People: Thomas Downs

Name Downs, Thomas Sturges (or Sturgess or Sturgis)
Place of work Greenwich

Employment dates
8 October 1839 – 31 December 1863

Observatory posts 1839, Oct 8

Supernumerary Computer (RGO6/72/100)

1845, Nov

Magnetic Assistant
1849 Supernumerary Computer
1852, May
Magnetic Assistant

Subsequent posts
1864, Jan 1

None (see below)

Born 1822, Oct 18 (baptised St Alfege Greenwich 1823, Feb 9)
Died 1904, Nov 29 (St Pancras, London)

Known addresses
15 (Great) George Street, (later amalgamated with Upper George Street and Little George Street and renamed as King George Street. The 1870 Street directory indicates that the two sides of the road were independently numbered)

Baildon House, New Cross
1871–1888 4 & 5 Adam Street (off the Strand)
1891–1901 45 & 46 Woburn Place (near Russell Square)
1904 54 Swinton Street, Gray’s Inn Road

Thomas Downs has the distinction of being the first computer to be taken on by Airy for the routine work of the Observatory as opposed to working on the reductions of the Greenwich Planetary and Lunar Observations made between 1750 and 1830. He was taken on on a salary not exceeding one guinea a week for ‘one year or such time as their lordships [of the Admiralty] may seem fit’ (RGO6/72/100).

In December 1840 he was put to work for two months to work on the historic Planetary and Lunar Reductions (RGO6/532/17). In October 1841 he was transferred again, this time for a period of four months (RGO6/534/4). He was employed likewise from September to December 1842, in March, July and August 1843 (RGO6/535/14 & RGO6/536/14), and June, July and August 1844 (RGO6/537/9&10). His salary for working on the lunar reductions was initially £4.10s. In around 1844, this was increased to £5 a month.

When Edwin Dunkin was promoted from Magnetic Assistant to Astronomical Assistant towards the end of October 1845, Downs was taken on as his replacement. His salary immediately doubled to £120 a year. All was well until 1849, when the number of observers was reduced, with the intention of carrying on the observations and reductions on a more limited scale. As a result the number of assistants in the department was reduced from three to one. Of the three existing assistants, Humphreys resigned around this time, Henderson (who had been appointed after Downs) was retained as the assistant and Downs was retained as a computer (salary unknown).

When Henderson was promoted to Astronomical Assistant on 30 May 1852, Downs took over his post as Magnetic Assistant. He remained in post until his resignation at the end of 1863. In his resignation letter to Airy (19 November 1863 (RGO6/5/147)), he wrote: ‘In consequence of the changes that took place in my home arrangements at the end of the year 1861, the chief cause of my remaining at the Royal Observatory was removed.’ Airy’s reply (RGO6/5/149), suggests that Downs had previously expressed a desire to travel and that Airy was sorry to lose him. Regrettably, the records in the Observatory archives fail to shed any further light on the reason for his departure.

Based on information from various censuses, it seems that Downs lived with his parents in George Street from at least 1841 until 1861. His house would have been roughly opposite that of William Rogerson and it was perhaps though him that he was originally recruited. His father was Thomas a ‘Sawyer Carpenter’ and his mother Susannah. In the 1841 census, his father is described as a ‘Surveyor’. In the 1851 census he is described as a ‘Retired Customs House Officer. His father died between 1851 and 1861 and his mother in the last quarter of 1861. In the 1861 census, she is described as Head of household and a ‘Fund Holder’ suggesting she had inherited investments from his father or elsewhere. On her death, these appear to have passed to Downs. So either that or the removal of the need to care for his mother was the change of his circumstances referred to in his resignation letter. He may have travelled, but by 1871. he had settled in the centre of London. He lived as the Lodger of Thomas William Clark at 4 & 5 Adam Street until the late 1880s (he is in the Westminster Rate Books until 1888). He then moved to 45 & 46 Woburn Place, where he lived until at least 1901 as one of around a dozen boarders, many of whom were living off a private income. He then moved to 54 Swinton Street, Gray’s Inn Road, which is where he was living when he died at the end of 1904.

The whole family had a very fluid approach to age.  His father aged by 13 years between censuses, Thomas Sturges by as little as 7 years and as much as 20! He was presumably 18 at the 1841 census.


Further reading

Thomas Sturges Downs deceased. From The London Gazette, 27 January 1905. (pdf)