Opportunity or exploitation: Women professionals at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (1890–1895)

Flamsteed Society Lecture, 8 January 2019

The first women to be employed at the Royal Observatory Greenwich were Isabella Clemes, Alice Everett, Harriet Furniss, Edith Rix and Annie Russell. They were employed there as ‘Lady Computers’ between 1890 and 1895. Although the stories of Alice Everett and her Girton contemporary Annie Russell (the later Mrs Maunder) have been retold many times, those of the other three have languished in obscurity, as has the true reason for their employment.

In this tangled tale, which draws on significant new research and seeks to correct earlier misunderstandings, we discover that one of the women employed by Christie was the grand-daughter of a hatter, was orphaned at the age of four and was committed to an asylum within two years of starting work at Greenwich. Another attended an orphanage school even though she wasn’t an orphan and at the age of nineteen became a lifelong friend of Lewis Carroll, who in 1885 dedicated a work to her.

The whole story gets curiouser and curiouser the more deeply one delves. With significant papers missing from the archives and important data not entered in certain key registers, a conspiracy theorist might well speculate that the Observatory had something to hide, rather than celebrate.


Lecture notes

Christie’s ‘Lady Computers’ – the Astrographic pioneers of Greenwich