Lancashire’s Galileo - Why we should honour Jeremiah Horrocks

PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 January 2020

Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-1641) by William Richard Lavender. The painting can be seen at Astley Hall Museum and Art Gallery in Chorley

Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-1641) by William Richard Lavender. The painting can be seen at Astley Hall Museum and Art Gallery in Chorley

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A campaign is underway to honour a scientific genius with statues in Liverpool and Much Hoole, as Martin Pilkington reports.

Sculptor Phillip Garrett with a macquette of the Horrocks statueSculptor Phillip Garrett with a macquette of the Horrocks statue

Lancastrian science prodigy Jeremiah Horrocks, who died in 1641 aged just 22 (or 23, his year of birth uncertain), left a legacy of enormous importance in astronomy and physics. Now a campaign is underway to commemorate his achievements with one, or possibly two statues to be located in the county, and through teaching.

Phil Williams, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, member of Liverpool Astronomical Society and a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] Ambassador working in schools is one of those supporting the efforts. 'A statue recognises the significant impact his work has had in the field of astronomy and would raise public awareness of his contribution to science, which is sadly lacking,' he says.

'The campaign also aims to appropriate Horrocks into the syllabus of local schools and promote him as a role model for future scientists.'

The wish to mark Jeremiah's genius is not new. Gerard Gilligan, Chairman of the Society for the History of Astronomy says: 'I found a reference to something similar going back to 1890. The Victorians idolised him as a local hero, but though he's had plaques put up and roads and other things named in his memory, there's been nothing on this scale.'

Jeremiah Horrocks Institute's Alston observatory. Photo courtesy of UCLanJeremiah Horrocks Institute's Alston observatory. Photo courtesy of UCLan

Preston's University of Central Lancashire has named its mathematics, physics and astronomy facility the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute; and likewise its smaller observatory in the city's Moor Park is named after him.

Donald Kurtz, Professor of Astronomy at the institute, outlines Jeremiah's genius. 'He went to Cambridge in his mid or early teens, very bright very young, soon after Kepler had discovered his Laws of Motions, and he mastered the new keplerian astronomy better than anybody else in the world.

'Kepler's own tables didn't have the position of Venus just right, and predicted it wouldn't pass in front of the sun in 1639. Horrocks looked at those tables, re-calculated, and correctly deduced the transit would happen on November 23rd or 24th, 1639. He was a teenager when he did this! One wonders what he would have achieved had he, like Newton who followed him, and who acknowledged his debt to Horrocks, lived to his eighties.'

His observations of the transit of Venus - its journey across the face of the sun as seen from Earth - done at Carr House in Much Hoole, using home-made instruments, and interrupted apparently by his ecclesiastical duties, enabled Horrocks to determine Venus followed an elliptical orbit between Earth and the Sun. He also deduced the moon travelled in an elliptical orbit, and confirmed it moved according to Kepler's laws. He also studied tides (in the Mersey Estuary) to investigate their lunar causation.

Sadly his life was cut short. 'In January 1641 he was about to visit his friend William Crabtree, so he must have been in good health to contemplate that journey, when he died,' says Gerard Gilligan. 'We think he may well have been murdered, and we don't even know where he was buried.'

Liverpool artist and sculptor Philip Garrett, whose works often depict influential Liverpudlians, can be credited with starting the campaign. He made a maquette of Horrocks in 2014, showed it to a friend who's a teacher, and she created a cross-curricular programme centred on Horrocks to use in her school. He also donated a maquette to the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute at UCLan in Preston, where several academics are now backing the drive. Artistic licence has been needed to create the sculpture. 'There's no known image of Jeremiah made in his lifetime, but in 2013 I saw a play about him at St Michael's Church in Much Hoole, where he was a lay reader, and loved the actor Nathan Morris's portrayal of Horrocks, so used Nathan as the basis of the statue,' explains Philip.

'It's an allegorical figure, his identity partially hidden with one eye closed and the other stargazing, to represent the man and his achievements.' Philip Garrett's exhibition From Kirkby with Love opens at the end of January at Kirkby Art Gallery, and visitors will be able to see an example of his depiction of Horrocks. The campaign target of £151,600 would fund two statues, one to be sited in Liverpool, the other in Much Hoole or Preston, and pay for educational work to inspire schoolchildren. Contributions can be made via the Just Giving page of The Jeremiah Horrocks Statue Campaign.

A life in brief

1618 or 1619: Born at Lower Lodge Farm, Toxteth, a small village then

1632: Begins studies at Cambridge

1635: Leaves university without graduating

1639: Becomes tutor to Stone family's children at Carr House, Much Hoole

1639: November 24 (old calendar) observes Transit of Venus

1640: Returns to Toxteth, writes Venus in Sole Visa (Venus Seen on the Sun)

1641: January 3, dies in unexplained circumstances

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