Monday, 28 November 2016

Death of an astronomer: Hawkesbury's John Tebbutt 1834-1916

On this day, 100 years ago (29 November 1916) astronomer John Tebbutt, passed away. In Australia he was known for his devotion to astronomy yet internationally he was greatly admired. Tebbutt’s observations assisted in advancing astronomy throughout the world yet he rarely left the Hawkesbury. 
John Tebbutt at the Pensinsular Observatory, Windsor 1915 [Source: Early Days of Windsor by J. Steele, 1916]

The son of John and Virginia Tebbutt, John was born in Windsor on 25 May 1834. His grandfather, also called John, arrived in Sydney as a free settler with his family on the ‘Nile’ in 1801. Soon after their arrival in the Hawkesbury, the family purchased properties and established businesses. In the 1840s Tebbutt’s father, purchased land on the Peninsula near South Creek and built a two-storey house.

Educated in Windsor, it was parish clerk Edward Quaife, who instilled in the young John Tebbutt a love of astronomy. Tebbutt was later taught by the Presbyterian minister, Reverend Matthew Adam, then Reverend Henry Stiles the Anglican minister. He was tutored in the classics including Latin and Greek and in later years, taught himself French and German. To work in the field of astronomy an understanding of not only science, but also higher mathematics was required. Tebbutt was fascinated with all types of machines and studied various mechanisms as well as steam engines. 

With his aptitude for astronomy, Tebbutt purchased his first instrument, a marine sextant in 1853. With advice from John Stiles a retired Royal Navy midshipman and brother of his tutor, Tebbutt commenced his examination of the skies in earnest. The results of one of his earliest observations appeared in  the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ in 1854. 

Tebbutt's letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald 13 May 1854, p. 5

Tebbutt also prepared detailed observations of the Donati comet which was discovered in 1858.

In 1857, Tebbutt married Jane Pendergast at St. Matthew's Anglican Church, Windsor. The couple who made their home in Windsor, had six daughters and one son. Tebbutt was a deeply religious man, and a member of the St. Matthew’s Anglican congregation. Tebbutt had expressed that, "The truth shall make humanity free whether it be religious or scientific and we scientists have to fight for that freedom."

In the early days Tebbutt’s instruments were simple but in 1861 he purchased a refracting telescope and the following year, a set of meteorological instruments. In later years he was able to purchase more substantial telescopes and equipment. He meticulously recorded meteorological statistics and Hawkesbury River flood levels throughout his life. During 1861 he discovered the Great Comet which gave him international recognition then twenty years later discovered the Great Comet of 1881. When William Scott (1825–1917) the first government astronomer resigned in 1862, Tebbutt was offered the position however he declined in order to concentrate on his own efforts. Despite not accepting the position he was still considered as one of Australia’s foremost astronomers by his international peers, which caused some repercussions throughout his career. 

Tebbutt built the first of several observatories on the family property in 1863. This building constructed by Tebbutt himself, was wooden with a slate roof, and included a transit room. The following year he purchased a transit instrument and a chronometer. In 1874 he built a circular building, a few metres from his original observatory, to house his 4½ inch equatorial telescope. To assist with his observations, he purchased a Dublin made, Grubb 8 inch equatorial refractor. In 1879 an extensive brick observatory was constructed on the property. It included a meridian room, a fire proof office which contained a library. An Equatorial room was built in 1894 replacing the older wooden building. 

Tebbutt’s consistent observations and astronomical computations were highly regarded by his international colleagues and assisted in progressing astronomy worldwide. In 1867 he received the silver medal of the Paris Universal Exhibition for his paper on the Progress of Astronomy in NSW. Tebbutt was elected a member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1873 for his contribution to astronomy and when the British Astronomical Association formed the NSW Branch in 1895, Tebbutt was elected as the founding president. For his service to astronomy in Australia he was awarded the prestigious Hannah Jackson nee Gwilt gift and bronze medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, London in 1905 “for his important observations of comets and double stars, and his long-continued service to astronomy in Australia, extending over half a century.” Aged seventy he retired from his routine recordings but maintained his interest in astronomy. 

This can be read online

During his career he published almost 400 articles. He also published the “History and description of Mr. Tebbutt's observatory, Windsor” and "Astronomical Memoirs". The following year, despite his retirement, Tebbutt observed and recorded Halley’s Comet.

View of Tebbutt's vault at St. Matthew's Anglican Cemetery, Windsor and inset below

John Tebbutt died on 29 November 1916, aged eighty-two, after being unwell for a few weeks. His cause of death was recorded as cerebral paralysis. His funeral was held in Windsor’s St. Matthew's Anglican Church and was reported as one of the largest ever held in the Hawkesbury. The prominent astronomer was buried in a vault which he personally designed and had constructed several years before his death. The four corners mark the four points of the compasses and are topped with a globe with longitudinal and latitudinal lines. It rained heavily on the day of the funeral. His coffin travelled by hearse to the church followed by mourning coaches carrying the family, long lines of pedestrians, horsemen and motor cars. 

During the service, Rev Fielding paid tribute to Tebbutt, "one of the most eminent Australians” and noted that “perhaps his character and his remarkable work were not appreciated in their true value in the town…where he spent the whole of his long life.” Many important citizens travelled to Windsor to join with family and the local community to bid farewell to the gifted astronomer. 

After his death, Tebbutt continued to receive accolades. The International Astronomical Union renamed a lunar crater on the moon in 1973 to commemorate his achievements. Tebbutt also appeared on the first Australian $100 banknote in 1984, this was replaced in 1996. 

Hawkesbury Council acquired his Grubb telescope many years ago, and it is on loan to Tebbutt’s observatory. Descendants still live on the property where the original house alongside two of Tebbutt’s remaining observatories. His globe is on display in Hawkesbury Regional Museum. A distinguished astronomer, John Tebbutt remains a name respected amongst eminent stargazers. 

In 1984, Hawkesbury Council reprinted Tebbutt's 1908 "Astronomical Memoirs" - this was the same year the $100 banknote was introduced. It is still available for sale at Hawkesbury Library.

LATE MR. JOHN TEBBUTT. (1916, December 2). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 14. 
ASTRONOMER DEAD. (1916, November 30). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 8. 
DEATH OF MR. JOHN TEBBUTT (1916, December 8). Windsor & Richmond Gazette (NSW : 1888 - 1954), p. 2. 
VALE! JOHN TEBBUTT (1916, December 15). Windsor & Richmond Gazette (NSW : 1888 - 1954), p. 2.
Harley Wood, 'Tebbutt, John (1834–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, , published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 28 November 2016
Biographical Entry, John Tebbutt (1834 - 1916) from Encyclopedia of Australian Science Archival and Published Resources 


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