Northamptonshire Natural History Society

Astronomy Section

Section President
Nick Hewitt
Section Secretary
James Whinfrey

History of the Astronomy Section

Harry Brierley
(Written for the 40th anniversary of the Section in 1997)

The 1950s

In November 1956 Gordon Osborn, Society President, included in the Geology Section programme a comprehensive lecture entitled 'Astronomy', by the Rev H.E. Ruddy, a fine observer in the British Astronomical Association. We emerged from that meeting with the Rev Ruddy selected as President of our future Astronomy Section, myself as Secretary, and Bert Lineham as 'celestial mechanic'. In spring 1957 the Society's AGM elected us. We were a Section!

That year was full of events: Comet Arend-Roland spread its lengthy tail across early evening light, and was seen from Kettering Road with the street lights on (they were white then), the Russians flung Sputnik I into orbit, and we had many clear skies for frequent viewing evenings. At first, we had no astronomical supporters, but the general membership gave us a good start. Meanwhile, Bert - our 'rude mechanical' - did much work on Rev Ruddy's instruments, for which that good man was most grateful.

The 1960s

With the 1960s came our Praetorian Guard of Grammar School boys, and boys from other schools, who, with astronomy as their main interest, followed us in telescope making and using. There were our first attempts at colour skyshots, starting with 25 ASA film and progressing to the faster 50 ASA. We made contact with other places, particularly Leicester, with mutual visits with their astronomical society led by Cliff Shutlewood - engineering draughtsman and telescope maker - before he became a professional. Here in Northampton there were exhibitions, and in 1961 we filled the Humfrey Rooms with our own instruments, some of them home-made. Dr David Dewhirst - a professional from Cambridge Observatories - visited us several times over the next four years, and he was a true friend of the amateur, since he had been one himself. At this time we also became affiliated to the BAA.

Rev Ruddy eventually gave up his office and his beloved croquet lawn - where he played a curiously cruel game for such a kind-hearted Christian clergyman - and moved to south-west England, where he learned to drive a farm tractor when he was 80. After other Section Presidents we selected Mr G.W. Pretlove, who served from 1962 until his death in 1991. He had a photographic memory, remembering everything he had ever read. A most kind and helpful man, he produced written work for any enquirer who needed it.

During this decade we reported many observations to the BAA, and enjoyed visits to other places, collaboration with other Sections, and glorious sky views too numerous to mention. But Mercury must be mentioned: difficult to see with the naked eye, yet in 1962 we saw it several nights running, sometimes through glass and from a lighted room.

Satellite Echo was also seen, and four of us, by invitation, visited Jodrell Bank - before it was opened to the public - and were given a ride in one of the two big bearing sheds which carry the big bowl.

The 1970s

By the 1970s the Praetorian Guard were young men, and they decided that our programmes were running out of steam. They asked me if they might run an exhibition themselves. I approved (with some relief) and 'Astro 71' was a great morale-booster. Therefore, after a 15-year stretch I was released, and George Bolland - who had been our very first junior member - took over as Section Secretary.

Our wooden observatory, erected at Wootton in 1965, was pulled down before use owing to the death of Mr H. Allen, long-time Secretary of the Society (in whose garden it had been built), who left no relative capable of taking over the estate. The lawyers gave us a fortnight to move it or lose it! It was, after some years' storage, re-erected at Gordon's Lodge Farm, Ashton: new landlord Oliver Ranson, kindly and helpful; rent, one red rose per annum. Lots of fun, and many wonders seen with the 8½-inch telescope.

On 5 May 1976 Sir Hereward Wake brought Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to the Humfrey Rooms, in celebration of the Society's centenary. She stopped at the astronomy stand, and talked to Bert about his 3-D model of the nearest stars, their colours represented by tiny semi-precious stones set atop wires of differing lengths. It was pretty, and fun though factual, and she had quite a chat with him.

Good colour slides of the constellations were being shot with SLR cameras (and non-SLRs too), and besides being good educational aids they led to a discovery. One evening Barry Scott was showing some of his slides, and Guy Hurst (the national nova-search coordinator) was at the meeting. He noticed the pre-discovery shot of a nova, and borrowed the slide as a valued addition to that nova's dossier.

Another anniversary came in 1977: the Silver Jubilee of her present Majesty's accession to the Throne. We had replaced the 8½-inch telescope with an 11¾-inch, and naturally we painted it aluminium - our substitute for silver.

In those years the Section provided the Society with more than one President (our names are in gold on the Presidential board) and more than one Wake Shield winner for junior projects.

The 1980s and 1990s

Finally, with the 1980s and 1990s well within the memory of many present members, we come to the electronic revolution; and yet on Christmas Day 1980, at 10 pm, there was the discovery by Roy Panther - a member of the Society - of a faint comet, with his 8-inch 'old discoverer' - a home-made telescope of the simplest but purpose-built design. Roy's name is in the heavens, and he was awarded the BAA Merlin Medal, but the comet's period is 30,000 years...

The great flop of 1985/86 was (for some of us) Halley's Comet - yet our new experts photographed it well. This period saw the influx of a number of such experts, with electronically sophisticated telescopes, and eventually the means whereby an 8½-inch telescope can have its view enhanced so that the results are as good as those from giant telescopes.

The present era ends with a plethora of good things. The incredibly bright Comet Hale-Bopp went round the Sun - which it was seen to approach and then recede from, at high speed, on the day of perihelion - and Tom Boles, with state-of-the-art apparatus and great skill, discovered a faint supernova [1997dn] in a distant galaxy.

We are led [1997] by Nick Hewitt, and by Bob Marriott, an expert on books, instruments and double stars, who was once a junior member, and was later mistakenly arrested for nobly inspecting the wooden observatory stored at Dallington. Both gentlemen enjoy high office in the BAA.

The fibreglass dome which replaced our wooden observatory (which rotted away) was at Hunsbury Hill, but has now been re-erected at a more distant and much darker site at Cottesbrooke. However, most of our experts (and others) have cars, and are very generous in providing transport.

Finally, we must thank Mr and Mrs Humfrey, who gave us great help and encouragement from the beginning. This is the end - for the time being!

In memory of Harry Brierley

Harry Brierley died on 16 December 1998 - four days before his 81st birthday. The picture below (incorporating a photograph by Pete Goulstone) is a commemoration by Bob Marriott.