The Moon and the Cumbrian who disagreed with William Herschel

A post for Saturday July 20, 2019: the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing.

A trawl through local newspapers in the late 1700s show Cumbrians were interested in the heavens. And one Cumbrian Character thought he knew better than William Herschel, the man who discovered Uranus.

The importance of the Moon to Man

From pretty much the dawn of time, Man has looked to the Moon and the stars to help him find his way across the oceans, and across areas like deserts, where natural landmarks are scarce.  

The ‘world’s’ oldest calendar’ is in Scotland. Roughly 10,000 years ago, its builders were marking the phases of the Moon in order to track the lunar months of the year.

Even Easter (the date of) depends on the Moon.

Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, is claimed by Scotland.

The Moon and a moral dialogue

1777. Cumberland Pacquet and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser.

The Young Scholar’s Delight, or Familiar Companion.

Containing 1. Amusing and instructive dialogues, etc. 2. Moral dialogue on the Duties of Youth. 3. Dialogues on the principles of the Christian religion. 4. A new compendious system of geography, to which is prefixed an accurate coloured map of the world, likewise a print of the solar system, giving a particular account of the planets (viz the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, etc) together with the fixed stars, their distances, magnitude, motions, periods, etc, enumerated; and their orbits, aspects and revolutions round the sun fully described.

Price 1 shilling and 6d.

Time and tide and the study of longitude

Almanacks offered purchasers the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the weather, remarkable eclipses, and ‘other useful tables’.

The Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland and Durham Sheet Almanack for 1778 included tide times for Whitehaven and other coastal towns.  

Cumbrian Characters, the Moon, sextant, navigation

Also in December 1777, it was of national interest that Charles Mason, who worked for the Astronomer Royal, had sent The Board of Longitude solar and lunar tables, in the hope he might win the government prize for finding a method of calculating longitude at sea.  

Whitehaven had played a part in experiments to work out longitude at sea in the summer of that year, with the tests carried out on board the ship Precedent.

The Moon and a lot more than sixpence

In 1778, a Mr Weavor offered the townsfolk of Whitehaven a series of lectures on ‘Natural and Experimental Philosophy’. 

Mr Weavor was to exhibit his orrery (model of the solar system), to demonstrate the motion of the Sun and planets, to show how day, night and the seasons are produced, and how tides work.

He also offered a portable orrery and a planetarium for sale: the former for 21 guineas, the latter for six guineas.

Dark deeds by no moonlight

On Tuesday night this week (July 16, 2019), an eclipse of the (full) Moon was visible in the UK. To be honest, unlike a solar eclipse (it gets dark in the day), a lunar eclipse isn’t that exciting! But the one on the night of March 18, 1783 was deemed worthy of note.

There was a further lunar eclipse on September 10, 1783 – ‘a very beautiful phenomenon’.

However, while most heads in Whitehaven were turned skywards, a ‘set of thieves and housebreakers’ had theirs firmly on the opportunity to commit crimes in the dark.

A ‘dead kraken’ and an astrologer

In September 1786, the Cumberland Pacquet explained to readers what a hunter’s moon was – above an advert for a book claiming that a kraken had been killed off the coast of eastern Scotland. The ‘droll fish’ was three miles long and someone was making a kettle in which to boil it.

Readers were more worried that year by the theory that the Moon’s orbit round the Earth was decreasing in length. And that this would continue until such time as the solar system collapsed in on itself.

Meanwhile, the idea of the Moon influencing health was prevalent – it being reported that the Moon was thought to influence fevers.

‘Fast-forward’ to 1792 and there were adverts for Dr Ebenezer Sibly’s Lunar Pills, for women. With an essay on ‘the Diseases of Women’ free with every bottle. By 1802, Dr Sibly was also promoting Solar Tincture. Sibly was a genuine physician – but also an astrologer and writer on the occult. And his treatise on the tinctures was available from Mr Jollie, printer, Carlisle.

William Herschel – a household name

In 1787, the Pacquet reported that Dr William Herschel had discovered two ‘satellites belonging to the Georgium Sidus,’ the planet he had discovered a few years earlier.

‘Georgium Sidus’ = ‘George’s Star’ and was named for George III. It may have earned him some Brownie points with the King, but the name didn’t exactly catch on.

Herschel’s new planet is now called Uranus – a name which stuck from 1850 but was first suggested by Johann Elert Bode. Who was German and had no idea he would have British schoolchildren sniggering for centuries.

‘Fire on the Moon’

William Herschel featured in the Pacquet again in July 1787, when it reported a talk he’d given on Three Volcanos in the Moon.

Planetary scientists have long thought volcanic activity on the Moon ended a billion years ago.

Herschel thought he had seen one lunar volcano show ‘an actual eruption of fire, or luminous matter’.

There’s a modern explanation. And not all Cumbrian readers were convinced at the time (in 1787).

The Cumbrian who disagreed with Herschel

Robert Sewell, of Castle Sowerby, may be a ‘who?’ today, but he was a keen astromer and not afraid to criticise Herschel’s findings.

He described himself in 1787 as the inventor of the ‘cato dioptric telescope’.

Google that and it brings up ‘catadioptric’ but no mention of Robert.

In October 1787, he wrote a long piece, printed in the Pacquet, about his observations on sun spots. His observations let him to pour cold water on the ‘pretended volcanos on the Moon’.

He also offered some advice for William Herschel on how to observe the same phenomena.

Who was Robert Sewell?

Robert Sewell was still looking for answers in 1795 when he wrote to The Gentleman’s Diary or the Mathematical Repository; an Almanack, where he posed a question about the seeming link between the Northern Lights and rain/storms.

A Topographical Dictionary of England comprising the several counties, cities, boroughs, corporate and market towns, parishes, and townships….. 7th Edition, by Samuel Lewis, London, 1848 says of Caldbeck parish:

‘Robert Sewell, a natural philosopher of considerable repute, was a native of the parish.’

A Robert Sewell, Gentleman, of Bridge House, Castle Sowerby, died in 1807.

You can read about his curious will in a later post.


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