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Sheepshanks, Richard (1794–1855), astronomer, was born at Leeds on 30 July 1794, the fourth son and sixth child of Joseph Sheepshanks, a cloth manufacturer, and his wife, Anne, daughter of Richard Wilson of Kendal. was his brother. Educated at Richmond School, Yorkshire, Sheepshanks entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1812, graduated in mathematics as tenth wrangler in 1816, and took his MA in 1819. At Cambridge he formed, with William Whewell, Adam Sedgwick, Connop Thirlwall, and others, the brilliant group later known as the ‘Northern Lights’.

Sheepshanks was elected fellow of Trinity in 1817, and, as he never married, he retained the fellowship for life. He was called to the bar in 1825, and took orders in the church of England on 18 June 1826, but the comparative affluence in which his father's death left him permitted him to follow instead his scientific vocation. He joined the Astronomical Society on 14 January 1825 and, as its secretary from 1829 onwards, edited for many years and greatly improved its Monthly Notices. In 1830 the Royal Society elected him a fellow, and two years later he became a member of its council. He took part in 1828 in George Airy's pendulum operations in Dolcoath mine, Cornwall, though these were abandoned following subterranean flooding, and about the same time he actively promoted the establishment of the Cambridge observatory. Appointed in 1831 a commissioner for revising borough boundaries under the Reform Act, he visited and determined most of those between the Thames and Humber. He also occasionally acted as an adviser to the government on routine astronomical matters.

When he became secretary of the Astronomical Society, Sheepshanks quickly came into conflict with its president, James South. Late in 1829 South purchased a French telescopic object-glass of exceptional size and quality, and he commissioned the venerable instrument maker Edward Troughton to mount it. South, however, was dissatisfied with the result and refused to pay Troughton, whereupon Troughton, with the strong encouragement of Sheepshanks, took South to court. The case lasted from 1834 to 1838, with Sheepshanks taking a prominent role, and eventually South was forced to pay. The dispute had something of class character to it, with South, who was knighted in 1830, and was a wealthy scientific amateur, seeking to pit his expertise against the expert tradesman Troughton and the paid astronomer Airy. South and his ally, Charles Babbage, were able to take their revenge in 1852, most notably through a letter from South published in the Mechanics' Magazine for 24 January publicizing an incident in 1823 when Sheepshanks, to avoid paying duty on the importation of a French instrument, had had the instrument engraved with Troughton's name to make it appear of British manufacture. Babbage sent copies to the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, ‘as a sort of impeachment’, and even brought the matter before the board of visitors of the Royal Observatory, to which Sheepshanks belonged. Sheepshanks defended himself, admitting and regretting the deception, but denying the alleged aggravating circumstances, in a lengthy and abusive Letter in Reply to the Calumnies of Mr. Babbage (1854). This was one of several ‘piquant pamphlets’ (De Morgan, 562–3) with which he enlivened the scientific scene around the mid-century. Another dealt with the award of the Neptune medal, and a third, in 1845, with the affairs of the Liverpool observatory. Sheepshanks, as a gentleman of leisure himself, appears to have regarded it as his duty to attack what he saw as injustices committed by others of his standing.

Sheepshanks was a member of the royal commissions on weights and measures in 1838 and 1843, and was entrusted in 1844, after the death of Francis Baily, with the reconstruction of the standard of length. The work, for which he accepted no payment, occupied eleven laborious years. It was carried on in a cellar beneath the Royal Astronomical Society's rooms in Somerset House, and involved the registration of nearly 90,000 micrometrical readings. In order to ensure their accuracy he constructed his own standard thermometers by a process he communicated to the society in June 1851. His succinct account of the whole series of operations was embodied in the report of the commissioners presented to parliament in 1854. Their result was of first-class excellence, and the new standard, with certain authorized copies, was legalized by a bill that received the royal assent on 30 July 1855.

Sheepshanks presented in 1838 to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, an 8 foot equatorial telescope, with an object-glass, by Cauchoix, of nearly 7 inches aperture. In the same year he determined the longitudes of Antwerp and Brussels, and in 1844 those of Valentia, Kingstown, and Liverpool. He lavished time and money on astronomical instruments, though he was often more concerned with the instruments for their own sake than for what he might achieve with them. In particular, he originated an effective and easy method of driving an equatorial by clockwork. He lived at Woburn Place, London, from 1824 to 1841 and at Reading from 1841 until his death. A small observatory was attached to each house.

On 29 July 1855 Sheepshanks was struck with paralysis, and died on 4 August 1855 at Reading. Sometimes described as the ‘radical parson’, Sheepshanks inspired both irritation and affection in his scientific circles. His biting satirical language and fighting spirit were hallowed by an earnest commitment to justice and a sociable nature.

Anne Sheepshanks (1789–1876), patron of science, Richard Sheepshanks's elder sister, was born in Leeds, Yorkshire. She lived with him from the time he left college and was his sole heir. In 1858 she presented £10,000 to the University of Cambridge for the promotion of research in astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, and meteorology at the observatory, as well as for the foundation of an exhibition in astronomy bearing her brother's name. To this she added in 1860 £2000 for the purchase of a transit circle. To the Royal Astronomical Society she made, in 1857, a donation of Sheepshanks's extensive and valuable collection of instruments, and was elected in return to honorary membership on 14 February 1862. She died at London Road, Reading, on 8 February 1876.

A. M. Clerke, rev. Michael Hoskin


Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 16 (1855–6), 90–97 · M. Hoskin, ‘Astronomers at war: South v. Sheepshanks’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 20 (1989), 175–212 · A. De Morgan, The Examiner (8 Sept 1855), 562–3 · PRS, 7 (1854–5), 612–13 · Venn, Alum. Cant.


CUL, corresp. and papers · RAS, corresp. and papers · Trinity Cam., letters to William Whewell · UCL, letters to Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge |  BL, corresp. with Charles Babbage, Add. MS 37195 · Ransom HRC, letters to Sir John Herschel · RAS, letters to Augustus De Morgan · RS, corresp. with Sir John Herschel · RS, letters to Sir John Lubbock


J. H. Foley, bust on monument (posthumous), Trinity Cam. · J. Jackson, portrait (in early life) · L. Stocks, line print, BM · engraving, repro. in R. Sheepshanks, A letter to the board of visitors of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (1856), frontispiece

Wealth at death  

over £12,000 · under £40,000—Anne Sheepshanks: administration, 24 April 1876, CGPLA Eng. & Wales