Down a side street in Bath is a terraced house, which looks pretty plain and much like the other houses in its row. But it’s a bit more special because it was in this house that William Herschel and his sister lived and in 1781 from the garden of this house, he discovered the planet Uranus.
It’s now a little museum, with some wonderful objects. In the basement is a short film, narrated by the late great Patrick Moore, which explained the life of William and his sister Caroline. William was a talented musician, who came to England in 1757 to seek refuge from a troubled Hanover. Not only did he play the oboe, violin, harpsicord and organ, he was also fascinated by the night sky. In 1772 Caroline came to Bath to live with her brother. Caroline, who had been told by her father and mother not to expect suitors due to her small pox scarred face, was also only 4 ft 3 due to contracting typhus as a child; she may not have been beautiful but she was clever. She became her brother’s assistant in star gazing, helping him to polish mirrors for his new superior telescopes and record movements in the night sky. She made discoveries in her own right, notably comets.
Herschel didn’t just make telescopes and discover a planet, he wrote symphonies, discovered infrared radiation and four moons. Interestingly, Herschel wanted to call the new planet George, after the King whose reign it was discovered under. This was an unpopular choice both at home and abroad and obviously didn’t stick; but it wasn’t until around 70 years after that it became known as Uranus, thus fitting with the deity theme of planet names.
The museum has a lovely mix of items belonging to and used by the Herschels including reproductions and replicas, as well as items that date from the time period and the city of Bath. The honesty with which these items are presented and displayed means that you are aware of the provenance of everything, leaving no confusion as to what is original and what is representative. Even the plant layout and choices in the garden is explained, using mainly native plants that would have been found within a kitchen garden at the time.
My favourite item was Caroline Herschel’s guest book to the Observatory House in Slough, where the Herschels relocated to when William became the King’s Astronomer for George III. Caroline was appointed as his assistant, which apparently makes her the first female in England to be honoured with a government position. The reason I love this guest book so much is because it highlights Slough as a pivotal location for astrological discoveries at the time; Kings, Queens and Princes were heading to Slough to see outer space, estimations of the size of which had doubled following Herschel’s discovery of Uranus. The next time someone quotes Betjeman, “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough” at me, I’m going to point them towards the great work of Slough based William Herschel and his pioneering sister Caroline.