A visit to the Herschel Museum

On a Saturday in August I [EFR] visited The Herschel Museum of Astronomy at 19 New King Street, Bath. This house was home to William and Caroline Herschel for some of their time in the city of Bath and the garden of this house is where William set up his telescopes on 13 March 1781 when he discovered the planet Uranus. The Museum celebrates the lives and achievements of William, his sister Caroline, and William's son John Herschel. This article is not meant to be simply a guided tour of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, rather it contains facts about the Herschels motivated by my visit to the Museum.

When you begin your tour of the Museum it is suggested you watch a video about the Herschels narrated by Sir Patrick Moore. For me the place where the video is shown is at least as interesting as the video itself. It is in one of the two cellar vaults in the house which you reach by a narrow passage from the basement. This vault, which extends under the pavement outside the house, is where the Herschels would have stored materials used in casting mirrors, items such as metal for the mirrors, wood and coal for the furnace, and horse dung for the moulds. It brings home the many varied aspects of the lives of William and Caroline who, when they lived in this house, were earning their living as musicians in the Bath, building their own telescopes, and observing whenever the weather allowed.

Leaving the vault, but still in the basement, I went to the kitchen.

Although some changes were made in Victorian times such as a new cooking range, the kitchen must today look quite like it did when the Herschels lived here. They employed a servant, but Caroline would have also been involved in the cooking. The workshop is next to the kitchen and it contains some of William's tools, either originals or replicas. There is a replica of the furnace he used for melting the metal to pour into moulds to make the mirrors, a replica of his mirror polishing machine which was William's own design and polished the mirror to a parabolic surface, and other items which give the impression that he might return at any time and carry on from the partially made objects. One thing in the workshop which is not a replica, but was originally owned by William, is the lathe which was used for making small parts of his telescopes such as eyepieces. It was not in this house in the Herschels' time since it was given to William after he moved to Slough.

Here is Caroline's description of the active life they lived, but this piece was written in 1775 when they were in Bath, but not in this house:
... every leisure moment was eagerly snatched at for resuming some work that was in progress, without taking time for changing dress, and many a lace ruffle was torn or bespattered by molten pitch, etc; besides the danger to which he continually exposed himself by this uncommon precipitancy which accompanied all his actions ... For my time was so much taken up with copying music and practising, besides attendance on my Brother when polishing, that by way of keeping him alive I was obliged to feed him by putting the vitals by bits into his mouth; - this was once the case when at the finishing of a 7 foot mirror he had not left his hands from it for 16 hours together. ... And generally I was obliged to read to him when at some work which required no thinking; and sometimes lending a hand, I became in time as useful a member of the workshop as a boy might be to his master in the first year of his apprenticeship.
William asked Caroline to copy star catalogues for him, which, she said:
... kept me employed when my Brother was at the telescope at night; for when I found that a hand sometimes was wanted when any particular measures were to be made with the lamp micrometer etc and a fire kept in, and a dish of coffee necessary during a long night's watching; I undertook with pleasure what others might have thought a hardship.
One of the most moving things in the whole of the Museum is the cracked floor in the workshop. This was the result of an accident which occurred in 1781, shortly after William's discovery of Uranus, when heating speculum to a molten state to pour into a horse dung mould to make a mirror. William wrote about the dramatic accident in a somewhat matter-of-fact way:
When everything was in readiness we put our 537.9 pounds of metal into the melting oven and gradually heated it; before it was sufficiently fluid for casting we perceived that some small quantity began to drop through the bottom of the furnace into the fire. The crack soon increased and the metal came out so fast that it ran out of the ash hole which was not lower than the stone floor of the room. When it came upon the pavement the flag stones began to crack and some of them blew up, so that we found it necessary to keep a proper distance and suffer the metal to take its own course.
Workshop  Crackedfloor

Caroline, however, gave a much more dramatic account of this incident:
... both my Brothers, and the caster and his men were obliged to run out at opposite doors, for the stone flooring (which ought to have been taken up) flew about in all directions as high as the ceiling. My poor Brother fell exhausted by heat and exertion on a heap of brickbats.
From the workshop, I carried on into the garden at the rear of the house. It was from this garden that William first observed the planet, later called Uranus, on 13 March 1781.

You can see in this picture the formal garden landscaped for the opening of the Museum in 1981 on the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Uranus. You can also see a metal installation by the artist Ruth Moillet representing Uranus in the solar system. On the left hand side of the garden is a statue of William and Caroline, by the artist Vivian Mousdell, half hidden by the flowers and plants.

When the Herschels lived here the garden was larger and would have been used to grow vegetables and herbs. Turning back to look at the house from the garden, we see a plaque to commemorate William Herschel's achievements.

I then went to view the rest of the Museum and look at the rooms in which the Herschels lived while at 19 New King Street. The Ground Floor Reception Room contains much of interest. One is struck at once by the model of the 40 ft (3.9 metre) telescope that William made after he left Bath and went to Observatory House in Slough. This telescope was 40 ft long and had a diameter of 4 ft 10 in (1.5 metre). William employed a team of twelve men to polish the mirror which they did following his instructions. While this telescope was still under construction, the king and other important people came to see how the project was progressing. Caroline wrote in a letter:
Before the optical part was finished many visitors had the curiosity to walk through it, among the rest King George III. And the Archbishop of Canterbury following the King and finding it difficult to proceed, the King turned to give him a hand, saying: "Come my Lord Bishop, I will show you the way to heaven." This was the year 1787, August 17th.
The 40 ft telescope was considered a tremendous achievement but did not produce much in the way of major discoveries. It was difficult to use and the mirror required frequent polishing. Other items in the Ground Floor Reception Room include drawings and paintings by John Herschel.
Watercolour by John Herschel of his school: Hitcham School.

There is also a fascinating letter written by William to his son John in November 1813.

Here is the text of the letter:
Slough near Windsor
Nov 14 - 1813

My Dear Son

Your letter has nearly had the same affect upon my disposition as mine seems to have had upon yours, If you are afraid of having said anything for which you would condemn yourself, I am equally afraid that I may have said what might appear to breathe a spirit of bitterness. I hope however that we both know such ideas are equally without foundation. I can as little doubt of your sincere attachment to your old philosophical father as he does of your perfect returning filial affection.

It would be a vain attempt to enter into arguments about the subject under consideration, which can only be discussed in a few conversations, and much therefore be postponed till we can meet; for to say the truth, I can gather nothing from the contents of your letter but what amounts to "I do not like the Church; I prefer the law"; and for this very reason I cannot but wish to hear every thing you have to say upon the subject. In hope that you are perfectly satisfied of the affection of your father I shall only add I am very sincerely yours Wm Herschel.
William had come to astronomy beginning with his deep interest in music. This interest led him to mathematics and he read books such as Robert Smith's Harmonics. He studied Colin Maclaurin's Treatise of fluxions:
... after a fatiguing day of 14 or 16 hours spent in his vocation [teaching music], he would retire at night with the greatest avidity to unbend the mind, if it may be so called, with a few propositions in Maclaurin's 'Fluxions', or other books of that sort.
A copy of Robert Simson's The Elements of Euclid including the Elements of Plane and Spherical Geometry is signed by William and Caroline but this is a later work which must have been purchased long after they left Bath since the edition is dated 1802.

Now 19 New King Street is both a museum and a house furnished to match the style of the time when the Herschels lived there. However, one assumes that the house might not have looked neat and tidy in the way it now does. We must assume that Caroline's description of what happened in 5 New King Street, one of their earlier homes, would have been even more true here. Caroline arrived at 5 New King Street in 1772. When she arrived the house was a beautifully furnished musicians home but a few months later she wrote:
... then it was to my sorrow I saw almost every room turned into a workshop. A cabinet maker making a tube and stands of all description in a handsome furnished drawing room; Alex putting up a huge turning machine (which in the Autumn he brought with him from Bristol) in a bedroom for turning patterns, grinding lenses and turning eye-pieces etc. I was to amuse myself with making the tube of pasteboard against the lenses arrived from London ...
We have said little to this point about the Herschels' involvement in music in Bath. The Music Room, although containing things other than music such as one of Caroline's dresses, has instruments of the period. It also has a part of the organ from the Octagon Chapel where William was the organist.

Although this information is in another part of the Museum, let us record at this point details of William's musical problems while in Bath and an interesting account of scandals in the Bath music scene during his time in the city:

Musical disputes: the quarrel between Thomas Linley and William Herschel
In 1771 Thomas Linley (Senior) was appointed Director of Music at the New Assembly Rooms in Bath. His success led to resentment among other Bath musicians whose livelihood was threatened by their inability to attract the public to their concerts. There was also conflict between the opposing managements of these Old and New Rooms.

William Herschel was one of three musicians appointed on June 7th 1771 to perform on Wednesdays under the direction of Linley, however that autumn he quarrelled with him and walked out. In an advertisement placed by Herschel in the Bath Chronicle on January 9th 1772 justifying his conduct, he complained of the 'ungenteel treatment' he had received from Mr Linley who on two successive occasions had failed to provide him with a music stand, obliging him 'on Account of the Deficiency, to place his books upon the ground'. Linley in turn replied in print that it had been because of 'the last Alteration of the Orchestra'.

The affair of the music stands, however, was little more than a pretext of the quarrel. The real point at issue was the allocation of benefit concerts. Herschel claimed that Linley had fixed the date of his daughter's concert to coincide with his own benefit, thereby breaking a gentleman's agreement. Linley, however, replied that Herschel had failed to apply to the Gentleman of Bath Committee for the use of the room. Linley's refusal to allow his daughter Elizabeth to sing at Herschel's concert was undoubtedly the real cause of the trouble. There were many bitter personal attacks over this period.

Herschel set about promoting a rival series of concerts, using Mr Shaw a Pump-Room player and another arch enemy of Linley, at the Octagon Chapel where he was the organist. The 'Concerto Spirituale' that he himself arranged contained works that were more unusual and imaginative and he used as a solo singer Signora Farinelli from the Berlin Opera.

There was another reason for its success. Linley's own subscription concerts had been criticised as the initial 12 issues were then reduced to 8 with the original subscribers expected to pay for the oratorio planned to replace the remaining concerts. The dissatisfied Linley subscribers welcomed the appearance of the rival group directed by Shaw and Herschel.

Throughout the quarrel with Herschel and in his dealings with other fellow musicians there was an element of ruthlessness in Linley's character. He over-exploited his young and talented family for financial gain and he seemed to find it difficult to tolerate rivals. Many of his colleagues felt that his successes were achieved at their expense and that he was in Herschel's words, 'a monopoliser of benefits'. However the stakes were high as the difference between success and failure on a provincial concert platform might well mean the difference between moderate affluence and real poverty.
The Scandal that Rocked Bath
While his dispute with William Herschel raged, Thomas Linley was struggling with the social consequences of another public quarrel - a personal scandal which threatened to engulf the reputation of his entire family.

Thomas Linley's eldest daughter Elizabeth (born 1754), was a talented singer and famous beauty. Despite being an accomplished musician and well-known intellectual 'bluestocking,' Elizabeth's reputation was always overshadowed by scandal.

At the age of 26, Elizabeth was betrothed by her father to wealthy local landowner Walter Long who was aware that Elizabeth was deeply in love with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an Anglo-Irish playwright of respectable birth whose profession ensued that he lived in an even more acute state of genteel poverty than the Linleys themselves. Long was prepared to proceed with the marriage despite his intended's affections lying elsewhere, but Elizabeth made it clear that she valued love more than riches and was relieved when Long accepted this and played the part of the gentlemen by publicly accepting the blame for their parting.

Thomas Linley however, took advantage of this and sued Long for breach of contract, resulting in a settlement which awarded the Linleys the enormous sum of £3000, whilst Elizabeth retained the £1000 worth of clothing and jewels she had received during her engagement. This became public knowledge in 1771, just as Thomas Linley's musical quarrel with Herschel began to reach fever pitch.

In the following year of 1772, as Herschel and Linley's argument reached its public apex, Elizabeth and Sheridan eloped to France. There they began to refer to one another as husband and wife, claiming to have married in a ceremony for which no credible evidence has ever been produced.

Unfortunately, Thomas Matthews another would-be suitor to Elizabeth, was outraged at the elopement and placed a libellous advertisement in the Bath Journal on 9th April 1772, hinting at the elopement and denouncing Richard Sheridan personally. When the lovers returned to England at the end of that month they crossed paths with Matthews, tensions exploded and a duel took place in Covent Garden in which Sheridan managed to disarm Matthews, who then signed a grovelling retraction. The Sheridans could not resist publishing this document, and overnight their infamy was washed away as the duel became a 'cause célèbre'. This turn of events goaded Matthews into apoplexy, and he insisted that a second duel take place in July at Kingsdown in Bath. On the windswept down and with the heighten stakes, a hard, dirty fight ensued. Both combatants broke their swords and were injured. Sheridan's honour was satisfied, but he remained in mortal danger for eight days:
"borne from the field with a portion of his antagonist's weapon sticking through an ear, his breast-bone touched, his whole body covered with wounds and blood, and his face nearly beaten to jelly with the hilt of Matthews' sword"
The Sheridans overcame their greatest scandal and were formally married on 13 April 1773, but the rest of their lives together proved unhappy, ultimately plagued with conflict and infidelities.
In the Herschel Museum we see William Herschel the musician and William Herschel the astronomer. Were these two different aspects of this great man or were they related? In many ways the skills that he showed in the one were the same skills needed to succeed in the other. Both required precision, both required imagination, and both required hard work. In both areas he was the complete practitioner. As a musician he composed music, he played music, he taught others music - in other words he was the complete musician. Likewise in astronomy he constructed telescopes and the necessary tools, he was the expert user of these instruments as an observer, he interpreted his observations with theories and he taught astronomy. When asked how he could see things with his telescopes which others could not, his reply linked music and observing:
Observing is in some respects an art which must be learnt. To make a person see with such power is nearly the same as if I were asked to make him play one of Handel's fugues upon the organ. Many a night have I been practising to observe, and it would be strange if one did not acquire a certain dexterity by such constant practice.
He was driven both by his passion for music and his passion for astronomy. But was there more to this remarkable man? Of course there was, and we see this in other aspects of his life. Here is an example: on 29 March 1761, before he became interested in astronomy, William wrote to his brother Jacob about two young ladies who he was much attracted to:
... one of them is the daughter of Mrs G. and the other is the daughter of lady G..y. The first is the most beautiful person in the world, beauty itself personified; she is quite young and likeable, but not yet an adult and absolutely innocent. As to Lady G..y's daughter, she is already more advanced, as she is around 20 or 23; but of mediocre appearance and far from being beautiful, but in compensation she plays the guitar and sings very sweetly to it. She is extremely fond of the oboe and several times invited me to spend a few weeks at the country house of My Lady her mother during the summer. She has something very attractive in her disposition and blushes at appropriate times; likewise she smiles and makes eyes ... But all that innocently .. To hell with your stories, you say. Well my dear brother, to please you I will change the subject; let's come to Mademoiselle. Stop laughing, because it would be wrong not to be serious in speaking of such an admirable person. As one judges the feelings of one's friends better by the letters they write than by their conversation, I have got to know her quite perfectly because I often receive letters from her. Each letter surprises me by the good sense and justice; we have had several discussions on the subject of friendship, feelings, knowledge of the human heart, virtue and several other matters, in which she displays more than common judgement. But what I admire most is that she knows how to write to me as a friend, frankly, without being any the less thoughtful or reserved.
William's marriage to Mary Pitt, the widow of his friend John Pitt, is another example of his life away from music and astronomy. A friend of Mary Pitt wrote:
... the poor woman complained much of the dullness of her life, and we did our best to cheer her, as did also Dr Herschel, who often walked over to her house with his sister of an evening, and we as often induced her to join his snug at Slough. Among friends it was soon discovered that an earthly star attracted the attention of Dr Herschel. An offer was made to Widow Pitt, and accepted. They were to live at Upton, and Miss Herschel at Slough, which would remain the house of business.
And what of Caroline Herschel? John Herschel, William's son, wrote about his aunt Caroline in a letter written to a friend in 1866:
She was attached during 50 years as a second self to her Brother, merging her whole existence and individuality in her desire to aid him to the entire extent and absolute devotion of her whole time and powers. There never lived a human being in whom the idea of Self was so utterly obliterated by a devotion to a venerated object unconnected by those strong ties of love and marriage which inspire such devotion in the female mind.
In many ways this devotion stopped Caroline making anything of her own astronomical achievements. She felt that claiming anything for herself detracted from William's glory. However, when he was away she took over as can be seen from the letter she wrote on 2 August 1786, announcing her discovery of a comet, which was published by the Royal Society on 9 November 1786:
The employment of writing down the observations when my brother uses the twenty-foot reflector does not often allow me time to look at the heavens, but as he is now on a visit to Germany, I have taken the opportunity to sweep in the neighbourhood of the sun in search of comets; and last night, the 1st of August, about 10 o'clock, I found an object very much resembling in colour and brightness the 27 nebula of the 'Connaissance des Temps', with the difference, however, of being round. I suspected it to be a comet; but a haziness coming on, it was not possible to satisfy myself as to its motion till this evening. I made several drawings of the stars in the field of view with it, and have enclosed a copy of them, with my observations annexed, that you may compare them together.
There are many letters on display in the Herschel Museum which give us still more insight into the character of the Herschels but I will end here, encouraging anyone reading this to visit the Museum if they are ever anywhere in the vicinity of Bath.

Last Updated November 2017