from the Arctic Sea. The following year, when it was announced that the eclipse of 22 January 1898 was to be addressed by sending a party of BAA members to India to observe and photograph the event, the North Western branch was duly notified in a letter to Alfred Brothers. The letter, from Mr Maunder, intimated that certain sums of money had been received toward assistance in sending an expedition and offered £50 to be placed at the disposal of Brothers should he wish to go. It was considered that this would have to be matched by a similar amount to cover expenses. The council was approached by Mr Brothers who informed them that under the circumstances perhaps his entire out-of-pocket expenses might be covered. He intimated that he would be willing to give of his time to go provided his expenses were met. On this, he left the room so that the matter might be fully discussed by the council. It was thought that, as Mr Brothers was a well-known Manchester photographer, perhaps a letter to the local press inviting public subscription would raise the money. However, Mr Brothers objected to this idea and the matter was allowed to rest until the response of the branch members had been received. Unfortunately, less than a third of the required amount was raised and the proposal had to be dropped.

Subsequently, the India eclipse was to be the subject of a lecture to be given by Miss Gertrude Bacon who had accompanied the BAA expedition. Miss Bacon was ill on the appointed evening and her place was taken by Mrs Maunders who had also observed the eclipse. The meeting was held in the smaller lecture room of the Corporation Art Gallery, Moseley Street, at 8 pm on Wednesday 11 May 1898. Miss Bacon did eventually address the branch on 11 October of the following year when her lecture, entitled 'The Indian Eclipse and its Lessons', was delivered to a large audience of members and friends. Unfortunately, the expenditure incurred in staging this lecture, including room hire, payment to the lantern operator, not to mention Miss Bacon's personal expenses, resulted in the event being a financial disaster, the repercussions of which went on for several months until branch members were again asked for contributions to balance the books.

The next total eclipse, in May 1900, was also observed by our members. Miss Bacon accompanied her father, the Rev J M Bacon, to Wadesborough in the USA. Her subsequent lecture to the branch included a comprehensive description and slide show of her visit to Yerkes Observatory to see the newly completed 40" (1000mm) refractor. Thomas Weir saw the eclipse from Plasencia, Spain and Thomas Thorp, as mentioned earlier, viewed the flash spectrum in Algiers.

Part 3


As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, relations with London were still strained and members felt increasingly out on a limb. Papers that had been read at London meetings took months to reach Manchester and it had been made clear that the parent association would take no responsibility for the financial upkeep of the local branches. The minutes of the branch council meetings record that several members had tendered their resignation and later, in August 1901, the reason for this becomes clear when a member of long standing, Mr J Killip, resigned to become the secretary of the revived Liverpool Astronomical Society. In effect, the LAS had started to compete for membership with the North Western Branch. Indeed, the Journal of the BAA records no new members joining the Branch after 6 November 1901, although Branch records do show some additional names after this date.

On 6 March 1901 the minutes record what was to be a most significant event. Mr Weir reported a meeting which he had with Mr R H Reynolds, director of the Manchester Technical Schools in which reference was made by Reynolds to the erection of an observatory on the roof of the new building in Whitworth Street and to the probable use that the society might have of the telescope, an 8" (200mm) refractor telescope. Also, in the same building, a room would be available for meetings.

It is not clear exactly how the branch contributed to the erection of the observatory, which was to be a gift to the City of Manchester of Mr Francis Godlee of the firm Simpson and Godlee Ltd, cotton manufacturers and calico printers, a governor of the Technical Schools and a close friend of Mr Reynolds as described elsewhere in this history. By May 1901, a committee consisting of the president of the Branch, Professor Core, Mr Thomas Weir and Messrs Okell and Thorp, was appointed to confer, when required to do so, with the Technical Instruction Committee of the city on matters that might arise pertaining to the telescope and observatory under construction.

The choice of a refractor was undoubtedly for visual planetary work and the measurement of double stars. The 12" (300mm) Newtonian reflector, counterbalancing the refractor on the same tall German equatorial mounting, is perhaps less obvious. The eyepiece would assume awkward positions and render visual observations difficult. However, as a deep sky instrument, the light collecting surface of the silvered mirror would equal if not surpass the refractor, particularly if used photographically. The precedent for this combination had been set 16 years earlier when Dr Isaac Roberts discussed with Sir Howard Grubb the particular requirements of a large astrographic reflector subsequently erected at Roberts's private observatory at Maghull near Liverpool in April 1885. Here, a 20" (500mm) Newtonian designed for taking photographs at the prime focus was counterbalanced by a 7" (175mm) refractor for visual use. On 10 October 1887 Dr Roberts became the first to photograph the spiral structure of the Andromeda nebula using this instrument. The observatory was later moved to Crowborough, Sussex, from where, in 1893, Roberts published his important 'Photographs of Stars, Star Clusters and Nebulae'. The Godlee telescopes could therefore be regarded as a tried and tested combination in which the City, members of the branch and indeed, Sir Howard, could have every confidence. The ancilliary 6" (150mm) f/6 plate camera mounted on the refractor was an obvious choice for wide field photography, particularly for mapping starfields and for comets. Again there were precedents in the large number of short focal length astrographic lenses of similar aperture in use at the time in America, some of which had been supplied by Sir Howard after trial and error designs had been tested at Greenwich.

After the visit of the members to the Technical College on Saturday 2 November 1901, an expression of thanks was sent to the Lord Mayor and to Mr Reynolds, for their kindness. However, the room designated for use by the scientific societies was not ready even by the following April and plans to hold meetings in the new building were postponed until the 1902-3 session. On 5 November, 1902, a General Meeting of the branch took place at the new Manchester Technical College. As this was the first meeting of the session the president addressed the 20 members present with a few opening remarks and went on to inform them that forthcoming meetings would be held, it was hoped, in the room under the observatory which would be available on Thursday evenings. It was therefore proposed that the meetings should in future be held on the first Thursday in the month. After the lecture, entitled 'Comets', which was well illustrated with lantern slides, the lantern being operated by Thomas Thorp, the members adjourned to the observatory to inspect the telescopes.

Neither the observatory nor the telescopes were completed at this time, and even by March 1903 they were still in the hands of the contractors, but it was hoped that there would be further opportunities for the members to become conversant with the detail of the instruments. The Principal of the College, Mr Reynolds, in his meetings with Thomas Weir and the branch committee, had from the conception of the observatory shown that he fully intended that the society should have full access and use of the facilities. Indeed, there was considerable correspondence directly between the council of the society and Sir Howard Grubb in attempting to arrange a meeting with him at which he could personally instruct the use of the instruments. The meeting was delayed for various reasons and in April it was suggested that only the branch council would meet with Sir Howard and then disseminate the information at some later date to the main body of members.

Suddenly, after what has been described as a sort of rebellion against the BAA, at the council meeting of 28 April 1903 it was recorded that at every successive session the resources of the branch kept dropping. For this and other reasons, the BAA had been approached several times to no avail. A letter was read from Mr Maw of the BAA intimating that the branch subscription fee should be sufficient and that members got ample for their money. This opinion was not shared by the branch members or council. A resolution was formally proposed that an independent astronomical society for Manchester should be formed with a moderate fee for membership which would entirely contribute to the society's prosperity and necessities, but which would in no way prevent individual members from retaining their membership with the BAA if they so desired. The council was unanimous in the matter.


It was on 18 September 1903 that a group of former members of the late North Western Branch of the BAA gathered in the lower room of the Godlee Observatory. Professor Core took the chair and it was decided to form a new society to be called the Manchester Astronomical Society. The membership fee was set at five shillings, (25p) with half this amount for ladies and students of the college. Professor Thomas H Core MA was elected as the first president, Mr Samuel Okell as the Hon Teasurer and Mr William C Jenkins, the director of the Godlee Observatory, as the Hon. Secretary. It was also resolved that those present at the meeting, along with such members of the Council of the former branch as would join the new society, should form the Provisional Committee to conduct the society which would continue to be run on the lines of the late branch until fully established. The local newspapers were to be notified of the formation of the new society and hopes were high that many new members would join the new venture for, at last, the Manchester Astronomical Society had a home to call its own.

On 7 October the general meeting was preceded by a Provisional Committee meeting held in the Godlee Observatory. The Secretary read a list of fifteen names of persons who had applied to become members. It was proposed by Mr Okell, seconded by Mr Thorp that Sir James Hay and Mr.J.H Reynolds be elected vice-presidents. The business concluded with Professor Core announcing the handing over of property presented to him by the late local branch to the new society. We may assume that this was the small collection of Journals, Memoirs and books that had accumulated. Afterwards, the president gave the first annual address to the Society on "The Solar Parallax" with an audience of 60 after which the meeting adjourned to the observatory to see the instruments. Typically, it was cloudy.

At the next meeting of the Provisional Committee on 28 October it was announced that Mr Godlee and the Rev W Sidgreaves had accepted the positions of the vice-presidents. Futhermore, a proposal was made and warmly approved that Thomas Weir should be made an Honorary Member in recognition of his services as secretary to the late branch of the BAA and in eclipse work. At this meeting one of the members elected was a young student of the College of Technology, Mr E Denton-Sherlock, later to become president and a famous amateur mirror and telescope maker. One of Mr Denton Sherlock's instruments is still available for loan to members.

The Manchester Astronomical Society flourished in those early years. The regular monthly meetings during each session, from October through to April, were well attended and brought speakers from afar. In April 1904, E W Maunder lectured on "Mars and its Canals" and it would appear that at other meetings demonstrations of 3D images were shown long before the recent photographic experiments carried out by present-day members. Regular correspondence with other local astronomical societies was encouraged. In particular, the societies at Liverpool and Leeds were visited by MAS members and this was reciprocated in a general climate of exchanging ideas in furtherance of the science. Membership, which at the start of the first session had stood at 76, increased to 95 later in 1903-04 and then remained at a little over 100 until the 1909-10 session when a dramatic increase took place. This was the year in which W T Hesketh FRAS became president following John Watson (1907-10) and E T Whitelow (1904-7). In 1910 membership rose to 130 and remained at about the same level until the start of the First World War.

From 1911 until 1925 the presidency was held by the Rev Father A L Cortie, SJ, FRAS, of Stoneyhurst College Observatory, Blackburn. Well equipped with a 15" (375mm) refractor, magnetic and seismological laboratories, Stoneyhurst was internationally famous for studies of solar phenomena and the associated terrestrial effects. "Stoneyhurst Disks" are still used by the amateur to determine the latitude and longitude of sunspots. Father Cortie was a well liked person who did much for the society and promoted the interests of the science with numerous lectures to the MAS meetings and throughout the North West. As a solar observer of international repute he took part in many expeditions abroad to witness total eclipses, including the British Government Eclipse Expedition to observe the eclipse of 21 August 1914 from Hernosand, Sweden. Being a Jesuit, Cortie was refused permission by the Russian Government to go to Kiev as part of the official expedition of the Joint Permanent Eclipse Committee of the Royal Astronomical and Royal Societies and so the expedition was split with Father Cortie leading the party to Hernosand. The objective was to photograph the corona during totality and for this, three instruments were taken including a lens of 4" (100mm) aperture, belonging to the Royal Irish Academy, in a tube 20 feet (6 metres) long. Next in size was a camera with a lens of 4" (100mm) aperture of 30" (750mm) focal length and lastly one belonging to Mr Whitelow, with an aperture of 3.5" (88mm) and 14 inch (350mm) focus. These instruments were mounted horizontally in parallel and fed with light via a 16" (400mm) diameter heliostat mirror. Although the weather forecast for Sweden was not as good as that for the Kiev site, the expedition results were a success.

In the same year as the solar eclipse, on 13 October 1914, an exceedingly brilliant meteor was observed to fall to earth at Appley Bridge near Wigan. This was later exhibited at a meeting of the society in two pieces, evidently fractured by the impact. The dimensions when fitted together were 9.65" (245mm) long, 6.62" (168mm) wide and 9.13" (232mm) deep whilst the longest diagonal was 10.76" (273mm). It weighed 28 pounds 13 ounces (13680 grams). The surface showed thumb marks due to the heating as it passed through the atmosphere. An examination of the meteorite by Mr E L Rhead, Lecturer in Metallurgy at the Technical School, showed that the stony mass consisted of the usual earthy silicates of which olivine was in greatest amount. A considerable proportion was triolite, iron sulphide, and there was a small amount of metallic iron. The specific gravity was 3.36. At the time this was the second largest meteorite known to have fallen in the British Isles.


The total disruption caused by the First World War put the society largely in abeyance. In 1920, the MAS and its library moved its meeting place from the Technical College to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society rooms at 36 George Street. Francis Godlee was now an Honorary Member but no longer a vice president nor a member of the society's council. He died, as is recorded elsewhere in this history, in 1928. The Journal records members who were to become famous amateur astronomers. One of these was William Porthouse, who produced some fine drawings of the moon and planets and who had a lunar crater named after him on the "Wilkin's 300" Map of the Moon. Mr Porthouse became president in 1928. Another was John Hindle, the owner of the Union Engineering Works, Haslingden, who built many large reflecting telescopes. The largest were the 25" (635mm) and 30" (760mm) reflectors made for Dr W H (Stevie) Stevenson, then Director of the Mars Section of the BAA. Hindle also built a 25" (635mm) reflector for himself and a 17" (430mm) instrument for Mr H L Dilks, another MAS member. Hindle is still remembered for the invention of the mirror grinding and polishing machine that he developed and for the multi-point mirror floatation systems to support, without flexure, the large mirrors for reflecting telescopes. The descriptions of these have for many years been read by generations of telescope makers on both sides of the Atlantic in Ingall's famous "Amateur Telescope Making" first published by Scientific American in 1935. Over half a century later, in the 'Gleanings' pages of Sky and Telescope, one can still find references to Hindle's inventiveness.

The total solar eclipse of 29 June 1927 was the last such event visible from the British Isles. The path of totality was ideally located for the MAS although, as might be expected the weather was far from good, being mainly overcast and drizzly. The moon's shadow came onto land at Criccieth, Carnarvonshire and passed directly across the Snowdonian mountains to leave the North Wales coast at Pensar. Having crossed Liverpool Bay, landfall was again made between Ainsdale and Formby from where, at Southport, several of our members observed. The track then continued in a north-easterly direction, passing over Preston, coming close to Stoneyhurst and several towns such as Giggleswick, from where most of the UK observations were made, Richmond and Darlington before leaving our shores at the Hartlepools. The eclipse was an early morning event, totality lasting less than half a minute. The shadow was nowhere wider than 35 miles (56 km) and Manchester was not within the path of totality although it is possible that given favourable skies a sort of long duration 'diamond ring' effect would have been seen from here. The nearest place, which was just in the zone of totality, was Horwich. Liverpool, however, was mostly within the path except for the very southernmost part of the city.

From Snowdonia the shadow was seen sweeping towards the mountains in a most spectacular way as this eye-witness account recently retold by Mr Llewelyn Evans, the father-in-law of one of our members, Dr M.Bhattacharyya, recalls: Map of North West England, showing 1927 Eclipse Track "I was 14 at the time and recall that we were going to see something which probably we would never see in this country again in our life time. We were up early in the morning and climbed a hill of about 2000 feet, at the back of the village (Dollgarrog, situated in the Conwy valley, midway between Conwy and Betwys-y-Coed) with our smoked glass (made by holding a piece of glass over the kitchen fire) and waited for it all to happen. It was a weird experience. It went very quiet as the birds stopped twittering and then we could see this dark shadow coming quite fast over the hills. It went very dark and then you could see the sun peeping round the moon, as it were. The birds started singing again and it got a lot warmer. I will never forget this dark shadow passing over and most of us there came to the conclusion that there must be a God somewhere. I can see from the map (taken from the Manchester Guardian of 28 June 1927) that we were right in the middle of the track."

As an aside, it has been pointed out by Dr Brenda Bhattacharyya that the awesome spectacle of the solar eclipse followed close on the heels of a far more traumatic experience. In 1926, having been to the cinema some miles from Dolgarrog, the young Llewelyn Evans found to his horror that in his short absence the village had been struck by disaster. The reservoir above the village had burst its banks and flooded the village with the loss of his mother, three young sisters and his home. Perhaps, after witnessing the eclipse, here was evidence of the God he doubted the previous year.

Many more observations of the shadow were made, but no reports of the shadow bands, probably because of the prevalence of cloud. Messrs Porthouse and Hindle did record that the edge of the shadow seemed to leap past them in a series of huge vibrations or flickers. A similar flickering effect was also noted by another observer at Southport, when the following end of the shadow passed.

Of the corona, Mr Porthouse later reported that no long coronal streamers nor any plumes were observed, the corona being distinctly of a type characteristic of sunspot maximum. Some short extensions of the corona were seen, but at no point reaching a full diameter from the limb. The colour of the inner corona was whitish yellow, and the outer corona had a greenish tinge. These colours were also confirmed by a son of Mr Porthouse.

Another member, Mr E Denton-Sherlock, noted that the air temperature showed very little change throughout the eclipse, possibly due to the great amount of cloud present and the early hour at which it took place. At Southport he recorded a 2 deg(F) drop during totality.

Not until 11 August 1999 will it be possible to witness this rare phenomenon again from our shores - at the tip of Cornwall.

After the 1926-27 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.

Another well known member of this period was Professor William H Pickering of Manderville, Jamaica, who made very fine photographic lunar maps and, before the discovery by Clyde Tombaugh of Pluto in 1930, had produced no fewer than seven predictions for orbits of trans-Neptunian planets.

In 1935, the strong ties between the Manchester Astronomical Society and Stonyhurst were continued with the election of the Rev Father J P Rowlands, SJ, to the presidency. Regrettably, after the death of Father Rowlands, astronomical work at Stonyhurst College declined and apart from the occasional visits by students of the college, the link with the MAS ended. Also in 1935 the society moved its meeting place to the Central Library.


Mr H L Dilks became president in 1937 and it was during his term of office that war broke out. The society's room was requisitioned for war service and the society lead a nomadic existence. Leaving the Central Library finally in 1943, but keeping the major part of the society library there, the society held its meetings until 1944 at the Milton Hall, Deansgate, and then at the International Club in George Street. It was through the president, Mr Dilks, and the officers and council that the society was to survive these difficult times. Meetings were usually arranged to coincide with a full moon, as it was difficult to travel through the blacked-out streets. When regular meetings were suspended in 1939, Mr Dilks began circulating 'Monthly Notes' to keep members in touch with current astronomical events. These were continued for a period, retitled "Current Notes", under the editorship of William Porthouse who incorporated into the title, "Post Tenebras Lux", translated "after darkness, light", reflecting the difficulties imposed by wartime and the blackout.


In 1946 the Manchester Astronomical Society was given unrestricted access to the Godlee Observatory by the College authorities and in March the first post-war meeting was held in the Reynold Hall, with the Godlee Observatory being reopened on 20 June 1946 after refurbishment following its wartime use as a fire wardens' observation post and many years of neglect after the death of its regular full-time curator, W C Jenkins, some twenty years earlier. In December 1946 a suggestion was made that the society should once again become the North West Branch of the British Astronomical Association, but this created a considerable difference of opinion among members and was soon forgotten.

At about this time, a young man who had already spent some years as a member of the Bristol Astronomical Society returned to his native city and joined the MAS. Ken Brierly was one of the society's longest serving members at the time of his death in 1989 and will be remembered with great affection by present members for his friendliness and untiring work to encourage new members with his detailed knowledge of astronomical instruments and observing techniques. Ken was a very fine craftsman and taught silver-smithing at evening class workshops. He had a keen interest in antique instruments and owned two fine reflecting telescopes by the Scottish instrument maker, James Short, one of which, made in Edinburgh in 1734, is the earliest known telescope made by Short and is only the fourteenth he constructed. This 6" (150mm) focus 1.5" (38mm) aperture Gregorian was evidently made by Short whilst still an apprentice and before he started to make telescopes commercially. Ken once showed this little brass telescope to the present writer recalling that it was purchased in Bristol from a junk shop for just a few pounds, the shopkeeper thinking that it was part of a model steam engine.

Mr E Denton-Sherlock became president in 1945 and held office until 1948, when Mr J C Farrer took over until 1958, the longest presidency so far apart from that of the Rev Cortie. Mr Farrer is remembered for his records of sunspot activity contained in bound volumes in the library. These observations were made every day in which the weather permitted use of the Godlee refractor and are a first class example of how observations should be recorded.

The tradition of solar observing was continued in the 1960s and 70s with the work of Messrs Bispham, Ettenfield and Rustige who contributed a great number of observations of polar faculae. Later, Mr Maudsley made an advancement by observing prominences and faculae through Hydrogen alpha filters. Indeed, during the mid-1970s, the MAS could pride itself in having Messrs Rustige and Maudsley as members, two of the most productive solar observers in the UK, who contributed regularly to the BAA Solar Section.

Part 4


After the second world war, the technology existed to begin the exploration of high altitudes and ultimately the frontiers of space itself. The British Interplanetary Society was a leading body of scientists, aeronautical engineers and astronomers for whom the vision of space exploration was real and only a matter of time. In particular, Mr Eric Burgess who, as a member of both the BIS and MAS, gave many talks to the society and wrote a great deal about space travel. He became a member of the MAS in the early 1950s, but later, realising that space research was not going to develop in the UK, he emigrated to America in 1956 to become a well known writer on this subject.

He subsequently wrote several very informative books on the exploration of the planets Mercury, Mars and Jupiter by robotic spacecraft and, in one, describing the first landing upon Mars of Viking, refers to his interest in the subject stemming from his visit to the Godlee Observatory. Eric Burgess last visited the MAS in 1978 when he addressed the society at its 75th anniversary meeting. At the time he was in the country on business as the science adviser on the James Bond film, Moonraker.

The mid-1960s saw a fundamental change in amateur observational astronomy. Until then, the amateur was very much in the forefront in monitoring the moon and planets. With the photographic mapping of the moon by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft, drawing lunar features, which had for decades been the province of the amateur, became an activity only for the dedicated specialist. However, the experienced lunar observers knew that there were unique observations still to be made. From the very earliest days of telescopic lunar observation, there had, on rare occasions, been reports of localised temporary changes in certain areas of the moon. Called Transient Lunar Phenomena (TLP), these took the form of patches of colour or localised obscuration in specific areas of the lunar surface, often in areas bordering the maria where surface faulting was evident. With the preparations for the first manned flights to the moon well underway, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) called for all such activity to be reported to them. In the UK this was coordinated by the Lunar Section of the BAA under the direction of Dr Patrick Moore who organised the formation of the Lunar Intensive Observation Network (LION). The experienced lunar observers in the MAS took part, and it is to their credit that at least two TLP observations, in 1967, were confirmed by others in the network and subsequently recorded in the first NASA Technical Report on this subject.

Cheaper air travel in the early 1970s allowed members of the society to visit Cape Kennedy in Florida to view manned Apollo rocket launches to the moon. All launches, commencing with Apollo 15 in July 1971, were seen by representatives of the society and later, after the moon landing programme was completed, individual members have been present at the Cape to see the Apollo-Soyuz launch and the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope aboard the Space Shuttle.

Easier travel has also allowed more members to see solar eclipses. In 1973, several people travelled with the Explorers Travel Club aboard the Spanish motor vessel 'Monte Umbe' to see the long duration total eclipse of the sun from some 20 miles off the coast of Mauritania, North Africa, and Mr A Whittaker, president from 1968 to 1973, journeyed to Mexico City to see a total solar eclipse from there.


Since the very earliest days of the Manchester-based astronomical societies, their members have been willing to encourage the interest of the public in the science. Some of the general meetings, for which non-members were able to buy tickets, have already been described. Several members, in particular Professor Cortie and Mr Porthouse regularly gave public demonstrations and talks in local Manchester parks when the weather permitted.

In remembering the wishes of the donor, Francis Godlee, the society has acted as curator of the Godlee Observatory by inviting members of the public to use these facilities whenever possible. Security and safety is of prime importance and so the public are only admitted under the guidance of wardens who are trained in the use of the telescopes and are familiar with the fire regulations imposed by the UMIST (Now almalgamated with the University of Manchester) authorities. Similarly, the council of the MAS undertake the responsibility for the allocation of warden's cards to the University of Manchester Astronomical Society who use the observatory on Tuesday evenings. Because their membership is of limited duration, only a limited number of wardens' cards are allocated, having first met with the organisers of the society who are expected to attend some of the MAS meetings on a regular basis so that good communication is maintained and that use of the observatory is reliably supervised.

The original constitution of the society made it quite clear that it was to be a meeting place for all persons interested in astronomy. Use of the Godlee Observatory had facilitated this aim and the Thursday evening meetings provide a forum for discussion and observation. Short courses on astronomy have been well attended and have attracted new members. Telescope making has long proved popular and under the expert tuition of Mr S Hodgkinson who was president from 1984 to 1986 many members have made themselves telescope mirrors in sizes between 6 and 16 inches (150mm and 400mm) in aperture.

At the 50th anniversary meeting of the MAS, the late Lord Bowden of Chesterfield, then Dr B.V.Bowden and Principal of the Institute, pledged the help of the Institute to maintain the observatory. His offer was taken up and a new synchronous motor drive for the telescope was provided to replace the worn clockwork mechanism. With minimal attention, the motor continues to do sterling service to this day.

For the 75th anniversary, the telescopes were again refurbished by members with engineering skills, particularly the 12" (300mm) reflector which was replaced for several years in the 1970s by a multi-mirror telescope developed by an old friend, and one-time member of the society, Dr John Grainger of the Department of Astronomical Optics, UMIST. The multi-mirror telescope was used as a test model during the design stages of a similar but larger instrument now installed at the Wilfred Hall Observatory, Preston. This instrument is in turn a forerunner of the Multi-Mirror Telescope (MMT) erected at about the same time on Mt Hopkins, Arizona. The society has always tried to enlighten the public about matters astronomical. At the time of the 75th anniversary, in 1978, the president, Mr Kenneth Brierly and the writer arranged public viewing evenings at the observatory. These were publicised in the Manchester Evening News and also by television and local radio interviews. Subsequently, particularly at the time of great public interest in Halley's Comet in 1985, other members, notably Mr S Hodgkinson and Mr K Davies have been readily willing to advise the public on astronomical matters via radio and newspaper interviews. Latterly, Mr A Cross has continued this important service.

Unfortunately Halley's comet did not put on a good show at its return in 1985/86. Several members went up in aircraft to 35000 feet (10668 metres) to see the comet but it was a poor sight compared to that in 1910. A model of the orbit of the comet was made for the Manchester Air and Space Museum at Castlefield by Mr J Bolton and the writer, but this was only on display for a short time before the temporary closure of the museum to the public prior to its amalgamation with the Museum of Science and Industry.

The society is always pleased to entertain organised visits, whether these be of local scout groups, school parties or club outings. One notable visit was of a party of Russian astronomers while in this country to attend an International Astronomical Union conference.

Throughout these activities the society has been assisted by the interest and help of successive Principals, Heads of Departments and the engineers in the Works Department of the Institute in providing the necessary professional help, when needed, in the maintenance of the fabric of the Godlee Observatory.

The society's debt to its hosts is great and the hope is to repay it by being unobtrusive guests who provide a useful service to the community.


Reference has already been made to Thomas Thorp, John Hindle and Eric Burgess as MAS members who have contributed to the science of astronomy and astronautics by their willingness to communicate their knowledge to others. It is therefore fitting to mention some of the others who have done the same.

Mr Ken Elliot joined the MAS when a student at the University of Manchester. He subsequently went on to obtain his PhD in astronomy and spent some years at Siding Springs Observatory, New South Wales, Australia, working with the 158" (4 metres) reflector and the UK Schmidt camera. His latest researches have been with the ROSAT X-ray satellite team at Birmingham University.

Mr Peter Mack came to the society as a young man interested in astronomy. He took basic science examinations at Ashton-under-Lyne College of Technology before obtaining a place at Newcastle University to study astronomy, where he graduated. On returning to Manchester, and becoming the youngest-ever president of the MAS, he gained his MSc and then PhD before, in 1982, leaving to take up a place at Sutherland Observatory, University of Cape Town, South Africa. Peter has since moved to the USA as assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Oklahoma and then to become manager of two MIT telescopes at the Kitt Peak NationaI Observatory, Arizona.

Several years ago, a twelve year old girl came into the Godlee observatory and timidly asked if anyone could tell her about radio astronomy. No-one could, but she joined the society and became an avid member. Gillian Holmes subsequently took her degree at Manchester and worked for a time at Jodrell Bank. She is now a regular observer on the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico, one of the world's largest radio telescopes.

Like Ken Elliot, David Whitehouse joined the MAS whilst a student at the University of Manchester. He gained his PhD using the 250 foot (76 metres) radio telescope at Jodrell Bank to observe pulsars. After a short time working for NASA in America, David spent some months at the Malvern satellite establishment before becoming a full time science journalist. David Whitehouse can now often be heard on BBC Radio 4 as science correspondent.

Recently the society has been delighted to welcome mathematician and former Lord Mayor of Manchester Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, as a member. Her enthusiasm for astronomy has been immense and has born fruit in many fine photographs of the moon and stars not to mention her picture of the 1991 total eclipse of the sun, taken from Hawaii, which was featured on "The Sky at Night" in September 1991. At boarding school in Scotland in 1927 she was taken on a ship to see the eclipse, but saw nothing because of cloud, as happened again in Finland in 1990. The heavy rain and mist on 11 July 1991 in Hawaii threatened to make this third time also unlucky, but happily the mist cleared just in time to turn this event to triumph. The MAS is indebted to her for her support and for the lithograph of the Godlee Observatory by Rod Holt which she recently presented to the society. This has pride of place in the lower observatory room where, almost exactly ninety years previously, members first viewed the new instruments. This design is reproduced on the front cover of this publication.


Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw presenting lithograph by artist Rod Holt (left) to the President of the MAS, Mr K J Kilburn.

Dame Kathleen has almost brought the history of the society full circle, when earlier in 1991, she introduced Mr Richard Godlee to the members. A great nephew of Mr Francis Godlee, Mr Godlee was nonetheless making his first visit to the observatory. It was a most pleasant and interesting evening, after which Mr Godlee very kindly provided the short biography of Francis Godlee, written specially by his brother Nicholas, which is appended to this history.


The Manchester Astronomical Society, as one of the most senior of the amateur astronomical bodies in the country, has over the years been host to lecturers of the very highest calibre and standing in the scientific community. The aim has been to balance both amateur astronomy with professional research to encourage and enlighten our members and guests. An enviable list of guest speakers from the leading edge of both amateur and professional astronomers, too numerous to list except for but a few, has been maintained throughout the years.

Professor Bernard Lovell lectured to the society in the early days of radio astronomical work in a muddy field in Cheshire called Jodrell Bank.

For over thirty years, the society's friend and Honorary Member, Emeritus Professor Zdeneck Kopal, of the Department of Astronomy, Manchester University, has been a regular annual lecturer. Always at the forefront of solar system astronomy, he has taken us to the moon and planets on the wings of Apollo, Mariner, Pioneer, Viking and Voyager.

Dr Allan Chapman, of Oxford University but a Salford man at heart, has brought to life Sir Isaac Newton, Horrocks, Crabtree, Lassell and Sir George Biddell Airy, Astronomer Royal between 1835 and 1881.

Dr Patrick Moore, perhaps the most famous amateur astronomer in the UK has lectured to our members on a number of occasions in the past few years. It is to him that most of us owe our interest in the heavens.

In recent years the society has been privileged to welcome the thirteenth Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir Francis Graham-Smith as guest lecturer on more than one occasion. As only the second Director of the world famous Jodrell Bank Radio Astronomy Laboratory, he has kept members completely up to date with their important researches with one of the largest fully steerable radio dishes, the 250 ft (76 metres) telescope now named the Lovell Telescope.

In December 1991 as the end of the first century of amateur astronomy in Manchester approached, the society welcomed the fourteenth Astronomer Royal, Professor Arnold Wolfendale, of the University of Durham.

The world has witnessed enormous advances in observational and theoretical astronomy in the last half of the 20th century. The Manchester Astronomical Society, through its guest lecturers, has been fortunate in being able to share this exciting adventure.

The general public, too, are welcome to share this information. Monthly lectures are held in the Renold Building, UMIST, (Currently, 2017, these lectures are held in the John Dalton Building, Manchester Metropolitan University) on the third Thursday of the month commencing in September (Currently, 2017, commencing in October) each year with the JC Farrer Memorial Lecture (Currently, 2017, the Zdenek Kopal Memorial Lecture) and continuing throughout the winter period until the April AGM. In combination with the regular informal weekly meetings every Thursday evening, commencing at 7.30pm, in the Godlee Observatory, (except on the evenings indicated above) the Manchester Astronomical Society is one of the very few in the UK able to offer such a continuous forum for the amateur astronomer, when members can show and discuss their own slides as well as gain the advice of colleagues.


In addition to being curators of the Godlee Observatory, the Manchester Astronomical Society also owns many astronomical instruments.

Reference has been made to instruments donated to the MAS by its members and friends and the society has a valuable collection of antique instruments, some of which are on loan to the Northwest Museum of Science and Industry, Castlefield.

The society has two eighteenth century Gregorian telescopes. One made by Watson was presented to the MAS by the late Mr Arthur Fiskin. The other, made by Cuff, was presented by one of the earliest members, Mr E Denton-Sherlock. Both are on loan to the Museum.

A spectroscope, also on loan to the Museum, was made by Browning and is in a fitted red morocco case. It has an original speculum diffraction grating signed by Rutherford and a 60 x 60 x 60 degree prism. It was presented to the society by Samuel Okell. The Okell family were master butchers supplying ships in the Salford and Manchester docks complex.

Dancer was an optician who flourished in the late 19th century and had premises in Albert Square opposite the Town Hall. An early pioneer of photography he made telescopes, but he is mainly remembered for his fine microscopes. The society presented the Museum with a scarce copy of a book describing his lifetime work.

A bi-filar micrometer, on loan to the Museum, is a fine example of late 19th century /early 20th century instrument-making. While probably provided as original equipment with the Godlee telescopes, it appears to have been made by an out-worker of the Grubb company.

The society did have a large "lantern" for 3.25" x 3.25" (82.5mm x 82.5mm)slides and a large collection of slides. Mr Arthur Wardle was a secretary of the society and worked for the Museum when in Grosvenor Street. It is believed that he presented the Museum with a number of mechanical slides showing eclipses, planets orbiting the sun etc., but it is not known whether he also presented the lantern. Many of the glass slides were broken up but a member, the late Kenneth Brierly, salvaged 14 of these showing various sundials. It is not known where these are at present.

Another 19th century instrument, given to the society in the late l970's following its discovery in a garden shed, is the 4" (100mm) Newtonian reflector made by Browning.

A massively mounted, 5" (125mm) Wray refractor was presented following the untimely death of Eric Hartas a few years ago. In order to put this fine object glass to immediate use, it has been temporarily remounted in a telescope with a folded light path, on a Dobsonian mounting. The original tube and equatorial mounting still awaits refurbishment.

A 4" (100mm) brass refractor by James Parkes and Sons, Birmingham, similarly requires refurbishment and remounting.

The collection of antique instruments also includes a variety of eyepieces and ancilliary equipment such as a solar/star diagonal by Broadhurst, Clarkson and a solar diagonal, probably by the same company. A 6.25" (158mm) f/ll paraboloid glass mirror, signed and dated 1887 by George Calver, was also purchased in recent years as part of the Dumbar Collection.


During the past decade, members have constructed for themselves many reflecting telescopes under the expert guidance of Steve Hodgkinson. A brewer by trade, Steve is an expert amateur optician who has personally figured a large number of paraboloidal mirror surfaces to a very high degree of accuracy. He and Bert Mottershead have designed and built two rather unusual telescopes. The first, which admittedly was not successful, was a long focus unobscured reflector similar in design to the front-view Herschelian reflectors of the early 19th century. A more successful instrument is the 6" (150mm) binocular Newtonian reflector with which almost three-dimensional views of the moon and starfields can be obtained.

One of the largest telescopes built in recent years is the 14" (350mm) Newtonian constructed by Mr J Lewis. John Lewis died shortly after completing the telescope and it is now in the possession of the society. This telescope, like all recent instruments, is mounted on a Dobsonian altazimuth mounting which, whilst very simple to make, is a supremely stable design admirably suited to large reflectors for visual use. It may be true to say that the MAS pioneered this design in the UK following its invention in the USA in the early '70s.


Unfortunately, the Dobsonian mounting does not lend itself to astronomical photography where extended exposures of several minutes duration are needed to record faint stars and other deep sky objects. However, the developments in film emulsions leading to ever faster 35mm films has given members scope for wide field photography using standard camera lenses and exposures of up to 15 minutes duration on portable equatorial mountings. Although unable to carry heavy telescopes, these are nevertheless ideal to take into the nearby Peak District where dark skies still prevail. These and the availability of portable telescopes of Schmidt-Cassegrain design have made astrophotography a popular extension of visual astronomy among members.

In recent years, the expert astrophotography of Dr R H Soper, who records fireball meteors with a fully automated all-sky camera and Mr R Stuart, who now uses a 12" (300mm) reflecting telescope to photograph faint galaxies, has been admired by our members. Whilst there are now several members who regularly take photographs of astronomical objects, luck does sometime play a part in addition to camera technique. Of particular note are the rare pictures, taken by Mr Michael Oates, of a Perseid meteor photographed in visible and infra-red light.
Perseid meteor



Top left: Perseid meteor (panchromatic image). 50mm lens, f2.4. T-Max 100. 12 August 1989, 23h 21m 55s UT. Prestwich , Manchester. M Oates.

Bottom right: Same perseid meteor (Infra Red image). 50mm lens, f2.4. Camera 2. Kodak High Speed Infra Red film plus Infra Red filter. M Oates.

Perseid infra red




These pictures are unusual in showing both the visual and infra- red images of the same meteor as it entered the Earth's atmosphere, developed a visible trail and repeatedly burst as its kinetic energy dissipated as light and heat.

For more images by the members of the MAS, visit the Members Image Gallery


Since the Apollo programme of some twenty years ago, the routine observation of the moon has declined in popularity. There is still the need, however, for the amateur astronomer to learn how to observe. For this, the moon is ideal. It presents a detailed, unchanging surface which can be used to train the eye in the subtle art of visual observation. This can then be applied to the ever-changing aspects of planetary detail.

However, the most important role of the amateur is in the observation of time dependent phenomena. Variable stars are a favourite and the MAS has from time to time seen members contribute significant amounts of information to independent discoverer of the supernova, SN 1987 A. The MAS variable star group is currently being reformed.

In recent years, several unusual observations have been made by members. During the total eclipse of the moon in January 1982, the rare observation of an occultation by an eclipsed moon of a deep sky object, in this case NGC 2392 the 10th magnitude Eskimo Nebula, was seen. This was observed by the writer and Mr P Mack from the former's observatory in Bollington, Cheshire. As far as is known only three other observers anywhere are reported to have witnessed this event. The geometry and weather dictated that only observers in the north west of England could possibly see the occultation. Although the eclipse was visible from Iceland, Northern Ireland and Europe, the occultation could not be seen further east than the Peak District. Iceland and Ireland were clouded out. The occultation was seen from Morcambe, Wigan, Salford and, as mentioned, Bollington. The occultation was not predicted by either the BAA or the Nautical Almanac, nor 'Sky and Telescope'.

The other event was of an occultation of the 5.4 magnitude star 28 Sagittarii by Saturn on 2 July 1989. This was visible from the USA. But of incomparable rarity, the next night, was the occultation by Saturn's satellite, Titan, which was seen to pass in front of the star from western Europe. Several members of the MAS saw the event, which was significant in that, as the star was occulted by Titan, the layering within Titan's dense atmosphere caused the starlight to flicker rapidly. One member, observing from Warrington, also saw the exceedingly rare effect, at mid-occultation, of the starlight being 'lensed' by Titan's atmosphere to produce a sudden flash of light. Until this occultation, only thirty observations of this latter phenomenon had ever been seen.

The observation of the total solar eclipse in July 1991 will long be remembered by those members who travelled to Hawaii and Baja California to see it. As the longest eclipse visible anywhere on earth until AD 2132, the spectacle of a black sun surrounded by a pearly white corona, seen against a pale lavender sky, will not be forgotten. Photographically the eclipse was a success with very good pictures being recorded at both sites. These showed an intermediate corona with long equatorial streamers and shorter polar plumes.


A great deal of change has occurred during the last hundred years. In some respects the present MAS is repeating previous work, but technology invariably leads to progress. The society will continue to make useful contributions to the science of astronomy, but these will become more specialised and more limited as the technology of the professionals advances. Nevertheless, the heavens will always strike a fundamental nerve in the human being. To understand and be at one with nature will never leave us and there will always be a place in society for those wanting to learn more about the night sky. On this basis the Manchester Astronomical Society looks forward to another century of astronomical activity in this city.

Kevin J Kilburn,
President 1979-80, 1991-93

Astronomer Royal

Astronomer Royal, Prof A Wolfendale and a young visitor, Alex Kilburn, December 1991 Lecture

Part 5

Francis Godlee

(1854 1928)

Francis Godlee The Godlee Observatory (and the telescopes therein) was presented to the City of Manchester in 1903 by Francis Godlee at the time when the Manchester Astronomical Society as such was first formed.The total cost of the installation in 1903 was £10,000.

Francis Godlee was a remarkable person, highly successful and a man of many interests, pioneer cyclist, breeder of horses and enthusiastic yachtsman. He was well known as a shrewd and far sighted employer, generous with time and money for those less fortunate than himself, and with a great sense of public spirit, particularly for his adopted city. Francis Godlee was born in London in 1854, the son of a Quaker barrister who had chambers in Lincoln's Inn. The family of five boys and one girl used the 'thees and thous' of Quaker speech, and Francis with this strict Puritan background remained a staunch member of the Society of Friends throughout his life. He came to Manchester as a young man in 1881 to join his relative William Simpson in business at Dean's Mill, Swinton, and the two Quaker partners (they were related through marriage) soon established a reputation for probity and good management.

The Manchester cotton trade at this time was thriving, and the firm of Simpson & Godlee, cotton manufacturers and calico printers, steadily expanded. Its offices and warehouses moved to the centre of Manchester, and further mills were acquired at Bolton and at Bury. By the turn of the century, there was a workforce of some 1500 people. The firm's prosperity owed much to Francis Godlee, not only to his good business sense, but also to the sympathetic consideration he showed for his employees. He became chairman of the firm in 1914 on the death of William Simpson and continued to run the business through the difficult war years and after the war until a few years before he died.

All his life he devoted much of his time to what we would now call social work. As a young man in London, he and his brothers took an active part in running a club for boys, and, soon after arriving in Manchester, he and some friends started the Hugh Oldham Lads Club, with which he was closely involved for the rest of his life, always attending its gatherings and meetings. He regularly used to entertain the boys at his home, and he was never happier than when he was taking part in their activities. He was also deeply concerned with the welfare of Ackworth, the Quaker school in Yorkshire, which he used to visit every month and where he was treasurer for many years. The school remembers him as a great benefactor, and among other things donor of the school swimming bath. It was said that he was one who did not let his left hand know what his right hand had done. No appeal was ever made to him in vain, and the headmaster knew that in needy cases Francis Godlee would be only too glad to give a 'lift on the way'. Many a boy thus owed his start in life to such timely help. In Manchester he took an active part in the affairs of the University, the College of Technology, later UMIST, and Ancoats Hospital, and he was for some time chairman of the Manchester and Salford Trustee Savings Bank.

For nearly thirty years he lived at Stamford Lodge, a substantial house 1 1/2 miles (2.4 km) from the centre of Wilmslow, with land extending to the banks of the River Bollin. For many years one of his chief joys was breeding horses; graceful chestnuts they were, and a fine sight it was to see a pair of them harnessed to a brougham or wagonette, with the old coachman, Stringer, at the reins. Francis Godlee used to drive to the station each day in a dog cart to catch the early train, and his regularity was so well known that people on Lindow common and on the Altrincham Road could set their clocks as he passed. He hated unpunctuality and his house was full of clocks of all varieties, including a splendid Frodsham regulator which kept perfect 'astronomical' time. Not surprisingly when the Daylight Saving Act was first introduced, the prospect of altering all his clocks twice a year made him one of its fiercest opponents.

He was not usually so reactionary. He had the true pioneering spirit and liked to be in the forefront of modern developments, both in business and in his home. He had the first electric light installation in the neighbourhood, even lighting his cowsheds with electricity, and he was justly proud of his telephone number which was 4, tangible evidence of his enterprise when the instruments first made their appearance. He enjoyed photography, and even had an X-ray apparatus in the house with which he used to photograph the hands of his friends and relatives. As a young man he was a keen cyclist, and, as a member of the London Bicycle Club, won a gold medal for bicycling 100 miles (160 km) from Bath to London in just over 9 hours on one of the old high bicycles or 'penny-farthings' a remarkable achievement when one considers the state of the roads in those days. In his fifties he bought a 50-ton yacht which he moored in the Clyde, taking his friends on sailing holidays off the west coast of Scotland.

A man of arresting appearance, he was tall and heavily built with a handsome face and black beard. This became greyer and more straggly as he grew older, and he was in the habit of winding it round his fingers and tugging at it when he was immersed in thought. People loved him for his sympathetic attention and old world courtesy, but to others he could appear gruff and forbidding, possibly to hide a certain shyness or even loneliness. He had no time for music, but loved the open air, animals and young people. He hated hypocrisy, drinks before meals, throwing things away, gilt on iron railings and the Manchester Guardian. At the end of the first world war he moved from Stamford Lodge to Harefield on the Alderley-to-Wilmslow road, now the northern headquarters of ICI. It was said he needed a larger house to accommodate all the accumulated paraphernalia of thirty years, and he took it all with him. From Harefield he continued to travel daily into town, and eventually retired in 1924 when he was able to hand over the business to his nephew Philip. He died in 1928 at the age of 74.

Nicholas Godlee, 1991


The Total Eclipse of the Sun on 11 July 1991

Members of the Society have always taken a special interest in any total eclipse of the sun. Mention has already been made of the eclipse of 1898. In 1973, Mr Kevin Kilburn and five other members, witnessed the eclipse from a cruise ship off the coast of Africa. He had spectacular success with his pictures. Eighteen years later in the 'related eclipse' of 11 July 1991, he had another spectacular success from Baja California, Mexico where there was a near maximum-possible 6 1/2 minutes of totality directly overhead at midday. Two of his pictures are reproduced here - that of the diamond ring being particularly noteworthy. Two MAS members had been to Finland in July 1990, but were completely thwarted by thick cloud at the critical moment.

They, together with Mr Kilburn and four other members making seven in all, joined 'Explorers Tours' for the 1991 'Big One'. All went first to Los Angeles where a day trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory had been arranged. Mr Kilburn and Dr M Bhattacharyya then went down to the Baja Peninsular and the other five to Hawaii where we stayed at a hotel in Hilo on the eastern (supposedly less favourable) side of Big Island. We envied the tour members who had been allocated hotel rooms on the western coast. On the evening of 10th July it began to rain, and by 02.00, when we were embarking into our five old yellow school buses to drive up the road as far as permitted toward the Mauna Kea observatories, it was coming down in torrents with heavy thick mist blanketing everything. There was the utmost despondency. Just after 05.30 the rain began to ease off, although the mist persisted. And then, miracle of miracles, there was a slight clearing and the moon's first small bite in the sun could be discerned.

Conditions improved and at the moment of totality, at a convenient 40 degrees or thereabout (5°C) in the sky we were treated to the whole breath-taking spectacle of a total eclipse at its best. The sky was never dark, a wrist watch and camera controls could be read with ease throughout, and there were no stars to be seen, but the eclipse itself was as marvellous as the best expectations had led one to hope for and many good pictures were taken, despite everything being sopping wet: cameras, lenses and ourselves. Indeed, Dr Patrick Moore later used a picture taken by a MAS member in his Sky-at-Night BBC TV programme. Sadly, those on the western side of the island saw nothing at all because of the heavy rain and cloud. We were the lucky ones.

From San Jose del Cabo, on the tip of the Baja Peninsular, weather conditions were stable and predictable. Whilst the original intention had been to travel to the eclipse centerline early on the morning of 11 July, a chance meeting the evening before, with Dr Peter Mack, a past president of the MAS now living in the US, resulted in a recommendation to stay on the coast rather than travel 30 miles (48 km)inland. Peter had observed that cloud build-up on the higher hinterland generally occurred at mid-day, the time of the totality. In the event, the eclipse was observed under almost cloudless sky of such clarity that the inner corona was visible over one minute before second contact. The totally eclipsed sun was almost directly overhead with the planets Mercury, Jupiter, Mars and Venus strung out in a line to its eastern side. Many photographs were taken by Mr Kilburn. Some, taken in pairs, show an almost three dimensional image of the coronal streamers when viewed stereoscopically.

Corona Image

Total Solar Eclipse, Middle Corona. 800mm lens, f12.5, 1 sec. Konica 100. July 1991. San Jose del Cabo, Baja peninsular, Mexico. K J Kilburn.

Diamond Ring

Total Solar Eclipse. Diamond Ring. 800mm lens, f12.5, 1/250 sec. Konica 100. July 1991. San Jose del Cabo, Baja peninsular, Mexico. K J Kilburn.

The Aurora of 8 November 1991

The Society from time to time arranges weekend or overnight star parties in the neighbouring Pennine areas. In the Spring of 1991 accommodation was found in a 'holiday house' which had recently been converted from an old barn in Wincle, a small picturesque village about 4 miles (6.5 km) south of Macclesfield in Cheshire (about 8 miles (13 km) from Jodrell Bank). It had rained continuously, but the house was so well sited and suited for our purposes that it was booked again from 1st to 10th November covering two successive moon-free weekends with the weekdays thrown in. Several members took advantage of the both weekends as well as having a short holiday there during the week. The weather was never very good, although there had been high hopes of seeing meteors. On Friday, 8th November, a number of other members joined them after work - some travelling from the far side of Manchester and arriving at about 21.00 hours some three hours after full darkness.

Almost immediately, just after 9 pm, there began a most spectacular Auroral display which continued for over two hours. Glorious green, red, yellow rays came shooting over the slightly raised skyline at the back of the house which screened the Macclesfield urban lights to the North and North West, sometimes suffusing the entire sky with sufficient light for a newspaper to be read. Many people throughout the UK witnessed the exceptional display, but none can have seen a more terrific and inspiringly beautiful sight than those at Wincle that evening. In many nearby areas nothing was seen because of the marauding clouds. Yet here was a group of dedicated and experienced amateur astronomers arriving fully equipped for a dark-sky weekend of observing and photography, with loaded cameras, tripods (and telescopes, but these were irrelevant), right on the spot. This amazing good fortune was doubly rewarded. The main hope had been to record promised and expected strong meteor showers. Among the most senior members present was a retired professional photographer, Mr Joe Billington. He has a record of brilliant astrophotography over several years. He was in the middle of a 30 second exposure of the blood-red Auroral sky with the interesting hill-side horizon at the base and the Pleiades showing faintly in the top right quadrant of his 35 mm frame, when, exactly in the middle of his viewfinder a huge fireball exploded in a blinding white flash. This must have been a one-in-a-million chance, albeit a chance which was a reward of years of choosing and setting up in the most favourable conditions year after year over many years. Nobody went to bed that night!

The next morning Joe went down into Macclesfield, bought the necessary chemicals and basic equipment, and spent the afternoon processing everyone's film - so that on Sunday, the rain plummeting down again as usual, there was a full slide show. The pictures were shown again on the following Thursday's ordinary weekly meeting at the Godlee Observatory. Everyone had by then heard the joyous news. Members crowded into the tiny room beneath the telescope dome. Euphoria pervaded. When the master picture of the fireball came on the screen there were cheers and claps and excited congratulations. Joe Billington was and for a long time will remain a hero.


Aurora / Fireball Meteor, Joe Billington.

November 1991


Thanks to Mr A W Cross for his research into the archives of the Manchester Astronomical Society held in the Central Library. Also to Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw for her encouragement to produce this history and for additional material. As editor of the manuscript, she has had an unenviable task. Not least, thanks to the Honorary Secretary, Mr J H W Davidson, for the past twenty years, now the longest serving officer of the Manchester Astronomical Society. Like Thomas Weir a century ago, Howard Davidson is providing the detailed minutes of meetings on which future researchers will base their own history of amateur astronomy in Manchester. Finally, to all those members of the Manchester Astronomical Society who, past or present, have contributed to maintaining the friendly spirit of the society.

References have been made to:

BAA North Western Branch: Minutes Volumes 1 and 2
BAA Memoir: 'The 1900 Solar Eclipse'
BAA Journal 1927-28
BAA Memoir: The History of the BAA, 1948
Bhattacharyya, Dr B: Letter to K J Kilburn, November 1991
Brierly, K. 'The Manchester Astronomical Society' 1978. MAS publication
Brierly, K. Letter to K JKilburn, March 1984
Duckworth, M. Presidential Address to the MAS, October 1974
Godlee, N: Letter to Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw. 1991., Biography of Francis Godlee (1854-1928)
MAS Journal: 1913-24
MAS Minute Book: 1903-09
King, H C: 'The History of the Telescope' 1955
Royal Scottish Museum: 'James Short and his Telescopes' 1968

End of the History