Fearon Fallows

Quick Info

4 July 1788
Cockermouth, Cumbria, England
25 July 1831
Simon's Town, South Africa

Fearon Fallows was a mathematician and astronomer who was appointed as the first Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope. He arranged for the building of the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope.


Fearon Fallows was the son of John Fallows (1759-1826) and Rebecca Fearon (1759-1828). John Fallows, born 14 May 1759 in Cockermouth, was a hand-loom weaver. He married Rebecca Fearon on 2 May 1787 in Cockermouth. They had five children: Fearon Fallows (born 1788), the subject of this biography, John Fallows (born 1791), Mary Fallows (born 1793), Margaret Fallows (born 1799), and Rebecca Fallows (born 1802). Let us note at this point that many of the biographies of Fearon Fallows give his date of birth as 4 July 1789. Some of these even remark that the plaque on the wall of the cottage where he was born give the incorrect date of 1788. In fact the article [21], however, shows that 1788 is definitely the correct year since his baptismal records show that he was baptised on 23 July 1788 "aged three weeks."

Fearon was born in a little cottage in Low Sand Lane Cockermouth, close to the house where the poet William Wordsworth lived. By the time the child had reached the age of five he was amazing his father with his ability to calculate. As soon as he was old enough, he began to help his father at his weaving but his father, although poor and working at a manual trade, was a highly intelligent man who realised that his talented son should have the opportunity of an education. Although a manual worker, John Fallows had a level of education which later allowed him to act as parish clerk at the church in neighbouring Bridekirk. A particularly impressive event has been recorded when Fearon was six years old [17]:-
The most current and best-authenticated story of Fearon Fallows' early genius would imply that, at the age of six years, he mentally computed the number of farthings in a guinea. This arithmetical effort astonished his father, as well it might; and as Fearon continued to manifest his precocity in similar methods of calculation, the parent's instincts were directed to the channels most available to the promotion of his son's education.
John Fallows was able to teach his young son the basics of arithmetic and geometry.

There was a Free Grammar School in Cockermouth which had been founded in 1676 beside All Saints Church. This school claims Fearon Fallows as one of its famous pupils but his father chose to engage private tutors to teach his son more mathematics, although he could hardly afford to do so, rather than have his son be left with what the Free Grammar School could offer. Certainly he employed Mr Cooper, who lived in Brigham about 4 km from Cockermouth. Very soon, however, Cooper told Fallows' father that the boy knew more mathematics than he did, so his father should not waste his money employing him [14]:-
When a mere boy, a mathematical book was his constant companion at the loom; and this taste was encouraged by the kindness of many persons in the vicinity, who supplied him with books, and such assistance in his studies as they were competent to give.
John Fallows became parish clerk at the church of St Bridget's in Bridekirk, 3 km north of Cockermouth, where the vicar was Rev Humphrey Archer Hervey (1768-1843). John Fallows was proud of the mathematical skills that Fearon was demonstrating and told the Rev Hervey. In turn the Rev Hervey spoke to Mr Temple, headmaster of Plumbland Church of England School in Plumbland near Parsonby about 6 km north of Bridekirk. This school:-
... was opened on Sunday, January 12th, 1800 as Plumbland Free Grammar School. The original building contained two spacious classrooms and a clock tower. It was built in the Georgian style of architecture with low windows giving rooms that were light, cheerful and warm.
Mr Temple employed Fallows as an assistant but, in 1808, Temple died. The Rev Hervey, still eager to do the best he could for Fallows, approached the vicar of Plumbland who was responsible for the running of the school [17]:-
... on the death of Mr Temple, the Rev Edward Stanley, rector of Plumbland, offered the situation to Fearon, who accepted it. This was a fortunate introduction for Fallows, as the Rev Mr Stanley, a man of superior character and discernment, soon ascertained the young schoolmaster's worth and high abilities, and laudably exerted himself to promote his advancement. The clergy, gentry, and others in the neighbourhood, on hearing of Fearon's great promise, willingly co-operated with the Rev Messrs Hervey and Stanley in getting up a subscription to enable him to go to Cambridge, and in the year 1809 he commenced residence as a student of St John's College, Cambridge.
Fallows was admitted to St John's College, Cambridge on 22 June 1809 as a sizar [16]:-
... enabled by the patronage of some gentlemen of fortune.
Being a sizar meant that he received financial help from the College for which he was required to undertake certain menial duties. He matriculated at the beginning of the Michaelmas term 1809 (around 1 October) and began his studies of the Mathematical Tripos. Two others who matriculated at Cambridge at the same time were John Herschel (at St John's College), and George Peacock (at Trinity College). Another outstanding mathematician, who matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1810 was Charles Babbage.

Cambridge was a wonderful place for Fallows who was very happy in the academic atmosphere and, after years of basically being self-taught, was delighted to be able to learn from leading mathematicians such as Robert Woodhouse. Access to books was now a simple matter and he had friends with whom he could discuss mathematics. He soon found, however, that the support he had received from "some gentlemen of fortune" was not sufficient to see him complete his degree and he contemplated having to give up. At this point, however, he had a piece of good fortune in that he received an anonymous gift of £100. His progress was outstanding and he was also a scholar in 1812. In 1813 he was sat the tripos examinations, was awarded an M.A. and was ranked Third Wrangler. The first Wrangler was John Herschel and the Second Wrangler was George Peacock. It had been a very close contest between Fallows and Peacock. Herschel was elected a fellow of St John's College, Peacock was elected a fellow of Trinity College but there was no fellowship for Fallows; he was very unlucky to have been in competition with Herschel who produced one of the most brilliant mathematical tripos performances of all time.

Let us note another point here. Babbage, himself a brilliant mathematician, was so in awe of Herschel's abilities that he refused to compete with him. Fallows, on the other hand, was happy to compete and, rather than go in a different direction academically from Herschel, he was happy to go towards Herschel's specialist interest of astronomy. Fallows spent two years as a lecturer in mathematics at Corpus Christi College before returning to St John's College in 1815 where he was elected to a fellowship. He was ordained a deacon at Ely on 24 August 1815. In 1816 he was appointed as an examiner for the mathematical tripos of 1817. He then came under pressure from Herschel and Peacock to begin a transition from Newton's notation for the calculus to that of Leibniz [2]:-
In December of 1816, Peacock garnered support for the action he proposed in setting the Tripos. He wrote to Herschel that he would use the 'd's' on the printed problem papers, 'putting the questions with the old notation at the bottom of the page'. ... To gain more support, Peacock asked Herschel to intervene with one of the examiners for the forthcoming Tripos, Fearon Fallows, the son of a weaver and third wrangler behind Herschel and Peacock in 1813. Herschel, in a letter to Fallows, after intoning that 'a sudden and violent change in this [the Tripos] is impracticable and perhaps would not be desirable', wrote: 'Peacock is ardent in the cause; White, I have heard falls in with many of his views ... and I have great hopes ... that you will at least not oppose any of the steps they may agree upon between them for the purpose.' Then Herschel described the evils of cramming and complained that the necessity for speed in writing answers did not allow genius to shine. A few days later, Herschel wrote to Whittaker that he had encouraged Fallows to examine 'according to the principles of the true faith and on principles of moderate reform (being urged to do so by the violent motive resulting from the will of another)'. ... Despite these efforts, Peacock came to believe that he achieved nothing in the Tripos of 1817. ... He had expected opposition to this remodelling from Bland, one of the examiners, but he was overcome when ambushed by both White and Fallows who deserted him under pressure from 'older members' of the University.
In 1818 Fallows became the moderator (chief examiner) of the mathematical tripos. He also continued his clerical career and, on 14 March 1819, he was ordained a priest.

The Astronomical Society (it only became the "Royal Astronomical Society" somewhat later) was founded on 12 January 1820 when fourteen founder members, including Babbage and Herschel, met. Herschel wrote to both Fallows and Peacock on 26 January concerning the setting up of the Astronomical Society. A second meeting was arranged for 29 February when 28 attended; Fallows was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society at this 29 February meeting. By this time the Astronomical Society had 83 members, William Herschel was voted a Vice-President, Babbage an English Secretary, and John Herschel the Foreign Secretary. On 8 June 1820 Fallows was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. One of his proposers was John Herschel.

On Thursday 3 February 1820 the Commissioners "appointed by Act of Parliament for more effectually discovering the Longitude at Sea" met at the Admiralty. It was proposed that an Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope be established which would be "highly conducive to the improvement of astronomy." At a later meeting on 17 February they recommended the appointment of an Astronomer of the Cape "as soon as a proper person can be found." The Cape of Good Hope Royal Observatory was established by an Order in Council of 20 October 1820 and, on 26 October 1820, Fearon Fallows was appointed to the office of Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope.

It may well have been through the influence of Herschel that Fallows had become interested in astronomy. Although his main interest was in mathematics, while he was a mathematics lecturer [7]:-
... at Corpus Christi, [he] grinded his own speculum metal mirror and built his own reflecting telescope, observed the solar eclipse of 18 November 1816, [and] hoped to set himself up with a small observatory.
Nevertheless, he must have been surprised to receive a letter offering him the post of Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope [15]:-
The few months which intervened between the time of his appointment and his removal to the Cape, were spent by Mr Fallows in the public and private observatories of this country, in the workshops of our most celebrated artists, in the calculation of special tables, and in devising the best and simplest means of making, registering, and reducing, astronomical observations.
Fallows was now in a position to marry; he could not while holding the fellowship since fellows were not allowed to marry until a change of rules in 1860. On 1 January 1821 he married Mary Ann Hervey (1796-1838), the daughter of Rev Humphrey Archer Hervey (1768-1843) who had done so much to help Fallows' career, and his wife Sarah Mawson (born 1777). Mary Ann Hervey had been born on 14 March 1796 in Bridekirk, Cumberland, the eldest of her parents' eight children. Fearon and Mary Fallows sailed for South Africa on the ship the Sappho on 4 May 1821 with their maid Sarah Bootle. It was a difficult journey, especially for Mary who was pregnant. Also with them was Fallows' assistant James Fayrer (born 1798), the son of a London instrument maker for whom he had worked. The Fayrers were distant relations of the famous instrument maker Edward Troughton and James had with him a good quality telescope made by Troughton. Betsy Fayer, James' sister, was accompanying him. Also on the Sappho was Andrew Smith (1797-1872) who had studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, joined the army as a surgeon, and had been posted to Cape Colony to care for the British troops there. The ship arrived in Simon's Bay on 12 August 1821 but rather than travel overland to the Cape which they feared would damage their delicate instruments, the whole party were transported to Table Bay by ship.

Before leaving England, Fallows had been given precise instructions and he now carried them out. He rented a house at 14 Kloof-street and set up a temporary wooden observatory in the garden. He observed with the help of his assistant Fayrer and a second assistant, the Reverend Patrick Scully. Sadly, Fayrer was seen to be lazy, insolent, and prone to drinking. In May 1822 Fallows moved to a house near Concordia Gardens bringing with him the wooden observatory. From this temporary site he began cataloguing stars. Fayrer married Sarah Bootle on 13 May 1822 in the English Church, Cape Town (which later became St George's Cathedral). Sarah, like her new husband, seems to have been too fond of the drink, and Fayrer was officially demoted to labourer while Scully became Fallow's only assistant.

Rev Patrick H Scully, a Roman Catholic priest, had arrived at the Cape on 1 December 1819, so founding the Catholic Church in South Africa. He received a salary of £100 per annum and built a chapel. He was a talented and highly respected man but, when Lord Charles Somerset returned to the post of Governor of the Cape, he cancelled Scully's salary saying that he had always done his utmost to oppose the Catholic religion. That is when Scully took the post as second assistant to Fallows at the salary of £50 per annum. Reports of the time (see [3]) tell us that Fallows and Scully "entertain the greatest friendship." After Fayrer was dismissed, Scully took over as first assistant on 22 May 1822 but left his post in May 1824 in somewhat mysterious circumstances [3]:-
Several domestic troubles are chronicled in veiled and cryptic language, and then, "Finally, on 17th July, 1824, he (Mr Fallows) found it absolutely necessary to dismiss Mr Scully, and was thus left alone." The real cause for his dismissal was not therein stated by the Rev Mr Fallows, but we learn it from a later source, a resume of the history of the Catholic Mission at the Cape sent to Dr Morris at Port Louis, Mauritius, in 1833, in connection with disputes then raging. From this paper we learn that sometime in 1823, that would be after receiving intimation of the Admiralty's sanction of his appointment, Father Scully told his churchwardens of the post that had been offered to him, with residence in the household of the Rev Mr Fallows. The situation thus created was certainly a strange one: a Catholic priest residing in the house of a clergyman of the Established Church, and doing his clerical duties therefrom. The churchwardens not unnaturally stated their objections, saying such a course was unsuitable: but he nevertheless accepted it despite their protest. After about a twelvemonth, "Mr Scully became entirely estranged from his flock and was publicly, although not in any Court of jurisprudence, impeached with a crime of which we certainly, from the knowledge of his deportment, do honourably acquit him, and ascribe the charge to a matter of mere malversation emanating from Mr Fallows' own family, who evinced a most delusive demeanour towards Mr Scully, during his sojourn with them. However unfortunately it must appear to our fellow Catholics, their clergyman became the victim of slander, and on the 11th July, 1824, when the circumstance was made known to him that he had been, according to report, discovered in a criminal conversation with a female in the service of Mr Fallows, Mr Scully engaged a passage for Europe and sailed so suddenly," that the congregation, not knowing of it, assembled for Mass as usual on the following Sunday.
Despite Scully's support from the Catholic Church, we cannot believe that Fallows would cause Scully to leave by slandering him. In the first place this would be totally out of character for Fallows, and secondly he was in great difficulty carrying out his duties without an assistant.

Fallows' main first task had been to find a suitable site for the Cape of Good Hope Royal Observatory. This was never expected to be easy but proved to be a longer and more difficult task than anyone could have imagined. In fact it would be four years before construction of the new Observatory began [7]:-
On explaining that he wanted to establish the Observatory on a hill, the Colonial Government, "considering that the proximity to stars was sine qua non", offered him a site on Table Mountain so he could be closer to the stars. (Table Mountain is for a great part of the year either covered by cloud or plagued by strong winds.) After extensively scouting around quite afar in all directions Fallows settled on a hill known as Tygerberg, only to change his mind again. The terrain that he chose was a rocky hill named Slangkop (Snake Hill) at the confluence between the Black and Liesbeek rivers.
He changed his mind about the Tygerberg site when the Government surveyor explained to him in March 1822 that climatic problems at that site meant it was frequently cloud covered. He quickly chose the Snake Hill site but there was then a long delay by the English authorities. It took until April 1824 before the Secretary of State for the Colonial Department approved starting construction but, in October of that year, he was told to stop since the land he had chosen was claimed to belong to a Mr C Mostert and not the Government.

For more details of all these difficulties, including letters to and from Fallows, see THIS LINK.

Even when all these difficulties were overcome, construction of the observatory presented its own problems [7]:-
As to the construction there were problems. The plans were drawn up, and then redrawn. Construction was contracted out to local builders who proved to be "unsatisfactory" as well as thieves. Finding suitable building material was a constant problem and hampered by the Burmese Wars, as Burmese Teak was used in the construction.
Fallows and his family had other difficulties, for the rented house they were living in was in poor condition; at one point the roof fell in and the family were lucky to avoid injury. His wife had suffered several miscarriages and two children who were born during their time at the Cape died within a month. He was also trying to deliver observations back to England as was required of him but the instruments he had were of very inferior quality. After Scully left he had no assistants. His request that the Admiralty send him another one was made in May 1824 but the new assistant, Captain William Ronald, did not arrive at the Cape until December 1826.

The building of the observatory was complete by the spring of 1827 but supports for the instruments took longer and observing from the new observatory could not begin until 1829. By this time both Ronald and Fallows were in poor health. On 17 October 1830, because of his illness, Ronald left South Africa and returned to England. He hoped to be able to return to the Cape but he eventually resigned on 29 March 1831. Fallows, ill and without an assistant, was helped by his wife who had been undertaking observing duties before Ronald left. Mary Fallows was very capable and had learned quickly; in March 1830 she discovered a new comet. Despite becoming seriously ill, Fallows refused to give up work and was carried each day in a blanket to the observatory. By the end of March 1831 he gave up work and went to Simon's Town to seek medical help but it was too late and four months later he died. He was buried in front of the observatory, his grave being marked with a black Robben-island stone.

We give three additional biographies of Fallows. One which was published in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society (1833) is at THIS LINK.

A version of the 1867 biography [17] by Henry Lonsdale is at THIS LINK.

A version of a modern biography by Stuart Atkinson is available at THIS LINK.

References (show)

  1. S Atkinson, Fearon Fallows, www.stuartatkinson.com.
  2. H W Becher, Radicals, Whigs and Conservatives: The Middle and Lower Classes in the Analytical Revolution at Cambridge in the Age of Aristocracy, The British Journal for the History of Science 28 (4) (1995), 405-442.
  3. H N Birt, Benedictine pioneers in Australia 1 (Herbert & Daniel, London, 1911), 24-49.
  4. A M Clerke, Fallows, Fearon, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900 Volume 18.
  5. A M Clerke, revised by David S Evans, Fallows, Fearon, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (4 October 2004).
  6. Cockermouth & District Civic Trust Newsletter. 50th Anniversary Special Edition No 134 (May 2017).
  7. Fallows, Fearon (MA; FRS), Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.
  8. Fallows, Fearon, Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers.
  9. Fallows, Reverend Fearon (astronomy), Biographical Database of Southern African Science.
  10. Fearon Fallows, History of Cockermouth.
  11. Fearon Fallows mural unveiled in Cockermouth, BBC (4 July 2013).
  12. Fearon Fallows, first Astronomer Royal at the Cape, is born in England, South African History Online.
  13. Fearon Fallows Birthplace.
  14. Fearon Fallows, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 2 (10) (1932), 62-65.
  15. Fearon Fallows, Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society 5 (1833), 404-408.
  16. Fearon Fallows, A Cambridge Alumni Database, University of Cambridge.
  17. H Lonsdale, Fearon Fallows: Weaver and astronomer, in The worthies of Cumberland Vol 6 (George Routledge & Sons, London, 1867), 161-178.
  18. P Moore and P Collins, The Astronomy of South Africa (Robert Hale, London, 1977).
  19. Rev Fearon Fallows, Bulmer's History and Directory of West Cumberland (1883).
  20. B Warner, Cape of Good Hope Royal Observatory Papers in the Archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Journal for the History of Astronomy 9 (1978), 74-75.
  21. B Warner, The Age of Fallows, Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa 56 (11-12) (1997), 107-108.
  22. B Warner, Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, 1820-1831: The funding of a colonial observatory: incorporating a biography of Fearon Fallows (Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht-Boston, 1995).

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update March 2021