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A star of Tow Law
The discovery of x-rays by the German Wilhelm Konrad Rontgen in 1895 caused a sensation in scientific and medical circles and created interest in the subject across the world, even in the unlikely setting of the small coal-mining town of Tow Law, in rural County Durham.
IN 1971, a crater on the dark side of the moon was given the name Espin in recognition of the immense contribution made to the exploration and mapping of space by the clergyman astronomer, the Reverend Thomas Henry Espinell Compton Espin.
Among the very first x-rays to be made in this country were those prepared by him using his own scientific equipment at Tow Law during the time he was vicar there for almost half a century.
First and foremost, his duty was to serve his parishioners, but Thomas Espin was one of those rare people who were ahead of their time in a number of activities carried out not as part of his occupation but in the free time he had left when not engaged in his clerical duties.
These interests included musical composition, geology, botany, photography, microscopy and every aspect of astronomy.
Born at Birmingham on May 28, 1858, Espin was the son of the Reverend Thomas Espinell Espin, a clergyman, at that time Rector of Hadleigh, ecclesiastical lawyer and Chancellor of the Diocese of Chester.
At the age of 14, the young Espin became a boarder at the elite Haileybury School in Hertfordshire, still one of England’s best, where he first became interested in astronomy, a study which became a passion after he saw Coggia’s Comet in April 1874.
While still a pupil at Haileybury, he wrote articles on his research and findings and contributed them to the English Mechanic, a highly-regarded scientific magazine, in which they were published.
As a result, he was contacted by the eminent astronomer TW Webb, who was so impressed by Espin’s knowledge and intellect that he invited him to help in the writing of his book Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes.
As a schoolboy, he won no academic prizes except, as he used to say, for good conduct.
From 1876 to 1878, he was sent to France to complete his secondary education before going on to Exeter College, Oxford University to read for a degree in theology.
He also improved his piano skills under the tutelage of Sir Walter Parratt, organist of Windsor’s Chapel Royal and Master of the Queen’s Music.
Through his father, Thomas Espin was very well-connected.
During his time at Oxford, in exchange for helping fellow students in their work with telescopes, he was allowed to use the excellent 13in De la Rue instrument for his own observations and in 1878 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
ONCE he had taken holy orders, he became curate of, successively, West Kirby in 1881, Wallasey in 1883 and, in 1885, of Wolsingham, in Weardale, where his father was vicar, although he did not share a house with his parents.
He was an active astronomer while in Wolsingham and built an observatory there which subsequently moved with him in 1888 when he was appointed perpetual curate, although he was always called the vicar, of the parish of Tow Law, just a few miles away. He would remain there until his death in 1934 and he is buried beside the door of his church of St Philip and St James.
After leaving Wolsingham, once a week he walked there to visit his parents and, after the death of his mother, he continued the regular trek to see his father.
Three years after taking up his post in Tow Law, Espin became a justice of the peace and chairman of Stanhope and Wolsingham Petty Sessions.
His work with x-rays after Rontgen’s discovery of them in 1895 is well-described in The Stargazer of Tow Law written and published by the Tow Law Local History Group in 1992: “The following year he built a small induction coil giving a six-inch spark, but soon found the batteries inconvenient.
With the help of some of the boys from the church he constructed a number of static generators culminating with a huge 24 plate Wimshurst electrostatic influence machine.”
He used his x-ray machine for the good of local people, but only on those who had been referred to him by a doctor: “This machine being used mainly to examine bones, although more than once coins swallowed by children were located. It must be remembered that his equipment was very basic by today’s standards and chest x-rays were to be a thing of the future. It was 1913 before the Lady Eden Hospital at Bishop Auckland acquired its first x-ray set. So try to imagine the set up in the vicarage. Espin would have to make his own glass negative plates. The room would be kept dark and the patient’s limb would be placed over the glass negative and then the boys would begin to crank the machine. Suddenly a brilliant spark would shoot out with a crackling bang just above the patient’s limb.
Espin’s Wimshurst machine was apparently used quite extensively for therapeutic purposes – rheumatism, sciatica, lupus and nervous troubles.
According to The Northern Echo in 1911: “A good deal of benefit was accomplished.”
Espin provided another facility in his vicarage garden for the benefit of those in the parish who suffered from tuberculosis.
He arranged for the building of a small hut, a basic sanatorium in effect, whose windows opened wide and where sufferers could sleep every night for several months.
Some patients remained there both day and night.
Espin gave much of his time to the Scouts, Church Lads’ Brigade and church choir, subsidising the cost of uniforms for those who needed help.
As well as building a rifle range and gymnasium in the vicarage cellar, mainly for the use of the Church Lads’ Brigade and Scouts, he had a steeple added to the church tower, so that the building looked properly finished.
WHEN Espin first looked at the stars, he used a pair of opera glasses to do so and when he did acquire a telescope, it had only a one-inch lens.
From that time forward, his instruments gradually became bigger and better, appropriately since he became known as the best amateur astronomer in the country.
He spotted his first double star with a 3in instrument and was presented with a 5in refractor by the head of the Harrison Steamer Line while he was a curate at Wallassey.
A 17¼in Calver reflector was bought with a legacy he received from TW Webb and by 1915, although still using other instruments too, his main telescope was a 24in reflector, also made by Calver.
The castings of Calver telescope bodies were made by Lepard and Sons of Great Yarmouth and by an agricultural firm, Suffolk Iron Foundry, near Stowmarket.
The astronomical work for which Espin is best-known, although not credited as widely as it should be, falls into two parts. From 1885 to 1895, he was primarily interested in looking for red stars and in that field he made a number of important discoveries.
Red stars take their name from the fact that their colour results from the presence of metallic oxides in their spectrum, the light around them.
In 1890, he published a new edition of the Catalogue of Red Stars, including his own discoveries and those of other researchers.
His greatest discovery, in 1910, was of a previously uncatalogued red star called Nova Lacerta.
For this discovery and some of his other work he was in 1913 awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s Jackson- Gwilt Medal.
After 1900, Espin became seriously involved in the search for double stars, pairs of stars which appear close to each other when viewed from earth.
He went on to personally discover and map an amazing 2,575 of these and was helped in his work by William Milburn, his assistant observer.
Espin was founder and president of the Liverpool Astronomical Society and first president of the Newcastle Astronomical Society, a post he retained until his death.
Because he published so much of his research, he was made a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 1895, an honorary fellow of the Astronomical Society of Mexico in 1911, and, in 1914, a Fellow of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America.
He invented several accessories for telescopes, while his other interests, included studying and collecting mosses and volcanic rocks.
He also had a tropical aquarium, a huge library, much of which was devoted to theology, and a collection of fine china, especially Dresden.
Following Espin’s death in 1934, his x-ray equipment went to Dr Charlton, the local GP, while his telescopes found several new homes.
The 24in Calver reflector telescope had been buried for years under piles of hen droppings, but was completely restored and moved to Newcastle University’s observatory at Wylam, in Northumberland.
The Reverend Thomas Espin was remembered in Tow Law for many years after his death and the cone and acorn rood screen he created in his church still bears testament to his love of the town and its people.