ADOPTED SON OF SUFFOLK
article appeared in the Tattler in May 2002)
‘There is no county in England
that is better than Suffolk’. Few in our village would argue with that sentiment, but the
quote comes not from anyone in Tuddenham, but from the pen of one of the
greatest scientists of the Victorian age. Born in Northumberland, he spent the
greater part of his life resident at Greenwich, but always regarded Playford
and the surrounding area as his true home, indeed, he was eventually laid to
rest in Playford churchyard. A
scientist whose influence even today, is ingrained within the very fabric of
our lives – from the weight of a bag of sugar to the time on your watch –
standards set or advised upon by successive governments drawing on this
gentleman’s remarkable intellect…
Sir George Biddell Airy KCB
FRS 7th Astronomer Royal (1801–1892)
Airy was born at Anwick where his
father, George Airy, was a much-feared (by the smugglers, that is) member of
HM Excise. His mother was Anne
Biddell from Suffolk, where the Biddell family was (is) well known.
Promotion brought the family south to Colchester, but Airy’s father
had made enemies both within and without the Revenue and his career was
brought to an abrupt ending around 1813, following allegations made over a
missing sum of £600. His father
went into obscurity and his uncle, Arthur Biddell largely brought up the
future Astronomer Royal from that point.
Arthur Biddell was a highly
respected land agent and valuer, who rented Hill Farm at Playford from the
Marquis of Bristol - as Clarkson (see below) rented the
Hall from the Marquis of Bristol. The estate was not sold until the death of
the 4th Marquis in 1951. Although self educated, Arthur had an extensive
private library and friendships through the Quakers with many prominent
figures in and around Ipswich, including Thomas Clarkson (the slave trade
abolitionist), William Cubitt (Engineer) and Robert Ransome (Founder of
Ransomes of Ipswich). (Airy’s
mother was Arthur Biddell's sister; Arthur Biddell's wife was Jane, the
daughter of Robert Ransome, founder of Ransomes). Although he lived with his
parents at Greenstead, Colchester, and attended the local Grammar School, the
young Airy spent as much time as possible at Hill farm, where he devoured his
way through his uncle’s books and also became acquainted with the aforesaid
gentlemen, who rather took the lad under their wings too.
There is an Airy family anecdote, although little borne out by
archives, that his astronomical interest may have been sparked by Robert
Ransome, who showed him the planet Saturn through a small telescope that he
had fashioned in the Ipswich works.
believe that Clarkson became aware of Airy's intellect, persuaded him to go to
his old university, Cambridge, and so set him off on his brilliant career.
Others feel that this might be generally correct but is not borne out by
primary evidence. You see, I have
been working with the leading expert on Airy (Dr Allan Chapman of Wadham
College, Oxford) for two or three years now and find that the Clarkson
assertion is accurate insofar as local anecdotal evidence is concerned. However, the definitive proof is lacking - to the point that
Airy's meticulously kept and filed personal correspondence (in possession of
Elizabeth Amati in London - Airy's Great niece) tends to make the story as I
have told it. There is no doubt
whatsoever that Clarkson was a major influence, but one major influence with
others as previously stated.
After his uncle’s death in 1860,
Airy wrote that had his uncle been afforded the same educational opportunities
as himself, he would undoubtedly have achieved more than he himself. The above
picture is of Arthur Biddell sitting in the porch of Hill Farm, circa 1855,
and is a very early example of a printed photograph.
The reverse of the picture carries an endorsement by Airy’s
granddaughter, Anna, in 1925 to the effect that the picture is the only one
extant of Arthur as he regarded paintings & photographs as ‘the making
of graven images’! The
background scene is unchanged to this day.
Airy’s uncle paid for extra
private tuition for his nephew (usually via local clergy) and Airy eventually
passed the entrance tests for admission to Trinity College, Cambridge, on a
Sizar scholarship (a sort of
working for your keep way into higher education for the poor).
His brilliance, especially in mathematics, soon showed through and
within a short time Airy was obtaining a reasonable sideline living by
tutoring students senior to him! An insight into his brilliance can be gleaned by the
additional personal – daily –mental exercises he set himself. Fluent in the classic languages, he would convert any number
of lines from a given book into Greek – then into Latin – and then back to
English to check if the translations were carried through correctly!
He graduated as ‘First Wrangler’ (the best of the best
mathematicians) and was made a fellow of Trinity on the spot.
These days, when graduates or
youngsters taking a ‘gap year’ want to see the wider world, they ‘back
pack’ around. It wasn’t so
very different in Airy’s day. As
a young man of limited financial means, he would frequently go on walking
breaks literally all over the country and would obtain his overnight lodgings
by writing ahead to former members of Trinity in whatever area to put him up.
By this means, for instance, he became a very great friend of William
Wordsworth whilst walking in the Lake District.
His greatest ‘coup’, however, was in meeting a truly beautiful
young lady (a description given by many) who lived in rather more noble
circumstances than his own and who would eventually become his wife.
Richarda Smith was the daughter of the Chaplain to the Duke &
Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Her
father was a Trinity man and Airy met Richarda when he stayed at Chatsworth
whilst walking the Peak District. He
later recorded in his diary, ‘our eyes met and I knew I was done for’!! Within a few short days he asked the Rev Smith for his
daughter’s hand. In the true
‘Jane Austen genre’, Airy wasn’t given a flat refusal, but was told to
come back when his personal finances had improved to the point where Richarda
could be kept in something like the manner to which she was accustomed.
Airy’s reputation grew at
Cambridge and in 1826 he was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a
chair previously occupied by no less a figure than Sir Isaac Newton and today
by Stephen Hawkin. Still with an
eye to Richarda’s hand, when the better salaried Plumian Professorship of
Astronomy and with it the directorship of the Cambridge Observatory fell
vacant a couple of years later, Airy got the job.
Six years had elapsed since his first proposal and within a few hours
of being told he’d been given that chair, he was on horseback and on his way
to Derbyshire to claim his intended now that he was ‘a man of
Airy was a meticulous man and
attention to the smallest detail was very much a hallmark of his.
It has been said that if he used a blotter, he would note the time
& date of use on the blotter before filing it.
The Cambridge archive of Airy’s work now occupies in excess of 60
feet of shelf space! At the
Cambridge observatory Airy made good use of his connections to Ransomes of
Ipswich and engaged them to build a sophisticated wooden mount for a new
telescope (all to his design) that the Duke of Northumberland was financing.
The Northumberland telescope still exists today in full working order
on the Ransomes mounting.
Following the death of in 1835 of
John Pond, the 6th Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, Airy was offered
the royal warrant to succeed him – he was just 34 years old and had climbed
to the very peak of the academic world. He
was to occupy that post for 46 years and would revolutionise the practice and
operation of the Royal Observatory to make it one of the most highly regarded
scientific establishments in the world. In
1674, Charles II established the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and the first
Astronomer Royal (John Flamsteed) was appointed to systematically and
accurately survey the positions of the stars for the benefit of the navy and
as a means of determining longitude at sea.
The problem of establishing
longitude at sea would not be fully resolved for a further 150 years and
Greenwich became not much more than a lackadaisical ‘cushy number’ posting
for the regulation Admiralty Chronometers over the years.
The arrival of Airy at 7th Astronomer Royal would bring
about (excuse pun) a sea change at the Royal Observatory.
Once again he drew upon his links to
the Ransomes family at Ipswich and, over several years, gradually replaced all
the observational instruments with groundbreaking new telescopes to his
design, largely built at the Orwell Works in Duke Street.
The most important of this new generation of telescopes was the Airy
Transit Circle of 1851. Essentially,
a huge telescope fixed to rotate vertically between north and south and used
to accurately time & measure stars passing through its exact centre. By this means an accurate timekeeping method is established,
as the stars are (almost) constant in their apparent movement across the sky,
due to the Earth’s rotation. Some
years later, 1884, an International convention in Washington DC established
that Greenwich would be the zero meridian line of the world and that that line
from the north to the south pole should be considered as passing through the
exact centre of Airy’s instrument. It
is fair to say that an instrument built in Ipswich to the design of a local
man over 150 years ago, represents for all time the zero reference point for
the measurement of the Earth’s and the celestial longitude (known as Right Ascension) and is, therefore, the datum
point from which time itself is calculated.
The much-vaunted millennium was made near here!
Airy was the man responsible for the world standard ‘Greenwich Mean
Time’ and the Greenwich signal was his invention, originally a series of
pulses sent to the railway companies to regulate their clocks.
Yes, the railways DID run to accurate times – once.
My wife, who commutes to London by train, whilst not holding Airy
personally responsible, would undoubtedly challenge the validity of using of
the words railway and timekeeping in the same sentence!
Anyway, if you visit the Royal Observatory today, you can see the
Ransomes nameplate proudly displayed on the main tube of the Airy Transit
Airy’s life at Greenwich was never
dull and, by the 1840s, he had come to be widely regarded as the
government’s chief scientific consultant.
He was chairman of the committee which eventually settled the standard
gauge of the railways, chairman of the board that established the standards
for imperial measurements and the chairman of the board responsible for the
proliferation of Town Gas supplies – to name but a few of the boards he sat
upon - what we would nowadays describe as Quangos.
He suffered from Astigmatism of the eye and wrote a revolutionary
scientific paper upon the subject, making his own glasses and in the process,
inventing Astigmatic Corrected Specs! In
all, Airy contributed in excess of 500 significant scientific papers on a wide
range of subjects – along with around 20 books.
In 1848 to support the founding of
the Ipswich Mechanics Institute, now the Ipswich Museum, Airy delivered a
series of six lectures at the Institute on ‘Popular Astronomy’.
The lectures were aimed at the level of the artisans & craftsmen of
Ipswich and were later published in book form, running to many editions up to
the end of the 19th century. Around
this time too, a series of lithograph portraits of the top scientists of the
day by T H Maguire were commissioned as a limited edition.
The sitters included luminaries like Faraday, Babbage, Davey, John
Herschel and, of course, Airy. He
sat for his portrait (left) only on the understanding that cash proceeds from
its sales were to be donated to the Ipswich Mechanics Institute.
Although by the mid 1840s Airy’s
fame and fortune was established, he still hankered for the tranquillity of
his Suffolk roots. He purchased a
small cottage in Church Lane, Playford, at the foot of the hill leading up to
St Mary’s church. The cottage dated back to the Elizabethan
era and was in a dilapidated state. Airy
and his wife designed new extensions and local builders altered the original
cottage into a fine country home for the family.
The Airys would travel to Playford whenever the opportunity allowed
getting away from the smog at Greenwich, which was becoming an ever-greater
problem as the London suburbs overwhelmed what had been a quiet Kentish area.
They would almost always stay there at Christmas.
A man of great physical fitness, Airy would without fail and whatever
the weather, take a constitutional walk of at least ten miles every day until
very old age. Without doubt he
would have taken many a turn through our delightful Tuddenham.
The Airys were a devoted couple and,
although he had something of a tyrant’s reputation in his professional life
(a reputation quite underserved), he adored children and had nine of his own.
Richarda also suffered a great number of miscarriages over the years.
Getting back to the previously mentioned ‘Jane Austen genre’ of the
Airy’s love story. Unlike the
impression conveyed in her novels, illness and death did also visit upon the
rich and famous. Of the Airy’s
nine children, four died in infancy – two succumbed to Scarlet Fever within
a fortnight of each other and all are buried at Playford in the Biddell family
plot. Richarda passed away in
1875 and Sir George eventually joined her in the plot in 1892.
Airy’s eldest surviving son, Wilfrid, inherited the cottage.
Wilfrid was an important Civil Engineer and, amongst his many
commissions, was the building of the Orwell Park observatory at Nacton.
Upon his death in 1925, the cottage passed to his only daughter, Anna.
Anna Airy became an artist of some importance and a number of her works
are hung in the Imperial War Museum. The
cottage was sold out of the Airy family when Anna passed away in 1964.
Shortly after her father’s
death, Anna commissioned a monument to her father and grandfather inside St
May’s church (left) and, amazingly (to me at least) it is the only monument
I am aware of around Suffolk, commemorating one of the greatest of Victorian
I can recommend a quiet stroll
around St May’s churchyard on a summer’s day.
It is my privilege to be acquainted with many of the descendants of Sir
G. B. Airy and, on behalf of them and of the local astronomical community, I
was further privileged on a delightful summer’s morning last July to place
flowers upon the grave of Sir George on the occasion of the bi-centenary of
largely – but not totally - forgotten, adopted son of Suffolk…
Ken Goward (with
some small additions by Brian Seward)