The Earl Of Rosse And The Rosse Telescope

Mary W. Batley

(First published in 1985 in volume 1, pp. 38 & 43, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

Heaton Manor Court

An interesting series of events took place in Heaton, Bradford, on the evening of 26 September 1983, to mark the visit of the Rt. Hon. William Clere Leonard Brendan Wilmer Parsons, seventh Earl of Rosse, of Birr Castle, Parsonstown, Republic of Ireland. The Earls of Rosse and their ancestors, the Fields of Heaton Hall, were landowners in Heaton from 1599 to 1924, and lords of the manor from 1634 to 1912. Roads in the area named Rossefield, Parson, Birr and Wilmer are daily reminders of their association with Heaton.

The proceedings started with evensong at St. Barnabas's Church, which was built in 1863-64 on land given by William, the third earl. The windows at the east end were presented by his family in memory of their mother, Mary , Countess of Rosse, who was born at Heaton Hall in 1813. After the service a meeting of the manor court was held at Heaton Library in St. Bede's School. St. Bede's bought Heaton Hall in 1920 from the sixth Earl of Rosse. The hall was pulled down in 1939 and replaced by the present building, but the library retains a fireplace from the hall. Manor courts have been held in Heaton for many centuries and were revived in 1969 by the present lord of the manor, Councillor J.S. King, who has held the title by purchase since 1963.

The manor court was a court baron, whose main task was the supervision of manorial land, allocation of strips in the open fields and of 'stints' or pasturage on the moors, admittance of new tenants, and surrender of old tenancies. The jurors had to be freeholders of the manor. The chief reasons for the existence of the court ended when the remaining moors and wastes were enclosed in 1781, and it is unlikely that regular sessions were held after 1839.

The right of the manor of Heaton to hold courts at the present time was confirmed by the Administration of Justice Act 1977. At the meeting of the court in September 1983 the jury members were sworn in by the steward, Mr. W.N. Shaw, who invited 'all persons present to bring before the court any matters of local concern'. Representatives of various organisations in Heaton were asked to speak about their activities. Lord Rosse then spoke about his ancestors, the third earl, who was lord of the manor until his death in 1867, and of his wife, Mary, who was lady of the manor until her death in 1885. The evening ended with a 'jury supper' to which many Heaton residents were invited, at the King's Arms Hotel. The hotel, formerly the Masons' Arms, was built by Mary, Countess of Rosse, in 1883 and until 1911 the half-yearly rent dinners for the estate were usually held there.

The Rosse telescope

The third Earl of Rosse was a mathematician and scientist whose great interest was the reflecting telescope. The largest telescope before his time had been constructed by Sir William Herschel at Slough, but he had never written down details of his methods of casting and polishing his mirrors, before his death in 1822. The earl carried out many experiments before he decided that an alloy of copper and tin was the ideal material for the mirror. He had invented a steam engine in 1828 to carry out the grinding of a mirror to the correct optical shape with perfect accuracy, and then polished it. In 1845 he managed to build a giant telescope with a mirror six feet in diameter. It was placed in a huge pit not far from the castle and can still be seen there. It consisted of an enormous tube, at the bottom of which was the huge metal mirror. At the time of its construction engineering methods were inadequate to provide a proper mounting for so gigantic an instrument, so it was slung on chains and flanked by two stone walls seventy feet in length. Its range was greatly restricted, but some remarkable discoveries about the planet Jupiter and nebulae were made. The observer had to stand on a platform far above the ground and look down into the tube to see the image of the object. The telescope was formally opened by Dean Peabody of the Church of Ireland, who walked through the barrel wearing a top hat, with an umbrella raised above his head to show the immense size.

The telescope remained the largest in the world until 1907, when the Mount Wilson telescope was built in Southern California.

Many astronomers visited Birr Castle, for the earl was eager to share his knowledge. He received many honours and was president of the Royal Society from 1849 to 1854. In 1851 he was a Commissioner of the Great Exhibition, and as part of the local celebrations for this organised a magnificent firework display in his grounds.

One of those who made the pilgrimage to Birr Castle was Dr. William Scoresby who, soon after he became Vicar of Bradford, entered in correspondence with Lord Oxmantown, as he then was, about the repossession of a schoolroom in Heaton which had been taken over by the Wesleyans. The dispute about the schoolroom, which was on land belonging to Lord Oxmantown, was settled amicably in Scoresby's favour, and this was the beginning of a valuable friendship, based on a common interest in telescopy. Scoresby visited Birr Castle several times, took the telescope to his heart and lectured on it enthusiastically, especially during his second tour of America in 1847-48. It has been suggested that his efforts may have helped to stimulate the American interest in giant telescopes which resulted in the wonders of Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar.1

In 1967 centenary celebrations were held at which the distinguished astronomer, Patrick Moore, gave lectures on the earl's work. Mary, Countess of Rosse, supported her husband's projects financially and took a great interest in photography. She was a founder of the Irish Photographic Society and corresponded with the pioneer of Victorian photography, Fox Talbot. The centenary of her death in 1985 is to be marked by an exhibition of her work at Birr Castle.


1. T. & C. Stamp, William Scoresby, Whitby, 1975. (back)