Home Arts Diaries of the UK’s first female professional astrologer acquired by Bath’s Herschel Museum

Diaries of the UK’s first female professional astrologer acquired by Bath’s Herschel Museum

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The 57 densely handwritten pages of a small booklet, on display one precious sheet at a time in the Music Room of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath, cost the museum £108,000, making it by far the most valuable acquisition most expensive of the institution.

The memoirs provide poignant testimony to the remarkable woman who once lived there, Caroline Herschel, whose £50-a-year salary from George III made her the world’s first known professional female astronomer, and whose story the museum attempts to weave in the lodge.

Caroline was the sister, housekeeper, unpaid assistant and finally salaried business partner of her much more famous brother, William Herschel. William discovered the planet Uranus from observations made in the back garden of their modest Georgian home in Bath. But Caroline’s story, including her discovery of eight comets and 14 nebulae, has always been overshadowed, literally – the museum displays a beautiful pastel portrait of William, but only has a silhouette of Caroline as young woman, and an unflattering burn in old age. . Curator Isabel Wall says the manuscript is part of the museum’s plans to correct the record. “It’s a really important acquisition for us,” she says.

Caroline wrote the memoirs in 1836, when she was 86, in English and German. Most of the museum’s original items are on loan, except for another Caroline possession, her guestbook, which records the home hosting aristocrats, scientists, and even royalty. When a private sale of the newspapers was planned at Christie’s auction house, a fundraising campaign – which included a £50,000 Arts Council England / V&A purchase grant fund and National Heritage grants Memorial Fund and Friends of the National Libraries – assured that they were preserved from probable sale in the United States, where there are several collectors of Herschel materials.

The 57 pages cover only the years 1755 to 1775, from Caroline’s childhood in Hanover in a large musical family to her early years in Bath, and now contain many passages cut from publication after her death. His stories include surprising insight into another brother who came to Bath, Alexander, whose tangled love life is another common story. Alexander was roped in to help him with an experiment and found himself perched on the roof and clinging to a chimney for life: ‘I shudder as I remember the dangerous situation he was in when the mirror gauges 20-footers were struck standing atop the house leaning with his left arm on a chimney stake while with his right at full length he guided the plumb line,” she wrote.

I may remark here that I was and remained almost throughout my long life without a friend to whom I could turn.

Caroline Herschel, astronomer (1750-1848)

The house itself bears witness to the perils of 18th century astronomy: the gutted floor of the scullery marks the spot where the molten metal to cast a telescope mirror overflowed and exploded. Caroline noted that “my brothers and the pitcher and his men were forced to run to opposite doors as the stone floor (which should have been taken over) flew in all directions up to the ceiling”.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath housed Caroline and her more famous brother, William, from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. Caroline discovered eight comets and 14 nebulae © Herschel Museum of Astronomy—Bath Preservation Trust

William came to Bath to work as a musician in 1766 and then invited Caroline, 12 years his junior, to join him as housekeeper and companion. The memoirs relate how difficult she found her early years in England: “I can remark here that I was and remained almost throughout my long life without a friend to whom I could turn for comfort or advice when I was surrounded by troubles and difficulties. . Perhaps it was a consequence of my very dependent situation, as I was never allowed to get to know anyone except what was pleasing to him. And before I learned enough English to understand or be understood by foreigners, I was mostly left to my own society.

From Mozart to Uranus

The siblings were still musicians and just keen amateur astronomers when William discovered Uranus from observations in their garden using a homemade telescope. The fame of this discovery changed their lives: William was offered a pension and the post of personal astronomer to George III, and they moved to Datchet and then to Slough to be near the king at Windsor Castle – initially with a considerable loss on their income as musicians.

Caroline worked for years as William’s assistant, giving him snacks and reading books, including Don Quixote And The thousand and One Nights to allow him to spend hours of grueling work grinding and polishing mirrors. But she also made her own observations. On 1 August 1786 she discovered her first comet, and the following year her paper on this discovery, the first recorded by a woman, also became the first written by a woman to be read at the Royal Society, earning her own salary of the king. The Royal Society published its Corrected and Enlarged Edition of Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed’s Star Catalog and then awarded her a Gold Medal in 1838. She later became one of the first women to be admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. She returned to Hanover after William’s death in 1822 and died there in 1848.

The house, their only surviving home, was saved in the 1970s when it was bought for the Bath Preservation Trust, at a time when the whole street was threatened with demolition for a road project.

“She was a truly remarkable woman, and she deserves to be known so much better,” Wall said. As part of the repair, the museum is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, dropping William’s name, to reflect that the narrow house once housed two astronomers whose combined work forever changed the world’s view on the sky.

Herschel Museum of Astronomyopen Tuesday to Sunday, New King Street, Bath

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