Manchester Astronomical Society

Manchester Astronomical Society
Godlee Observatory
University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST)
Sackville Street


middle - Michael Oates,
left - Anthony W Cross, right - Kevin J Kilburn

The Manchester Astronomical Society have discovered that a star atlas that has been in their library since before the Second World War is one of only sixteen copies known to exist. This extremely rare atlas was compiled by John Bevis, an eighteenth century physician - turned astronomer, whose other claim to fame is as the discoverer of the Crab Nebula, the wreck of a star that became a supernova in the year 1054 and which is now regarded as a key object of interest with modern astronomers; in the UK particularly with radio astronomers at Jodrell Bank.

The atlas has a strange history. Bevis intended publication of his Uranographia Britannica in about 1750 and had obtained subscriptions and private donations from many UK and European notables to finance the fifty-two elaborately illustrated plates. These are some of the best to grace any of the great celestial atlases of the period. The atlas is based on Bevis's own observations in 1738 and the extensive star catalogues of the former Astronomers Royal; Sir John Flamsteed and Sir Edmond Halley (of comet fame). Several pre-publication sets of Bevis's star charts were printed in 1749 but in early 1750 his intended publisher, John Neale, was declared bankrupt, the plates were sequestered by the London law courts and the atlas was never published. The project was never completed.

Had Uranographia Britannica been published in 1750 it would have ranked as one of the great illustrated celestial atlases of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries alongside those of Bayer, Hevelius, and Flamsteed at a time when celestial cartography and positional astronomy was in its heyday and of great scientific and practical importance. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich was founded in 1675 expressly to measure star positions as a direct aid to navigation during Britain's early pioneering voyages to explore the globe.

John Bevis died in 1771, but in 1786 the sets of star charts printed in 1749 were bought at the auction of Bevis's library following the death of his executor, James Horsfall. The anonymous buyer bound the sets of charts and offered them for sale as the Atlas Celeste. As offered for sale in 1786, the charts were accompanied by a so-called advertising broadsheet and index. The advertising broadsheet is extremely rare. There are only two original examples known to exist; one in an incomplete set of charts in the British Library and one bound with the full set of fifty-two plates discovered by the Manchester Astronomical Society.

It is not known how many complete or partial sets of the Atlas Celeste were offered for sale in 1786 but in 1981, when the strange history of Bevis's Uranographia was described for the first time by Professor William Ashworth, of the University of Kansas, only twelve copies were known. Three were in the UK; at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the British Library (part set) and at the Royal Astronomical Society. The rest were in major library and university collections in the USA. Since 1981 four others have come to light, three at Cambridge University and now the recent discovery at Manchester. Neither do we know the current value of the atlas but in October, 1991, a copy was sold by Sotherbies to a client in San Francisco for 14,000.

The Manchester Uranographia Britannica is unique, in being the only copy in the possession of any amateur astronomical society. But we intend to share our discovery. Negotiations are underway with a leading Manchester library to permanently house and make this rare celestial atlas available for research to the academic community in the Northwest. In the meantime, initial research by the MAS has shown that it depicts at least one pre-discovery observation of the planet Uranus. This was officially discovered on 13th March, 1781, by William Herschel. The Bevis atlas clearly shows that the planet was observed but unrecognised by John Flamsteed (on 23rd December, 1690). It may yet show that Bevis himself also observed the planet over forty years before Herschel.

The Manchester Uranographia Britannica has been authenticated with the valuable assistance of the Royal Astronomical Society, London; Professor W Ashworth, University of Kansas and the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.

Further information regarding the discovery of the Manchester Uranographia Britannica may be obtained from:

Anthony W Cross
Michael Oates
Kevin J Kilburn

Also a CD-ROM version of the Atlas is now available.

Maintained by Graham Hodson
Page modified 25 May, 2018