Wales, William

(bap. 1734, d. 1798), astronomer and mathematician

by E. I. Carlyle, rev. Derek Howse

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Wales, William (bap. 1734, d. 1798), astronomer and mathematician, was baptized at Warmfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 1 March 1734, the son of John Wales, of humble circumstances. He is said to have 'walked to London with a Mr Holroyd ... Plumber to George 3rd' (Journals, 885). Nothing is known of his early years or education, but by the early 1760s he was no mean mathematician, and contributed to the Ladies' Diary, a journal specializing in advanced mathematical problems. On 5 September 1765, at Greenwich, he married Mary, the youngest sister of a fellow Yorkshireman, Charles Green, who had recently been assistant at the Royal Observatory. Through Green he met Nevil Maskelyne, the new astronomer royal, who in 1766 commissioned Wales to assist in computations for the first few issues of the Nautical Almanac.

In 1767 Wales told the council of the Royal Society that he was willing to go abroad to observe the forthcoming transit of Venus but would prefer a warm climate. In the event, he sailed with Joseph Dymond (Maskelyne's assistant from 1765 to 1766) in May 1768, over-wintered at the Churchill River on the north-west coast of Hudson's Bay with temperatures down to -43 °F, successfully observed the transit in June 1769, and reached London again in October.

In 1771 plans were being made for Captain Cook to go on a second voyage of discovery in the southern hemisphere, the main object of which was to prove or disprove the existence of a great southern continent in temperate latitudes. On 14 December 1771 the board of longitude appointed Wales and William Bayly to go as astronomers, in the Resolution (Captain Cook) and Adventure (Captain Furneaux) respectively, 'to make Nautical & Astronomical Observations, and to perform other Services tending to the Improvement of Geography & Navigation' (Journals, 724). Wales took as his 'servant' George Gilpin (d. 1810), who was to be Maskelyne's assistant at Greenwich (1776-81) and clerk to the Royal Society (1783-1809), and was to succeed Wales as secretary of the board of longitude (1799-1810); he married Lydia Green, a niece of Mrs Wales, in 1781. One of the important secondary objects of the voyage was the trying-out of the new longitude timekeepers; Larcum Kendall's copy of Harrison's prizewinner was one of two taken by Wales.

The two sloops sailed together from Plymouth on 13 July 1772. During the Resolution's three-year voyage around the world, twenty-one months of which were spent in the Pacific, Cook came to rely heavily on Wales for all matters astronomical and navigational--for ascertaining geographical position, for making scientific observations ashore and afloat, for instructing junior officers. 'For Mr Wales, whose abilities is equal to his assiduity, lost no one observation that could possibly be obtained', wrote Cook in his journal in November 1774 off New Zealand, continuing: 'Even the situation of such Islands as we past without touching at are by means of Mr Kendalls Watch determined with almost equal accuracy' (Journals, 580). The Resolution reached Spithead on 30 July 1775.

In the same year Wales was appointed master of the Royal Mathematical School (RMS) within Christ's Hospital, founded by Charles II in 1673 specifically to train boys in navigation to become ships' officers. One of his first tasks was to curb the rowdy behaviour of the RMS boys, older than most others in the school, whose loutish behaviour by 1775 had become a byword. Within a very few years discipline was restored. Charles Lamb, a pupil, described him as a severe but genial man with 'a perpetual fund of humour, a constant glee about him, which, heightened by an inveterate provincialism of north-country dialect, absolutely took away the sting from his severities' (Lamb, 30). During the Gordon riots of 1780, Wales single-handedly dissuaded rioting prisoners newly freed from Newgate prison from entering Christ's Hospital and looting it because they considered it papist.

Wales was elected fellow of the Royal Society in November 1776. On behalf of the board of longitude he edited his own and Bayly's observations taken on Cook's 1772-5 voyage (published 1777); the observations taken on the 1764-71 voyages of Byron, Wallis, Carteret, and Cook (1788); and Tables Requisite to be Used with the Nautical Ephemeris (with Maskelyne, 1781, 1802). On his own behalf he published new editions of John Robertson's Elements of Navigation (1780, 1796); his own An Inquiry into the Present State of Population (1781); and Method of Finding Longitude at Sea by Time-Keepers (1794, 1800). He was appointed secretary of the board of longitude in December 1795.

Wales died in Christ's Hospital (where he was subsequently buried) on 29 December 1798, leaving his wife, Mary, and five children, the eldest of whom, Sarah, married Arthur William Trollope, headmaster of Christ's Hospital from 1799 to 1826.


private information (2004)
CUL, Board of Longitude MSS, RGO 14, vols. 5 and 6
W. Wales and J. Dymond, 'Astronomical observations made at Prince of Wales's Fort', PTRS, 59 (1769), 467-88
W. Wales, 'Journal of a voyage to Churchill River', PTRS, 60 (1770), 100-36
'Observations on the state of the air, winds and weather, etc. made at Prince of Wales's fort', PTRS, 60 (1770), 137-78
W. Wales, 'Observations on the solar eclipse', PTRS, 68 (1778), 1013-18
W. Wales, 'Hints relating to the use which may be made of the tables of natural and logarithmic sines, tangents, etc.', PTRS, 71 (1781), 454-78
The journals of Captain James Cook, ed. J. C. Beaglehole, 2, Hakluyt Society, 35 (1961); repr. (1969)
W. Trollope, A history of the royal foundation of Christ's Hospital (1834), 94-5, 128
C. Lamb, 'On Christ's Hospital, and the character of the Christ's Hospital boys', Christ's Hospital: recollections of Lamb, Coleridge, and Leigh Hunt, ed. R. Brimley Johnson (1896), 30
council minutes, 1767, RS

CUL, logbook and observations, RGO 14/58 and 59
Mitchell L., NSW, journal 1773-4, Safe PH 18/4
RS, miscellaneous papers

J. Russell, pastel, 1794, Christ's Hospital collection, Horsham, Sussex

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


GO TO THE OUP ARTICLE (Sign-in required)