People: Cuthbert Denton

Name Denton, Cuthbert
Place of work Greenwich
Employment dates
1676 – 1680 (or later)

Posts Labourer, Servant and Assistant to Flamsteed

Cuthbert Denton has the distinction of being the first individual appointed to assist at the Observatory. A Labourer at the Ordnance, he was seconded from the Tower (of London) in January 1675/6. The order that appointed him, (a copy of which can be found at Cambridge (RGO1/35/98)), has been copied below from p.909 of Volume 1 of Flamsteed’s Correspondence (See section below headed ‘further reading’).

Whereas His Majesty hath Verbally Comanded me to send one of the Labourers belonging to the Office of the Ordnance to Greenwich Hill to be employed in the Observatory there and Elsewhere as Sir Jonas Moore Knight Surveyor Generall of the Ordinance should appoint, These are to pray and require you forthwith to send Cuthbert Denton one of the said Labourers to Greenwich Hill aforesaid to be employed as aforesaid, and to Obey all such Orders and Directions as shall be given him by the said Sir Jonas Moore, Either to repare to Labour at Woolwich, Deptford or Elsewhere as he shall think fit, and for soe doeing this shall be your Warrant

Tho. Chicheley  [Master General of the Ordnance]

28th January 1675[/76].

We know little about Denton apart from the order above and a few mentions by name or role in Flamsteed’s Correspondence. It would seem that Flamsteed resented his appointment, held him in low regard and was prone to complain about his faults especially his drinking; explaining to Towneley in November 1679 for example, how ‘our frequent Cloudy weather and a drunken ignorant servant hinder mee much’.

Writing in late 1699, Flamsteed described the purpose for which he had been provided: ‘to move the Instruments, Count the Clock, and call him [Flamsteed] at hours in the night proper for his business.’ on 9/10 October 1700, he elaborated his thoughts on the matter and how he had eventually persuaded the Ordnance to allow him to appoint someone of his own choosing instead:

‘The Laborer being paid by the Office of the Ordnance as well as myselfe lookt upon himselfe as the Kings servant. and being a person onely fit for hard labor was often rather a hinderance then helpe to me but allwayes a certeine charge for I was forced to allow him diet or want his attendance when I had on occasion for him on his pretence of providing it. till in the year 1694: The Officers allowed me to Name my own laborer since which time I have named one of my own servants and receaved his pay for his maintenance which is a favour I must ever acknowledg.’

Flamsteed’s Equatorial Sextant (which was his main observing instrument until he constructed his Mural Arc in 1689), required three people in order to use it. Unable to secure funding for a second assistant, Flamsteed additionally took on Thomas Smith in April 1676 at his own expense.

Although the last mention of Denton still being at Greenwich comes in a letter Flamsteed wrote at the end of 1680, when he actually left is at the moment unclear. There is however mention of a labourer (but not by name) in a letter Flamsteed wrote to Sherbourne on 12 July 1682 which seems to imply that Denton or a replacement was still in post at that date.


Further reading

An account of the Revd. John Flamsteed, Francis Bailey, (London, 1835)

The correspondence of John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, ed. E. G. Forbes and others, 3 vols. (1995–2001)