Obituary: David J. Harris (17 November 1933 – 1 July 2017)

by Phil Barnard

David HarrisDavid Harris, who passed away on 1 July this year, is very fondly remembered as a founder member and long-standing supporter of Wolverhampton Astronomical Society. David will be lovingly remembered by his wife Mary, son Christopher and daughter Libby. On 12 July, several members of the Society attended David’s funeral at Bushbury Crematorium and his memorial service held at Beckminster Church.

The Society was formed officially in September 1952, from a pre-existing informal group of enthusiasts, initially as the Wolverhampton Amateur Astronomy Group. David would celebrate his 19th birthday in the following month. Meetings were held in a classroom at the old Walsall Street Institute. Even in those early days I recall David giving presentations on practical astronomy, both with telescope and binoculars, which was his forte. One item remembered from that time is a planetarium, shown by David and his father, made by poking holes in the desired places in an opened black umbrella, to represent the constellations. A simple but effective way to teach the geography of the night sky, in a room under artificial light or outside in daylight.

David was a leading light in the Society from the outset and a member of the governing committee. Since that time David has been President of the Society on no less than 10 occasions, more than anyone else in the Society’s history, plus several times as Vice-president, and was the longest-serving member. He also contributed many articles to the Society magazine Lyra.

David did have a spell away from the Society, first to do his National Service – his letter of apology for the impending absence, to the then Secretary, Mr Whitehouse, has survived in the archive. He then qualified as a teacher following a two year spell at St Peter’s College in Saltley. His name was never deleted from the attendance register, first with the entry “Forces” and then meeting attendances were left blank until he rejoined.

David Harris with pupils from Bingley Secondary Modern School. (Express & Star)
David Harris with pupils from Bingley Secondary Modern School. (Express & Star)

David’s first teaching post was at Bingley Secondary Modern school in Wolverhampton, and he was teaching astronomy there as part of the school’s science club. In February 1962 the photograph here, which shows David with three of the school’s pupils and a self-built reflecting telescope, appeared with a short article in the Express & Star newspaper.

That period was followed by what he is perhaps best remembered for, his teaching career at Highfields Comprehensive School, which for a time was designated as a science specialist school. David also became a member of the Association for Astronomy Education (AAE). He wrote a very good article in their journal of 1982, outlining his ideas for astronomy as part of the curriculum in primary and secondary schools, something which is still pertinent today. Things have improved and due in no small part to the efforts of people like David. I think David was of the opinion, which some of us could bear witness to, that gaining an interest in astronomy can be a means for someone being attracted to a career in science generally, and something this country needs now more than ever.

Highfields School Observatory under construction: the official opening was on 20 June 1967
Highfields School Observatory under construction: the official opening was on 20 June 1967

At Highfields he could claim a spectacular achievement, a school observatory, which in state schools is probably something of a rarity. Not only that, but complete with a very good 10″ reflecting telescope made by the well-known telescope-maker George Calver. Many Highfields students benefitted from that facility over a long period. David gave a talk to the Society just two or three years ago, describing how he had been in charge of the observatory’s construction and illustrated his talk with his own photographs.

As many of you will know, after David left the school to become a lecturer in science at Bilston College of Further Education, without his inspiration the interest in astronomy at the school gradually declined – sadly not a unique story. And you will be aware that the story didn’t have such a happy ending, completely outside of David’s control. Although one cannot ignore that, the observatory was nonetheless a massive achievement.

By that time David had obtained a degree in Science & Education from the Open University. At Bilston College David’s interest in astronomy in education continued, in the AAE and also by supporting lectures given by the Institute of Physics. He ran a photography course, and was an active astrophotographer who imparted his knowledge through lectures to fellow members. In fact he was expert enough to super-sensitise his photographic film with hydrogen gas, which few amateur astronomers were attempting. He also ran a course in basic astronomy for several years at Woodfield Avenue primary school. My wife was a teacher there so I learned a great deal about David’s astronomy lessons, and in addition from two of our sons who attended his classes. David’s son Christopher and daughter Libby attended the school at the same time, so our paths crossed socially outside of the Society.

The photographs below show David’s home observatory and also a record of a visit made by Patrick Moore. (A photo of that event which also includes David has yet to be found amongst David’s very large photographic collection.) Patrick Moore visited during the 5 day conference of the International Union of Amateur Astronomers, which was held in Wolverhampton in 1994, the only time such a meeting has been held in the UK. The choice of venue was influenced by our contact with an IUAA member, the late Professor Vin Barocas, at what became the University of Central Lancashire. Weekend courses were held at the university’s Alston Hall, originally via the BAA, but for many years organised by the Society’s member Malcolm Astley with David as an ever-present attendee, occasionally with the participation of the AAE. We have received messages of condolence from astronomers who met David for the first time at those meetings.

David's home observatory
David’s home observatory
Patrick Moore visiting David's observatory in 1994
Patrick Moore visiting David’s observatory in 1994


David’s observatory was built with his father’s help, and some of us have personal memories of that. One job needed several extra pairs of hands, the fitting of the steel ring to which the dome was attached and enabled it to rotate. It had to be fitted into several pulley wheels which had been set in the top surface of the observatory wall. We found that it was an extremely difficult job and I became convinced that it was an idea which looked good on paper but maybe not so good in the real world. However, David was adamant that it would fit perfectly, once we had pulled the ring into the correct profile. And just to prove me wrong, when all seemed lost it snapped into position and rotated beautifully! Another job superbly done. David even persuaded the Council to blacken part of a street lamp to reduce light pollution, although some of us suspected that he may have climbed the ladder himself!

In summary, David made a massive contribution both to the Society and to amateur astronomy in general, over so many years. I would like to think that we will find the means to give the Society a permanent reminder of David’s unique place in its history.

Footnote:

David was the longest-serving member of Wolverhampton Astronomical Society (61 years in total), because he started much earlier and had been absent from the membership list for the least number of years, compared to any other current member.

David was also widely known as an accomplished sailor, a Commodore of Himley Sailing Club and an instructor for over 30 years. Shortly before he passed away, David learned that the Royal Yachting Association had jointly awarded David and Mary with a Community (Lifetime Commitment) Award for services to sailing. Mary will accept the award, accompanied by Christopher and Libby, on 24 November.