The Manchester Astronomical Society
A History

Part 5

[ Main Index ]

Francis Godlee

(1854 1928)


The Godlee Observatory (and the telescopes therein) was presented to the City of Manchester in 1903 by Francis Godlee at the time when the Manchester Astronomical Society as such was first formed. The total cost of the installation in 1903 was 10,000.

Francis Godlee was a remarkable person, highly successful and a man of many interests, pioneer cyclist, breeder of horses and enthusiastic yachtsman. He was well known as a shrewd and far sighted employer, generous with time and money for those less fortunate than himself, and with a great sense of public spirit, particularly for his adopted city. Francis Godlee was born in London in 1854, the son of a Quaker barrister who had chambers in Lincoln's Inn. The family of five boys and one girl used the 'thees and thous' of Quaker speech, and Francis with this strict Puritan background remained a staunch member of the Society of Friends throughout his life. He came to Manchester as a young man in 1881 to join his relative William Simpson in business at Dean's Mill, Swinton, and the two Quaker partners (they were related through marriage) soon established a reputation for probity and good management.

The Manchester cotton trade at this time was thriving, and the firm of Simpson & Godlee, cotton manufacturers and calico printers, steadily expanded. Its offices and warehouses moved to the centre of Manchester, and further mills were acquired at Bolton and at Bury. By the turn of the century, there was a workforce of some 1500 people. The firm's prosperity owed much to Francis Godlee, not only to his good business sense, but also to the sympathetic consideration he showed for his employees. He became chairman of the firm in 1914 on the death of William Simpson and continued to run the business through the difficult war years and after the war until a few years before he died.

All his life he devoted much of his time to what we would now call social work. As a young man in London, he and his brothers took an active part in running a club for boys, and, soon after arriving in Manchester, he and some friends started the Hugh Oldham Lads Club, with which he was closely involved for the rest of his life, always attending its gatherings and meetings. He regularly used to entertain the boys at his home, and he was never happier than when he was taking part in their activities. He was also deeply concerned with the welfare of Ackworth, the Quaker school in Yorkshire, which he used to visit every month and where he was treasurer for many years. The school remembers him as a great benefactor, and among other things donor of the school swimming bath. It was said that he was one who did not let his left hand know what his right hand had done. No appeal was ever made to him in vain, and the headmaster knew that in needy cases Francis Godlee would be only too glad to give a 'lift on the way'. Many a boy thus owed his start in life to such timely help. In Manchester he took an active part in the affairs of the University, the College of Technology, later UMIST, and Ancoats Hospital, and he was for some time chairman of the Manchester and Salford Trustee Savings Bank.

For nearly thirty years he lived at Stamford Lodge, a substantial house 1 1/2 miles from the centre of Wilmslow, with land extending to the banks of the River Bollin. For many years one of his chief joys was breeding horses; graceful chestnuts they were, and a fine sight it was to see a pair of them harnessed to a brougham or wagonette, with the old coachman, Stringer, at the reins. Francis Godlee used to drive to the station each day in a dog cart to catch the early train, and his regularity was so well known that people on Lindow common and on the Altrincham Road could set their clocks as he passed. He hated unpunctuality and his house was full of clocks of all varieties, including a splendid Frodsham regulator which kept perfect 'astronomical' time. Not surprisingly when the Daylight Saving Act was first introduced, the prospect of altering all his clocks twice a year made him one of its fiercest opponents.

He was not usually so reactionary. He had the true pioneering spirit and liked to be in the forefront of modern developments, both in business and in his home. He had the first electric light installation in the neighbourhood, even lighting his cowsheds with electricity, and he was justly proud of his telephone number which was 4, tangible evidence of his enterprise when the instruments first made their appearance. He enjoyed photography, and even had an X-ray apparatus in the house with which he used to photograph the hands of his friends and relatives. As a young man he was a keen cyclist, and, as a member of the London Bicycle Club, won a gold medal for bicycling 100 miles from Bath to London in just over 9 hours on one of the old high bicycles or 'penny-farthings' a remarkable achievement when one considers the state of the roads in those days. In his fifties he bought a 50-ton yacht which he moored in the Clyde, taking his friends on sailing holidays off the west coast of Scotland.

A man of arresting appearance, he was tall and heavily built with a handsome face and black beard. This became greyer and more straggly as he grew older, and he was in the habit of winding it round his fingers and tugging at it when he was immersed in thought. People loved him for his sympathetic attention and old world courtesy, but to others he could appear gruff and forbidding, possibly to hide a certain shyness or even loneliness. He had no time for music, but loved the open air, animals and young people. He hated hypocrisy, drinks before meals, throwing things away, gilt on iron railings and the Manchester Guardian. At the end of the first world war he moved from Stamford Lodge to Harefield on the Alderley-to-Wilmslow road, now the northern headquarters of ICI. It was said he needed a larger house to accommodate all the accumulated paraphernalia of thirty years, and he took it all with him. From Harefield he continued to travel daily into town, and eventually retired in 1924 when he was able to hand over the business to his nephew Philip. He died in 1928 at the age of 74.

Nicholas Godlee, 1991

Top of Page.


The Total Eclipse of the Sun on 11 July 1991

Members of the Society have always taken a special interest in any total eclipse of the sun. Mention has already been made of the eclipse of 1898. In 1973, Mr Kevin Kilburn and five other members, witnessed the eclipse from a cruise ship off the coast of Africa. He had spectacular success with his pictures. Eighteen years later in the 'related eclipse' of 11 July 1991, he had another spectacular success from Baja California, Mexico where there was a near maximum-possible 6 1/2 minutes of totality directly overhead at midday. Two of his pictures are reproduced here - that of the diamond ring being particularly noteworthy. Two MAS members had been to Finland in July 1990, but were completely thwarted by thick cloud at the critical moment.

They, together with Mr Kilburn and four other members making seven in all, joined 'Explorers Tours' for the 1991 'Big One'. All went first to Los Angeles where a day trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory had been arranged. Mr Kilburn and Dr M Bhattacharyya then went down to the Baja Peninsular and the other five to Hawaii where we stayed at a hotel in Hilo on the eastern (supposedly less favourable) side of Big Island. We envied the tour members who had been allocated hotel rooms on the western coast. On the evening of 10th July it began to rain, and by 02.00, when we were embarking into our five old yellow school buses to drive up the road as far as permitted toward the Mauna Kea observatories, it was coming down in torrents with heavy thick mist blanketing everything. There was the utmost despondency. Just after 05.30 the rain began to ease off, although the mist persisted. And then, miracle of miracles, there was a slight clearing and the moon's first small bite in the sun could be discerned.

Conditions improved and at the moment of totality, at a convenient 40 degrees or thereabouts in the sky we were treated to the whole breath-taking spectacle of a total eclipse at its best. The sky was never dark, a wrist watch and camera controls could be read with ease throughout, and there were no stars to be seen, but the eclipse itself was as marvellous as the best expectations had led one to hope for and many good pictures were taken, despite everything being sopping wet: cameras, lenses and ourselves. Indeed, Dr Patrick Moore later used a picture taken by a MAS member in his Sky-at-Night BBC TV programme. Sadly, those on the western side of the island saw nothing at all because of the heavy rain and cloud. We were the lucky ones.

From San Jose del Cabo, on the tip of the Baja Peninsular, weather conditions were stable and predictable. Whilst the original intention had been to travel to the eclipse centerline early on the morning of 11 July, a chance meeting the evening before, with Dr Peter Mack, a past president of the MAS now living in the US, resulted in a recommendation to stay on the coast rather than travel 30 miles inland. Peter had observed that cloud build-up on the higher hinterland generally occurred at mid-day, the time of the totality. In the event, the eclipse was observed under almost cloudless sky of such clarity that the inner corona was visible over one minute before second contact. The totally eclipsed sun was almost directly overhead with the planets Mercury, Jupiter, Mars and Venus strung out in a line to its eastern side. Many photographs were taken by Mr Kilburn. Some, taken in pairs, show an almost three dimensional image of the coronal streamers when viewed stereoscopically.


Total Solar Eclipse, Middle Corona. 800mm lens, f12.5, 1 sec. Konica 100. July 1991. San Jose del Cabo, Baja peninsular, Mexico. K J Kilburn.


Total Solar Eclipse. Diamond Ring. 800mm lens, f12.5, 1/250 sec. Konica 100. July 1991. San Jose del Cabo, Baja peninsular, Mexico. K J Kilburn.

Top of Page.

The Aurora of 8 November 1991

The Society from time to time arranges weekend or overnight star parties in the neighbouring Pennine areas. In the Spring of 1991 accommodation was found in a 'holiday house' which had recently been converted from an old barn in Wincle, a small picturesque village about 4 miles south of Macclesfield in Cheshire (about 8 miles from Jodrell Bank). It had rained continuously, but the house was so well sited and suited for our purposes that it was booked again from 1st to 10th November covering two successive moon-free weekends with the weekdays thrown in. Several members took advantage of the both weekends as well as having a short holiday there during the week. The weather was never very good, although there had been high hopes of seeing meteors. On Friday, 8th November, a number of other members joined them after work - some travelling from the far side of Manchester and arriving at about 21.00 hours some three hours after full darkness.

Almost immediately, just after 9 pm, there began a most spectacular Auroral display which continued for over two hours. Glorious green, red, yellow rays came shooting over the slightly raised skyline at the back of the house which screened the Macclesfield urban lights to the North and North West, sometimes suffusing the entire sky with sufficient light for a newspaper to be read. Many people throughout the UK witnessed the exceptional display, but none can have seen a more terrific and inspiringly beautiful sight than those at Wincle that evening. In many nearby areas nothing was seen because of the marauding clouds. Yet here was a group of dedicated and experienced amateur astronomers arriving fully equipped for a dark-sky weekend of observing and photography, with loaded cameras, tripods (and telescopes, but these were irrelevant), right on the spot. This amazing good fortune was doubly rewarded. The main hope had been to record promised and expected strong meteor showers. Among the most senior members present was a retired professional photographer, Mr Joe Billington. He has a record of brilliant astrophotography over several years. He was in the middle of a 30 second exposure of the blood-red Auroral sky with the interesting hill-side horizon at the base and the Pleiades showing faintly in the top right quadrant of his 35 mm frame, when, exactly in the middle of his viewfinder a huge fireball exploded in a blinding white flash. This must have been a one-in-a-million chance, albeit a chance which was a reward of years of choosing and setting up in the most favourable conditions year after year over many years. Nobody went to bed that night!

The next morning Joe went down into Macclesfield, bought the necessary chemicals and basic equipment, and spent the afternoon processing everyone's film - so that on Sunday, the rain plummeting down again as usual, there was a full slide show. The pictures were shown again on the following Thursday's ordinary weekly meeting at the Godlee Observatory. Everyone had by then heard the joyous news. Members crowded into the tiny room beneath the telescope dome. Euphoria pervaded. When the master picture of the fireball came on the screen there were cheers and claps and excited congratulations. Joe Billington was and for a long time will remain a hero.


Aurora / Fireball Meteor, Joe Billington.

November 1991

Top of Page.


Thanks to Mr A Cross for his research into the archives of the Manchester Astronomical Society held in the Central Library. Also to Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw for her encouragement to produce this history and for additional material. As editor of the manuscript, she has had an unenviable task. Not least, thanks to the Honorary Secretary, Mr J H W Davidson, for the past twenty years, now the longest serving officer of the Manchester Astronomical Society. Like Thomas Weir a century ago, Howard Davidson is providing the detailed minutes of meetings on which future researchers will base their own history of amateur astronomy in Manchester. Finally, to all those members of the Manchester Astronomical Society who, past or present, have contributed to maintaining the friendly spirit of the society.

References have been made to:

BAA North Western Branch: Minutes Volumes 1 and 2
BAA Memoir: 'The 1900 Solar Eclipse'
BAA Journal 1927-28
BAA Memoir: The History of the BAA, 1948
Bhattacharyya, Dr B: Letter to K J Kilburn, November 1991
Brierly, K. 'The Manchester Astronomical Society' 1978. MAS publication
Brierly, K. Letter to K JKilburn, March 1984
Duckworth, M. Presidential Address to the MAS, October 1974
Godlee, N: Letter to Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw. 1991., Biography of Francis Godlee (1854-1928)
MAS Journal: 1913-24
MAS Minute Book: 1903-09
King, H C: 'The History of the Telescope' 1955
Royal Scottish Museum: 'James Short and his Telescopes' 1968

End of the History

History [ Top of Page. ] [ Index ] [ Part 1 ] [ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part 4 ] [ Part 5 ]

Back to the M.A.S. Home Page

Maintained by Michael Oates
Page modified 18 January, 2005