<<William Henry Smyth (January 21, 1788 - September 9, 1865) was born in Westminster, England. He was a descendant of Captain John Smith, the principal founder of the Jamestown, Virginia colony. His parents were colonial Americans who lived in East Jersey. They were English loyalists, however, and after the American Revolution they emigrated to England where their son was born.
Smyth joined the Royal Navy and during the Napoleonic wars he served in the Mediterranean, eventually achieving the rank of Admiral. During a hydrographic survey in 1817 he met the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi in Palermo, Sicily, and visited his observatory; this sparked his interest in astronomy and in 1825 he retired from the Navy to establish a private observatory in Bedford, England, equipped with a 5.9-inch refractor telescope. He used this instrument to observe a variety of deep sky objects over the course of the 1830s, including double stars, star clusters and nebulae. He published his observations in 1844 in the Cycle of Celestial Objects, which earned him the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and also the presidency of the society. The first volume of this work was on general astronomy, but the second volume became known as the Bedford Catalogue and contained Smyth's observations of 1604 double stars and nebulae. It served as a standard reference work for many years afterward; no astronomer had previously made as extensive a catalogue of dim objects such as this.
Having completed his observations, Smyth retired to Cardiff in 1839. His observatory was dismantled and the telescope was sold to Dr. John Lee and re-erected in a new observatory of his own design at Hartwell House. Smyth still had the opportunity to use it since his residence at St. John's Lodge was not far from its new location, and did a large number of additional astronomical observations from 1839 to 1859. The present whereabouts of the telescope are unknown.
Smyth suffered a heart attack in early September, 1865, and at first seemed to recover. On September 8 he showed the planet Jupiter to his young grandson, Arthur Smyth Flower, through a telescope. A few hours later in the early morning of September 9, at age 78, he died.A lunar mare was named Mare Smythii in his honour.
(1818-1889), Professor of Astronomy, Vassar College was a frequent correspondent of Admiral Smyth. Her recollections form part of Maria Mitchell Life, Letters and Journals edited by Phebe Mitchell Kendall and published in 1896. She visited the Admiral and his family in England in 1857:
September 6. "We left London yesterday for Aylesbury. It is two hours by railroad. Like all railroads in England, it runs seemingly through a garden. In many cases flowers are cultivated by the roadside."
"From Aylesbury to Stone, the residence of Admiral Smyth, it is two miles of stage-coach riding. Stage-coaches are now very rare in England, and I was delighted with the chance for a ride. We found the stage-coach crowded. The driver asked me if we were for St. John's Lodge, and on my replying in the affirmative gave me a note which Mrs. Smyth had written to him, to ask for inside seats. The note had reached him too late, and he said we must go on the outside. He brought a ladder and we got up. For a minute I thought, 'What a height to fall from!' but the afternoon was so lovely that I soon forgot the danger and enjoyed the drive. There were six passengers on top.
"Aylesbury is a small town, and Stone is a very small village. The driver stopped at what seemed to be a cultivated field, and told me that I was at my journey's end. On looking down I saw a wheelbarrow near the fence, and I remembered that Mrs. Smyth had said that one would be waiting for our luggage, and I soon saw Mrs. Smyth and her daughter coming towards us. It was a walk of about an eighth of a mile to the 'Lodge'—a pleasant cottage surrounded by a beautiful garden.
"Admiral Smyth's family go to a little church seven hundred years old, standing in the midst of tombstones and surrounded by thatched cottages. English scenery seems now (September) much like our Southern scenery in April—rich and lovely, but wanting mountains and water. An English village could never be mistaken for an American one: the outline against the sky differs; a thatched cottage makes a very wavy line on the blue above.
"The admiral himself is upwards of sixty years of age, noble-looking, loving a good joke, an antiquarian, and a good astronomer. I picked up many an anecdote from him, and many curious bits of learning. He tells a good story, illustrative of his enthusiasm when looking at a crater in the moon. He says the night was remarkably fine, and he applied higher and higher powers to his glass until he seemed to look down into the abyss, and imagining himself standing on its verge he felt himself falling in, and drew back with a shudder which lasted even after the illusion was over.
"In speaking of Stratford-upon-Avon, the admiral told me that the Lucy family, one of whose ancestors drove Shakspere from his grounds, and who is caricatured in Justice Shallow, still resides on the same spot as in Shakspere's time. He says no family ever retained their characteristics more decidedly. Some years ago one of this family was invited to a Shakspere dinner. He resented the well-meant invitation, saying they must surely have forgotten how that person treated his ancestor!
"The amateur astronomers of England are numerous, but they are not like those of America. In America a poor schoolmaster, who has some bright boys who ask questions, buys a glass and becomes a star-gazer, without time and almost without instruments; or a watchmaker must know the time, and therefore watches the stars as time-keepers. In almost all cases they are hard-working men. In England it is quite otherwise. A wealthy gentleman buys a telescope as he would buy a library, as an ornament to his house.
"Admiral Smyth says that no family is quite civilized unless it possesses a copy of some encyclopaedia and a telescope. The English gentleman uses both for amusement. If he is a man of philosophical mind he soon becomes an astronomer, or if a benevolent man he perceives that some friend in more limited circumstances might use it well, and he offers the telescope to him, or if an ostentatious man he hires some young astronomer of talent, who comes to his observatory and makes a name for him. Then the queen confers the honor of knighthood, not upon the young man, but upon the owner of the telescope. Sir James South was knighted for this reason.
"We have been visiting Hartwell House, an old baronial residence, now the property of Dr. Lee, a whimsical old man. This house was for years the residence of Louis XVIII., and his queen died here. The drawing-room is still kept as in those days; the blue damask on the walls has been changed by time to a brown. The rooms are spacious and lofty, the chimney-pieces of richly carved marble. The ceiling of one room has fine bas-relief allegorical figures. Books of antiquarian value are all around—one whole floor is covered with them. They are almost never opened. In some of the rooms paintings are on the walls above the doors.
"Dr. Lee's modern additions are mostly paintings of himself and a former wife, and are in very bad taste. He has, however, two busts of Mrs. Somerville, from which I received the impression that she is handsome, but Mrs. Smyth tells me she is not so; certainly she is sculpturesque.
"The royal family, on their retreat from Hartwell House, left their prayer-book, and it still remains on its stand. The room of the ladies of the bedchamber is papered, and the figure of a pheasant is the prevailing characteristic of the paper. The room is called 'The Pheasant Room.' One of the birds has been carefully cut out, and, it is said, was carried away as a memento by one of the damsels.
"Dr. Lee is second cousin to Sir George Lee, who died childless. He inherits the estate, but not the title. The estate has belonged to the Lees for four hundred years. As the doctor was a Lee only through his mother, he was obliged to take her name on his accession to the property. He applied to Parliament to be permitted to assume the title, and, being refused, from a strong Tory he became a Liberal, and delights in currying favor with the lowest classes; he has twice married below his rank. Being remotely connected with the Hampdens, he claims John Hampden as one of his family, and keeps a portrait of him in a conspicuous place.
"A summer-house on the grounds was erected by Lady Elizabeth Lee, and some verses inscribed on its walls, written by her, show that the Lees have not always been fools. But Dr. Lee has his way of doing good. Being fond of astronomy, he has bought an eight and a half feet equatorial telescope, and with a wisdom which one could scarcely expect, he employed Admiral Smyth to construct an observatory. He has also a fine transit instrument, and the admiral, being his near neighbor, has the privilege of using the observatory as his own. In the absence of the Lees he has a private key, with which he admits himself and Mrs. Smyth. They make the observations (Mrs. Smyth is a very clever astronomer), sleep in a room called 'The Admiral's Room,' find breakfast prepared for them in the morning, and return to their own house when they choose.
"Admiral Smyth is a hard worker, but I suspect that many of the amateur astronomers of England are Dr. Lees—rich men who, as a hobby, ride astronomy and employ a good astronomer. Dr. Lee gives the use of a good instrument to the curate; another to Mr. Payson, of Cambridge, who has lately found a little planet. I saw at Admiral Smyth's some excellent photographs of the moon, but in England they have not yet photographed the stars."