Henry Lonsdale on Fearon Fallows

Henry Lonsdale wrote the six volume work The worthies of Cumberland. The final volume contains the biography of Fearon Fallows and we give below an extract from this biography.

Henry Lonsdale, Fearon Fallows: Weaver and astronomer, in The worthies of Cumberland Vol 6 (George Routledge & Sons, London, 1867), 161-178.

Fearon Fallows: Weaver and astronomer.

Cockermouth can boast of a stirring political history, in which the Curwens, the Grahams, the Lawsons, and the Lowthers (taken alphabetically) - Whigs, Radicals, and long-horned Tories - have played bold and expensive parts in defence of their respective banners of blue and yellow. And though these contests in the feudal, transitional, and reformed periods of our history are not wanting in real interest, as marking the struggles and progressive stages of English freedom, a time will come, if its shadows are not already cast before, when a higher regard will be felt in the Parliamentary borough of Cockermouth as the nursery of Dalton, Wordsworth, and Fallows, - the men of genius who have not only conferred lasting fame on the locality of their birth, but have made their names known to the ends of the earth.

Fearon Fallows, the subject of this memoir, was born on July 4, 1789, in the first house on the left of Low Sand Lane, Cockermouth. This lane or narrow street, leading from the main thoroughfare of the town towards the river Derwent, alone separates the birthplaces of William Wordsworth and Fearon Fallows; yet these two lads were very differently circumstanced in the world. Wordsworth was nursed on the carpeted drawing-room of one of the best mansions in Cockermouth. Fallows had to find his feet, as best he could, on the sanded floor of a weaver's kitchen. If the Spirit of the Muse chose to cast her smiles on the well-to-do solicitor's son, the Genius of Science irradiated the bare walls and dingy loom-recesses of the household of John Fallows, the weaver, giving to his first-born a marvellous aptitude for numbers and geometry, the most important branch of the mathematical sciences.

John Fallows, the handloom weaver, had a large family, and lived in most humble circumstances. As with all poor men's children, his oldest boy, Fearon, was turned to some account at an early age, filling the spools, and helping in the different services attached to a weaver's household, very much in the way that John Dalton had to act in his poor home at Eaglesfield; and when his limbs were long enough to reach the treadles of the loom, he was regularly apprenticed to his father's handicraft, and is said to have laboured at it till his nineteenth year.

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.

Instead of the Free Grammar School at Cockermouth, young Fallows was sent to Mr Cooper, a schoolmaster of repute at Brigham, two miles distant, under whom he got his early mathematical training. The lad's zeal and acquirements in geometry were such that he soon trod on his master's heels; and it is said that "old Cooper" was frank enough to admit their equality, or rather the superiority of his pupil, by sending for his father, whom he thus addressed:- "John Fallows, I'll not rob you any more." "What do you mean?" inquired Fallows senior; to which the schoolmaster replied, "Your boy is as able to teach me as I am to teach him, so I can take no more quarter-pence from you." This of course determined the removal of Fearon from school. A Mr Bowman has been mentioned as having in part assisted Fearon's mathematical progress; but it is doubtful if any schooling obtainable at Cockermouth was equal to his own unaided exertions, backed as they were by his father's daily encouragement. Though living by the operations of his loom, John Fallows was a man his promising son falter by the way, actually devoted the few spare hours at his disposal to advance his own education, with the view of enlarging his son's. After advancing so far with arithmetic and algebra, Latin authors engaged them. The greatest difficulty they had was to obtain the necessary books, for which, it is said, they were very much dependent on kind neighbours higher in the social scale than themselves.

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. Gay's words were applicable to their constant toil to keep the thatch whole over their heads:-
Ye weavers, all your shuttles throw.
And bid broadcloth and serges grow;
for they worked with a will almost imperative to the maintenance of life itself. Then came the pleasant alternative of study in the evenings, which would have been doubly sweet had their limbs and general vigour not been reduced below par by their long hours at the loom. Amid all their trials, there was no praying to Jupiter for help; the Fallows had the good sense to know that God only helps those who help themselves. They set to work in the spirit that has always overcome difficulties, by practising a faithful diligence and purpose. Who could have looked without emotion upon these joint-heirs of industry contending with undaunted energy against the stream of events besetting their path towards the goal of knowledge.

The best part of his education, in addition to his father's help, was obtained at the loom, the practice of the weaver's art being by no means so unfavourable to study, inasmuch as a great portion of the work is done automatically. Much Latinity was conned over, and many hard problems in geometry got solved, it is believed, by Fearon Fallows in this way. His persevering efforts to acquire knowledge remind one of Dean. Milner's youthful experiences and hardships. Fallows and Milner may be said to have formed historical parallels. Both were weavers, and practised that calling up till manhood; both made companions of their books at the loom, where they studied with profit; both were actuated by the same spirit of emulation to rise above the poverty of the shuttle; and eventually their efforts were rewarded by their becoming first-class mathematicians at Cambridge, where, if anywhere in Britain, mathematical knowledge is fairly tested, and, when proved to be of a high order, as handsomely rewarded.

John Fallows having become parish-clerk at the neighbouring church of Bridekirk, the extraordinary acquirements of his son Fearon naturally reached the ears of the Rev Mr Hervey, the vicar. Shortly after- wards Fearon was engaged as assistant to Mr Temple, head-master of Plumbland School, only a few miles distant; and 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.

"Whatever difficulties," remarks the Rev R Sheepshanks ("Memoirs of Royal Astronomical Society," vol. V. p. 404), "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, though directed; as was to be expected, in the line of the older English geometers, with whom he was already familiar, rather than according to that of the Continental mathematicians."

The kind support of his Cumberland friends was not quite equal to his wants at Cambridge during the third year of his residence there, and he began to doubt if his funds would permit him to finish his studies without incurring debt. Whilst brooding over this difficulty, a letter reached him one morning enclosing £100 from an unknown and munificent benefactor. Some say that Fallows never knew who his friend was; others affirm that he was a brother of one of Fallows' fellow-students, whose death occurring a few years afterwards, revealed, among other memoranda, the gift of £100 to Fallows, and that this sum was paid by Fallows to the brother of his benefactor.

In the year 1813, Mr Fallows proceeded Bachelor of Arts, and was third on the list of Wranglers - Mr (afterwards Sir John) Herschel being first, and Mr Peacock (afterwards Dean of Ely) second Wrangler. Both men were of the highest eminence. Had Mr Fallows taken his degree in an ordinary year, he would most probably have been senior Wrangler, but coming in competition with Herschel, one of the greatest men of his time, and Peacock, afterwards the accomplished biographer of Dr Thomas Young, he did remarkably well to be the junior of such a trio of mathematical celebrities.

As there was no Fellowship open to Mr Fallows at his own college, he removed to Benet College as mathematical lecturer. In the year 1815, he was recalled to St John's, where he resided for some years. He was Moderator, or principal mathematical examiner, in the university in the year 1818. About this time, probably, he was ordained a minister of the Church of England.

At a meeting of the commissioners appointed by Act of Parliament for more effectually discovering the longitude at sea, held at the Admiralty the 3rd of February 1820, it was proposed to establish an observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, as "likely to be conducive to the improvement of astronomy." It may be said, in passing, that the commissioners included the most learned scientific men of the day, headed by Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty. After official formalities, in which the Admiralty figures most conspicuously, had been got through, the observatory was established by an order in Council, dated October 20, 1820; and by an Admiralty minute of the same day, "the Rev Fearon Fallows, M.A,, Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, was appointed to the office of Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope." His salary was fixed at £600 a year; that of his assistant at £200 a year.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1820. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Mr Fallows took advantage of the few months intervening between his appointment and departure for the Cape to visit the public and private observatories of Britain, and the workshops of our most celebrated artists. He also gave his time to "the calculation of special tables, and in devising the best and simplest means of making, registering, and reducing astronomical observations."

On the 1st January 1821 be married Miss Mary Anne Hervey, eldest daughter of the Rev. H. A. Hervey, vicar of Bridekirk, and his early patron, and embarked on the 4th of May following. Mr and Mrs Fallows arrived at the Cape on the 12th August 1821.

Considering the numerous difficulties presenting themselves as to the selection of a site for his observatory, the delays occurring through the supineness of the Home authorities, both as to the adoption of a plan for the building and the furnishing him with instruments needful to carry on his astronomical labours, Mr Fallows proved his earnestness by transmitting a catalogue of 275 principal stars to the Board of Longitude in 1823.

[The office with which Mr Fallows communicated in London was the then existing *' Navy Board." How this Board, a kind of imperium in imperio of the Admiralty, should have been permitted to regulate the affairs of the Cape Observatory, is beyond all but red-tapeism to conceive. It might have served as the type, as it assuredly realised to the full the function, of Dickens' Circumlocution Office - "How not to do it." Like many others who came under its sway, Mr Fallows suffered greatly at the hands of this Navy Board, and he had not the good fortune to live to see it swept from the face of the earth by his fellow-Cumbrian, Sir James Graham, whose first business at the Admiralty in 1832 was to clear out the nest of drones. (See my "Life of Sir James Graham," 2nd volume of this series, page 111.)]

The original observations were announced at the meeting of February 5, 1824, and were ordered to be delivered to the Royal Society for preservation. They were afterwards transferred to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. In the year 1846, the manuscripts of Mr Fallows' observations were placed in the hands of Sir G B Airy, the Astronomer-Royal, who undertook to superintend the reductions. Accordingly these reductions were made, and submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society (Nov. 9, 1849), and afterwards published, along with a valuable historical introduction bearing on Mr Fallows' appointment, his official work and difficulties at the Cape, in the 19th volume of the "Memoirs of the Society."

"It would appear," writes Sir G B Airy, "that at this time Mr Fallows' position was not very agreeable. He was residing in a hired house, of so bad a construction (as, it appears, is frequently to be found at the Cape) that on one occasion the roof and a great part of the house fell in, his family escaping injury only by accidental absence. He had only inferior instruments, and was waiting vainly for large ones. The ground which he had selected as a site for the observatory - supposed to be Government property - was claimed by three private persons, and was only obtained by negotiation, to the extent of 27 /16 acres, about 1823, July 6; but even then no plan for building was received. Finally, in 1824, July 17, he found it absolutely necessary to dismiss his assistant, Mr Skully, and was thus left alone."

Mr Fallows was severely tried by these untoward circumstances, and felt the worry all the more that he was so far from home and the opportunities of securing more efficient aid. The arrival of Captain Roland, who proved a valuable assistant, was so far a relief to him; and the commencement of the erection of the observatory, under Mr Skirrow, gave him fresh interest in his work. Here, again, troubles arose, owing to the theft and violence of the workmen employed on the building, which could only be met by a guard of soldiers to preserve the property and to maintain order.

In 1830, Mr Fallows was deprived of the services of his assistant, Captain Roland, and was thus "left unaided to do the best he might with a transit and mural circle." In reference to this loss, Commodore Schomberg, the principal naval officer on the Cape station, in a communication he made to the Admiralty, writes: - "Mr Fallows has always complained of want of proper assistants, and I am justified in saying that, had it not been for Mrs Fallows' efforts, some of his very important observations would have failed on different occasions, where more than one individual was indispensably required." Mr Sheepshanks says Mr Fallows was relieved from the difficulty of having no assistant by the affection and intelligence of Mrs Fallows, who offered to undertake the circle observations while he was engaged with the transit." A very little instruction sufficed to render her perfectly competent for this task; and the Cape astronomer had, like Hevelius, the pleasure of finding his best assistant in the partner of his affections. Some of his letters written at this time express a strong hope and confidence that he should at length be able to justify the high expectations which had been formed of the observatory, and that his work would bear a comparison in accuracy, though not in extent, with that of any other establishment."

"But the labours of the observatory were too much for a constitution already much enfeebled by previous illness. He had suffered very severely from a coup de soleil soon after his arrival at the Cape, while fixing the small transit; and, besides some less serious com- plaints, experienced a dangerous attack of scarlet fever in the summer of 1830, from which he seems never to have fully recovered. In the beginning of 1831, his health was visibly impaired, but he could not be induced to leave the observatory before the equinox. Towards the end of March, he became incapable of struggling any longer with the disease, and went to Simon's Town. But it was now too late, and he breathed his last on the 25th July 1831, in the forty-third year of his age. He was buried immediately in front of the observatory. A flat tombstone of black Robben-island stone marks his grave." Though several children were born to him, they all died in their earliest infancy; so that his widow, who had been a true helpmate and affectionate wife, had alone to mourn his loss.

It is said that Mr, Fallows built an Episcopal chapel at Cape Town, where he regularly officiated as the clergyman; and that the Cape journals always spoke of him in highly eulogistic terms as a man of sterling worth and active benevolence. He made an annual allowance of £60 to his father and mother as long as they lived; both of them died before him. His widow inherited all he died possessed of, and afterwards took a second husband.

Mr Sheepshanks observes: "To those who were acquainted with Mr Fallows, it is unnecessary to dwell upon the integrity and simplicity of his character, or the depth and clearness of his understanding. As an astronomer he had few rivals. Perfectly acquainted with the practical and scientific departments of astronomy, he carried into the observatory the same straightforward zeal and honesty which were the distinctive features of his private character; and if his life had been spared, would unquestionably have realised the most sanguine expectations of his friends and admirers.

"Mr Fallows did not leave his observations completely prepared for publication, but so nearly so as to require very little additional labour. His wish was to have had them printed under his own eyes after they had been examined and approved of by competent judges in England, for which purpose examined copies were transmitted by him to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

"In the Philosophical Transactions for 1822, page 237, is a paper by Mr Fallows, 'Communication of a Curious Appearance lately observed upon the Moon.' (The original of this paper is at the Admiralty.) It gives an account of the observation of some luminous points near the moon's eastern limb, apparently in the same position in which light has been seen by other observers.

"In the Philosophical Transactions for 1824, page 457, is a 'Catalogue of nearly all the Principal Fixed Stars between the Zenith of Cape Town and the South Pole, reduced to the 1st of January 1824,' with a description of the instruments employed. This is the catalogue to which allusion is made above, as having been announced at the meeting of the Board of Longitude on November 6, 1823.

"In the Philosophical Transactions for 1830, page 153, is an account of observations made with an in- variable pendulum at the Cape of Good Hope. These observations were made between November 23, 1828, and January 22, 1830, by Mr Fallows, Captain Ronald, and Mr Johnson (now Radcliffe observer at Oxford), in an outhouse near the Cape observatory."

Allusion was made in a previous page to the difficulties surrounding the path of Mr Fallows at the Cape; and it is pitiable to think that so much of his time and intellectual strength were wasted in making observations with imperfect instruments. On the 7th November 1830, he gives expression to his feelings in a note which is printed in Sir G Airy's introduction (loc. cit., p. 26) to Mr Fallows' astronomical work. It appears that the mural circle furnished him in the year 1826, but not fixed in its place till 1829, proved very unsatisfactory; nor could it well be otherwise, as on being brought to London and examined by the Astronomer-Royal and Mr Simms in the year 1840, they found to their astonishment "that the steel collar of the large pivot was loose, having been attached merely by soft solder." (See Report of the Astronomer-Royal to the Board of Visitors of the Royal Observatory, June 5, 1841.) This pivot proved a sad stumbling-block to Mr Fallows, and tended, along with his want of assistants, and other troubles, to bring him to a premature grave.

On April 13, 1832, the Royal Astronomical Society was favoured by a communication "On the Figure of the Mural Circle at the Observatory of the Cape of Good Hope. By the Rev. R. Sheepshanks, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; with an Appendix by G. B. Airy, then Plumian Professor of Astronomy in the same University." (See "Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society," vol. v. p. 325.) At page 407 of the same volume, Mr Sheepshanks records that Mr Fallows' work at the Cape consisted "of about three thousand transit and several hundred circle observations, with six microscopes, and some series with the invariable pendulum." These observations were reduced by the Astronomer-Royal, as mentioned in a previous page.

Among other tributes paid to the memory of Mr Fallows may be quoted that of Dr Peacock, the Dean of Ely ("Life of Dr Thomas Young," p. 448) - "The late Rev F Fallows, the contemporary of myself and Sir John Herschel at Cambridge; an excellent mathematician, and a very zealous and skilful astronomer, who lost his life in attempting to carry on the business of the observatory at the Cape, whilst labouring under the effects of a severe attack of fever."

On the north side of All Saints' Churchyard, Cockermouth, are two tombstones to the family of Fallows, one of which is here quoted, recording the deaths of John Fallows and his wife, and their son, Fearon Fallows:-

"Here lie the remains of John Fallows, who died the 19th October 1826, aged 66; also of Rebecca, his wife, who died 12th January 1828, aged 69 years.

"The Rev F Fallows, M.A., F.R.S., &c., late Fellow of St John's Coll., Camb., H.M. Astronomer, their son, died at the Cape of Good Hope, 25th July 1831, aged 43 years. This stone is erected to their memory by the widow of the late Rev Fearon Fallows."

Last Updated March 2021