People: James Carpenter

Name Carpenter, James
Place of work Greenwich
Employment dates
1854 – 28 Sep 1872

Posts 1854

Computer (Mag & Met followed by Astronomical Dept (1856?))

1859, Jul


1871, Apr 1

Second Class Assistant (following regrading exercise)

Born 1840

Died 1899, Oct 17


Objects named after him Carpenter crater (Moon)
Known Addresses 1841 London Street
  1851 4 Crooms Hill
43 Ashburnham Grove, with parents (census & bankruptcy notice)
  1871–1888 Chester Villa, (58) Greenwich South Street
  1899 Grove House, Lewisham


Born and brought up in Greenwich, James Carpenter was the only son of James Carpenter and his wife Charlotte, who also had several daughters. His father, a plumber, petitioned for bankruptcy in 1854 and spent some time in Maidstone prison. It was in that year that Carpenter junior started work at Greenwich as a Computer in the Magnetical and Meteorological Department at about the age of 14. He later transferred to the Astronomical Department and was an observer from 1856 onwards. When an Assistant post became vacant following the resignation of Hugh Breen (Jnr) in January 1859, after completing an examination to check his competency, Carpenter was appointed to the post in July 1859 (his script survives in the Archives (RGO6/4), but it is not known if other Computers also sat the exam). He was appointed on a salary of £100 a year, the same as the Assistants Criswick and Lynn (appointed in 1855 and 1856) were receiving. He appears to have been favoured by Airy. In 1862 he and Lynn were given a 20% pay rise, while Criswick, the more senior of the three (in length of service terms) was given nothing. Criswick eventually received a rise in 1866. Click here for details of their respective pay over the years. In 1871 when the pay scales were restructured, Carpenter together with Lynn and Criswick were all regraded as a Second Class Assistants. At this point, all three began receiving the same salary once again.

In 1861, Carpenter was put in charge of the newly completed Great Equatorial (the 12.8-inch Merz) undertaking some spectrographic work in 1863. He was charged with the care of the library and manuscripts and in 1866, wrote a history of the Observatory in three episodes for the Gentleman's Magazine. Having married Ellen, the daughter of Thomas Penn, on 21 October 1868 (at St Mary’s Lewisham), Carpenter resigned from the Observatory in 1872 in order to take up a post at the family firm, John Penn & Sons, marine engineers, who were a major employer in the area and whose main works on Blackheath Hill, were just a short distance from his home in Greenwich.

Chester Villa, Carpenter's marital home. Photographed May 2012

Carpenter is probably best know for his book The moon: considered as a planet, a world, and a satellite, which he wrote with James Nasmyth and which was first published in1874. Click here to read the second edition.


By William Ellis. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 60, p.316 (1900)

The Observatory, Vol. 22, p. 406-416 (1899)