Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Pritchard, Charleslocked

  • A. M. Clerke
  • , revised by Anita McConnell

Charles Pritchard (1808–1893)

by Henry John Whitlock

Pritchard, Charles (1808–1893), headmaster and astronomer, the fourth son of William Pritchard (d. 1859), a hatter of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Lloyd, was born at Alberbury, Shropshire, on 28 February 1808. He and his brothers were baptized on 18 December 1808 at Christchurch, Southwark, after the family moved to Brixton in south London. Pritchard went to school first near Uxbridge, then as a day boy at Merchant Taylors' School (1818–19), and for a year he walked to Suffolk Lane in the City of London, a distance of 4 miles, every morning before seven. In 1822 he was sent to John Stock's academy at Poplar, where he benefited from Stock's inspired teaching of mathematics and learned to use surveying and astronomical instruments. His last school was Christ's Hospital, Newgate Street, in the City, and for twelve months there he utilized the long walk in learning by rote passages from classical authors. Financial difficulties at home, however, compelled his removal, and for two years he worked alone, chiefly at mathematics, though he also attended some lectures on chemistry. In 1825, when only seventeen, he published an Introduction to Arithmetic, and in 1826 he was enabled, by the help of friends and relatives, to enter St John's College, Cambridge, whence he graduated as fourth wrangler in 1830. He proceeded MA in 1833, having been elected a fellow of his college in March 1832.


In 1833 Pritchard accepted the headmastership of Stockwell proprietary grammar school, but his relations with the proprietors were always strained, as they opposed his desire to include science in the curriculum, and he left in June 1834. The parents of many of his pupils did, however, wish him to teach their sons in a modern manner, and the Clapham grammar school was founded to give him a freer hand in carrying out much-needed educational reforms. In the interim he had married, on 18 December 1834, Emily, the daughter of J. Newton; they had several children, including Sir Charles Bradley Pritchard, before her early death.

Pritchard packed the Clapham school with scientific apparatus and equipped it with an observatory and, eventually, a swimming pool. He presided over this establishment with remarkable success from 1834 to 1862. His system of teaching was wide and accommodating, his zeal indefatigable. Many of the boys who followed him from Stockwell achieved fame in later life. In 1866 nearly 100 men turned up for a banquet given in Pritchard's honour by the old boys of Clapham; a further 100 apologized for absence—a unique tribute to the manner of his rule there.

Retirement interlude

Pritchard married second, on 10 August 1858, Rosalind (d. 1892), the daughter of Alexander Campbell; they also had children. On leaving Clapham in 1862 he retired with his family to Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight. He had been ordained in 1834, and earnestly desired to devote himself to pastoral duties, but failed to obtain a curacy. He nevertheless delivered addresses, generally on the harmony between science and scripture, at various church congresses, and preached so often before the British Association that he came to be known as its ‘chaplain’. His discourse at the Nottingham meeting in 1866 led to his appointment as Hulsean lecturer at Cambridge in 1867. He was, besides, one of the select preachers at Cambridge in 1869 and 1881 and at Oxford in 1876 and 1877.

Pritchard joined the Royal Astronomical Society on 13 April 1849. He contributed to their proceedings, made some photometrical experiments on the annular solar eclipse of 15 March 1858, and joined the expedition in SS Himalaya which sailed to Spain for the total eclipse of 18 July 1860. He served continuously on the council of the society from 1856 to 1877, and again from 1883 to 1887, and came under fire for championing the aged Sir George Airy against the reformers seeking to end Airy's domination of the council. As president in 1866, Pritchard delivered two admirable addresses when presenting gold medals to Huggins and Leverrier in 1867 and 1868 respectively.

Savilian professorship

Early in 1870 Pritchard succeeded William Fishburn Donkin as Savilian professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford, where it was hoped that his teaching would revitalize the post. The family moved into 8 Keble Road, Pritchard's home for the remainder of his life. Although just sixty-two, he entered upon his new duties with the ardour of youth. A new observatory was erected in the university parks; a 12 inch refractor was purchased from Sir Howard Grubb, and Warren De La Rue gave other instruments, including a 13 inch reflecting equatorial telescope that he had constructed. The ‘New Savilian Observatory for Astronomical Physics’ was completed in 1875.

Pritchard was well aware of the advantages of photography, and adopted De La Rue's suggestion of investigating in this way the moon's libration. He next undertook the micrometric determination of forty stars in the Pleiades, with a view to ascertain their relative displacements since F. W. Bessel had measured them more than fifty years earlier; his results, however, were later questioned. To standardize the various estimates of the brightness of these stars, Pritchard adapted the wedge photometer, designed by W. R. Dawes, and vigorously defended it against all criticism. With it, he determined, in 1881–5, the relative magnitudes of 2784 stars from the pole to 10 degrees south of the equator. Early in 1883 he travelled to Egypt, where he hoped to obtain a better value for atmospheric absorption. He was accompanied by his wife and his assistant, Jenkins. After completing the observations from the khedive's observatory for the resulting photometric catalogue, entitled Uranometria nova Oxoniensis (1885), he received in 1886 jointly with the American astronomer Edward Charles Pickering, whose catalogue had been produced using the rival method of photometry, the Astronomical Society's gold medal.

Stellar photography

Pritchard was a pioneer in the photographic measurement of stellar parallax. From 200 plates of the star 61 Cygni exposed in 1886 he derived a parallax of 0.438 seconds of arc. Later measurements of twenty-eight stars, mostly of the second magnitude, yielded an average parallax of 0.56 seconds of arc, corresponding to a distance of 58 light years, a project which earned him, in 1892, the Royal Society's royal medal.

In 1886 Pritchard contributed to the Royal Society lengthy descriptions of his researches in stellar photography, and a second account was published by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1891. He never observed at Oxford; all the observations were undertaken by his able and loyal assistants Plummer and Jenkins, to whom he always gave full credit. In 1887 he committed his observatory to participate in the Carte du ciel, the first large international co-operative programme in astronomy. De La Rue donated the regulation 13 inch astrograph, and in 1890–91 Pritchard made lengthy experiments and tests and cajoled Sir Howard Grubb in order to ensure that the overseas observatories received satisfactory and standardized apparatus, a task for which his mathematical abilities were ideally suited. At the time of his death some progress had been made in photographing the zone of sky assigned to the Oxford observatory.

Pritchard was elected FRS on 6 February 1840, and was a member of the council in 1885–7. He was also a fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society and, from 1852, of the Geological Society. He proceeded MA by decree from New College, Oxford, on 11 March 1870, and DD in 1880, and, as Savilian professor, became a fellow in 1883. To his great delight, he was elected to an honorary fellowship of St John's College, Cambridge, in 1886. He was placed on the Solar Physics Committee in 1885.

Pritchard's enthusiasm for teaching never left him. He would instruct up to fifteen students at a time in practical matters in the subsidiary observatory fitted up for their use. Taking full advantage of De La Rue's benefactions, he made Oxford's the most active university observatory in the country, and the gold medals established it among the first rank in Europe. In his later years his eyesight failed and he was unable to walk, but he was conveyed to the observatory in a bath chair. He was full of plans for future work, and had, at the time of his death, fully prepared for a further photographic investigation of the Pleiades. He died at his home on 28 May 1893 and was buried in Holywell cemetery.

During the last twenty years of his life Pritchard sent fifty astronomical papers to learned societies; wrote many excellent popular essays, including a series in Good Words; and contributed several articles to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and to Smith's Dictionary of the Bible. His Occasional Thoughts of an Astronomer on Nature and Revelation (1889) gathered his miscellaneous addresses and discourses, though many of his sermons were printed separately. Next to the stars, Pritchard loved flowers. He practised floriculture as a fine art, and had at Clapham one of the finest ferneries in England. Yet he would have preferred parish work to his scientific accomplishments. 'Providence', he used to say, 'made me an astronomer, but gave me the heart of a divine.'


  • A. Pritchard, Charles Pritchard … memoirs of his life (1897)
  • C. Pritchard, Annals of our school life (1886)
  • D. Leinster-Mackay, ‘Pioneers in progressive education: some little-known proprietary and private school exemplars’, History of Education, 9 (1980), 213–17
  • G. G. Bradley, ‘My schooldays from 1830–40’, Nineteenth Century, 15 (1884), 455–74
  • E. D., PRS, 54 (1893), iii–xii
  • H. H. T. [H. H. Turner], Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 54 (1893–4), 198–204
  • W. E. P. [W. E. Plummer], ‘Rev. Charles Pritchard’, The Observatory, 16 (1893), 256–9
  • Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 3 (1892–3), 434
  • Daily Graphic (31 May 1893), 4
  • The Times (30 May 1893)
  • Mrs E. P. Hart, ed., Merchant Taylors’ School register, 1561–1934, 2 (1936)
  • m. cert.
  • parish register (birth), 28 Feb 1808, Alberbury, Shropshire
  • parish register (baptism), 18 Dec 1808, Christchurch, Southwark


  • MHS Oxf.
  • CUL, letters to Sir George Stokes
  • RAS, letters to Royal Astronomical Society
  • RS, corresp. with Sir John Herschel


  • H. W. Taunt, photograph, repro. in Pritchard, Charles Pritchard, frontispiece
  • H. J. Whitlock, photograph, NPG [see illus.]
  • portrait, repro. in Plummer, ‘Rev. Charles Prichard’, 256
  • wood-engraving (after photograph by Taunt & Co. of Oxford), NPG; repro. in ILN (3 June 1893)

Wealth at Death

£10,741 2s. 7d.: resworn probate, March 1908, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1893)

Proceedings of the Royal Society of London
F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)
C. C. Gillispie & F. L. Holmes, eds., , 16 vols. (1970–80); repr. in 8 vols. (1981); 2 vol. suppl. (1990)
J. Foster, ed., , 4 vols. (1887–8), later edn (1891); , 4 vols. (1891–2); 8 vol. repr. (1968) and (2000)