DAVID ARNOLD - Crowborough astronomers had stars in their eyes

Two views of the Andromeda Galaxy. The black and white photograph on the left was taken by Isaac Roberts on 29th December 1888. It revealed how the nebula had a spiral structure and caused a sensation in science circles. The colour photograph on the right was taken with a modern radio telescope.
Two views of the Andromeda Galaxy. The black and white photograph on the left was taken by Isaac Roberts on 29th December 1888. It revealed how the nebula had a spiral structure and caused a sensation in science circles. The colour photograph on the right was taken with a modern radio telescope.
0
Have your say

Isaac Roberts was a very

successful Welsh-born

engineer with an abiding

interest in astronomy.

Two years after retiring in 1888 he moved from Liverpool to Crowborough in Sussex and had his own purpose-built observatory constructed at his new home in Beacon Road. He named the observatory “Starfield”.

His coming south to the fringe of the Ashdown Forest was without doubt due to the advice of a fellow enthusiastic amateur astronomer, Charles Leeson Prince. The latter had been born in Uckfield in 1821 and was the son of a local doctor. The young Prince also became a doctor.

Prince left his practice in Uckfield following his father’s death in 1872 and moved to Crowborough to live at The Grange near the top of the Beacon. It’s not clear whether he continued to work full-time in medicine but in the 1881 census his profession is recorded as “surgeon”, a general term used to describe doctors in those days.

The Grange had a Victorian belvedere on the highest point of its roof and it was from here that Charles Prince, a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological and Astronomical Societies, set out to search the skies through a telescope. Back then there would have been little, if any, light pollution to mar his stargazing.

Prince soon produced a book, “Observations upon the Late Great Comet and Transit of Venus, made at Crowborough, Sussex, in the year 1882” – a somewhat ponderous title, perhaps, but then there was certainly no mistaking the tome’s contents.

For sure Isaac Roberts would have become aware of the doctor’s astronomical work. The ever-active Prince next decided to promote the natural benefits of living high up on Crowborough Hill, as the Beacon was then called.

He concluded that it was one of the healthiest spots in the whole country, it being a “conveniently accessible resort for invalids emerging either from London or any of our coastal towns”. This last quote is from the subsequent book he wrote concerning Crowborough’s beneficent location and published at his own expense in 1885. It was a slim volume but this didn’t preclude another big title: “Observations upon the Topography and Climate of Crowborough Hill, Sussex”.

Prince distributed it free to as many medical men in England as he could get it to and evidently it was a great advertisement for the advantages of living in Crowborough. I can’t see how the author would have made any money from his endeavours so we must presume he did it in a simple spirit of goodwill towards potential new neighbours. Numbered amongst the latter and drawn to the town through this heady mix of the heavens and health was Isaac Roberts.

Charles Prince died in April 1899 aged 77. He is buried in Holy Cross Church, Uckfield. His house - The Observatory - was later acquired to provide additional accommodation for The Grange private school.

Isaac Roberts was responsible for developing an entirely new method of taking photographs of the stars and he earned much credit from his contemporaries. He commissioned a special 20-inch reflector telescope that was technically highly innovative. Installed in “Starfield” (his Crowborough home in Beacon Road) it was able to track astronomical objects across the sky with unprecedented steadiness. It still survives and is housed in the Science Museum where it remains in perfect working order.

Between 1957 and 1961 it was loaned out to Herstmonceux Observatory in East Sussex where it was used for photometric work.

The most celebrated picture taken by Roberts showed in detail the Great Nebula in Andromeda (now known as the Andromeda Galaxy) that caused a sensation in science circles. The long exposure photograph revealed the nebula to have a spiral structure, a quite unexpected revelation at the time that led to the promulgation of theories about the origin and nature of galaxies.

As a result of this and many other photographs of celestial bodies, Roberts was showered with accolades. He wrote a book about the business of picturing star-clusters and nebulae. It had a title so incredibly long that it must surely have made Charles Prince very envious! He also earned the posthumous distinction of having a crater on the far side of the Moon named after him, though to be fair he shares this honour with South African astronomer Alexander W Roberts.

In another quirky aside, Roberts was fluent in Welsh and spoke it for at least a few sentences every day in order to continue to command that tongue. I wonder how many Welsh-speakers live in Crowborough today?

While resident in the town, Roberts went off on an eclipse-viewing expedition where he met an American astronomer, Dorothea Klumpke. The pair later married.

Isaac Roberts died in 1904. He was cremated and his ashes were retained in Crowborough for some five years before they were interred in a cemetery in Birkenhead. His epitaph read: “In memory of Isaac Roberts, Fellow of the Royal Society, one of England’s pioneers in the domain of Celestial Photography. Born at Groes, near Denbigh, 27th January 1829, died at Starfield, Crowborough, Sussex, 17th July 1904, who spent his whole life in the search after Truth, and the endeavour to aid the happiness of others. Heaven is within us. This stone is erected in loving devotion by his widow Dorothea Roberts.”