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Basil John Wait Brown (1888-1977)

Basil John Wait Brown was born on 22 January 1888 in Bucklesham, just east of Ipswich. He was the only child of George (1863-1932), a farmer, wheelwright and agent for the Royal Insurance Company and Charlotte (née Wait, possibly 1854-1931). Less than a year after his birth, the family moved to Church Farm, Rickinghall Superior, near Diss, in north Suffolk [1]. Brown was to live there for the rest of his life.

The only formal education that Brown received as a child was at the local village elementary school, which he left at the age of twelve years [2]. Despite his limited formal education, he later taught himself Latin, became fluent in spoken French and gained a working knowledge of German and Spanish [3]. He learned the languages initially from textbooks and, other than for Latin, later by listening to foreign language radio broadcasts on the wireless [4]. In 1907, he was awarded distinction level Harmsworth diplomas in astronomy, geography and geology [5, 6, 7].

Brown was rejected for war service in November 1915 on medical grounds, but volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps anyway. He eventually served as Private Brown, V154399, Suffolk RAMC, Volunteer Force for just over a year from 16 October 1918 to 31 October 1919 [8]. Following the end of hostilities, on 27 June 1923, he married Dorothy May Oldfield (1897-1983) [9]. The marriage remained childless [10]. The Browns ran the family farm together with Basil's parents. The farm was not lucrative, in part due to its small size and, in part due to Brown, by his own admission, spending time on astronomy rather than working the land [11]. To supplement the income from the farm, Brown also became an insurance agent [12]. Poor financial standing would cause difficulties throughout his life and the only transport he ever owned was a humble pedal bicycle [13].

Brown had been interested in astronomy from around five years of age when he inherited some of his great-grandfather's astronomy reference books and celestial charts [14, 15]. In November 1918, the septuagenarian Bristol meteor observer William Frederick Denning (1848-1931) proposed Brown for membership of the British Astronomical Association (BAA). The application was seconded by another meteor observer, Miss Alice Grace Cook (1887-1958) [16] a resident of Stowmarket. It has been said that Denning hardly ever left Bristol [17] so the writer of this piece is left wondering how the two men came to know each other well enough for the membership proposal. One year later, Cook proposed J P M Prentice (1903-1981) for BAA membership and Brown seconded the application [18]. (Prentice went on, in 1923, to become Director of the BAA Meteor Section, a role he held for over thirty years [19].)

As far as is known, the only telescope that Brown owned was a two inch (50 mm) aperture refractor [20]. With such a modest instrument, he naturally concentrated his observing on phenomena best seen with the naked eye in the dark skies provided by rural England in the early twentieth century, including:

  1. The aurora borealis (northern lights). See e.g. [21].
  2. Meteors. See e.g. [22].
  3. The gegenschein (a ghost reflection of the Sun seen during the night at the anti-solar point). See e.g. [23].
  4. The zodiacal light. (A faint cone of light which can be seen in the west after dark or in the east before dawn. It is caused by sunlight reflected from dust particles in the plane of the Solar System.) See e.g. [24].
  5. At one point he is recorded using his telescope to sweep the skies in the faint hope of discovering a previously unknown comet [25].
  6. He also used the instrument to make an observation of the final stages of the transit of Mercury on 08‑09 May 1924 [26]. His observation won him praise from the Director of the BAA Mercury and Venus Section, Henry McEwan, as an example of what could be achieved by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateur observer equipped with a modest instrument. (The event was witnessed also by two other observers in Suffolk, Edward H Collinson and Arthur E Bennett.)

In April and September 1924, Brown had two papers on historical astronomical mapping and cataloguing [27, 28] published in the popular independent science magazine The English Mechanic [29]. In April 1932, he had a paper published in the Journal of the BAA (JBAA), on "Stephen Groombridge, FRS (1755-1832)" [30]. Frederick Addey read the paper on Brown's behalf to a meeting of the Association held on 30 March 1932 [31].

The Chaldaean Society was formed in London, in November 1916, with the aim of popularising and undertaking observational astronomy. The Society was active nationally from its formation until June 1927, and in Suffolk from 1922 to 1924. Brown appears only twice (for definite) in extant copies of "The Chaldaean", the quarterly Journal of the national Society, held by the British Library [32]: he is noted by W F Denning as observing meteors in November 1919 and February 1920. It is more than likely that Brown was the "Mr Brown" mentioned in the records of the Ipswich Section as attending the first meeting of members of the Stowmarket sub-section. Cook, the "local correspondent" of the Society, who hosted the meeting in her home at six o'clock in the evening of 14 January 1922, knew Brown, as she had previously seconded his BAA membership application (noted above). This is the only reference to Brown in the local record: his limited transport may explain why he did not attend more meetings.

The publication of Brown's book, "Astronomical Atlases Maps and Charts" in 1932 augmented his meagre income from the farm. However, in late 1934 his financial position was so straitened that he could no longer afford the annual BAA subscription of one guinea and his observing career with the Association ceased. In the same year, the farm became unviable so he relinquished it and was forced to rely for income on local villagers giving him odd jobs [33]. His financial position was somewhat eased by becoming a Police Special Constable (badge no. 7345) [34].

Brown.jpg Brown at Sutton Hoo.

The next year, however, saw Brown's position improve markedly when the Curator of Ipswich Museum, Guy Maynard (1877-1966), employed him with a wide remit to pursue practical archaeological research across the county. He soon became known for accurate and meticulous excavation work and the Museum released him in the summer of 1939 to work privately for Mrs Edith Pretty (1883-1942), a landowner of Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge. She asked him to investigate the content of earth mounds on her estate; as is widely known, one of these was found to contain the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial [35].

In World War II, Brown served on the "Home Front" for the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes), the Royal Observer Corps (stationed at Post G4, Micklewood Green) and tended the heating boilers of Culford School, Bury St. Edmunds. It became his usual practice to stay at the school for a fortnight at a time before undertaking the arduous twenty mile bicycle journey home to Rickinghall [36].

After the War, Brown resumed employment with Ipswich Museum [37]. He maintained an interest in astronomy and joined the Ipswich and District Natural History Society (which occasionally addressed astronomical subjects) and the group that ceded from it to form the Ipswich and District Astronomical Society (IDAS) [38]. IDAS was short-lived, existing from 1950 to 1957.

Brown retired from museum service on 02 September 1961, at the age of 73 years [39]. However, he continued archaeological excavations and it was while working at Broom Hills, Rickinghall in 1965 that he suffered either a stroke or a heart attack [40] that precipitated the end of his working life. The late 1960s were financially benficial: firstly, his book of astronomical charts was republished [41] and secondly, he was awarded a civil list pension of £250 pa in recognition of his services to archaeology [42]. On 12 March 1977, at the age of 89, he died of broncho-pneumonia at his home "Cambria", in Rickinghall [43].

Brown's Publications

  1. Astronomical Atlases Maps and Charts: an Historical and General Guide, Search Publishing Company, London, 1932, 200 pages, price 18/-. Reprinted by Dawson's of Pall Mall, 1968, price £8/10/-.

    In the introduction, Brown thanks those who assisted him:-

    The list demonstrates how well-connected Brown was in astronomical circles.

    The Guide includes a beautiful observational chart of the Great Comet of 1811 (C/1811 F1) drawn by John Bransby. The chart is reproduced as plate XVII, located between pages 164 and 165. Bransby (1760-1835) lived in Upper Brook Street in Ipswich; he was a schoolmaster, taking a keen interest astronomy, geography and meteorology, publishing books on the subjects, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Brown did not detail the origin of the image. However, A C D Crommelin, writing in JBAA [54] (published in the same year as the Guide), explained that Brown "came across" Bransby's observing records of the comet, and forwarded them to Crommelin for comment.

  2. In the English Mechanic

    Star Atlases and Charts, vol. 119, issue 3071, pp. 4-5, 01 February 1924.

    The Star Catalogues, vol. 120, issue 3105, p. 140, 26 September 1924.

  3. In JBAA

    Stephen Groombridge FRS (1755-1832), vol. 42, no. 6, p. 212, 1932. See also p. 199 of the same issue where the paper was read by Frederick Addey to the BAA meeting of 30 March 1932.

Mentioned in Observing Reports etc. in JBAA

Phenomenon: A=aurora, C=cometary, G=gegenschein, M=meteor, Z=zodiacal light.

  1. Vol. 28, no. 9, October 1918, p. 275. Mr. Basil Brown, of Diss, who has done regular work for the Section for some time past.........have been proposed for election this October.........the number of regular observing stations is very small, the principal ones being at Bristol, Longfield, Diss, Stowmarket and Totteridge .....FIAMMETTA WILSON and A GRACE COOK, Acting Directors.
  2. Vol. 29, no. 1, October 1918, p. 24, M, and p. 32, proposed for election to BAA by W F Denning, seconded by A Grace Cook.
  3. Vol. 29, no. 2, November 1918, p. 65, elected to BAA 27 November 1918.
  4. Vol. 29, no. 3, January 1919, p. 75, A† observed from Diss.
  5. Vol. 29, no. 7, May 1919, p. 189, M†.
  6. Vol. 29, no. 8, June 1919, p. 218, M†.
  7. Vol. 30, no. 1, October 1919, p. 21, A† observed from Diss, and p. 44 seconded application for membership by J P M Prentice, proposed by A Grace Cook.
  8. Vol. 30, no. 2, November 1919, p. 83, J P M Prentice elected to BAA 26 November 1919.
  9. Vol. 30, no. 4, January 1920, p. 118, M.
  10. Vol. 30, no. 6, March 1920, p. 185, A, p. 186 and p. 188, M.
  11. Vol. 30, no. 7, April 1920, p. 209, Z.
  12. Vol. 30, no. 8, June 1920, p. 256, M.
  13. Vol. 31, no. 2, November 1920, p. 60, M.
  14. Vol. 31, no. 4, January 1921, p. 149, M.
  15. Vol. 31, no. 5, February 1921, p. 190, M.
  16. Vol. 31, no. 7, April 1921, p. 255, M.
  17. Vol. 31, no. 8, May 1921, p. 300, M.
  18. Vol. 31, no. 9, June 1921, p. 330, Z and M.
  19. Vol. 32, no. 2, November 1921, p. 56, M, and p. 73, C.
  20. Vol. 32, no. 5, March 1922, p. 175, M.
  21. Vol. 32, no. 6, April 1922, p. 252, G and M.
  22. Vol. 33, no. 1, October 1922, p. 22, Z.
  23. Vol. 33, no. 4, January 1923, p. 137, Z.
  24. Vol. 33, no. 8, June 1923, p. 340 paper on charts etc.
  25. Vol. 34, no. 2, November 1923, p. 46, A and Z.
  26. Vol. 34, no. 9, September 1924, p. 348. Report on the observation of the transit of Mercury that occurred between 21:44 UT 08 May and 05:38 UT 09 May 1924. Brown could observe only the final stage of the phenomenon, after sunrise, which occurred around 04:08 UT. His original report is said to contain four sketches of the progress of the transit; frustratingly, it is yet to come to light.
  27. Vol. 35, no. 1, October 1924, p. 18, Z.
  28. Vol. 36, no. 1, October 1925, p. 22, Z.
  29. Vol. 36, no. 3, December 1925, p. 77. Report by H McEwan, Director of the Mercury & Venus Section of the BAA, of the transit of Mercury [55].
  30. Vol. 36, no. 6, March 1926, p. 182, A. Unusually brilliant display of 09 March 1926.
  31. Vol. 37, no. 1, October 1926, p. 31, Z.
  32. Vol. 38, no. 1, October 1927, p. 28, Z and G.
  33. Vol. 38, no. 9, September 1928, p. 298, Z.
  34. Vol. 40, no. 1, November 1929, p. 27, Z.
  35. Vol. 40, no. 6, April 1930, p. 194, note requesting whereabouts of an atlas and p. 203 writing an historical book.
  36. Vol. 40, no. 7, May 1930, p. 254. The atlas mentioned above has been found!
  37. Vol. 40, no. 9, October 1930, p. 375. The book is half completed.
  38. Vol. 41, no. 9, July 1931, p. 405, A. Aurora observed 17 October 1930, also seen by A Grace Cook at Stowmarket, R L T Clarkson at Yaxley and J P M Prentice and E H Collinson observing together at Stowmarket.
  39. Vol. 42, no. 2, December 1931, p. 59, Z.
  40. Vol. 42, no. 6, April 1932, p. 199, paper on Stephen Groombridge read at meeting by Frederick Addey and p. 212 the paper itself, Stephen Groombridge, FRS (1755-1832).
  41. Vol. 42, no. 8, June 1932, p. 279, Z.
  42. Vol. 43, no. 3, January 1933, p. 136. Review of Brown's book.
  43. Vol. 44, no. 1, November 1933, p. 20, Z.
  44. Vol. 45, no. 1, November 1934, p. 23, Z. Last reported observation 15 February 1934.

† observations carried out whilst on leave from military service?

Mentioned in JBAA by subject:

Mentioned in Memoirs of the BAA

  1. Vol. 23, pt. 1, p. 5, (1921). In the second report of the Section for the Observation of the Aurorae & Zodiacal Light for the period 1916-19, the Director, Gavin J Burns, listed observers of the zodiacal light, one of whom was Brown.
  2. Vol. 24, pt. 3, p. 50, (1924). In the fourteenth report of the Section for the Observation of Meteors for 1922, the Director, A Grace Cook, listed the observers, one of whom was Brown.
  3. Vol. 29, pt. 4, p. 92, (1931). In the third report of the Section for the Observation of the Aurorae & Zodiacal Light for the period 1929-30, the Director, W B Housman, listed observers of the zodiacal light, one of whom was Brown.
  4. Vol. 34, pt. 1, p. 7, (1938). In the first memoir of the Historical Section, Who's Who in the Moon, Brown is listed as a contributors. (Another Suffolk observer, H G Tomkins, is also listed as a contributor. He lived in retirement at Dedham, Essex.)

Mentioned in The Chaldaean

  1. Vol. 2, no. 5, p. 66, winter 1919-20, in "Meteoric Observation in 1919" by W F Denning: An interesting feature of the result is that a few bright Andromedids from Biela's lost comet were observed by several observers (Miss A G Cook, Mr S B Mattey, Mr C P Adamson, Mr Basil Brown and others) on the nights from November 18th, to 21st. 14 meteors indicated the radiant point at 29° +44° near γ Andromedae.
  2. Vol. 2, no. 6, spring 1920, p. 88, in "Meteor Notes" by W F Denning. In the table of "Selected Real Paths of Meteors (Dec. 1919 ‑ Feb. 1920)", Brown appears against a meteor recorded on 11 February, 8.0 hrs. GMT, mag. 2 ‑ 1. "Height at appearance", "height at disappearance", "path length" and "velocity" are all given. Brown may have contributed other data to this table as there are three instances where a meteor is noted as recorded by multiple (unnamed) observers.
  3. The Chaldaean (vol. 5, no. 19, Winter & Spring 1924, p. 57) contains details of the forthcoming transit of Mercury on 08‑09 May 1924. Although Brown observed the transit and filed a report to the BAA, there are no observing reports in The Chaldaean. Brown seems not to have witnessed the partial solar eclipse of 08 April 1921 as his name is missing from the extensive report in The Chaldaean. The eclipse was observed from Stowmarket by A Grace Cook, from Felixstowe by J H Wall, from Beccles by R L T Clarkson and from Ipswich by E H Collinson, suggesting that the sky was clear over Suffolk for the event. See supplementary observing report in "The Chaldaean", vol. 3, no. 12.

Mentioned in The Observatory

  1. Vol. 41, p. 393, October 1918, in "Meteor Notes" by W F Denning, under a table of bright meteors seen from August 09 to 15, Brown is listed as one of the observers.
  2. Vol. 43, p. 369, October 1920, in "Meteor Notes" by W F Denning: On August 11 at that station the sky was overcast, but through an opening in the clouds at 9h 55m GMT a brilliant Perseid was seen traversing Cygnus. This meteor was also observed by Mr Basil Brown at Diss, Norfolk and the writer calculated the real path of this object and of another similar one seen at Bristol and by Mr S B Mattey at Minehead.

    Date (1920) Time (GMT) Magnitude
    11 August 09:55 Jupiter - 4 x Jupiter
     
  3. Vol. 43, p. 432, December 1920, in "Meteor Notes" by W F Denning: Miss A Grace Cook saw a number of meteors from Stowmarket, and other observers (including Mr F Sargent at Durham, Mr C P Adamson at Wimborne, Mr B Brown at Diss, Mr J P M Prentice at Holt, Mr J E Clark at Purley, and the writer at Bristol) were successful in viewing something of the Taurid display... A number of observations were also obtained by Mr Prentice, Mr Mattey, Mr Brown, the writer and others.
  4. Vol. 44, p. 194, June 1921, in "Meteor Notes" by W F Denning: On April 29, at about 9h 56m, a brilliant meteor was seen by Mr Prentice at Stowmarket and by Mr B Brown at Diss. These places are too near for good results, but the probable real path was:- Height 57 to 49 miles, path 80 miles, and velocity 10 miles per second. The radiant was at 237° ‑ 27°, and the flight occurred over the North Sea, far to the NE of the places of observations.
  5. Vol. 45, p. 28, January 1922, in "Meteor Notes" by W F Denning: On Nov. 23 9h 6m GMT, a brilliant meteor was observed by Mr Prentice at Stowmarket and by Mr Brown at Diss, Norfolk. Its flight was directed from a radiant near the west-north-west horizon at 277° +21°, and the height of the object was from about 60 to 48 miles, path 64 miles, velocity 25 miles per second.
  6. Vol. 46, p. 59, February 1923, in "Meteor Notes" by an unknown author (probably W F Denning): Fireballs--On Dec. 24 at 8h 55m a fine meteor about twice as bright as Jupiter was seen by Mr B Brown from Diss, Norfolk. It traversed a path of about 50 degrees from Taurus to Pisces in six seconds. The same object was seen by Mr W D McCreath of North Petherton, and it had a long upward flight in the east and south-east, and threw off a lengthy trail of sparks, which gave the object a rocket-like appearance. The radiant was at 166° +32° and the height 81 to 55 miles along a path of 188 miles from N of Ipswich to S of St Alban's Head, traversed at a velocity of 31 miles per second.

Mentioned in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Vol. 13, p. 367, October 1919, in "The Observation of Meteors and Computation of Their Real Paths" by W F Denning, Brown appears against the following meteors:
 

Date (1918) Time (GMT) Magnitude
11 June 10:54 3 x Venus
08 July 10:34 2 x Jupiter
12 August 09:51 1 - Jupiter
13 August 09:34 1 - Jupiter

"Height at appearance", "height at disappearance", "path length", "velocity" and "radiant point" are given for each meteor. Brown may have contributed other data to the original table as there are seven instances where a meteor is noted as being recorded by multiple (unnamed) observers. Maybe these are the observations referred to in the earlier JBAA reference (vol. 28, no. 9, October 1918, p. 275): Mr Basil Brown, of Diss, who has done regular work for the Section for some time past... The "regular observing stations" referred to in the report are:

Press Cuttings

Summary of Brown's collection of press cuttings, stored in Suffolk Records Office.

References and Notes

[1]

Durrant, C J, "Basil Brown, Astronomer, Archaeologist, Enigma – A Biography", p. 5, 2005.

[2]

Ibid., p. 6.

[3]

"A Village Handyman Wins World Fame", Daily Express, 15 January 1935, p. 11.

[4]

Ibid.

[5]

"Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", entry for Basil Brown.

[6]

Durrant, p. 22, op. cit.

[7]

The "Harmsworth Self-Educator" was a correspondence college subsidiary of Viscount Northcliffe's "Daily Mail" and "Daily Mirror" publishing empire. See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Harmsworth,_1st_Viscount_Northcliffe.

[8]

Durrant, p. 6, op. cit.

[9]

Ibid., p. 7.

[10]

Ibid., p. 14.

[11]

"Daily Express", op. cit.

[12]

Durrant, p. 7, op. cit.

[13]

Ibid., p. 25.

[14]

"Daily Express", op. cit.

[15]

Durrant, p. 8, op. cit.

[16]

JBAA, vol. 29, no. 1, 1918, p32.

[17]

Beech, M, "The Making of Meteor Astronomy: Part XV. W F Denning - The Doyen of Amateur Astronomers", Journal of the International Meteor Organisation, vol. 26, no. 1, February 1998, p. 20.

[18]

JBAA, vol. 30, no. 1, 1919, p. 44.

[19]

Memoirs of the BAA, vol. 42, pt. 2, p87.

[20]

Bruce-Mitford, R L S, "Obituary - Basil Brown", Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, Ipswich, XXXIV (1), p. 71. See http://suffolkinstitute.pdfsrv.co.uk/customers/Suffolk%20Institute/2014/01/10/Volume%20XXXIV%20Part%201%20(1977)_Obituary%20Basil%20Brown%20R%20L%20S%20Bruce-Mitford_71.pdf

[21]

JBAA, vol. 36, no. 6, 1926, p. 182.

[22]

Ibid., vol. 31, no. 2, November 1920, p. 60.

[23]

Ibid., vol. 38, no. 1, October 1927, p. 28.

[24]

Ibid., vol. 40, no. 1, November 1929, p. 27.

[25]

Ibid., vol. 32, no. 2, November 1921, p. 73.

[26]

Ibid., vol. 34, no. 9, September 1924, p. 348 and vol. 36, no.3, December 1925, p. 77.

[27]

Brown, B, "Star Atlases and Charts", The English Mechanic, vol. 119, issue 3071, 01 February 1924, pp. 4-5.

[28]

Brown, B, "The Star Catalogues", The English Mechanic, vol. 120, issue 3105, 26 September 1924, p. 140.

[29]

The English Mechanic was published once a week from March 1865 to October 1926.

[30]

JBAA, vol. 42, no. 6, 1932, p. 212.

[31]

Ibid., vol. 42, no. 6, April 1932, p. 199.

[32]

The British Library holding of The Chaldaean starts at vol. 2, no. 1, midwinter 1918-19.

[33]

"Daily Express", op. cit.

[34]

Durrant, p. 18, op. cit.

[35]

Durrant, p. 16, op. cit.

[36]

Durrant, p. 25, op. cit.

[37]

Durrant, p. 29, op. cit.

[38]

Durrant, p. 48, op. cit.

[39]

Durrant, p. 33, op. cit.

[40]

Durrant, p. 36, op. cit.

[41]

Durrant, p. 8, op. cit. Bruce-Mitford op. cit. gives the date of publication as 1966.

[42]

Bruce-Mitford, op. cit.

[43]

Durrant, p. 39, op. cit.

[44]

Mary Ackworth Orr (1867-1949), BAA Historical Section Director, 1930-44.

[45]

Henry Patrick Folkard (1900-unknown), Edgware, Middlesex, meteor observer, BAA Librarian 1932-34.

[46]

Andrew David Thackeray (1910-78), nephew of the Eversheds, schoolboy observer at Eton College and Chief Assistant at the Radcliffe Observatory, Pretoria, South Africa.

[47]

Alice Grace Cook (1887-1958), BAA Meteor Section Director, 1921-23. Resident of Stowmarket.

[48]

Thomas Henry Espinell Compton Espin (1858-1934), Jackson-Gwilt Medalist of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1913.

[49]

William Milburn (1896-1982), observer for the Rev. T H E C Espin at Tow Law Observatory, Durham.

[50]

John Knight Fotheringham (1874-1936), Reader in Ancient Astronomy and Chronology at Oxford University.

[51]

John Philip Manning Prentice (1903-81), BAA Meteor Section Director 1923-54. Lived at Battisford, near Stowmarket.

[52]

William Alfred Parr (circa 1865-1936), BAA President 1932-34.

[53]

Edmund Farrer FSA (1847-1935), honorary member of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, curate at Kelvedon (Essex), Bressingham (Norfolk) and rector of Hinderclay (Suffolk). (Hinderclay is three miles north-west of Rickinghall Superior.)

[54]

JBAA, vol. 42, no. 7, 1932, pp. 256-7.

[55]

McEwan gives the date of the transit as 07 May. This is due to the use of Greenwich Mean Astronomical Time (GMAT) rather than Greenwich Mean Time. GMAT is 12 hours behind GMT; it has the advantage, for astronomical purposes, of avoiding a change of date in the middle of the night. In GMAT, the transit began at 09:44 on 07 May.


Bill Barton, FRAS