In his excellent short article on Jeremiah Horrocks in the book Liverpool Unitarians Faith and Action Bernard Cliffe is very cautious about making too many definite assertions about his life. As Bernard puts it “an account of the life of the boy and the young man has to be a matter of conjecture, with the generous use of qualifying words.” The truth is we have very few hard facts about the life of this pioneer astronomer who died at the young age of 22. Inevitably though this hasn’t stopped others from drawing all sorts of conclusions about his life.
One of the things we do know for sure was the extent of his achievement as a youthful astronomer – indeed there are some parallels here with the life of Clyde Tombaugh who first identified Pluto in his 20s. Clyde Tombaugh now has a feature on Pluto’s surface named after him while Jeremiah Horrocks himself has been memorialized in a number of places since his initial observation of the transit of Venus across the Sun.
Horrocks’s discoveries were only published posthumously and, gradually, in the centuries after that, places – and churches – were keen to claim him as one of their own. But his scientific importance is pretty well established. Allan Chapman (in ‘Jeremiah Horrocks, the transit of Venus and the ‘New Astronomy’ in early seventeenth-century England’, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1990, 31) says that despite a scientific hagiography that has also built up around him “the plain fact [is] that his documented contributions to astronomy were formidable by any standard…he was one of the first men in England to grasp the significance of what was going on in contemporary European astronomy. Not only did he repeat many of the techniques of Kepler and Galileo, but he went on to develop the New Astronomy to produce conclusions which substantially advanced those of its continental founders” (pp.33-334).
A plaque in the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth records that Jeremiah Horrocks (or Horrox) “foretold, and was the first to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun’s disc on the 24. Nov. 1639”. But the plaque, which was put up in 1891, is, in fact, only one of four church memorials to him around the country.
Without doubt the best known of these is in Westminster Abbey erected opposite that of Isaac Newton (who had praised his work) in 1874 following a petition from the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society (actually inscribed on part of the marble monument to John Conduitt, who was married to the niece of Isaac Newton). Certainly the Abbey is a fitting place for a memorial to such a person. On it his scientific achievements are listed but it also states that he was “Curate of Hoole”. Now there is no doubt that Hoole is where Jeremiah Horrocks lived for a while and where he observed the transit of Venus. But there is no evidence that he was ever curate of Hoole, or indeed an ordained clergyman of any sort.
The Victorians were not slow to extend or embellish their assessment of his religious affiliations. The church at Hoole has its own memorials too including a Horrocks Chapel, memorial windows, a weather vane and a plaque, although the website of St Michael’s Church, Hoole now describes the text of this plaque as “largely fictional”.
Jeremiah Horrocks seems to have spent about a year in Hoole. Rather than being a curate or holding any position in the church he was probably a tutor to the children of a local family, in whose home he observed the transit of Venus. But there can be little doubt that he will have attended the church at Hoole while he was resident there. At the time there will have been little difference in the theological outlook of Hoole and the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth. Both were centres of Puritanism – comprising earnest, godly, and devout parishioners, in both places members being technically part of the Church of England (there was little leeway to be anything else at the time) but possessing a no-nonsense approach to faith and a fair degree of suspicion of ecclesiastical hierarchies. During his time there the church was still a just a chapel of ease and the curate (later rector) was eventually ejected for non-conformity.
Although no records of Horrocks’ baptism or burial survive he seems both to have been born and died in Toxteth where his family names illustrate the Puritanism of his background. The names of Horrocks and Aspinwall (his mother’s maiden name) were amongst those puritan settlers who arrived in Toxteth in the late sixteenth century and began clearing the hunting park and built the chapel. They were part of the group who called Richard Mather to be first their schoolmaster and then their minister. The same Richard Mather was reluctant to accept Episcopal ordination. He eventually did so but was alarmed after being ordained (so the story goes) when the bishop approached him and asked to speak to him in confidence. Fearing that some admonishment was imminent he was surprised instead to hear the bishop say “I have an earnest request unto you, and you must not deny me; it is that you will pray for me; for I know that the prayers of men that fear God will avail much, and such an one I believe you to be.” Despite this unusual alleged exchange with the bishop he was eventually suspended for nonconformity and subsequently left with many of his followers for New England.
It was probably here that Horrocks was educated and his religious opinions formed. From Toxteth he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge as a sizar, basically the lowest form of student life, working as a college servant alongside his studies. He left without taking a degree but developed a passion for astronomy while there and was soon manufacturing his own astronomical instruments. Members of the Horrocks family, quite probably including his father, were watchmakers which must have been an assistance in developing precision instruments.
But following his death on 3rd January 1641 two hundred and fifty years were to pass before the Ancient Chapel erected its own memorial in his memory.
But this is not the only church memorial to Jeremiah Horrocks in Liverpool. In 1826 Moses Holden, described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a “popular astronomer,” used the proceeds of one of his lectures to pay for the erection of a memorial tablet in St Michael’s in the Hamlet church in Aigburth, not far from the Ancient Chapel. It may well have been awareness of this tablet that encouraged the Unitarians to put up their own. Holden seems himself to have been a Methodist lay preacher but was on good terms with the established church. Nevertheless Jeremiah Horrocks can never have had any connection with St Michael’s in the Hamlet, since it was not founded until 1815.
Horrocks is commemorated in other ways too – additional memorials in Hoole and Liverpool; an observatory; an institute of the University of Central Lancaster – but it is curious how a variety of religious traditions have all sought to harness him for their own adornment. All of them have some claim on him but – in my view at least – it is the memorial that is the least known and acknowledged, the one in the Unitarian Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, that is most appropriate. Not because he was a Unitarian – because he wasn’t, such an idea would have been absurd to him. Not because he was a dissenter, because he wasn’t that either. As I have suggested his own views were almost certainly very strongly puritan and he held them within the context (technically at least) of the Church of England. But the little chapel in Toxteth Park was the place where he grew up and was educated. He was therefore part of a particular religious community founded in the last years of the sixteenth century and continuing ever since. The memorial to Jeremiah Horrocks was unveiled on Sunday, 11th October 1891, the minister, the Rev Valentine D. Davis preaching a sermon based on Genesis ch.1 v.1,3:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.