Early members of the New South Wales Branch of the British Astronomical Association

In 1894, three Sydney members of the British Astronomical Association – John Tebbutt, Walter Gale and Robert Innes, all well-known astronomers – recruited 10 others to join them in appealing to the Council in London to form a local branch. This was granted on 1894 November 28, and the New South Wales Branch held its inaugural meeting on 1895 January 30. This paper looks at the 18 people from Sydney who were members of the BAA prior to the first meeting. That meeting created much local interest and many people joined immediately afterwards. The next cohort of 48 members admitted on 1895 March 1 is also discussed, with three people of note emphasised. A wide range of knowledge and expertise is found among the early members of the Branch, ranging from highly capable amateurs like the three founders, augmented by a small number of professionals, to those who made little or no contribution.

Map of Australia, with the key territories marked, and numbered locations highlighted on the east and south coast of the country
Figure 1. Map showing the locations of BAA members in Australia up to 1894 September. (Map Nick Lomb, data Tony Kinder, underlying map d-maps.com)


In the first few years after the formation of the British Astronomical Association (BAA) in 1890, a number of keen Australian astronomers, amateur and professional, rushed to join. Figure 1 shows the locations of members up to 1894 September; most were located in the four capital cities, Adelaide, Hobart, Melbourne, and Sydney, with a few in country areas. The total of 20 members on the map, together with 3 in Auckland, New Zealand, concurs with the 23 listed for Australia and New Zealand in the Council report from the fifth session of the BAA.1

As related in a previous paper by Orchiston,2 of which this paper is a continuation, three of the five Sydney members – John Tebbutt, Robert Innes, and Walter Gale – spent a considerable amount of time pondering whether to form an Australia-based society. These well-known astronomers eventually decided that a completely new society was unviable. Instead, in 1894, Gale took the initiative in trying to arrange a local branch of the BAA. In the previous year, Gale had been in London and found discussions with the BAA Council were supportive.

The first step to form the Branch was organising sufficient prospective members. Gale managed to recruit 10 more, in addition to himself and his co-organisers, Tebbutt and Innes. On 1894 Sept 21, these 13 wrote to the BAA:

‘We, the undersigned, being already Members of the British Astronomical Association, desire to form an Australian Branch of the Association, to be called the ‘New South Wales Branch of the British Astronomical Association,’ and we hereby request the written permission of the Council to form such a Branch; and we undertake that the rules of the Association shall be observed.’3

Despite the signed statement, the extra 10 recruited by Gale were not yet members. They were elected as such on 1894 Nov 28,4 the same date that the warrant for the New South Wales (NSW) Branch was approved by the Council.5 Gale reported at the inaugural meeting that the Council received the application for the Branch ‘with some enthusiasm’.6 The President, Dr Downing, stated that, ‘… the astronomers of the British Empire might be actually federated, and scan the heavens from pole to pole.’

To arrange that first meeting, Gale circulated a letter announcing the formation of the Branch and its inaugural meeting on 1895 Jan 30.2 The fees comprised a joining fee of 5 shillings and an annual subscription of 10 shillings and sixpence to the BAA, with another 5 shillings to the Branch. These fees seem low by current standards, but wages were much less at the time. As an indication, a contemporaneous clerk at Sydney Observatory earned £100 per year.7 The meeting duly took place with Tebbutt appointed president, Gale secretary, and Innes became one of the two vice-presidents.

At inception, the new secretary indicated that the Branch had 18 members.6 These were the original five Sydney members, the 10 new ones from 1894 Nov 28, and three elected on 1894 Dec 19,8 that is, before the inaugural meeting. These 18 are listed in Table 1. Although all the local BAA members are listed, as we will see in the next section, at least one refused to take part in Branch activities. That first meeting created much interest, with a ‘… large attendance of ladies and gentlemen’. Consequently, just a month later, on 1895 Mar 1, 48 new local members of the BAA were elected.9 Interestingly, these included one woman, two decades before the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) admitted women to their ranks.10

In this paper, we introduce the early members of the NSW Branch with an emphasis on the 13 who petitioned the parent body. They are discussed briefly, apart from a few whose lives have not been published previously. In addition, we discuss a few selected members from the cohort of 48 elected immediately after the first meeting. The aim of this paper is to present an outline of who these early members were and what they achieved both inside and outside of astronomy.


The first eighteen

Here we discuss the people (Table 1) from Sydney and its vicinity who joined the BAA prior to the inaugural meeting of the NSW Branch on 1895 Jan 30.


Joseph Brooks

Brooks was born in Stockport, Cheshire, England in 1847, and from the age of 9 lived in Adelaide.11 In 1864, he joined the South Australian Department of Survey and Crown Lands, initially as a draftsman, but later became a trigonometrical surveyor. In 1877, he moved to Sydney where he took up a position as a licensed surveyor with the Department of Lands. He soon became involved in field work and by 1890, he oversaw field operations for the trigonometrical survey. From 1886, he had the official title of ‘Field Astronomer’, the only person outside of Sydney Observatory ‘… to be officially employed by the colonial government at this time as a professional astronomer …’.12

After his early retirement at the age of 59, he joined eclipse expeditions to Flint Island in 1908, Port Davey, Tasmania in 1910 and to Vavau, Tonga in 1911.13 Despite his interest and expertise in astronomy, Brooks chose not to take an active role in the NSW Branch as he disliked one of the people involved; he did not divulge who this was.14 Brooks died in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra in 1918.


Robert Thorburn Ayton Innes

Innes was one of the few amateur astronomers in Australia who made the leap to professional ranks.15,16,17 He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1861 and educated in Dublin, Ireland. He emigrated with his wife to Sydney in 1890 and set up business as a wine and spirit merchant. He also contacted the two leading local astronomers, the government astronomer of NSW, Henry Chamberlain Russell, and the famed amateur, John Tebbutt. Initially, Innes undertook mathematical astronomy but, under Tebbutt’s influence, he also began observing. By 1895, he was so immersed in astronomy that he wanted to quit his business activities. Sir David Gill, the director of the Royal Observatory at Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, was impressed with some of Innes’ published papers and offered him a clerical position in which he could also perform astronomical work. Possibly Innes’ most important astronomical contribution there was preparing a catalogue of southern double stars.18

In 1903, with Gill’s backing, Innes became the director of the new Transvaal Observatory in Johannesburg. Although initially the observatory only carried out meteorology, later, under the name Union Observatory, it concentrated on the study of stellar proper motions. In this field, Innes made the important discovery of the nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri.19 Innes died in 1933 during a visit to London.


James Cook

Cook was born in 1839 in Lancaster, England.20 He showed an early interest in astronomy, building telescopes with apertures up to 18-inch (45-cm) and small refractors. Soon after becoming a fellow of the RAS in 1881, he accepted a position as a mechanician (technical officer) in physics at the University of Sydney. During his 25 years there he produced laboratory apparatus. Cook died in Leichhardt, Sydney in 1919.


John Tebbutt

Tebbutt, Australia’s most famous amateur astronomer, has a crater on the Moon named after him and for some years appeared on the Australian $100 banknote. He is regarded as being at the same level as the country’s 19th century professional astronomers. His work has been extensively written about, mainly by Orchiston, including in a comprehensive book.21

Tebbutt was born in 1834 in Windsor, just outside Sydney. He was educated at local church schools but left formal education at age 15 to work on his father’s farm. With an interest in astronomy kindled by his first teacher, in 1853 Tebbutt began observing with a small marine telescope and a secondhand sextant. Eight years later he discovered a comet that became known as the Great Comet of 1861 (C/1861 J1), one of the century’s most spectacular, after it appeared in the northern hemisphere sky.

After this discovery, Tebbutt began building a series of observatories on his farm and acquired various telescopes, ending with an 8-inch (20-cm) Grubb refractor. With these he made copious observations of comets, double stars, eclipses, occultations, variable stars, and much else. These observations were published in the main contemporary scientific journals. Tebbutt was also involved in public education by regularly writing to the newspapers to provide information on astronomical events.

Relations between the government astronomer, Henry Chamberlain Russell, and Tebbutt were initially most cordial. However, they deteriorated as time passed, culminating in a pamphlet circulated by Tebbutt in 1891 that criticized Russell and Sydney Observatory for spending too much time and effort on meteorology and not enough on astronomy.

Tebbutt continued his astronomical work into old age. He died in Windsor in 1916.


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