Life story retold by Kenelm England, FRAS
Richard Sheepshanks, FRS FRAS, was an amateur astronomer in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was born in Leeds on July 28th 1794, the sixth and youngest child of Joseph Sheepshanks and his wife Anne Wilson. After attending a local school, he studied Mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1816 and becoming a Fellow in 1817. He studied Law and was called to the Bar in 1824 and was ordained an Anglican clergyman in 1828.
Richard’s father Joseph was a very wealthy wool merchant with mills in Leeds and Halifax. When he died, he left each of his six children a considerable fortune. Richard never needed to work and could indulge in his lifetime interest in astronomy. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1825, acting as the Society’s secretary, when it gained its Royal Charter. He also edited the Society’s Monthly Notices. He lived in London at his sister Anne’s residence at 30 Woburn Place, Bloomsbury and constructed a small observatory in the garden.
In 1831 Richard became involved in a major dispute between the Society’s President Sir James South and the telescope maker Edward Troughton. South, a wellknown observer of double stars, had ordered mounting for a 12-inch telescope but insisted that it should be a scaled-up version of his 6-inch. Troughton thought that it needed to be much more massive and was proved correct, as the result was unusable. South refused to pay and was sued. Sheepshanks and the Astronomer Royal George Airy supported Troughton, who won the case. South blamed Sheepshanks, and recriminations continued for decades.
Richard Sheepshanks was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1830 and was on the board setting the standards for the Imperial weights and measures. The previous standards had been destroyed, when the Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834. In 1841 he moved to Reading and built an observatory in the back garden of his sister Anne’s house. He could easily visit London via the Great Western Railway. He suffered a stroke and died in Reading on August 4th. 1855. He was buried in Reading Cemetery, where his grave is marked by an impressive granite obelisk.
The inscription on Richard Sheepshanks’ funeral monument (west side) reads:
TO THE MEMORY OF
FELLOW OF TRINITY COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE
FRS FRAS &c
HE WAS BORN AT LEEDS
JULY 30TH. 1794
AND DIED AT READING
AUG. 4TH. 1855
LOOK NOT EVERY MAN ON HIS OWN
THINGS BUT EVERY MAN ON THE
THINGS OF OTHERS
There are articles in the Dictionary of National Biography, Encyclopedia and Wikipedia. When he died, several obituaries appeared.
I have found four images of Richard Sheepshanks:
A photograph taken shortly before his death in the Royal Astronomical Society archives.
A drawing made shortly after his death in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
A marble bust at Trinity College, Cambridge.
A marble bust can also be found in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Buried in Section 55, Row F, Plot 29