Visitors’ book for the Herschel house in Datchet

Item author: Caroline Herschel
Item date: 1783-1792
Grant Value: £5,000
Item cost: £6,000
Item date acquired: 2021
Item institution: Herschel House Trust
Town/City: Bath
County: Somerset

Izzy Wall, Assistant Curator, writes:  On the 13 March 1781 William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus using a homemade reflector telescope from his home at 19 New King Street in Bath, now home of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. This discovery doubled the size of the known solar system, and was the first new planet to be identified since antiquity. At the time William was a musician and amateur astronomer, but his discovery propelled him to fame and he was appointed personal astronomer to the King (George III) the following year. 

This vellum-bound notebook was used by his sister Caroline Herschel to record visitors to the Herschels’ house in Datchet, where they moved in 1782 following William’s royal appointment. It contains the names of many high-profile visitors who came to see William and his telescopes, including George III & Queen Charlotte. The pages record further visits by members of the royal family alongside leading British and foreign scientists and engineers including, Alexander Aubert, Abraham-Louis Breguet, Jean-Dominique, comte de Cassini (Cassini IV), Henry Cavendish, Benjamin Franklin, Jan Ingenhousz, Giuseppe Piazzi, John Playfair, Joseph Priestley, Sir James Edward Smith, James Watt, and W.H. Wollaston. The book also records visits by other prominent figures such as Cesare Beccaria, Edmund Burke, Charles Burney, the Chevalier D’Éon, Sir William Hamilton, Joseph Haydn (during his first visit to Britain in 1791-1792), Pasquale Paoli, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Caroline Herschel, also a musician, became her brother’s astronomical assistant before becoming an eminent astronomer in her own right, and the first professionally paid female scientist in England. In addition to revealing the fame William received, this visitors’ book also demonstrates Caroline’s significant involvement in his achievements. It is the Museum’s ambition for her work and life to become equally central to the narrative as that of her brother, and the acquisition of this visitors’ book will significantly contribute to that ambition.

The visitors’ book has been on loan to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy since 1996 and is a highly popular exhibit. Early in 2021 the book’s owner announced their intention to sell the manuscript and made an offer of a private sale to the Museum. We are very grateful to the Friends of National Libraries for their support, enabling this sale and acquisition to the Museum. Many of the objects on display at the Museum are on loan from other museums and private collections. This manuscript book is first object created by either William or Caroline Herschel to be acquired by the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.