People: John Hellins

Name Hellins, John
Place of work Greenwich
Employment dates
29 Sep 1773 – 25 Mar 1776

Posts Assistant

Born c.1749


Died 1827, Apr 5


Born in Devon to a poor family, Hellins started his working life as an apprentice cooper. By the time he was about twenty, he had taught himself mathematics and became master of a small school at Bishop’s Tawnton where he made the acquaintance of Malachy Hitchins. It was on Hitchin’s recommendation that Hellins was taken on by Maskelyne as his assistant in succession to Reuben Burrow in 1773. In 1776, he was replaced by George Gilpin.

In a letter to Digby Marsh of Trinity College Dublin, written in November 1790 and relating to his recommendation of a suitable candidate to replace Henry Ussher, as Andrews Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Dunsink Observatory (established 1785), Maskelyne wrote:

‘Mr. Hellins was my Assistant for 2½ years, between Michaelmas 1773 and Lady Day 1776, six months of which I was absent in the experiment which I made for the Royal Society on the attraction of the mountain Schehallien in Scotland. It was not expected that that experiment would have taken me above two months, but owing to the extraordinary bad weather it happened otherwise. …

Mr. Hellins, however, though capable of the common business of observing, was the least serviceable Assistant I ever had, especially in the calcu­lation of observations, in which he made so little progress that I thought it necessary to part with him. This defect on his part I attributed to his weak constitution and delicate state of health, which will equally weigh against him on the present occasion, especially as an active person is wanted to set forward and promote a new establishment.’ (The Observatory, Vol. 34, p. 397–398, 1911)

While at Greenwich, Hellins qualified for holy orders, becoming curate of Constantine in Cornwall (1779–83), and afterwards at Greens Norton. In 1790, he was presented the living of Potterspury in Northamptonshire, where in the North Aisle of the parish church of St. Nicolas there is a small marble tablet in his memory. He matriculated (started as a student) at Trinity College Cambridge in 1789, graduating in 1800. Following his departure from the Observatory, he worked for Maskelyne as a Computer on the 1780 edition of the Nautical Almanac. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1796, being one of two of Maskelyne’s assistants to be so honoured. The other was John Brinkley.


Further Reading

An extract from a letter of the Rev. Mr. John Hellins, formerly assistant to Mr. (now Dr.) Maskelyne, the Astronomer-Royal at Greenwich Observatory, to Francis Maseres, Esq. Sept. 25, 1792

The letter was written on behalf of Maskelyne in reply to a pamphlet authored by Mr. [Thomas] Mudge.

Hellins, John (d. 1827). R. E. Anderson, rev. Adrian Rice, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

John Hellins (from Wikipedia)

Obituary (from The philosophical magazine or annals of chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, natural history, and general science, 1827)

Obituary (from The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, 1828)