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Foreword to the original Memoir (1978)


The Royal Astronomical Society was founded in 1820. Its original purpose was not solely or primarily to enable astronomers to meet and provide a journal for publishing their discoveries; the intention (to quote from the founding charter) was to ‘promote a general spirit of enquiry on Astronomical subjects’. To this end the Society embarked upon the organization of observing programmes, and invited distinguished foreign astronomers to associate themselves with the Society’s work. This is the origin of the present title of Associate of the Society, and explains why that style, which in most learned societies denotes a status inferior to Fellowship, is with us a greater honour which the Society can bestow upon a person ‘eminent in the science of Astronomy... and not normally resident in the United Kingdom’.


One consequence of this history is that the early correspondence of the Society, which has been almost wholly preserved, is of an international, rather than a parochial, character, and relates to the prosecution of astronomical research as well as to the domestic affairs of the Society; in later years the personal papers of many distinguished astronomers were also bequeathed to us. This is a fitting opportunity to place on record particularly the Society’s appreciation of the affectionate regard in which successive generations of the Herschel family, down to the present day, have held the Society of which William Herschel was the founder President. Through their benefactions the Society has become the owner and guardian of a uniquely valuable collection of the papers of this remarkable family of astronomers.

Successive Librarians of the Society, and Fellows knowledgeable about the Society’s history, have long known – or at least guessed at – the wealth of historically important material in the Society’s archives. The value of it was early recognized by the two devoted Assistant Secretaries John Williams and William H. Wesley who between them served the Society for 76 years (1846–1922) and to whom the preservation of the material is largely due. Although successive Librarians – and particularly in recent years Dr R. E. W. Maddison – had made a start in ordering the general correspondence and the more important items, the duties that press daily upon the librarian have prevented any major attempt to order the bulk of the material. It has long been a matter of regret that the archives and manuscripts have been inadequately catalogued, and stored in a way that has made it impossible for historians of science to gain ready access to them.

The urgent need to remedy this state of affairs became the more apparent at the time of the Society’s 150th Anniversary in 1970, and with the encouragement of the Council of the Society, my predecessor as Chairman of the Library Committee, Professor G. J. Whitrow, surveyed the material stored in various parts of the Society’s premises and made a realistic estimate of the work required. The Council found it possible to support the appointment of an Archivist to undertake the work, albeit only for a limited tenure, and we were fortunate in securing the services of Dr James A. Bennett for two years from October 1974.

Because of the restricted space available in Burlington House it was decided at an early stage to transfer the manuscripts temporarily to the Archive Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, where in addition to admirable working space the resources and experience of a modern conservation department were available. The Society is very grateful to the Master and Fellows of Churchill College for the hospitality they have generously offered to the Society’s papers and to its Archivist, which has greatly expedited the work; particularly are our thanks due to Dr M. A. Hoskin, until lately Keeper of the Archives at the College, for making the initial offer of accommodation, and to the several members of his staff for frequent advice and practical help.

It was later decided, when the papers were in Cambridge, to make a master microfilm of the Herschel papers; both to secure the future of this unique collection and to provide for working copies of the microfilm that could be purchased by other libraries at cost price. Here the University Library came to our aid, and we are grateful to the Librarian, Mr E. B. Ceadel, for making the excellent facilities of the Library available to the Society, and to Mr W. G. Rawlins and his staff in the Photography Department for undertaking the photocopying. The generosity and helpfulness of both Churchill College and the University Library have been beyond any call that the Society had to make upon them, and is here most warmly recorded.

The business of transforming a century and a half’s accumulation of manuscripts, many distributed in dusty parcels housed in various places from attic to basement, into an ordered collection contained in some 500 archive boxes, involves not only scholarship but also hard physical labour; it would be impossible to name individually all those who have helped but their work has been invaluable. Dr R. E. W. Maddison, and latterly Mrs. E. Lake as Librarians, have of course worked closely with the Archivist throughout.

Finally it remains to record formally the Society’s appreciation of Dr Bennett’s efforts during his two-year tenure. Certainly he has enjoyed being the first to look, for many years, at some of the treasures he has identified and catalogued. The temptation to go exploring beyond them must have been strong to one with a training in, and an enthusiasm for, the history of astronomy. But he resisted this temptation in favour of his more pressing duty to sort, order, and list, so making the material available to others. His dedication to the sometimes rather dull job he was engaged by the Society to undertake has been wholehearted and exemplary: we hope that his new duties (in the Department of Navigation and Astronomy in the National Maritime Museum) may occasionally require him to explore further himself the historical documents he has made accessible to us all.

D. W. Dewhirst
Chairman of the RAS Library Committee