Two Amateur Astronomers?

by Val Bott, May 2009

The International Year of Astronomy in 2009 saw local celebrations at Syon Park; these highlighted the unique contribution to UK astronomy of Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) who made the first ever telescopic observations of the moon at Syon. This short article shares Val Bott’s discovery of two local brick- and tile-makers who bequeathed telescopes in their wills, now preserved in The National Archives at Kew.
An additional note of October 2020, also reveals that Zoffany owned a 4-foot telescope when he lived at London Stile on the Brentford/Chiswick border in 1772

James Tappin d 1793
In his will (PROB 11/1228), proved in 1793, James Tappin describes himself as a brickmaker of Strand on the Green and left most of his property to his wife, Mary. However, he also made one special bequest: “I give to William Goodrick now of Strand on the Green, Officer of Excise, my Brass Reflecting Telescope with the Case and Apparatus belonging thereto as a token of my Remembrance of the Friendship that has long subsisted between us”. This was a generous gift and must have marked a special friendship.

It has not yet been possible to find much more about James Tappin. His only other bequest was of 1 guinea to his son, also James, who was probably a lighterman in Brentford, where he owned a share in some cottages. James Tappin Senior is listed in the Land Tax records in the early 1790s in a small £3 cottage; a few doors away lived William Goodrick in a £65 property, no doubt an official excise house. By 1796, Goodrick (sometimes Goodrich) was serving as Supervisor of the Excise in Yarmouth, Norfolk, when he provided a character reference for a former employee who had stolen some candles (HO 47/22/16). Goodrick commented upon the fact that “a jury of tradesmen could not be expected to have any goodwill towards an officer of the excise”.

William Kirby Trimmer 1770-1811
One of the sons of Sarah Trimmer, the founder of Sunday schools in Brentford, by 1782 William was serving on the naval training ship, HMS Ganges, moored at Shotley in Suffolk. By 1792 he was working in the family brick- and tile-making business and in 1794 he married Jane Bayne of Kensington with whom he had 7 children. The family lived at the Brentford end of Strand on the Green, that is near Kew Bridge, where their workshops and tile kilns stood. This was only a few yards from Tappin’s house.

William was ill for some time during 1810 and 1811. In his will (PROB 11/1534), proved in 1812, he described himself as a brick and tile maker, so he had followed in the family business. He bequeathed to Jane “all my household furniture, fossils, linen, plate, books, prints and telescopes”.

In 1813 his paper on fossilised remains found in the Brentford brickfields was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, with a covering letter from his brother, James Rustat Trimmer, explaining that the article had been written shortly before William’s last long illness.

Interestingly one of William’s sons, Joshua Kirby Trimmer (1795-1857), became a significant geologist and also wrote about agricultural matters. Perhaps Mary passed on the fossils and telescopes to her children, encouraging their scientific interests.

Johan Zoffany 1733-1810
Since writing the above, a study of the auction catalogue of the household furniture and effects of the artist, Zoffany, has revealed that he also owned a telescope. The two-day sale took place in August 1772 at his house at London Stile near the 6-mile stone on the Lodnon-Bath road. In 1772 he seems to have sold everything before departing for Florence on a royal commission. Lot 11, comprising ‘plate, etc’ and ‘sundry articles’ included several pocket watches, a portable barometer with a thermometer, a pocket thermometer and a pocket camera obscura, a camer obscura in a mahogany case and a 4-foot telescope. The copy of the catalogue in the Chiswick Local Studies catalogue was annotatedin a scrawling hand with the prices each lot fetched and often with the buyer’s name. This shows that the telescope sold for eleven shillings and the purchaser appears to be C West.

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