People: Thomas Evans

Name Evans, Thomas Simpson
Place of work Greenwich
Employment dates
12 Feb 1796 – 11 (or 7?) Jul 1798

Posts Assistant

Born 1776/7


Died 1818, Oct 28


Known addresses 1796–1798
Royal Observatory, Greenwich (Meridian Building)

Thomas Simpson Evans L.L.D. Silhouette bust, to the right, in oval, with diagram of the 47th Proposition of Euclid below. Stipple and engraving on chine collé. © Trustees of the British Museum (museum number: 1865,0520.434)

Born in Berkshire, Evans, whose father was curate of Ashbury and a a mathematician, was named after another a mathematician, Thomas Simpson. At the age of 19, Evans became Maskelyne’s assistant in succession to David Kinnebrook whose career was cut short due to a lack of knowledge at that time about personal equations. Today he is remembered for an article he wrote about the Observatory that was first published in 1804. It included the following much quoted description of the life of an assistant:

‘Nothing can exceed the tediousness and ennui of the life the assistant leads in this place, excluded from all society, except, perhaps, that of a poor mouse which may occasionally sally forth from a hole in the wall, to seek after crumbs of bread dropped by his lonely companion at his last meal! This, of course, must tend very much to impede his acquiring astronomical information, and damp his ardour for those researches which conversation with scientific men never fails to inspire. Here forlorn, he spends days, weeks, and months, in the same long wearisome computations, without a friend to shorten the tedious hours, or a soul with whom he can converse. He is also frequently up three or four times in the night, (an hour or two each time,) and always one week in the month when the moon souths in the night time, with the owls perched on the fir-trees in the park below, screaming by way of answer to him when he opens the sliding shutters, in the roof of the building, to make his observations! A zealous wish on his part to promote so divine a science as that of astronomy, joined to an awful contemplation of the wonderful works of the Almighty, are the sole objects that afford him pleasure in this solitary hermitage’. Click here to read the full article.

Life can’t always have been quite so tedious, for on 7 June 1798, a month before he left the Observatory he married Deborah Mascall, the governess to Maskelyne’s daughter Margaret! (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre,1390/2H). He then took charge of a private Observatory less than a kilometer away at Point House in West Grove, Blackheath, that belonged to William Larkins, formerly accountant-general to the East India Company at Bengal. Following Larkin’s death in April 1800, Evans secured an appointment as a mathematical master under his father who had recently been appointed first mathematical master at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. In 1810, he became Master of the mathematical school in New Charlton and in 1813, master of mathematics at Christ’s Hospital School. He was replaced at Greenwich by William Garrard.


Further reading

Astronomical Labourers: Maskelyne's Assistants at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 1761–1811. Mary Croarken, Notes Rec. R. Soc Lond. 57(3), 285–298 (2003)

Evans, Thomas Simpson (1776/7–1818), Gordon Goodwin, rev. H. K. Higton, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

Evans, Thomas Simpson (DNB00). From Wikisource