Wolvas visit to The Herschel Museum, Bath – 19th Nov 2022

by Cath Adams

On 19 November 2022 19 members of the society visited the Herschel Museum in Bath.

The weather was sunny and travelling separately we had arranged to meet at the museum at 2pm, which was closed to the public at that time for us, so that we could have a private tour conducted by two members of staff, Charlotte and Les.  Also on hand was Simon Holbeche of Bath Astronomers who knew the museum very well and not only shared information and stories about William Herschel and his telescopes, but answered all our questions.  We had a good old look round and were permitted to take photographs but not touch the exhibits.

The museum is in the former home of William Herschel, as well as being his home it was also his place of work where he built many telescopes in his workshop.  William’s sister Caroline lived there, she was housekeeper and assisted William in his work.  Caroline was an excellent astronomer, she contributed to the Flamsteed Catalogue and discovered many comets.

An exact replica of Herschel’s 7ft telescope is on display at the museum, this was the telescope he used to discover the planet Uranus in 1781.

The notes that he made at that time are also on display, his journal with observation notes on the Georgian planet – later called Uranus.

A scale model of the largest telescope he made, with a 48 inch mirror and 40ft focal length, mounted in a wooden framework with the observing platform at the top.  It needed at least two people to rotate it.  Unfortunately it was found that the mirror tarnished quickly and the impressive instrument was not a great success.

In the garden a plaque and circular paved area has been laid to commemorate the spot from where the planet Uranus was discovered, although the exact place in the garden is unknown, in Herschel’s day the garden was a lot longer than what it is now.

plaque to commemorate the spot from where the planet Uranus was discovered

Member Steve Morrall commented:

“Of particular interest to me was the reproduction of William’s 7ft long Newtonian with a unique focusing system.  It must have been pretty good to be the first to spot the small blue companion of Polaris.  The other item of particular interest was William’s notebook which was on loan.  You can see his first description of Uranus as “a curious other nebulous star or perhaps a comet”, noted whilst scanning Gemini.  Another note showed how William and Caroline scanned known areas of sky looking for anything different or undiscovered.  We have to be grateful to Caroline for starting cataloguing what is now the New General Catalogue.”

…and member Linda Manas gave us a musical perspective on William Herschel:

William Herschel was born in the Electorate of Hanover, then part of the Holy Roman Empire.  His father Isaac was an oboist in the Hanover Military Band.  In 1755 the Hanoverian Guards regiment, in whose band Wilhelm and his brother Jakob were oboists, was ordered to England.  The crowns of Great Britain and Hanover were united under George II.  As war with France loomed, the Hanoverian Guards were recalled from England to defend Hanover.  After they were defeated, Herschel’s father sent William and Jakob to seek refuge in England in 1757.  William was nineteen.  In addition to the oboe he played the violin, harpsichord and later the organ.  He composed 24 symphonies, many concertos and church music.

Herschel moved to Sunderland in 1761 as first violin and soloist for the Newcastle orchestra.  He was also head of the Durham Militia Band.  He later became the organist of Halifax Minster.  In 1766, Herschel became organist of the Octagon Chapel, Bath and Director of Public Concerts.

His sister Caroline arrived in England on 24 August 1772 to live with William in New King Street, Bath.  In 1780, Herschel was appointed director of the Bath orchestra, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist.

There were so many cabinets with interesting exhibits, we asked the staff if a guide book was available, but amazingly no one has yet produced one.  Here are a few more of the things on display:

All in all everyone had a great day out.