The Astronomer of Rousdon:
Charles Grover 1842-1921

Barbara Slater, 2005.

Courseware Publications in association with Steam Mill Publishing.
ISBN 1898 737 304. 276 pages. £9.95.

Barbara Slater's book presents to us a snapshot of Charles Grover's extraordinary life. It is not quite a rags-to-riches story but it comes as close as can be realistically expected in a Victorian age when social class was almost insurmountable.

 

Courseware Publications in association with Steam Mill Publishing

 

Charles Grover was a man to whom I was introduced by his great, great grandson, Jerry Grover FRAS, member of Manchester Astronomical Society and a Founder Member of the Society for the History of Astronomy. Jerry is still doing a great deal of ongoing historical research but it is with the recent publication of Barbara Slater's book that Charles Grover's extraordinary life is presented to us.

Charles was born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, on 7 March 1842. His father, John Grover, was a shoemaker. His mother, Eliza, was a shoebinder. She died shortly after Charles was born. He was their second son, next to his brother George (b 1838). John Grover died in 1850 and young Charles went into the care of Sarah Brown, his paternal grandmother who died in 1854.

Orphaned in childhood and left to bring himself up from the age of twelve, Charles Grover was fated to a working-class life, apprenticed to a brush-maker. He had had a ' narrow' education at the British School in Chesham but nevertheless was able to 'read with eagerness any books that came his way'. He was determined to better himself.

In 1858 he saw Donati's comet, famous for its great tail that in October that year stretched across the northwestern sky above Arcturus. For ten shillings, he bought a ship's spyglass and began observing the satellites of Jupiter, Venus, star clusters and other celestial wonders. His rapidly improving expertise lead him to contribute to the Astronomical Register, first published in 1863, that catered for an amateur astronomical readership and which cultivated correspondence with other leading amateur astronomers into whose company he was quickly accepted.

Charles Grover had lived as a brush-maker by day and an astronomical observer by night but things soon changed. He and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to London and he became an assistant to John Browning, the instrument maker whose silver-on-glass reflecting telescopes sold to an expanding market of amateur astronomers. Charles processed incoming orders and was involved in the development and testing of optical components, including the silvering of glass speculae, as well as after-sales service to the clientele. He often served as lantern operator at lectures given to the Royal Astronomical Society and in so doing steadily expanded his circle of astronomical contacts.

In July 1882 he signed to accompany Cuthbert Peek (wealthy grandson to the co-founder of the Peek-Frean biscuit business) as astronomical observer and assistant on an expedition to Australia to observe the transit of Venus in December of that year.

Much of Barbara Slater's book is devoted to Grover's notes on their outward journey aboard a steam ship and their stay in Australia. Her chapters are a vivid reflection of the class-conscious society of Victorian England and its' escape to the new-found lands of the British colonies. The transit of Venus from the sheep-station, Jimbour, was clouded out but Cuthbert and Charles's relationship as employer and employee, and as very close friends, was forged and lasted for the rest of their lives.

Charles Grover and Cuthbert Peek returned to England in 1883. Charles was offered a position as astronomical assistant at Rousdon, Peek's home near Lyme Regis, in Dorset. Together they founded and equipped the Rousdon Observatory with Charles Grover as its principal observer on behalf of Cuthbert Peek. Within two years after signing on with Peek for the Australia expedition, Charles and Elizabeth Grover found themselves living as employees and friends of the Peek family and at one of the most desirable residences in the Dorset countryside. For nearly forty years Charles Grover communicated astronomical reports from Rousdon to the Royal Astronomical Society on variable stars. In the late Victorian age this was very much a new subject of astronomical study.

Sir Cuthbert Peek died in 1901, aged only 46. Charles Grover died twenty years later. He was sending variable star reports to the RAS until shortly before his death. They and their family members now lie in peaceful harmony, side by side in the graveyard of St Pancras, the church at Rousdon.

Barbara Slater's book presents to us a snapshot of Charles Grover's extraordinary life. It is not quite a rags-to-riches story but it comes as close as can be realistically expected in a Victorian age when social class was almost insurmountable. Her book is a powerful illustration of where mutually regarded intellectual respect overruled the social divide. It illustrates, as we all know, that astronomy is a great leveler and no respecter of class.

In reviewing this book I would like to have seen less emphasis on Charles's notes on his time in Australia. Slater over-embellishes the description of Jimbour; in fact mostly taken from other sources. As Peek's assistant he was there to see a transit of Venus, and it was clouded out, an anticlimax that no matter how well the observation is prepared for is always at the whim of the local weather. I would however have liked to have learned more of Grover's work as a practical observational astronomer, both when he worked for Browning and later, at Rousdon. He recorded his observations scrupulously in his notebooks, one of which still survives but far too little has been made of them in Slater's book.

Nevertheless, the Astronomer of Rousdon is a valuable addition to the history of British astronomy. It slots neatly into a growing portfolio of Victorian scientific history and as a social historical record it sheds light on the rare inter-class relationship of the Peek-Grover family history. It is well written and has many interesting side connections with Victorian astronomy published in that era and in the researches of modern authors. Her book is strongly recommended.

Kevin J Kilburn FRAS
Manchester Astronomical Society and the Society for the History of Astronomy.
August 2005

 

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