The Beeston Astronomer and his Observatories

by Joe Earp

An astronomer is often said to research the world beyond earth and that certainly was the case with Edward Joseph Lowe. Edward was born on 11 November 1825 at Highfield House, Lenton. He came from a wealthy family, and his father, Alfred Lowe, was a member of many national and local astronomical societies. Alfred Lowe was particularly interested in meteorology and astronomy, Edward inherited his keen interest in astronomy and many other subjects from his father.

Both father and son were founder members of the Meteorological Society , and Edward wrote several books on the subject. He wrote weather reports for the Times for a number of years and also telegraphed his daily observations to Greenwich. Edward Lowe’s first paper, read to the Royal Astronomical Society in April 1849 and published in the Society’s ‘Monthly Notices’ later that year, described how he and other observers had seen the umbra of a sunspot open in the centre and divide into two parts.

The Zodiacal light was one of Edward’s favourite subjects, and four of his papers were published in MNRAS. Meteors were also another interest of Lowe’s. In 1846 when only twenty-one, he wrote what was considered to be am important book on the subject. A ‘Treatise on Atmospheric Phenomena’. The book for the first time made the distinction between meteorology and the study of meteorites.

Edward was acquainted with many of the leading astronomers and telescope makers of the day, including men such as  George Dollond. The two of them wrote a paper together in 1846. The paper explored the possibility of establishing a weather station that would register it’s findings on a continuous toll of paper, without the need of a human observer.

Lowe was keen to establish a public observatory in Nottingham, and after the Great Exhibition of 1851 had led to the funding of such projects around the country. He and Dollond discussed how they might set one up locally. Lowe contacted the Nottingham Corporation with his ideas and plans. Nottingham Corporation agreed to Lowe’s proposals. A site was eventually chosen north of the City, at Coppice Farm in Mapperley. All seemed to be going well, and in 1854  a local directory announced that the observatory would be ready to house the instruments. But this announcement  was premature, and behind the scenes a tragedy was unfolding with unhappy consequences. The government had withdrawn its funding, so the subscribers and local council were unable to raise enough cash.

After the fiasco, the dying Henry Lawson, the man who offered to donate his collection of meteorological and astronomical  instruments for the failed Nottingham observatory persuaded Lowe to accept the instruments for himself. The Lawson observatory was set up in 1855 at Lowe’s house in Beeston, about half a mile south of Highfield. Broadgate House had been purpose-built a few years earlier as an observatory, with a rotating cupola roof. Lowe often gave guided walks and tours of his observatory.

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Broadgate House, c 1986- Photo Credit: Picture the Past

Edward’s father, Alfred had another observatory built at Beeston, an octagonal tower used mainly for weather recording, but which also housed a telescope. It was built on low-lying ground near to Beeston Railway Station. Like Broadgate House, this tower was also known as the Beeston observatory. The same name used for the two observatories became confusing, so the observatory was nicknamed the ‘Beeston Lighthouse’, the Pepperbox Hall’ and the ‘Beeston Fogworks’ by local Beeston residents.

In 1864 a penny pamphlet appeared in Nottingham called ‘Prospectus of a New Ass-tronomical Magazine’, wherein to make known the wonderful discoveries of Pepperbox Hall. The verses were thus:

OH, have yo heard the news of late! About my master and great! Who built a tower on his estate! He built it with octagonal wall and gave it the name of Pepper Box Hall.

What is this tower at Beeston Station, Daily causing such botheration, To many a traveller through the nation, Who vainly as for this explanation? ‘Tis like an overgrown pepper-box, The house we build in lieu of the stocks: or the places where roost young turkey-cocks, ‘Tis called the Lighthouse to the Ryland locks. But he who understands it must be able, To add a story to this tower of Babel.

The building was eventually abandoned to the elements and was demolished in the 1960s.

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Beeston Observatory or The Beeston Lighthouse, shortly before it was demolished in 1965- Photo Credit: Picture the Past

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The Beeston Observatory was situated to the rear of 11 and 13 Lilac Grove and was demolished in 1965- Photo Credit: Picture the Past

 The third observatory was at Highfield House itself. The house had been built by Edward’s grandfather Joseph Lowe in 1797 and the observatory on the roof of the building was added by his father. Edward moved back here (the place of his birth) after the death of his mother in 1866, and eventually all the instruments from both the Beeston observatories came back to Highfield House.

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Highfield House now part of the University of Nottingham- Photo Credit: Picture the Past

In 1882, Edward Lowe and his family moved to Shirenewton Hall in Monmouthshire, south east Wales, where he died in 1900.

Article Sources

Madeline Cox. The Antiquarian Astronomer,  in, The Journal of the Society for the History of Astronomy. No1, 2004.

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About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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