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Christie’s ‘Lady Computers’

By 1889, the new Astronomer Royal, William Christie had been in office for eight years and overseen a considerable expansion in the number of large telescopes both deployed and planned. But the number of staff both permanent and temporary had remained essentially unchanged.

Large telescopes acquired by Christie
First agreed
First light
Lassell 2-foot Reflector 1883 1884
28-inch Photo Visual Refractor 1885 1893
13-inch Astrographic Refractor 1888 1890
Thompson 9-inch Photographic Refractor 1890 1891
Large Altazimuth 1892 1896
26-inch Thompson Refractor 1894 1897
30-inch Thompson Reflector 1895 1898

The matter was raised by Christie at the annual meeting of the Board of Visitors, in 1887 and again in 1889. He ended his Reports, which were both written during the month of May, as follows:

‘I believe that the maximum of efficiency at the minimum cost would be attained if an increase of work were met by an increase in the staff of computers, with due recognition of the position of two or three senior computers, and of the increased responsibility of the Assistants.’

‘In order to meet the pressure of computing work, the Admiralty have authorised an addition to the grant for Computers, and their number has accordingly been increased; but this does not meet the difficulty felt in providing for the proper supervision of the growing work of the Observatory, which can hardly be carried on efficiently unless some means are taken the strengthen the supervising staff.’

Extra computers were all very well (their number to rose from 14 in 1888 to 23 in 1893), but what Christie really wanted was more assistants to help run the new telescopes and for this there was no immediate prospect of money being provided. To this end, he made the decision to ‘experiment’ with employing ‘Lady Computers’ with an enhanced role to run the programme planned for the about to be insalled Astrographic Telescope. Only women who had attended a University Ladies’ College were employed. Four were taken on together in 1890, with the aim of running them as a team under the supervision of the most senior in age, Isabella Clemes, who was roughly 20 years older than the others. All four women were unmarried and had attended a college at Cambridge. They were Isabella Jane Clemes, Edith Mary Rix and Harriet Maud Furniss from Newnham and Alice Everett from Girton. An entry in the Journal of the Chief Asistant (Herbert H Turner) tells us that they all began work on 14 April and were initially set to work on re-computing the transit observations from 1886 (RGO7/29).

The observatory in the summer of 1891. Detail from a postcard by Perkins, Son & Venimore (PS&V)

Although it is not known when Clemes resigned, it would seem likely that it was at some point during 1891 and no later than 7 October (RGO7/140/13). She was committed to Bethlem Hospital in 1892 and does not appear to have been replaced. Furniss resigned on 31 January 1891 and was eventually replaced on 1 September by Annie Russell (RGO7/29, RGO7/140 & RGO7/29), a contemporary of Everett’s at Girton. Rix resigned in March 1892 on health grounds and was not replaced. The employment of women came to an end in 1895 after Everett secured a position at the Observatory in Potsdam (where she is said to have started work on 1 October) and Russell resigned a few months later on 31 October to marry her colleague E Walter Maunder (at that time, married women were not allowed to work in public service) (RGO7/29/156).

Start date
Leave date

Clemes Newnham 1881, senior optime 1890, Apr 14    43       £8 1891?

Everett Girton 1889, senior optime 1890, Apr 14
25       £6 1895, July 5***

Rix Newnham 1889, did not sit exam 1890, Apr 14 24       £4 1892, Mar

Furniss Newnham 1889, aegrotat 1890, Apr 14 c.23       £4 1891, Jan 31

Russell Girton 1889, senior optime 1891, Sep 1
23       £4 1895, Oct 31***

     *   Students were graded wrangler (first class), senior optime (second class) and junior optime (third class)
     **  RGO7/140/115 & 73–4
     *** Dates from RGO7/266

A brief biography of each of the five women can be found towards the bottom of the page.


The mystery of the missing records

The file RGO7/140 in the Observatory archives carries the title Lady Computers. It is of interest as much for what isn’t in it as what is. Although there are several letters of application (the earliest are dated 3, 4, 5 and 6 of February 1890), all the early ones received the reply that there were no vacancies at present, implying that Clemes, Rix, Furniss and Everett had both been offered and accepted a post by then. Of those four individuals there is nothing in the file relating directly to their appointment. Nor does there appear to be any information elsewhere amongst Christie’s papers in the archive. There are also no resignation letters from either Clemes or Everett. Even stranger, although the Observatory kept a register of computers, only the names of the two Girtonians (Everett and Russell) were entered (RGO7/266). The register states that both Everett and Russell worked in the Astrographic Department. It also states that Russell worked in the Heliographic Department, but because (as is frequently the case), it is not possible to tell if this information was added to the Register later, it is not clear if she was jointly assigned there from when she first joined the Observatory or if (as seems more likely from the published observations) she was assigned there at a later date. It also doesn’t list her as having an observing certificate for the Photoheliograph, though this may well be an omission.


The intended role of the women

The only known contemporary references (published or otherwise) to the proposed role of the women come from two brief articles that were published in 1890 and 1891. The first, titled Women at the Royal Observatory was published in The Pall Mall Gazette on Wednesday 23 April 1890 (and copied almost verbatim in a number of other papers and journals including: The Local Government Gazette on 24 April and The Leeds Mercury on 10 May). The second was an article by Isabella Clemes titled Woman’s place and work that was published in America on 20 June 1891 in The Churchman. The two articles are reproduced in full below:

From The Pall Mall Gazette (23 April 1890)

‘It is not generally known that a department has been recently opened at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, which is presided over entirely by women. Four ex-Newnham students, at the head of whom is Miss Clemes, a lady who was for some years resident in Manchester, are engaged in daily work at the Observatory. Their employment includes exact measurement from photographs, as well as actual photography and night observations. The arrangement is said to be only tentative, but if Miss Clemes and her associates succeed in making themselves useful the Women’s Department will doubtless become a permanent institution.’

From The Churchman, Vol 63 p.987 (20 June 1891)

In writing of “Women’s Work in the Greenwich Observatory,” in England, Isabella J. Clemes says:

“Amongst the changes of the past year, that of the employment of women in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich has awakened a more widespread interest than at first sight appears to be justified, either by the social or the industrial importance of the movement.

The profession of astronomy is limited for men, and must necessarily, under the most favourable circumstances, be still more so for women. At the present time there are than half a dozen women in England who are following astronomy as a profession, and it is improbable that there will ever be employment for more than twenty, either at Greenwich or elsewhere. Women, in as far as they are astronomers, are accumulators of facts rather than propounders of theories. They are busy emulating weather-beaten seamen in feats of vision, trying to acquire the delicate touch of the watchmaker, the fine ear of the organ builder, and the open mind of the student of Nature, In this way they learn the common rudiments of a working education, and become sharers of the popular interests of ordinary life.

Having briefly premised so much – having claimed for women astronomers the common insight gained from work, and the common sympathies that unite all workers – I may now consider, as far as may be, the uncommon elements of their employment – those details which belong to the province of practical astronomy. The work divides itself naturally into two parts: the first is the reduction of observations to a regular form, which is the occupation of the day, and the second is the taking of observations at night. The reductions, with which the women’s department is at present chiefly concerned, are those that relate to time. We get our time from Greenwich, but Greenwich must get it every day, if possible, from the sun and stars. To get it roughly within a few seconds, is easy; but the effort to reach perfection is always a difficult task, and to obtain true time within a hundredth of a second involves much calculation. In this work there is a good deal of monotonous detail to be gone through; similar spaces must be measured over and over again, and the same calculations repeated day after day until they become merely mechanical. But in this, what hardship is there, what difficulty beyond the experience of ordinary workers? We see none; for everywhere all-pervading necessity is upon us – upon women as well as men – to follow the narrow way of patient, self-forgetting effectiveness if we would enter into life.

Internal view of the Octagon Room in the late 1890s. The women would have worked at the large table. From The Leisure Hour (1898)

The women at Greenwich, however are not always spinning webs of figures. During the last summer [1890] they were learning photography, and were being prepared for their at present occasional evening occupation – the special work for which they will ultimately be held responsible – that of taking photographs of the stars. To those who delight in connecting the present with the past, the building and surroundings of the Observatory, full as they are of historic associations, offer many and varied attractions. One room in particular, the octagon, is especially interesting, as being the observatory of Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal. It is here that the women do their computations, surrounded by the portraits of illustrious astronomers, who being dead yet speak, telling of the triumphs of industry, ingenuity, and genius, which recognize no distinction of sex, and are no prerogative of a class.”

Ordered in 1888 and delivered in March1890 (RGO7/29/106), the 13-inch Astrographic Refractor was one of a number of similar telescopes that were commissioned around that time to take part of an international project to produce a photographic map of the sky (Carte du Ciel). Made by Sir Howard Grubb of Dublin, it consisted of a 13-inch photographic refractor with a focal length of about 11 feet 3 inches (3.43m), firmly connected to a parallel 10-inch visual guiding telescope of the same focal length on a German Equatorial mount. It contributed to both the Carte du Ciel and the Astrographic Catalogue.

The Astrographic Refractor at Greenwich. Photo by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company. Known to have been published in Pearson's Magazine in 1896, this higher quality reproduction is taken from the Greenwich Astrographic Catalogue, Volume 1, (HMSO, 1904)

Between May 1890 and May 1891, the instrument was brought into working order, with various details of the plate-holders, réseaux, etc, being arranged. Work remained at an experimental stage until December 1891. Amongst other things, photographs were taken to test the distortion of the object-glass and different photographic plates. Everett gave an account of the work to the British Astronomical Association at their meeting on 30 September 1892, stating that beside the assistant in charge, that there were four observers, two of whom were ladies (all the other women having left by then).

A regular programme of taking photographic plates for the catalogue commenced in December 1891 and experimental measure of some of the photographs in 1893. In the meantime, the women were used from time to time to measure some of the solar plates. The introductions to the published observations state that Everett, Rix and Russell all measured solar plates in 1891 and 1892, but only Russell in 1893, 1894 and 1895. The earliest published Measures of position and areas of sun spots and faculae to be made by each of the individuals was as follows: Rix (ER) on 15 February 1891. Everett (AE) on 17 March 1891 and Russell (AR) on 4 September 1892 (suggesting that the information contained in the introduction for 1891 was incorrect). As things turned out, the only woman to measure the astrographic plates from which published results were obtained was Everett. She was involved in measuring them from October 1894 to July 1895. Everett is recorded as having made 4 observations of Comet b 1893 on 16 & 22 July 1893, (seemingly under the supervison of Crommelin and Hollis), with the Sheepshanks Equatorial, but did not, as implied by others, make any observations of double stars that year, though she did do an analysis of the binary Iota Leonis which was published in MNRAS, having been communciated on her behalf by Thomas Lewis

The Duplex Micrometer (by Troughton & Simms) for measuring the positions of the stars on the photographic plates. It was brought into use in January 1895. Photo by Thames Engineering Ltd. from the Greenwich Astrographic Catalogue, Volume 1, (HMSO, 1904)

An examination of the published volumes shows (despite what has been stated by others), that none of the women took any of the published transit observations in the year 1891 nor in 1892. or 1893. Although the volumes for 1894 and 1895 have not yet been checked, it seems unlikely that they would have made observations in those years either.


Women and the Astrographic units in other observatories

Christie was not the only observatory director to take on women specifically to measure the astrographic plates, but he may well have been the first. In her paper The work of women in astronomy (published in 1899), Dorothea Klumpke states that no less than seven of the eighteen observatories participating in the Cart du Ceil had women employed to measure them. They were: Paris, Cape of Good Hope, Helsingfors, Toulouse, Potsdam, Greenwich and Oxford. Those at Paris were measured under the direction of Klumpke herself in her capacity as the first Director of the micrometric service established by Mouchez in February 1892 at the Bureau of Measurements. Klumpke’s list is incomplete as by 1898, there was also a woman working at the Melbourne observatory.



Although better educated than most of the Observatory’s Assistants the pay and conditions of the Lady Computers were broadly the same as those of the existing Boy Computers who were typically paid between £3 and £8 a month. The table below has been compiled from information in RGO7/266 and RGO7/133 and shows the actual salaries of the Boy Computers who were in employment on 1 July 1888.

Length of service
(years & Months)
Power 12y + break in service
10y 4m (age c.25)
 6y 2m
McClellan*  8y 9m
 5y 2m
 4y 9m
 5y 2m
 3y 2m
 3y 5m
 2y 4m
 2y 1 m
 3y 2m
 2y 11m
Cochrane  0y 11 m
*Mag & Met Computer

Unlike the boys who were generally still living with their parents, the Lady Computers had to find and pay for their own accommodation. Their monthly pay on appointment ranged from £4 to £8 and is detailed in the table towards the top of the page. Rix, Everett and Russell are all recorded in Greenwich Observations as having observed from the year 1891 onwards. Everett and Russell had an observing certificate for the Astrographic Telescope and this would have entitled them to a small extra allowance (ROG7/266). The records show that Rusell and Everett were also given a rise of 10s a month on 31 May 1894 (RGO7/137). None the less, their pay was considerably lower than that of the Second Class (Junior) Assistants who held pensionable posts with a starting salary of £200 and annual increments of £10 up to a maximum of £300 a year. They were also paid much less than they could have earned as a teacher. Indeed, Russell gave up her teaching post, for which she was paid £80 a year plus board, to come to Greenwich and Rix (whose pay had been increased to £5 a month by October 1891 (RGO7/140/14&54) turned down a job offer with the Labour Commission in February 1892 that would have paid her £150 a year, because she wanted to continue to work at Greenwich (RGO7/140/89). It must have been particularly galling when Andrew Crommelin was appointed as a Second Class Assistant in 1891 as his sister, Constance, (who had also studied mathematics), had been in the same year as Rix at Newnham.


Segregation from the Boy Computers

It’s clear from the article in The Churchman (above), that the women (at least to start with) did all their computations in the Octagon Room, which had been brought back into temporary use for this purpose between the autumn of 1887 and the spring of 1888 while the existing computing rooms were being extended. In his 1890 Report to the Board of Visitors, Christie made the somewhat mysterious comment that the room had been ‘assigned as a private room to the Computers’. It would appear that it was only the team of women who were assigned to the Octagon Room at this time. Rather than being a deliberate attempt to segregate them from the men, this may have been simply a practical arrangement as the Octagon Room was probably the only place in the Observatory where, at that time, four desk spaces could be provided for the new department. Given that the women would also have needed toilet facilities, it is possible that ones more suitable for their use would have been closer to hand. Clearly anything practical to do with the use of the Astrographic telescope would have taken place in the Astrographic Dome above the newly extended main computing room at the west end of what today is usually referred to as the Meridian Building. It is not known at present where the plate measuring machines were located at that time. Since both the telescope and the plate measuring machines were used by the men, the women were not segregated for the whole of their working week.

The Astrographic Dome (right) in about 1908. From a postcard published by Henry Richardson Ltd



Little information is available as to where the five women lived. The list below shows their known addresses on specific dates. They are the only addresses so far identified.

Clemes ?
Furniss 1890, Dec 30* 9 Crooms Hill
Rix 1892, Jun 30*** Crooms Hill
Everett 1892, Feb 12** 8 Gloucester Place (now 8 Gloucester Circus)
1892, Jun 30*** 9 Crooms Hill
1893, Jun 30*** 18 The Circus (now 38 Gloucester Circus)
1894, Jun 30*** 18 The Circus (now 38 Gloucester Circus)
Russell 1892, Feb 12** 16 The Circus (now 36 Gloucester Circus)
1894, Jun 30*** 16 The Circus (now 36 Gloucester Circus)

     * Resignation letter (RGO7/140/96)    **Nomination form for fellowship of Royal Astronomical Society
     *** List of Members of the British Astronomcial Association

Looking westwards along The Circus. Number 18 is the first house from the left not to have arched windows. Number 16 is two doors to its right. Gloucester Place was on the other side of the circus, with number 8 being more of less opposite. From postcard No. 630 published by Perkins Son & Venimore (PS&V) in 1904

Looking Eastwards along Gloucester Place towards Greenwich Park. Number eight where Everett lived for a while is the fourth house from the far end of the terrace on the left. All the houses to its left have since been demolished. From postcard No. 654 published by Perkins Son & Venimore (PS&V) in 1904

All the houses in the above list were located roughly 600m from the Observatory and within just a few minutes walk of each other close to the north west corner of the Park with easy access to either of Greenwich’s two stations (Greenwich and the now demolished Greenwich Park). By contrast, most of the Assistants lived on higher ground on the opposite side of the Park. Between 1885 and 1888, three of them, Maunder, Hollis and Lewis moved into newly built houses in Ulundi Road, staying until 1895, 1896 and 1917 respectively. They were joined in 1893 by Crommelin who moved away in 1894, only to return in 1899.


Fixed term or open ended contacts?

The correspondence that took place between Rix’s mother and Christie in early 1892, implies that Rix’s appointment was for a fixed period of three years. It is not known if such a time limit applied to Clemes, Furniss and Everett. Although Clemes and Furniss both resigned during their first year in office, Everett remained at the Observatory for over five years. There is no correspondence however to suggest that her contact was ever extended once the initial three years were up. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that Russell was employed on anything other than an open ended contract.


The Regulations for Supernumerary Computers and the appointment of Assistants


Membership of the British Astronomical Association

The British Astronomical Association was founded in the Autumn of 1890, with its first General Meeting being held on 24 October. Amongst those involved in its founding were two of the senior Greenwich Assistants, Maunder and Downing and their more junior colleague Hollis. All four of the Greenwich women joined the Association before the end of the year, after which date, all prospective member had to be nominated and voted for in a ballot of the members. At the meeting held on 28 October 1891 (the second to be held after she joined the Observatory), Russell was nominated for membership. Her proposer was Everett and her seconder was Rix. She was elected (which required three quarters of the membership to vote for her) at the next meeting. This was held on 25 November. Between October 1890 and October 1895, members of the Observatory staff held the following offices:

October 1890 to October 1891 (Click here for full list)

Vice-President: Downing
Editor: Maunder

October 1891 to October 1892 (Click here for full list)

Vice-President: Downing
Editor: Maunder

October 1892 to October 1893 (Click here for full list)

President: Downing
Editor: Maunder
Director Mars section: Maunder
Council: Everett

October 1893 to October 1894 (Click here for full list)

President: Downing
Secretary: Everett
Editor: Maunder

October 1894 to October 1895 (Click here for full list)

President: Maunder
Vice-President: Downing
Secretary: Everett
Editor: Russell

Having left the Observatory, Clemes, Everett and Rix all allowed their membership to lapse. All three appear on the membership list dated 30 June 1892. Rix alone appears on the list dated June 1893, but is not on the one for the following year. Rix did however rejoin and was elected on 28 October 1903 having been nominated by E Walter Maunder and seconded by Annie. Her address at that time was given as 1 Akehurst Gardens, Roehampton.


Rejection by the Royal Astronmical Society

The meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) held on Friday 12 February 1892 was a significant one on two counts. Firstly it was the date when new officers and council members were elected and secondly, a provocative attempt was made to get Russell, Everett and the amateur solar astronomer Elizabeth Brown elected as fellows of the society, which at that point, had no female fellows. The last woman to have been nominated was Isis Pogson in 1886. On that occasion, after taking advice, the Council of the Society decided that the use of the pronoun ‘he’ throughout its Royal Charter meant that women could not become fellows and Pogson’s nomination was withdrawn.

Proposer Arthur Downing E. Walter Maunder William Noble
First seconder William Huggins J.G. Petrie William Maw
Second seconder Isaac Roberts William Schooling E. Walter Maunder

Each candidate needed a proposer and two seconders. Arthur Downing, the outgoing secretary of the society (and recently appointed Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac Office) was the proposer for Everett, whilst Maunder, who was one of two new secretaries to be elected at the meeting, was the proposer for Russell and a seconder for Brown. The nomination forms were unusual. Firstly they were all completed on the day of the meeting (rather than in advance of the meeting as would more normally have been the case). Secondly, they appear to have been completed by a third party acting on on their behalf, and thirdly, the word ‘him’ on each form has been crossed our and replaced with the word ‘her’. While reiterating its earlier view, the RAS Council allowed the names to go forward to be voted on by the Fellows as they saw fit.

The names of the officers and Council members were: Knobel, Christie, Glaisher, Stone, Tennant, Common, Maunder, Turner, Huggins, Abney, Cayley, Cockle, Downing, Knott, McClean, Maw, Plummer, Raynard, Roberts, Sidgreaves and Spitta. Of these 21 individuals, five had signed the nomination papers, four, including the Astronomer Royal, were on the staff of the Royal Observatory (Chrisitie, Turner, Maunder and Downing) and five were on the Observatory’s Board of Visitors (Glaisher, stone, Tennant, Huggins and Cayley).

When the secret ballot took place at the meeting on 8 April, none of the women received the 75% of votes in their favour that they need to be elected. A few months later, despite being bound by the language of the Charter, the RAS Council gave women access to learned scientific discussion when it resolved that the President could issue cards of admission ‘to such persons as it may be thought desirable to admit’.

In contrast to the Royal Charter of the Royal Astronomical Association, the Rules of the British Astronomical Association, which were agreed at its inaugural meeting made it very clear that women were welcome, with Rule 3 stating:

‘The Association shall consist of Members, to be elected as herein-after provide. Ladies shall be eligible for election as Members of the Association, and no expression herein-after used shall be held to debar them from exercising any right of privilege of the Association, or from filling any office to which they may be elected.’

Russell was eventually elected as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1916 following the granting of a Supplemental Charter in 1915 by George V, which unambiguously opened the Fellowship to women.


An early offer to Agnes Clerke

The Lassell Telescope in its dome at Greenwich. Sketched from life on 27 January 1888 (RGO7/29) and originally published by the Pall Mall Gazette on 30 January 1888. This copy is reproduced from Cudworth's: Life and Correspondence of Abraham Sharp (London, 1889)

Agnes Clerke (1842–1907) is best known as the author of A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century which though still available today, was first published in 1885. In 1887, she became friends with David Gill and his wife and at Gill’s suggestion, she spent two months living with them at the Cape Observatory in the autumn of 1888. The two became lifelong friends and it is from a letter that Clerke wrote to Gill on Christmas Day 1889, that we begin to get an understanding of how the women computers came to be employed at Greenwich (RGO15/126/164).

On the second page of the letter, she wrote: ‘I was offered last week a small appointment in the Royal Observatory and refused it’ she then went on to explain how the offer came about and why she had turned it down. The letter continued. ‘ The plan was ‘first mooted in the spring, but more or less confidentially …It’s great attraction for me then consisted in the suggestion that I might have the exclusive use of the Lassell reflector for observing according to any plan I fancied’. She then expressed her disappointment that ‘when the formal proposal came it included no express arrangements for observing’ The post on offer was a ‘supernumerary computership’, at eight pounds a month. She was also told that Rix was also being engaged. What she didn’t know, was that no sooner had the initial suggestion been aired (possibly by Turner the Chief Assistant), than serious plans began to evolve for redeveloping the whole of the south end of the Observatory site where the telescope was located. Those plans culminated in the building of the New Physical Observatory with the Lassell Dome relocated to the top of its central tower. As well as not being aware of the changed plans for the telescope, Clerke was probably not aware that in its current location it had a very poor horizon, particularly to the south where the nearby trees severly interfered with its effective use.

The Lassell 2-foot Reflector in the Lassell Dome at Greenwich. It was dismounted in 1892 and replaced with the 12.8-inch Merz Refractor. There are no know images of the Refractor in the dome. From: A Handbook of Descriptive and Practical Astronomy, Volume 2, Fourth Edition (London 1890) by George F Chambers

Taking what Clerke wrote at face value, it would appear that Rix was the first of the four women to be offered and to accept a post at the Observatory. Given that Clemes was about the same age and paid at the same rate that Clerke had been offered, it seems likely that Christie envisaged her as a suitable substitute. The question therefore arises how and when the channel of communication was opened up between Christie and the women he ended up taking on.


The origin of the concept of employing women as computers

In the absence of other information, it has to be a matter of speculations as to what or who it was that caused Christie to take the apparently bold step of employing a team of women computers. Although the scheme (in theory at least) was open to women from any University Ladies’ College and was being promoted no later than February 1890 by Herbert Rix (Assistant Secretary at the Royal Society and cousin of Edith), Miss Dorothea Beale (who was in the process of setting up St Hilda’s at Oxford and was Headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies College), Miss Constance Elder (who had attended Newnham and was Secretary of the Association of Women Teachers whose president was Miss Anne Clough, the Mistress of Newnham) and Avril Heyman Johnson (Mrs Arthur Johnson, Secretary of The Association for the Education of Women in Oxford), the appointment of the four Cambridge women appears to have taken place before applications were received from further afield. That the Cambridge applicants seem to have had a head start, suggests that the idea of employing women may have come from a Cambridge man, and possibly from one of the Visitors at the 1889 Visitation.

At their meeting in June 1889, the Board of Visitors are known to have discussed the Observatory’s staffing problems. Unfortunately, there is no record of what was said, only of the two resolutions that were passed (ADM190/6). The first, proposed by Glaisher and seconded by Adams, was for the appointment of a Deputy Chief Assistant. The second, proposed by Glaisher and seconded by the Earl of Rosse was for the appointment of an additional First Class Assistant. Different members of the Board are known to have had very different views on the education of women. Stokes (the Chairman) and Glaisher were recorded in 1896 as being the only physicist and mathematician at Cambridge to close their lectures to women. On the other hand, John Couch Adams had been on the Council of Newnham College since 1880 and had successfully employed two women computers at the Cambridge Observatory (a Miss Hardy who worked there from 1876 until 1881 and Anne Walker who had been taken on in 1882 and was effectively a third assistant). Also on the Board was Arthur Cayley, who had been President of Newnham College since 1880 and the Sadleirian Professor of Pure Mathematics since 1863. It is possible that either Cayley or Adams suggested to Christie or Turner, that they could plug the staffing gap by employing women mathematicians from Cambridge as Computers. Interestingly none of Christie’s Reports to the Visitors ever mentioned the fact that women had been employed.


Isabella Clemes (1847–1903)
1847    Born April (Liskeard, Cornwall)
1851 Orphaned: Mother died 10 Nov 1850, father died 1 Sep 1851
1876 Entered Newnham
1881 Graduated as Senior Optime. Satirical comment about her published in 19 February edition of Punch (Pessimismus Triumphatus)
1883 Advertised for work as a teacher of mathematics and natural philosophy in 1 January edition of Journal of Education
1890 Took up post of Computer at Royal Observatory, date of leaving unknown
1891 Treasurer of University Association of Women Teachers (set up in 1883). Date of appointment and resignation not know. Still active at the BAA having nominated the Countess of Portsmouth (between June and October)
1892 Admitted to Bethlem Hospital
1894 Working in Girls Grammer School in Hobart, having joined her brother Samuel Clemes in Tasmania
1896 Began teaching at The Friends’ School, Hobart, which had been set up by Samuel and where he was the principal
1900 Moved to Leslie House School, a new school set up by her brother in Hobart in 1900
1903 Died January (Hobart)

Pessimisimus Triumphatus. From the 19 February 1881 edition of Punch

The following brief account of Isabella’s life was written by her niece Isabella Mary Shoobridge and published in 1933 in a book about her father Samuel Clemes (click here to read as originally published).

‘She was my father’s only sister, and was one or two years his junior, and, being left as orphans at an early age, were everything to each other. Auntie was brought up by her Willis relations, and practically adopted into the family home of Uncle John Willis. She was sent with father to Sidcot School. Her intellectual tastes were late in developing, and at her own wish she left school early and went to keep house for Uncle Isaac Brown, in Leeds, to whom she was much attached. On his death she inherited enough to keep herself independently with a very dear friend in Leeds. She began to wonder if she possessed similar mathematical powers as the rest of her family, and from Edward Carpenter, who first stimulated these interests, she conceived the project of going to Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1876.

I am indebted to Miss Alice Gardener, Historical Lecturer, Newnham, for the following notes: — “She was much older than most of the students; very unassuming, and rather delicate in health. She was not one who usually attracted strangers, but those who became her friends grew even more impressed by her singular refinement of character and energy of mind. Perhaps her conspicuous characteristic was a certain moral thoroughness. She delved deeply into philosophy and morals, but there was no trace in her of pedantry or censoriousness, but plenty of human nature with a measure of active kindliness.”

The Friends [Quakers] of that day were not liberal-minded enough for Auntie, so she ceased to become a member of the Society, but always retained some marks of the best kind of Quakerism. She obtained her mathematical Tripos in 1881. For a time she undertook work in connection with the Greenwich Observatory, but, unfortunately, her health broke down. I remember receiving a letter from her expressing her joy at doing national work. On her recovery she joined us in Tasmania, and both Friends’ and Leslie House Schools benefitted from her coaching in higher mathematics. It was always considered an honour to be invited to her room, where, surrounded by her beloved books, she occupied her spare time in writing out pages of solutions to the mathematical problems in the text books. These proved useful to professors and teachers alike.

So she lived amongst us as an endearing personality, always available, and never too busy to attend to our wants. I wish you had known her [my] children, and hope these few inadequate remarks will help to make you love her memory.’

See also

The Friends’ School Hobart: Formation and early development, William Oates (1976)


Edith Rix (1866–1918)

Edith Rix was the eldest of the four children of Frederic Shelly Rix (1836–1933) and his wife Jemima Bostock, née Bradley (1831?–1902). In 1885, she struck up a friendship with the author Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson, 1832–1898) who was a fellow and maths tutor at Christ Church College Oxford. Although he made his name with his Alice books in the 1860s, he also wrote on popular mathematics and it was through these writings that he became acquainted with Edith. She came to his attention while he was publishing a ten-part magazine serial called A Tangled Tale (1880–5).

Each episode contained a puzzle, or Knot as Carroll called them, which was described first in story form and then summarised as a ‘maths problem’. Readers sent in solutions, which Carroll then graded. In a later issue, he would publish a solution to the previous Knot and discuss different readers’ answers which included ribbing readers who had answered wrongly. The mathematical interpretations of the Knots were not always straightforward.

Rix sent in an answer to the very last knot which was posed in February 1885. It sufficiently impressed Carroll that they subsequently became lifelong friends and correspondents. They first met on 25 June 1885 (when she was 19). When Carroll published A Tangled Tale in a single volume (1885), he dedicated it to Rix with a poem, starting "Beloved pupil", in which he concealed her name.

Beloved pupil! Tamed by thee,
Addish-, Subtrac-, Multiplica-tion,
Division, Fractions, Rule of Three,
Attest thy deft manipulation!

Then onward! Let the voice of Fame
From Age to Age repeat thy story,
Till thou hast won thyself a name
Exceeding even Euclid’s glory!


Harriet Furniss


Alice Everett

Observed 1905 eclipse with the Crommelins and others in Majorca (link)


Annie Russell


Opportunity of exploitation?

Many modern commentators speak of Christie’s social innovation. But in truth, although the employment of the Lady Computers did provide women with a much needed entry into the world of professional astronomy, there was never any prospect of them being paid on equal terms with the men. Although the scheme arguably met sufficient of the needs and aspirations of those individuals who took up the posts, it was undoubtedly exploitative and as it turns out, little more than a stop-gap measure. By the time Russell resigned, the problem of insufficient numbers of established staff was about to be resolved and no more ladies were appointed. Indeed, those making enquiries in the early 1900s were told ‘ladies are no longer employed at the Royal Observatory’ (RGO7/140/138).

The next time women were employed at the Observatory was again as Computers and again out of necessity. But this time it was because of the staffing shortages caused by the First World War. Women continued to be employed as Computers until 1936 when the post was abolished, at which point, two of their number had been on the staff for over fifteen years.


Further reading

Davis historical archive of female mathematicians: Chronological list of graduates of the University of Cambridge

Women Astronomers in Britain, 1780-1930, Kidwell. P. (1984)
Lady Computers at Greenwich in the Early 1890s. Brück, M. T. (1995)
Obligatory amateurs: Annie Maunder (1868–1947) and British women astronomers at the dawn of professional astronomy. M B Ogilvie (2000)