The Victorian era was a time of great change in the study of astronomy. In the 18th century and early 19th century, astronomy focussed on recording the positions and movements of stars and planets, and producing star charts to record them. However, as the 19th century progressed, astronomers used new developments in maths, physics, chemistry, and geology to learn more about the universe.


In 1859 a discovery was made by a physicist and chemist that was to change astronomy forever. Robert Bunsen (1811-1899) and Gustav Kirchhoff (1824-1887), two German scientists, were experimenting with sunlight. They were splitting the light with a prism and looking at the range of colours in it, which is known as a spectrum. They discovered that the range of colours in sunlight could be compared to the colours made when burning certain chemicals. For example, calcium burns with an orange flame and sodium with a yellow flame.

Bunsen and Kirchhoff realised that they could find out what chemicals the Sun was made of by comparing these colours. This technique is known as spectroscopy. Until then, no one knew what the Sun or stars were made of, but this gave Victorian astronomers a way to find out.

Pioneers like William Huggins (1824-1910) led the way on this type of research, using this new technique of spectrum analysis to discover what chemicals stars were made of. It was for his work in this field that Huggins became known as the father of astrophysics.

William Huggins, 1910.

Photography and Expeditions

Other than spectroscopy, photography had the biggest impact of the study of astronomy in the Victorian era. Previously astronomers had to record stars one by one, and so recording them all would be impossible. It was David Gill, Her Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, who pointed out that a photograph of a patch of sky could show thousands of stars, and pioneered the use of photography in astronomy.

Photograph of the Great Comet of 1882 taken by Sir David Gill (1843-1914) at the Cape of Good Hope.

Soon astronomers were travelling the world to observe, record and capture images of astronomical spectacles, in particular eclipses. These travels were made possible by a new global network of passenger steamships and railways which had emerged as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Many of these astronomers were wealthy amateurs who had taken up the study of astronomy as a hobby, and were members of the many astronomy clubs and societies that were set up during the Victorian era.

Clubs and Societies

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) was founded in 1820 to promote the study of astronomy. At this time, the vast majority of people studying astronomy were wealthy amateurs, most of whom were known as ‘gentleman astronomers’. As the Victorian era progressed, more and more astronomers were being paid for their work and becoming professionals. By the late 19th century, the RAS had become a society largely for professionals. It also didn’t allow women to become members (known as Fellows) until 1916, despite women having contributed significantly to the study of astronomy throughout the 19th century. Consequently, in 1890 the British Astronomical Association (BAA) was set up for amateurs. The BAA promoted ‘popular’ astronomy and allowed women to be members. One of the main driving forces behind the BAA was Elizabeth Brown, an astronomer who saw the need for a national amateur society, and many of the BAA’s first council members were women.

British astronomer Elizabeth Brown (1830–1899) with her 3½-inch Wray refractor, 1899.

Amateur astronomers at Southside, Church Hill, Ironbridge, c.1880s.

Victorian Astronomy in Shropshire

The Gorge had its own resident amateur astronomers. Some of them were photographed at Southside, Church Hill, Ironbridge setting up their equipment. Unfortunately, we don’t know who they were but it’s clear that some of those who could afford it were interested and taking part in astronomy.

An amateur astronomer we do know a little more about was John P.G. Smith. Smith was born in 1818 in Greenwich, London. He initially had a career in banking, spending most of his time in this occupation in Liverpool. In 1871 he moved to Sweyney Cliff House near Coalport and became a Director of Craven Dunnill Encaustic Tile Manufacturers in Jackfield (which is now the Jackfield Tile Museum). He had always had an interest in astronomy, and whilst in Liverpool worked at the Observatory based there.  When he moved to Shropshire, he had an observatory built in the grounds of Sweyney Cliff House (which is still there today, although in ruins). In 1890 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and in 1898, and the age of 80, he travelled to India to observe a total solar eclipse.

John P.G. Smith’s observatory at Sweyney Cliff House, c.1900.

Only wealthy people could afford to get involved in astronomy in this way. Working class interests in astronomy were largely limited to science magazines, popular science columns in newspapers, and if they could afford them, books on science and astronomy. These would give the working class an insight into the latest developments in astronomy but they wouldn’t have had the money or the leisure time needed to be involved in the active study of astronomy like those shown in the image above.

However, some of the working class in this area would have been able to attend the popular talks on astronomy that toured around the country in the 19th century. Some examples of these include talks held by a Dr Owens at Shrewsbury Music Hall in 1849 called ‘Illustrations on Astronomy’, and at the Theatre Royal, Shrewsbury in 1850. A little closer to home, in 1859 Edmund Wheeler, a Quaker and science lecturer from London, came to the Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institute to give a lecture on astronomy. He gave the audience ‘the results of modern scientific researches’ on the sun and moon, and explained the theory of light as they knew it then.

Coalbrookdale Scientific and Literary Institute, c.1920

On one occasion a bit of space even landed in Shropshire! On 20 April 1876 at 3.40 pm on a cloudy rainy day a meteorite fell on Shropshire at Rowton near Wellington. A rumbling noise was heard and then an explosion. An hour later a Mr George Brooks found a still-warm iron meteorite weighing 7 ¾ lbs in a hole 18inches deep. It was later presented to the British Museum.


To learn more about stars, supernovas and astronomy, please visit our temporary exhibition, From Stars to Cells: The Life of Iron, on display at the Coalbrookdale Gallery until 1st December 2024.

Click here to find out more about the exhibition.