Harry Thornton, Leslie Rae, & the rise & fall of The Moon

Harry Thornton and Leslie Rae were the Editors of the BAA Lunar Section publication The Moon from 1953 to 1967, during which period charting the lunar surface visually was superseded by professional astronomical photography and early space probe imagery. As a result, lunar contributions to The Moon dried up and, after Rae’s resignation, the publication ceased. Thornton and Rae were very prominent figures in the BAA of the 1950s and 1960s, yet no obituaries of them were ever published in the Journal. The aim of this paper is to address those omissions.


Figure 1. Patrick Moore and Percy Wilkins at East Grinstead during the 1950s. Copied from Patrick’s personal collection in 2005 with his permission.



The creation of The Moon

The BAA Lunar Section publication The Moon was created in 1950 June when the Section committee consisted of six people. These were H. Percy Wilkins (Director), Dai Arthur (Librarian), Patrick Moore (Secretary), and three other well-known Lunar Section observers, namely Robert Barker, F. H. (Harry) Thornton and Leslie Ball. Barker and Ball were prominent members of Barker’s Lunar Circle during the 1930s and ’40s and the activities of that group were fully described in a comprehensive earlier paper by Richard McKim.1

Patrick’s mentor, Percy Wilkins (Figure 1) created a circular called The Selenographical News, between 1947 and 1949, which Patrick typed up, and The Moon was the next step from that. Wilkins was best known for his huge, but horribly cluttered, hand-drawn map of the Moon, which he had been working on obsessively since the 1920s. He also produced the impressive 10th and 11th Lunar Section reports, published as BAA Memoirs in 1947 and 1950 (Vol. 36, parts i and iii).

In 1950, Dai Arthur agreed to take on the onerous task of producing The Moon. The subscription of five shillings (25p) per edition, along with lunar observations, were sent to him at 35 Vastern Road, Reading. Publishing a separate BAA publication for lunar observations had become necessary due to the sheer volume of material produced by members following Wilkins’ reorganisation of the Section in 1945.2 Unfortunately, Dai Arthur had to resign as the editor of The Moon after Vol. 1 no 4, published in 1953 May. When Harry Thornton (he preferred his second name) took over the publication from Vol. 2, the reproduction quality improved dramatically, and the cost dropped to two shillings and sixpence (12½p) per edition.

Dai Arthur became an elusive figure after he emigrated to the USA to join Gerard Kuiper’s lunar mapping team in 1958. He seemingly took a serious dislike to Patrick Moore,3 but then he always preferred a photographic solution to lunar cartography, contrasting with Wilkins’ and Moore’s visual observing strategy.

Various BAA people attempted to resume friendly contact with Dai after the 1970s but failed. The BAA historian Richard Baum (1930–2017) told the author in 2005: ‘I remember my second attendance at a BAA meeting. It was in 1948. I recall two events, a talk by Peter Lancaster Brown on comets, and the walk back to Euston along Piccadilly in the company of H. P. Wilkins, Patrick Moore, Robert Barker, and D. W. G. Arthur. It was a dark, damp, and cool evening. Dai Arthur, I remember, was carrying rolls of lunar photographs – at the time he had access to the great Paris Atlas and was making black and white prints from its large sheets and selling them to members who wanted them at around five shillings each! Soon after he joined the lunar mapping team at Tucson. He is now retired and lives in a trailer I believe, outside Tucson, his interest being model railways.’ This latter information was supplied to Richard via Ewen Whitaker.


Harry Thornton

From 1953 September, all correspondence, subscriptions, and observations were directed towards Harry at his home at Grove Mount, Davenham, near Northwich in Cheshire. Married with two adult daughters, Hilda and Frances, Harry had been born into a wealthy family on 1885 Mar 7 and was the son of William Eber Thornton (1863–1939), an Insurance Company District Manager, and Charlotte Evangeline Thornton (née Morton) (1860–1925) who lived at 5 Ringlake Road, Liscard, Wallasey.4

In the early 1900s, Harry lived at Frodsham in Cheshire, in the Manor House, then called Deyne Court. For a brief period (1911–1913) he managed his own motorcycle company in the High Street called Swan Motor Manufacturing (originally Cygnus Engineering) whose products attracted a lot of publicity at the 1911 Olympia Motor Show (Figures 2 and 3). Details appear in Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History and the online Cheshire Image Bank (www.cheshireimagebank.org.uk). Harry took part in the ACU (Auto-Cycle Union) International Six Day’s Trial in Somerset and Devon in 1912, riding one of his motorbikes. However, according to his family, after a trip abroad he returned to find his employees had been stealing spare parts to make motorcycles themselves. His wealthy father, who funded the company, was appalled and closed it down, firing all the employees in 1913. Harry married Caroline Beatrice Odgers (1885–1963) at Wrexham Regis on 1915 Apr 28 (Figure 4).

Harry, still resident at Frodsham, joined the BAA on 1924 Jan 3. By the time he took over publication of The Moon, he had been an active lunar (and occasional planetary) observer for 29 years, using initially a 9-inch (229-mm) Calver reflector. At the start of the Second World War (WWII), Harry and Caroline lived at 77 Grappenhall Road, Runcorn and he was the Divisional Manager of the Refuge Assurance company. A portrait of Harry is shown in Figure 5.5

At 23h 24m 30s on 1945 Oct 19, Harry famously witnessed a sudden flash in the crater Plato while observing with his 9-inch Calver, describing it as brilliant and tinged with orange (Figure 6). It was assumed to be caused by a meteor strike. Considerable interest was generated within the Lunar Section after Wilkins mentioned the event at the 1947 Jan 29 BAA meeting. Harry subsequently expanded his account saying, ‘The nearest approach to a description of this is to say that it resembled the flash of an A.A. shell exploding in the air at a distance of about ten miles. In colour it was on the orange side of yellow. My first thought, indeed, was that it was due to a large fall of rock, but I changed my opinion when I realised that, close though it seemed to be to the mountain wall, it was possibly well over half a mile away.’6

During 1947, Harry made valuable observations of Pytheas, a lunar crater lying on one of the Copernican light-streaks, noting features not detected by previous observers.7


Members can view the full illustrated article in PDF format by returning to the previous page. Not a member? Why not join today?

The British Astronomical Association supports amateur astronomers around the UK and the rest of the world. Find out more about the BAA or join us.