Maskelyne’s Assistants (1765–1811)

Although Bliss died on 2 September 1764, Maskelyne was not appointed as his successor until 8 February 1765. Meanwhile, according to Abram Robertson who wrote the preface to the second volume of Bradley’s Observations, Charles Green continued as Assistant, apparently making his last observation on 15 March 1765, the day before Maskelyne took up residence. Howse (Nevil Maskelyne, Cambridge, 1989), goes on to say that Green left on Lady Day, 25 March, to be replaced by Joseph Dymond.

With the exception of Green, all the names and dates recorded in the list below have been compiled from the following sources:

  1. Lists of names written by Maskelyne on the inside covers of some of his manuscript Observing Books, specifically: from RGO4/3, RGO4/4, RGO4/5, RGO4/28 and RGO4/54. RGO4/3, RGO4/4 and RGO4/5 are three consequtive volumes of Transit Observations. They are designated repectively as T1, T2 and T3 in the table below. RGO4/28 is a Maskelyne's first volume of Quadrant Observations. Names from this volume are designated Q1 in the table below. RGO4/54 is a volume of Right Ascenscions of the Sun. Names from this volume are designated R1 in the table below. Although there are no lists of names in the rest of the series of Tranist Volumes, RGO4/6 and RGO4/7, the other volumes of Quadrant observations have not been checked. The lists included in the above sources generally only relate to the period covered by the specific volume. It is possible that similar lists survive elsewhere in other volumes in the archive.
  2. A partial list in Maskelyne’s hand, written in his memoradum book covering the period 1782–1788 (later in the possession of his descendents and now held by Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, (Ref: 1390/2D)). This list is designated MM in the table below. Its first entry is Thomas Horrox who came to the Observatory in 1786. Its last entry is Thomas Firminger who came to the Observatory in 1799.
  3. Two lists prepared in 1858 from original documents held at the Observatory by First Assistant Robert Main for LeVerrier in France (RGO6/4/8–10). These are designated 1a and Ob in the table below. Main compiled his first list (1a) from entries in Maskelyne’s hand which were written on the inside cover of the Observing Books (now designated RGO4/3, RGO4/4, RGO4/5 (see above). It consists of the names of eight assistants and the dates at which they were at the Observatory. The list is incomplete, as Maskelyne stopped recording such details in this way after 1787. His second list (Ob1), was compiled by looking at the manuscript copies of the transit observations and noting who had made the observations (it was only from 1824 onwards that each published observation was routinely accompanied by a note of the observer). As such, it gives the dates of the first and last transit observation made by each assistant. All but the first observations made by each assistant were denoted only by their initials leading Main at one point to confuse John Burnstead with John Brinkley. The dates given by Main in Ob1 were independetly checked in 2015 and are denoted Ob2 in the table. Six assistants appear to have never observed.
  4. A list published by Thomas Lindsay in the Transactions of the Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto for 1898 p.4. (Click here to download as a pdf). Lindsay’s list is designated 2 in the table below. Lindsay compiled his list partly from a transcription of list MM above. This was supplied to him together with other transcribed notes by Mrs Story-Maskelyne and her husband Professor Story-Maskelyne (Maskelyne’s Grandson). Much of the information in Lindsay’s list was included by former Assistant Henry Park Hollis in his article Greenwich Assistants during 250 years.
  5. A list published by Mary Croaken in 2003 in her paper Astronomical Labourers: Maskelyne’s Assistants at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, 1765–1811. (Click here to download as a pdf). Croaken’s list is designated list 3 in the table below. Croarken regrettably gives no details as to how her list was compiled.

The lists published by Lindsay and Croarken a similar, but not identical – some of the spellings and dates are at a slight variance. Lindsay and Croarken list six names not included in either of Main’s lists, all were employed for a period of seven weeks or less. Main’s list (Ob) includes an omission from all the others. This was when Malachy Hitchins assisted Maskelyne for several months in 1769 during Bayly’s absence on an expedition to observe the Transit of Venus in Norway. None of the three authors include Charles Green in their list.

Maskelyne generally only ever employed one assistant at any one time, and by and large, there was always an assistant in post. Over his 46 years as Astronomer Royal, 26 different individuals held the post of assistant, with three being re-employed on a second occasion. Their length of service varied enormously, with many only staying for a few weeks or months. On 19 May 1787, when turnover had been particularly high, Maskelyne compiled a list of over 40 individuals who might be able to recommend suitable candidates. At the same time, he recorded the ‘Qualities to be required for an Assistant.’

‘To understand Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Plane & spherical trigonometry, & Logarithms; to have a good eye and good ears, be well grown, & have a good constitution to enable him to apply several hours in the day to calculation, & to get up to the observations that happen at late hours in the night. To write a good hand, and be a ready & steady arithmetical computer. If he know something of Astronomy & had a mechanical turn so much the better. To be sober & diligent, & able to bear confinement. Age from 20 to 40.’ (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre,1390/2D).

 

 


 


Date

Name

List Number (see above) with Dates and Comments







1760–1765
Charles Green
n/a 1760 1765, Mar 25










1765–1766
Joseph Dymond
Q1: 1765, Mar 25 1766, Nov 14
T1 & 1a: 1765, May 07 1766, Nov 14





2 & 3: 1765, Mar 25 1766, Nov 11





Ob1 & Ob2: 1765, Jun 01 1766, Aug 18
1765, May 07 is also the date of Maskelyne’s first published transit observation










1766–1771 * William Bayly
Q1:
1766, [illegible] 25
1771, Mar 25
T1, 1a & 2 1766, Nov 14 1771, Mar 25





3: 1766, Nov 14 1771, Mar 24





Ob1 & Ob2: 1767, Feb 08 1769, Apr 05 &






1769, Aug 3 1771, Mar 29
Away on Transit of Venus expedition, Apr–Aug 1769










1769 * Malachy Hitchins
Ob1 & Ob2: 1769, Apr 24 1769, Aug 10
Covering while Bayly away on Transit of Venus expedition. 1 week overlap on Bayly’s return










1771–1773
Reuben Burrow
Q1, T1, T2 & 1a: 1771, Mar 25 1773, Sep 29





2: 1771, Mar 25 1773, Sep 25





3: 1771, Mar 23 1773, Sep 25





Ob1 & Ob2: 1771, Apr 12 1773, Sep 28









1773–1776 * John Hellins
Q1, T2, 1a & 3: 1773, Sep 29 1776, Mar 25





2: 1773, Sep 25 1776, Mar 25





Ob1 & Ob2: 1773, Nov 13 1776, Apr 05
List 2 gives name as Hillins










1776–1781 *
George Gilpin
Q1, T2, T3, 1a, 2 & 3: 1776, Mar 25 1781, Jul 30





Ob1 & Ob2: 1776, Apr 18 1781, Jul 29










1781–1786
Joseph Lindley
Q1, T3, R1, 1a, 2 & 3:
1781, Jul 30 1786, Sep 29





Ob1 & Ob2:
1781, Aug 22
1786, Sep 26 (Name spelt Linley)



recheck spellings

List 1a spelt Linley, list 2 spelt Linly, list 3 spelt Lindley










1786
Thomas Horrox
MM, 2 & 3: 1786, Sep 29
1786, Dec 09










1786–1787
Robert Gooch
MM, 2 & 3: 1786, Dec 09 1787, Jan 03










1787
George Plowman

MM, 2 & 3: 1787, Jan 05 1787, Jan 26
(or Flowman) List MM name partially illegible, list 2 spelt Flowman, list 3 spelt Plowman










1787
William Malachy Hitchins
T3, R1, MM, 1a, 2 & 3:
Ob1 & Ob2:
1787, Feb 10
1787, Mar 14

1787, Jun 23
1787, Jun 22










1787
John Brinkley
T3 & 1a 1787, Jun 23 Date not entered





R1, MM, 2 & 3: 1787, Jun 23 1787, Nov 09





Ob1 & Ob2: 1787, Jul 25 1787, Nov 09










1787
John Burnstead
MM, 2 & 3: 1787, Oct 16 1787, Dec 03





Ob1: 1787, Nov 11 1788, Mar 26
Ob2: 1787, Nov 11 1787, Dec 03
When compiling Ob1, Main appears to have forgotten that John Burnstead and John Brinkley shared the same initials. As a result, he failed to notice Brinley’s return on 27 Jan 1787 and listed Brinley’s observations and Burnstead’s










1787–1788 *
Joshua Moore
MM, 2 & 3: 1787, Dec 11 1788, Jan 29










1788
John Brinkley

R1, MM, 2 & 3: 1788, Jan 27 1788, Mar 28



  (returned)
Ob2:
1788, Jan 27
1788, Mar 26










1788–1789
William Garrard
R1, MM, 2 & 3: 1788, Mar 25 1789, Jul 01





Ob1 & Ob2: 1788, Apr 8 1789, Jun 30










1789
William Smith
MM, 2 & 3: 1789, Jul 01 1789, Jul 16










1789–1792 *
John Crosley
R1, MM, 2 & 3: 1789, Jul 16 1792, Apr 01





Ob1 & Ob2: 1789, Aug 10 1792, Apr 01










1792–1793
Benedict Chapman
R1, MM, 2 & 3: 1792, Apr 01 1793, Jul 01





Ob1 & Ob2: 1792, Apr 11 1793, Jun 30










1793–1794
Joseph Garnett
R1, MM, 2 & 3: 1793, Jul 01 1794, May 23





Ob1 & Ob2: 1793, Jul 09 1794, May 22
List 2 gives name as Joshua










1794–1796 *
David Kinnebrook
R1, MM, 2 & 3: 1794, May 23 1796, Feb 12





Ob1 & Ob2: 1794, Jun 18 1796, Jan 19










1796–1798
Thomas Evans
R1: 1796, Feb 14 Date not entered
MM: 2 & 3: 1796, Feb 12 1798, Jul 01





Ob1 & Ob2: 1796, Feb 29 1798, Jun 29










1798
William Garrard
MM, 2 & 3: 1798, Jul 01 1798, Jul 21



  (returned)
Ob1 & Ob2: 1798, Jul 01
1798, Jul 21










1798 * John Crosley
MM, 2 & 3: 1798, Jul 21 1798, Sep 22



  (returned)
Ob1 & Ob2: 1798, Jul 21
1798, Sep 21










1798
Robert Wallace
MM, 2 & 3: 1798, Sep 22 1798, Oct 17










1798–1799
Francis Nisbet
MM: 1798, Oct 19 Date not entered





2: 1798, Oct 17 Date not entered




3: 1798, Oct 19 1799, Dec 17





Ob1 & Ob2: 1798, Nov 03
1799, Mar 20










1799–1807
Thomas Firminger
MM: Name only without dates




2: 1799, Dec 17 Date not entered




3:
1799, Dec 17 c. 1807, Jul 01





Ob1 & Ob2: 1799, Mar 24 1807, Jun 29










1807–1835
Thomas Taylor
3: 1807, Jul 01
1835





Ob1 & Ob2: 1807, Jul 10

Date not entered









*Also employed at some point as a Computer on the Nautical Almanac.

† Mistakenly transcribed as William Malachy Hitchins in list OB1 (RGO6/4/8–10), but denoted as ‘The Rev. Mr. Malachy Hitchins’ in list T1 (RGO4/3) and the published transit observations for 24 April 1769.

‡ The date 1799, Dec 17 is presumed incorrect as it is irreconcilable with the dates on which Nisbet and Firminger are recorded as having observed in the observing books.