Fearon Fallows by Stuart Atkinson

Stuart Atkinson undertook research and then wrote an article about Fearon Fallows. This article now seems to be hard to find and is only be available in an archived form at


In order to preserve the article we give a version below.

Fearon Fallows by Stuart Atkinson.

Cockermouth is one of England's prettiest so-called "Gem Towns." Positioned just outside the border of the Lake District, and surrounded by green hills and valleys, its popularity with visitors is partly due to its proximity to the tourist mecca of Keswick, but mostly because it is the birthplace of Bounty mutiny leader Fletcher Christian, and one of the world's greatest ever poets - William Wordsworth.

Wordsworth House itself is a grand two storey mansion, with a walled garden at the front, facing the busy Main Street, and a beautiful, larger garden, with flowerbeds and a lawn at the rear, from where a visitor can look out over the sparking waters of the River Derwent, with its borders of daffodils, and try to imagine what life was like in Wordsworth's time. Postcards from twenty years ago show how the mansion's walls were once painted bright white, but today they are the same peach colour they were 200 years ago, in Wordsworth's time. Inside, the rooms are grand and luxurious, and a visitor can walk lazily around the polished furniture and enjoy the many paintings which hang upon the walls.

Two of the paintings are of a John and Rebecca Fallows. Close inspection of the paintings reveals inscriptions explaining how they are the parents of one "Reverend Fearon Fallows"... but that is all.

It's fair to say that after leaving Wordsworth most visitors think they are "done with" Cockermouth's history, and put Wordsworth's time behind them as they browse around Creighton's Mineral Museum next door to Wordsworth House, admiring its collection of fossils and gemstones. It is supremely ironic that they are mere feet away from yet more history, completely unaware that a tiny cottage which now forms part of the Museum is as much a part of Cockermouth's history and heritage as the fine house it stands beside.

Because 200 years ago, the room which now contains the Mineral Museum's collection of Cumbrian mining artefacts was the home of John and Rebecca Fallows - parents of Cockermouth's "Forgotten Famous Son", Fearon Fallows.

They were poor folk, and typical of the time. John was a weaver by trade, and worked hard to support his wife. In contrast to the grand house across the lane, literally a stone's throw away, the Fallows' cottage was small and simple; the whole of their living space would probably have fitted into the Wordsworths' plush drawing room.

On July 4th, 1789, the Fallows' had the first addition to their family - a son, whom they called Fearon. Young Fearon was born into a world undergoing great change and upheaval. The English gentry and upper classes were looking fearfully across the Channel to France, where the peasants were staging a bloody revolution and toppling the French Royal Family from their lofty thrones. In America, a proud, stubborn George Washington was President of a brave new country, the "United States Of America." John and Rebecca must have looked at Fearon as he slept and wondered what sort of a mad world their new son was inheriting. ...
Fearon grew into a fine boy and happily assisted his father with his weaving. But he was destined for far greater things than a career as a weaver. Although he was skilled with his hands, it soon became clear that his talents lay elsewhere - with numbers. Although poor, John was a man of superior intelligence and intellect, and he was quick to realise the significance of his son's ability to make complex calculations with ease. John decided to direct his efforts towards promoting his son's education. He himself had not been able to escape a life of manual labour and hardship, but he was determined to give his son the opportunity ...

Fallows Education

Instead of sending Fearon to the town's Free Grammar School, John arranged - at considerable cost - for him to be tutored privately, in nearby Brigham. John hoped the tutor, Mr Cooper, would give Fearon formal mathematical training - but soon John was summoned by the tutor. "I'll not rob you anymore," Cooper told John upon his arrival, "your boy is as able to teach me as I am to teach him, so I'll take no more quarter-pence from you!"

So John took it upon himself to further his son's education. After exhausting all the books in his possession, teaching his son arithmetic and algebra, John wanted to progress to Latin, but had no appropriate texts. Kind neighbours - perhaps even the Wordsworths? - rallied around, providing him with the necessary books.

Life was surely hard for young Fearon then, with long days of toil at the loom followed by evenings of intense study. The inevitable addition of brothers and sisters further complicated the picture. As Lonsdale says in his famous book The Worthies of Cumberland, "It is highly gratifying to record such noble traits of character and perseverance in search of knowledge as were manifested day after day by John Fallows and his son Fearon, placed amid the webs and cobwebs of a dingy household, and frequently disturbed by the noise and prattle of the younger branches - mainly girls - of the family ..."

Time passed, and when John became Parish Clerk at the neighbouring church of Bridekirk he took great pride in proclaiming the skills and talents of his eldest son to the vicar, Reverend Hervey. Soon word began to spread of young Fearon's skills, and shortly after John took up his new position at Bridekirk, Fearon was engaged as assistant to the headmaster of nearby Plumbland School, Mr Temple. Perhaps inevitably, after the death of Temple, the Rector of Cumberland, Mr Stanley, offered Fearon the position.

Both Reverend Hervey and Mr Stanley were quick to recognise Fearon's potential. By his nineteenth birthday, Fearon was already a popular and respected local figure, the apple of his father's eye. And like his beloved father, Fearon enjoyed a reputation as an intelligent, honest man. But his great potential was being frustrated, John recognised, by his family's poverty: despite making a living from weaving, and the extra income their church jobs brought in, any thoughts of sending Fearon away to further his education were unrealistic.

However, by his twentieth birthday in 1809, Fearon's future was taken out of his hands, and the hands of his devoted father. Impressed by accounts of the achievements and character of the "parish clerk's son," several members of the local clergy, gentry and business community, encouraged by Reverend Hervey and Mr Stanley, contributed funds towards a scholarship which would allow Fearon to go to University.

But not just any University. Fearon Fallows was accepted into Cambridge!

John must have been ecstatic. At last, his son could fulfil his potential! There would be no more begging books off neighbours, or worries over wasted time.

And so, while the Luddites were causing chaos across the country, revolting against the imminent arrival of technology and industrialisation, Fearon took up residence at St John's College, Cambridge, to study mathematics, and no doubt enthusiastically took full advantage of its splendid facilities and libraries. St John's was one of the foremost Colleges of the time, and the Reverend Sheepshanks later recorded in his Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society: "Whatever difficulties might have previously embarrassed Mr Fallows' career were now dissipated. At St John's, honourably distinguished (perhaps above all other colleges) for attention to the education and interests of unfriended merit, he found every assistance which could be desired - kind friends, most able instructors and an unlimited power of consulting books. His progress was, accordingly, rapid and successful."

However, university life brought new - but familiar - difficulties. The support of his Cumbrian friends, although generous, did not quite cover Fearon's needs, and by his third year at St John's he had seriously begun to doubt whether his funds would permit him to complete his course of studies. It seemed his escape from poverty had been only a temporary one. But his worries were swept aside one morning when a mysterious letter arrived from an unknown benefactor, containing the - grand for those times - sum of £100. No-one can say for sure whom the letter was from, but there are suggestions that the money was sent by the brother of one of Fallows' fellow students, who had died and left the money to him in his will.

Fearon loved university life. And, by a strange coincidence, which might almost be considered an omen, he entered the College at the same time as John Herschel, the son of the famous astronomer William Herschel who had discovered the planet Uranus only eight years before Fearon's birth. Although they were from vastly differing backgrounds the two became acquaintances ... and later grew to become keen rivals. When their final exams loomed in 1813, Fearon and Herschel battled for honours. Graduation Day saw Herschel accepting the honour of "First Wrangler" (i.e. Highest Honours). Behind him came George Peacock and, in third place, Fallows.

In fact, had Fearon taken his degree in any ordinary year, he would doubtlessly have graduated as First Wrangler himself. It was unfortunate - and, perhaps, an omen - that he had to compete with two such brilliant men as Herschel and Peacock. Historians now recognise John Herschel as being one of the greatest men of his time. Peacock went on to lecture in mathematics at Trinity College, and went on to become Lowndean Professor of Astronomy. His greatest achievement was perhaps as the biographer of Dr Thomas Young. In my opinion, Fearon did remarkably well to be the junior of a trio of such brilliant mathematical celebrities. It is more than likely that his success at University was due just as much to the intellectual challenge he faced every time the three astronomers met in exams etc, as to his own natural genius.

Before going to Cambridge, Fearon had had no particular interest in the night sky or the study of the physical universe. He was a man of numbers. True, during the course of his studies, Fearon had frequently encountered astronomical equations - they were often used in his mathematics classes to explain certain mathematical principles - but he had no special interest in astronomy. So how did he become an astronomer? Perhaps the experience of witnessing Herschel and Peacock excitedly calculating the orbital paths of comets and the planets of the solar system intrigued him to the point where he found their lure irresistible. Perhaps, in astronomy, he sensed a new, deeper challenge. Perhaps it appealed to his practical nature and upbringing that finally he was working with real objects and phenomena instead of just abstract numbers and equations? He must have enjoyed seeing, with his own eyes, how mathematics related to the real world.

But at the time a career in astronomy was never even considered. Fearon's future lay firmly in mathematics. After graduating from St John's, Fearon spent several more years lecturing in mathematics at Cambridge colleges. In 1815, while Napoleon's and Wellingtons armies faced each other on the bloody battlefield at Waterloo, Fearon returned to St John's to teach, and in 1818 became Moderator - or Chief Examiner - of the Mathematics department there.

But during this time Fearon's accomplishments were receiving the stealthy attention of people in high places, And by 1820, at a time when Mankind's perception and knowledge of the universe was growing rapidly, Fallows' own horizons were destined to expand beyond his, or even his father's, wildest dreams ...

The Admiralty Board ...

During Fallows' time, international trade - and warfare - was dominated by sailing ships, and their navigation relied on navigators using a compass and the positions of well-known stars to plot the ship's position on the surface of the Earth: if a navigator knew a star's position in the night sky, he could calculate where he was by measuring that star's exact altitude and direction. Navigating the northern hemisphere's seas was easy for British sailors, because they had charts of the night sky drawn-up by astronomers. The famous "Pole Star" was used most of all, because it was relatively bright and easy to locate, using the stars of the Big Dipper.

However, once a ship sailed south of the equator the situation changed dramatically. The Pole Star vanished beneath the horizon, and all the familiar constellations vanished too, replaced by strange patterns never seen before. British sailors heading across southern seas stared up through gaps in their sails at a sky filled with stars they did not recognise - and could not steer by.

What was obviously needed was an accurate survey of the southern sky, which would allow accurate star maps to be drawn, thus allowing reliable navigation. But this was no task for a humble navigator - it was a task for an astronomer. The French government had already realised this, and by 1820 the French astronomer LaCaille had already travelled to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa - which was essentially a British colony after almost 30 years of bitter fighting over it's ownership - to conduct such a survey, but still-frosty post-Waterloo relations between the British and French governments meant that he was made less than welcome, and the presence of a British astronomer became a top priority for the Admiralty. The Navy needed star maps of the southern sky if Britannia was to rule the waves beneath the equator too!

An Admiralty committee was formed, given the specific task of improving southern navigation, and on February 3rd, 1820, shortly after Fearon Fallows was elected a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, the grandly-named Commissioners of the Board of Longitude met to began their work. They soon decided that an astronomer should be sent to the Cape, to build an observatory there and survey - and chart - the southern sky.

The Admiralty was impatient to secure the Cape for Britain's use, but - as is still the case today! - the red tape of bureaucracy was soon wrapped around the project. Meeting followed meeting, report followed report, until a start-up budget of £2,300 was eventually approved, and a construction deadline of two years was agreed upon. Everyone involved was ordered to proceed "at haste." Finally, after discussions with the Treasury and the powerful Colonial Office, the Board was instructed to choose an individual to carry out the task of overseeing the observatory's construction, and work there.

And on October 26th, 1820, Fearon Fallows received word at St John's that he had been elected for the task - and had been appointed to the office of Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope.

One can only wonder what went through his mind on that morning. Could it really be true? Could the son of a poor weaver, born in a small riverside town hundreds of miles from the bustling capital, really have been chosen to travel to the bottom of the world to build a modern, state of the art new observatory, and to undertake work which could not just advance the science of astronomy considerably, but also have massive implications for international trade and commerce? After all, unlike his friend John Herschel, Fearon was not even a real astronomer! He had never spent freezing nights peering into a telescope, or searched in vain for a comet! How many times did he re-read the letter before he finally convinced himself it was true ...?

But it was. Fearon Fallows was going to South Africa.

Preparing to Depart

In preparation for his new job, Fearon travelled the length and breadth of the land, visiting the major observatories of the time to gather advice from astronomers, wisely and humbly acknowledging that his own lack of observing experience meant he would be seriously disadvantaged otherwise. He also examined astronomical instruments, learned about their construction and operation, and quickly began to gain insight into what his new life as an astronomer would be like.

By the end of 1820 Fearon had completed his consultations with the eminent civil engineer Mr Rennie, and the basic plans for the Cape Observatory had been approved. A ship, "The Sappho," was hired, and the loading of supplies and portable instruments for use down at the Cape began in earnest.

But first, there was one other very important matter for the young would-be astronomer to attend to. During his time at university, Fearon had corresponded with Mary Anne Hervey, the eldest daughter of the Reverend Hervey, the kindly vicar of Bridekirk who had been such a good friend and supporter during his early struggles. On New Year's Day, 1821, Fearon and Mary were married.


On May 4th 1821, five months after their wedding, Fearon and his wife finally strode up the gang-plank of the Sappho and began their new life. Also on board were two other people who would be accompanying them to the Cape: Mr Fayrer, who had been appointed Fearon's assistant, and his sister.

It's easy to imagine the four of them standing together on the deck as the Sappho slid out of port, watching their homeland shrink into the distance, wondering what lay ahead. It must have been in their minds many south-bound ships and their crews had been lost on the long and hazardous Cape voyage. ...

The 100 day voyage must have fascinating for Fearon, as he watched the familiar constellations sink beneath the horizon and be replaced by new, alien ones. On clear nights, with the ship riding a calm sea, he would most likely have been found up on deck, practicing the operation of his instruments and refining his observing techniques.

On stormy nights, he was probably hunched-up in his cabin, studying astronomical manuscripts and sheets of instructions by the light of a swinging lantern.

Finally, on August 12th, 1821, more than three months after leaving England, the Sappho reached the Cape. Some reports suggest the ship actually landed Fearon at the wrong place, Simon's Town instead of Cape Town, and go on to suggest that he had to arrange for transportation to Cape Town on another ship at his own expense. But whatever the truth, stepping ashore Fearon and Mary must have been struck by the many differences between England and the Cape. The air was drier, and the Sun would have seemed twice as hot as it blazed in the sapphire sky. But the most startling thing about the land which they stepped onto after walking down the Sappho's plank was the dust; Cape Town was - and still is - a very dusty place, and the whole area was dusty. This dust was later to cause great problems. ...

Four days after the Sappho's arrival, the Acting Governor of the Cape, Sir Rufane Donkin, penned a letter to Mr Goulborn, the Colonial under-secretary, confirming Fearon's arrival. "The Astronomer Royal has arrived here, but I hear without funds or letter of credit with which to build his observatory. ..."

It was true. Fearon had arrived safely, but without any funds for the purchase of building materials, clothing or even food. It was, unfortunately, an omen of much worse things to come.

First Priorities

Having arrived at the Cape, two matters dominated Fearon's thoughts. First he had to find somewhere to live, and secondly he had to locate and secure a piece of land suitable to build the observatory upon. And finding the best location for the observatory was critical: before leaving England, Fearon had been given strict instructions by his Admiralty bosses. Among his duties were making "an approximate catalogue of the southern stars with the portable transit instrument" (even before completing the observatory itself) and "pay particular attention to the rediscovery of the comet of 1819, according to the places calculated by Professor Encke for 1822." These tasks must have daunted Fearon, who, remember, had no previous experience of observing the night sky scientifically. But relocating the comet - a mere misty smudge of light, lost among completely unfamiliar stars and constellations - would surely have worried even the most accomplished of astronomers. But Fearon was a man of dedication, and honour, and soon he was getting down to work.

A Temporary Home

But before he could begin trekking across the dusty hills in search of a suitable construction site, Fearon first had to find a home for himself and his wife. When completed, the observatory would of course include living quarters, but for now they were homeless, and had insufficient funds for the purchase of a property for themselves. Eventually they found a room in the town granary, and Fearon was granted the use of one of the settler's huts at Algoa Bay as a temporary observing site.

Choosing The Site Of The Observatory

Fearon had been given very specific instructions regarding the location of the Observatory site, and once settled in his new home he set about finding a good place to start building the facility. Over several months he surveyed the area, searching for a suitable location. A site at Tiger Berg seemed promising at first, but drifting sand and the lack of a water supply ruled it out. Eventually he settled on Slang-Kop, or "Snake Hill" - a barren, rocky hill three miles east of Cape Town which was covered with wild thistles, surrounded by sucking marshes and, as its name suggested, infested with snakes too. Fearon was still concerned about the drifting sand, but realised that that was a challenge he would just have to overcome; he would find no better location.

But soon Slang-Kop proved to be more than just a "challenge." A tale recounted in Gill's History of the Cape Observatory graphically describes just how awful it was there. Gill describes how a hippopotamus one day wandered into one of the surrounding marshes, and sank so deep into the mud that it was unable to haul itself out. Kindly local farmers tried to free it, but the poor animal was so huge it remained stuck fast, and there was nothing more to do except put it out of its misery. However, the poor animal's hide was so thick and tough that their bullets could not pierce it, so the farmers were forced to cut holes into the hippo's side and fire into them instead.

Having finally selected a site, Fearon requested confirmation and approval to go ahead with the construction from the Admiralty. They approved his decision - but then the delays began.

Fearon had been assured the land was Government property, meaning its purchase would be simple and straightforward, but it was claimed by three separate people, resulting in long, drawn-out negotiations and pay-offs. To ease his growing frustrations, Fearon found comfort in a new role as a preacher. Like his father, he had always held deep religious convictions, and shortly before his departure from England, Fearon was ordained as a preacher. Now, with time on his hands, he took the opportunity to help others by acting as Chaplain for the nearby military garrison, and by christening the children of his new neighbours.

But it must have been impossible not to become disheartened by the delays and red tape. He had arrived full of enthusiasm and hope, determined to advance the frontiers of astronomy. Yet a year after the land had finally been purchased, not even a single foundation stone had been laid, and Fearon was forced to dismiss his second assistant. Answering Fearon's frustrated letters, the Admiralty told the young astronomer that a replacement would be sent down to him "in due course." Until then he would just have to manage by himself.

Observing Begins

So Fearon did just that. While he waited to begin constructing the observatory, he began studying and mapping the southern sky, using his portable telescope and other instruments to measure the exact positions of almost 300 stars. His observations were announced at an Admiralty meeting in February 1824, and then delivered to the Royal Society at Greenwich for preservation. Fearon's work found its way into the hands of Sir George Airy, who would become Astronomer Royal in 1846.

Construction (Finally!) Begins

Finally, on February 5th 1825 - almost four years after Fearon's arrival at the Cape! - a Cape Town newspaper carried an advertisement requesting bids from local construction firms for the contract to build the observatory. Of course, in keeping with the sheer ineptitude of the whole situation, the advertisement had been written quite some time before this, but had been "mislaid" in an office in London. It was just another example of the apathy and lack of support Fearon had to endure.

By mid-month a bid had been approved, and construction finally began. And, for a while, things seemed to be moving on! The foundations were dug, and a Clerk of Works was appointed. It was during this time that "Snake Hill" proved to be accurately named; reports tell how, on one particularly dangerous day, Fearon personally witnessed the digging crew kill 90 snakes. ...!

Fearon's Father Dies

In 1826 Fearon must have thought his life was finally getting on track. To his delight, he received word that a new assistant had been chosen for him back in December 1824 - a Captain Ronald, who was to sail to the Cape in the 'Susanna', along with the high-quality instruments which were to be mounted permanently in the observatory. Fearon, understandably, expected the Captain and his precious, vital cargo, would be arriving any day. Little did he know that they had not even left England yet, and would not arrive at the Cape until the end of the year. ...

Then Fearon's world was shattered by news of the death of his beloved father. It is impossible to exaggerate the debt Fearon owed to his father. It was he who laboured hard to pay for the private tuition which had opened so many doors for him, including those of the halls of Cambridge. Imagine the sorrow Fearon felt at being unable to attend his father's funeral, or even bid him farewell in person, or to comfort his grieving mother and family. What tortured thoughts went through Fearon's mind as he stared at the setting Sun from that barren hillside, among scaffolding and masonry. ...?

Captain Ronald Arrives

Grieving for his father, frustrated by the conditions and the continuing lack of support from the Admiralty, Fearon's spirits must have been at a dreadful low, and surely he must have considered leaving the Cape altogether. But at the end of 1826 the Susanna finally arrived, bringing with her Fearon's new assistant, Captain Ronald, and a cargo bay full of precious astronomical instruments. Fearon's spirit was fired again, and he threw himself into his work with renewed vigour.

The Observatory Begins to take Shape

Perhaps it was inevitable that, with his optimism fired in such a way, Fallows would be frustrated yet again, this time by events unfolding back in England. In 1827 the Whigs took control of Parliament after a bitterly-fought campaign and, without a word of consultation with the man sent there to work on their behalf, scythed £10,000 off the budget for the Cape observatory building and grounds.

In June 1827 the basics of the observatory were completed, but, as Gill says, at that time it was little more than "a mere block of masonry on an exposed rocky hill, without enclosure, without roads, without adequate water supply, without stabling or outdoor accommodation of any kind." The observatory building was H-shaped, its instruments housed in domes mounted on the roof and reached by rickety ladders. But life at the Cape was not all doom and gloom. Gill recounts the tale of how Fallows rushed up one ladder to open a hatch - and found himself staring into the eyes of a leopard!

Ever the optimist, and despite the "theft and violence of the workmen employed on the building" - Fallows wrote to the Admiralty reasonably requesting items with which to improve the building, and funds for trees, which he intended to plant around the observatory to use as a barrier against the dust storms. It was a brilliant idea, cheap and simple, and should have been approved without a moment's hesitation. The Admiralty turned Fallows down cold. "If you have any desire to beautify the grounds, it must be at your own expense," they sneered.

As if this was not bad enough, it was also at this time that Fearon learned of the death of his mother. Surely no-one could have blamed him for throwing up his hands, admitting defeat, and returning to England on the next ship. But Fallows stayed, determined to succeed, in spite of everything the Admiralty, and the harsh land itself, could throw at him.

Instruments at Last!

By 1829, after years of frustration, emotional turmoil and grief, Fallows was surely due for a change in fortune, and he must have thought it had arrived when he was finally able to install the high quality instruments into the observatory. Now he was able to really get down to work, and by November of that year had transmitted observations of over 2000 southern stars back to England. He also studied a "strange and unusual feature" on the Moon, and reported his observations back to London in January 1830.

It was at this time that Fallows was looking forward with relish to beginning very serious and complicated observations of the night sky using an instrument called a mural circle, vital for creating accurate maps and charts. All through his struggles with builders, dust and leopards, Fearon had been looking forward to using the circle - but he was to be cruelly thwarted yet again. The circle was faulty, and would not give proper readings. Fearon rightly concluded that the sensitive instrument had been damaged during the long voyage south, and it was later learned that it had actually been dropped, from a considerable height, during its off-loading from the Susanna. Of course, no-one thought to tell Fearon. (Even worse, when the instrument was returned to England some years later for repair, it was revealed that it had been broken from the start. Even without the unfortunate accident at the quayside, Fearon would never have been able to use it properly.)

Captain Ronald Departs

In the middle of May 1830 Fearon was struck another cruel blow when his assistant, Captain Ronald, announced his intention to leave the Cape and return home. Fearon could not blame his faithful friend; like Fearon himself, Capt Ronald had been ill for some time, and having to do more and more work, because of the failings of the Admiralty, had driven him almost to exhaustion. Fallows' wife, Mary, assumed the role of observatory assistant without hesitation, and worked tirelessly at his side. She soon proved to be indispensable - and in early 1830 even discovered a new comet, in the constellation of Octans, which she and Fearon both took delight in observing.

It was a hopelessly inadequate reward for her devotion and dedication. Like her husband, Mary had suffered greatly at the Cape, giving birth to but losing several children to the terrible conditions and the hardships they endured there.

Sickness Grips the Observatory

It must have been hard for the Fallows' to imagine how things could get any worse, but they did. In the hot summer of 1830, Fearon was struck down with a terrible attack of scarlet fever. The sickness had assaulted him before, but this was an attack from which he never truly recovered. It left him weak, and disheartened. By that September the entire observatory was wracked with sickness, and by the time Captain Ronald finally and reluctantly left the Cape, on October 17th, there was almost no work being carried out at the observatory - there was no-one well enough to use the instruments.

And here is a terrible irony. For while Fearon struggled with the almost unbearably primitive conditions at the Cape, his home town, all those many thousands of miles away, was greeting a new age of civilisation and technology: gas street-lighting arrived in Cockermouth.

How sad and bitter poor Fearon must have felt, and guilty too. He had accepted a challenge in good faith, and left an academic life of security and stability for a life of uncertainty and danger in South Africa. Had he remained a lecturer at his beloved Cambridge, he would surely have gone on to become an academic genius, but he had given all that up for the chance to pursue science in a distant land barely touched by civilisation. Worse, perhaps, he had taken his beloved young wife south with him, robbing her of any chance of a comfortable, safe existence.

There must have been times when Fearon gazed up at the southern stars and hated them.

Yet still he continued to work. On November 12th Fearon transmitted some observations made with the faulty mural circle, and three days after that reported observing the planet Uranus - discovered, remember, by William Herschel, father of his old university friend and rival, John. But the report also included a confession which must have been very difficult for the dedicated man to make: Fearon admitted he was greatly behind with his calculations, and was unable to send work home as regularly as he had been instructed to.

Failing Health ...

By the start of 1831, Fearon's health was very poor indeed. As March drew to a close, Fearon was so ill he was reportedly being carried into the observatory in a blanket, sick and weak but still stubbornly refusing to admit defeat and stop doing what little work he felt up to. But eventually he was so weak he had to give in, and agreed to be taken to Simon's Town for rest, where he would hopefully get treatment and regain his strength. How bitter and hopeless he must have felt as he watched his uncompleted observatory disappear behind him. ...

He never saw it again.

The last official letter received from Fearon Fallows was written from Simon's Town on June 30th, 1831. By then he was, by all accounts, a very sick man, almost broken by his frustrations and disappointments. Ironically, unknown to him, the Admiralty had finally taken note of his situation and had appointed a successor to Captain Ronald, ordering a Lt Meadows to make all haste to the Cape to relieve him. But it was too little, too late.

Fallows Dies

On July 25th, 1831, just three weeks after his 43rd birthday, Fearon Fallows died. The funeral was a very solemn affair, reported in August 3rd 's South African Commercial Advertiser:
"If almost universal regret can in any case afford comfort to survivors, the immediate friends of our late astronomer may lay full claim to this source of consolation. His funeral was at once an affecting and an imposing scene: men of every rank, of every persuasion, almost of every shade of character, here met to deplore the death of one whose place will not easily be filled, and they united not only in the service of the lip, but in the deep unseen feeling of the heart; and many of them, in all the bitterness of undissembled sorrow"
At his own request Fearon's body was laid to rest in a grave 12ft deep - he wanted to avoid his grave being plundered by robbers - in an elevated spot by the observatory which he had previously chosen as the site of his sundial. His grave was blessed and covered with a large slab of black, Robben Island stone. The engraving reads:









Fearon Fallows was a great man, of great potential, and the manner in which he was treated was both a tragedy and a crime, in my opinion. Had he been given the support he deserved, who knows what he might have accomplished? He was an astronomer at a time when that particular science was truly coming to life. William Herschel had discovered the planet Uranus, literally doubling the size of the Solar System overnight. Astronomers were just beginning to experiment with photography. And the very first asteroid, Ceres, had just been discovered. Astronomy was alive!

I wish Fearon had not been quite so stubborn, and had allowed himself to be taken for rest and treatment sooner. If so, he might have recovered and resumed his work. With new instruments, and his wife and Lt Meadows assisting him, he would surely have made startling progress, mapping the southern sky and observing Halley's Comet as it shone brightly above Table Mountain in 1834. After completing his work he may well have returned home to England and a hero's welcome at St John's, and after spending some time back home in Cockermouth, sharing his experiences and adventures with his friends, would have returned to a life of quiet scientific study in the chambers of Cambridge.

But tragically, that was not to be. Instead of lying at rest in the quiet cemetery of All Saints church here in Cockermouth, his body is buried in the ground of a distant land, beneath alien constellations and unfamiliar stars. One can only hope that his premature death caused many people in the Admiralty to suffer feelings of guilt, and many sleepless nights, at the time. But somehow I doubt it.

So, next time you're in Cockermouth, take a wander down to Wordsworth House, and as you stand in front of it, with your back to the bust of the great poet, turn your head slightly to the left, find the little lane which separates Wordsworth House from the Mineral Museum, and take a moment to go and look at the slate plaque mounted on the wall there, just beside the door.

After all Fearon Fallows endured, it's the least you can do, don't you think?

Stuart Atkinson

Last Updated March 2021