|A student of the stars – half an hour with Miss Alice Everett, M.A.
|Published in the 22 November 1893 edition of The Sketch (p.192), this 1351 word article features an interview with one of Christie’s ‘Lady Computers’.
|Portrait of Alice Everett by Morgan and Kidd
A Student of the Stars – Half an hour with Miss Alice Everett, M.A.While we have many women doctors, lawyers, and journalists, the woman astronomer is still almost as rare as the clergywoman. It was with interest, therefore (writes a representative of The Sketch), that I sought an interview with Miss Alice Everett, M.A., who does excellent work at Greenwich Observatory. The Ladies’ University Club, 31, New Bond Street, was our rendezvous, and there I found Miss Everett – a slight, blonde girl, with a very low voice and gentle manners, awaiting me. Though, thanks to her Belfast education, Miss Everett is often claimed as an Irishwoman, she comes of a good old Suffolk family. The Everetts have lived at Rushmere, near Ipswich, for generations, and her uncle, Mr. R. Lacey Everett, is Member for the Woodbridge Division of the county. As her mother is a native of Edinburgh, and Miss Everett herself was born in Glasgow, where her father, Professor Everett, was living at the time as assistant to Sir William Thompson, now Lord Kelvin, she seems to have a pretty equal claim on the three kingdoms. Professor Everett at present holds the chair of Natural Philosophy at Queen’s College, Belfast. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and author of some well-known scientific works.
“How did you acquire the unusual position you hold?” was my first question.
“That is a long story,” said Miss Everett, smiling. “The question of employing women at the Royal Observatory arose when the new photographic section was started, and Mrs. Huggins, who, like her distinguished husband, has earned a world-wide reputation as an astronomer, interested herself, I believe, in the matter. The first I heard of it was when the Observatory authorities wrote to ask if I would come.”
“And you came?”
“Of course I had always desired such practical work, but scarcely knew how to set about obtaining it. I tried High School teaching for a term as a stop gap, though not desiring to be drawn into the universal drift towards teaching. Perhaps, I may mention that for a year after leaving school I gave my attention to art studies, and have never regretted it. At one time I hesitated between Girton and the studios. My mother has much artistic power, and I had some taste in the same direction.”
“Are there any ladies at the Observatory besides yourself?”
“Oh, yes. There used to be four, but now we are only two – Miss Russell, an Irishwoman from Strabane, and a fellow-student of mine at Girton, being the other.”
“What are your hours?”
“From nine to one each day, and three afternoons a week. Two nights a week I devote to observing, and have sole charge of the instrument when on duty.”
“Are you up all night when observing?”
“By no means; until a little after midnight, as a rule, but there are exceptions. We begin soon after sundown, and generally work for four or five hours, certain persons being attached to each instrument, and taking it in turns to observe.”
“Are you hard at work all the time?”
“No that would be impossible, especially in this uncertain climate, where clouds often prevent our seeing anything, or drift across the line at a critical moment; these are our greatest drawbacks. At the Cape, now, their night work is almost as regular as their day work, and they can generally forecast the weather with certainty twelve hours in advance.”
“What are you doing just now?”
“Working on the International Photographic Survey of the Heavens, for which two series of plates are being taken”
“Do these require a long exposure?”
“Forty minutes for the first series, three short exposures on the same plate for the second series.”
“Observing is, then, the part of the work you like best?” said I.
“Oh, yes,” responded Miss Everett with enthusiasm. “You feel that you really are an astronomer then, doing practical business. Besides, there is a certain charm about having the handling of a fine and powerful instrument. I scarcely know why it is, but I find the hours fly when I am observing, though the old hands say it grows very monotonous in the course of years. In winter, though the roof is partly open and the dome kept at the temperature of the outer air, we are too actively employed to feel the cold much, unless it be windy. In summer, though, perhaps, the irregular hours may prove trying in time, the quiet, fresh night is much pleasanter than the hot and dusty London day. Towards dawn it is quite interesting to observe what a difference the dim light makes in the aspect of the earth.”
“Then you do not live in the Observatory, nor sleep there when there is night work to be done?”
“No I live just beyond the gates. These are shut every evening, and all strangers excluded, so that the place is very quiet. The Astronomer Royal makes it a rule that two ladies must always be on duty the same night, that they may leave together.”
“Are you not nervous all alone in the park?”
“Oh, dear, no. If I were nervous I should be more frightened outside, for Greenwich is sometimes very rough. You should see it on Bank Holidays.”
“Your male colleagues do they resent the encroachment of women on their domain?”
“Oh, I think not; they are all pleasant to us, and from some of the assistants we have received the greatest kindness.”
“You are Secretary of the British Astronomical Association?”
“I am one of the secretaries; Mr. Duke is the other. Nothing could be more generous and considerate than the spirit which that Association has shown towards women. Please be sure to say in your paper how grateful we are for the help and encouragement its officers and council have given us.”
” By-the-way,” was my next question, “should you be described as an Assistant Astronomer?”
“No the awkward technical title ‘Assistant’ is applied to those gentlemen who hold permanent posts at the Observatory under the Astronomer Royal. They are appointed partly by competitive Civil Service examinations, and are generally University men of good standing. Under them work boy computers. It is doubtful whether women are eligible for the examination, and candidates must be nominated by the Astronomer Royal, who refused to take the responsibility when we applied. Of course, we were new and untried. Things must, I suppose, develop by degrees. We hold a rather non- descript position at present.”
“I hope you do not believe in all work and no play, Miss Everett.”
“I should think not. Tennis and golf are among my favourite pursuits, and I probably owe my wiry health to a liking for exercise and fresh air. At home, when we generally spent the summer at some wild spot on the beautiful though stormy coast of Antrim, I used to enjoy the rough-and-tumble boating in fishermen’s sturdy tubs, in which we all revelled.”
Miss Everett has had a brilliant college career. Educated, as noted, in Belfast, first at Miss Hardy’s preparatory school, then at the Victoria College and Methodist College, and lastly at Queen’s College, where she specialised in mathematics, she won distinctions as a mere child in the intermediate and other examinations. At the Royal University of Ireland she practically carried all before her. At the Girton College entrance and scholarship examination she took second place, and a scholarship of £42 a year for three years won a first class at the Clare, Gonville, and Caius. Trinity Hall and King’s Mathematical “Mays” in 1887, and was eighteenth Senior Optime at the Mathematical Tripos in 1889. In April 1891 she read an interesting paper on “The New Star in Auriga” at a meeting of the British Astronomical Association, and she has contributed occasionally to the Journal of that society. There is nothing of the “bluestocking” about her. She is a modest, pleasant, companionable girl, unwilling to speak of her own achievements, fond of fun, and gifted with a sense of humour.