4:51pm Wednesday 13th April 2011
Only three years after its foundation in 1832, the fledgling Durham University was beginning to reach for the stars, quite literally, to make itself a voice to be heard and listened to, both in and far beyond the confines of English higher education. Keith Proud reports.
IN 1834, the Rev Temple Chevallier moved north from his post at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and the living of the parish of St Andrew the Great to take up a role working alongside Henry Jenkyns at the new Durham University.
Both men were highly-intelligent, highly-regarded, well-educated and very well-qualified to the highest level in a wide variety of subjects.
Chevallier was born in 1794 at Badingham, in Suffolk, and after an education at Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich grammar schools, went on in 1813 to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he won some of the university’s top academic prizes, laying strong foundations for what would be a brilliant career.
Jenkyns, almost the same age as Chevallier, had been educated at Eton College and Corpus Christi, Oxford.
In 1833, he became the first professor of Greek and classical literature at Durham University, to which was added, in 1835, the title of acting professor of divinity.
In Durham, Temple Chevallier enjoyed working with Jenkyns and especially his role in helping to prepare young men to become priests in the Church of England, but it was not long before he was asked to change academic direction to become the university’s first professor of mathematics.
It may have been a tempting offer, but it was one he initially declined.
However, having given much thought to the invitation and with the added offer of the perpetual curacy of the parish of St Michael in the little village of Esh, five miles west of Durham, he finally accepted both in 1835.
As a home for himself and his wife, Catharine, who he had married in 1825, Chevallier rented Flass Hall, near Esh, and during his long curacy of the parish, as well as founding a school in the village, he did a great deal to improve the appearance of the church.
Two of the most serious problems he encountered in Esh, where he soon became a very popular incumbent, were the illegal distilling of whisky by his parishioners and their reluctance to stop playing cricket on Sundays.
However, the village as he first knew it and the area in which it was underwent great changes in the early 1860s when a coal mine was sunk there following Joseph Pease’s test borings nearby 25 years earlier, just as Chevallier was moving into Esh.
By 1896, 629 coal miners worked for Pease and Partners at Esh Winning, as the mine was known.
Always a popular incumbent at Esh, Chevallier was also well enough regarded in the Church at Durham to be made an honorary canon of Durham in 1846 and one of its rural deans 12 years later.
More of his long-held posts in Durham were as reader in Hebrew and registrar of the university, in both of which he served for more than 30 years, but it was for his work as professor of mathematics and astronomy, this second “chair”
awarded to him in 1841, that he became best-known and most influential.
He earnestly believed that mathematics had a useful and important part to play in education, and did his best to spread the thesis as widely as he could.
To that and other worthwhile ends, throughout his life Chevallier undertook and enjoyed an extensive correspondence with a wide and often influential circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, including several eminent astronomers.
Theoretical astronomy was, and still is, a fascinating and challenging subject, but Chevallier wanted more than the few practical opportunities he could provide for his students and for the new university, so he lobbied for official permission to raise the funds necessary to build an observatory.
His cause was helped by the fact that, in 1838, the Bishop of Durham had heard from the Rev Thomas Hussey, of Hayes Court, in Kent, who had his own observatory, that, after many years and a “severe injury”, he was giving up practical astronomy and offering Durham University the chance to buy any of his equipment.
In 1839, Chevallier started a public subscription to which anyone who supported his idea could contribute and 143 people did so, including the bishop and Earl Grey.
The amount raised by 1840 was £1,193, 15 shillings, of which Chevallier himself gave £50, while a site for the building was provided by the Dean and Chapter of Durham.
The architect WT Salvin’s observatory building on Potters Bank, two miles from Durham, was ready, complete with instruments, by 1841. Its dome, also bought from Hussey, was put in place a year later. The purchase of Hussey’s astronomical instruments had not been a simple process as a number of procedures had to be followed before the university would allow money to be spent acquiring them.
Temple Chevallier had been “authorised to inspect the (Hussey’s) instruments with the assistance of the Astronomer Royal and others”.
Their report was “favourable”.
Hussey, who had excellent optical and measuring equipment, had become well-known in 1835 after becoming one of the first two people in Britain to see and report the return of Halley’s Comet on August 22 that year, but his earlier astronomical observations had also contributed to his reputation in the world’s scientific community.
One of his specialities was compiling star maps, which he was able to do so accurately because of his careful observations and readings, and his excellent instruments.
His observatory at one time contained a 6.5in diameter refracting telescope built by the German Joseph von Fraunhofer, a 9.3in Gregorian- Newtonian telescope and one with a 7ft focal length made by William Herschel.
Hussey’s is one of the names suggested as being the discoverer of the planet Venus, although the discussion as to whether he did so is still ongoing.
The planet Uranus, discovered by the French astronomer Alexis Bouvard, had not long been known, but Hussey’s observations of Uranus seemed to suggest that there had to be another planet beyond it so, in 1834, he wrote to George Airy, who went on to become the astronomer royal, with his calculations.
Airy felt that there was not sufficient evidence so, reluctantly, Hussey gave up on that particular piece of research, but when, in 1846, Johann Galle did prove the existence of Neptune, some of the calculations he used came from one of Hussey’s star maps compiled in 1831.
Of Hussey’s equipment, Chevallier selected for the Durham observatory an 1825 telescope made by Fraunhofer, a transit instrument and a sidereal clock that worked on astronomical as opposed to earth time, with 23 hours and 56 minutes in a day instead of 24 hours.
In 1846, the Duke of Northumberland presented the observatory with a refracting telescope with a focal length of 7ft.
Observations were made from late 1840 and meteorological readings, begun in 1843, still continue today.
With everything finally in place at the observatory, Chevallier looked for assistants to help him with his “stargazing”.
With Chevallier being so busy with his many other commitments, the day-today running of the observatory became the responsibility of an observer, rather poorly-paid, who had to be unmarried, was required to live in the building and was responsible to the professor.
It is not surprising that few of them remained in post for long, although several went on to enjoy academic and personal success.
The first of these was John Stewart Browne, followed by Yorkshireman Arthur Beanlands, who later became a civil engineer, mining surveyor and a magistrate in Durham City.
Almost certainly the best of these observers, Richard Christopher Carrington, a Londoner by birth, not only survived for more than two years, but made valuable contributions to Durham astronomy during his time.
He graduated from Cambridge University in 1848, determined to make the study of astronomy his life’s work.
In 1849, he arrived at Durham and as well as observing sunspots as required by Chevallier, he worked out accurately the exact longitude of the Durham observatory, a task he achieved by measuring precisely with three chronometers the time difference between Durham and Greenwich.
After some time, Carrington, who had become increasingly dissatisfied with what he perceived to be the shortcomings of the instruments he was required to use at Durham, most of which were in need of repair, put forward plans to renovate the observatory and to buy for it a new telescope if he were made director of the building.
When these plans were rejected because of the university’s strained finances, Carrington resigned and built his own house and observatory at Redhill, near Reigate, in Surrey.
Temple Chevallier retired from the university in 1871 and died two years later aged 79 at Harrow Weald.
His body was interred at Esh.
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