Monthly Archives: October 2011

Trick or Treat?

Tonight is Halloween.  The name means the Eve (= Evening = E’en) of All Hallows, otherwise All Saints’ Day, November 1, a day set aside to commemorate ‘all the saints’ that dates, probably, from the 8th century.  This festival (Toussaint in French) is immediately followed in the Christian calendar by All Souls’ Day, November 2, a day to commemorate all the dead – saints or sinners alike.

Halloween has a mixed history in Australia.  Every year, people will bemoan the Americanization of Australian popular culture, and it’s true, Halloween doesn’t seem very deeply embedded in our social life.

But nature abhors a vacuum.  We used to hold the party on Guy Fawkes Night, November 5.  In my youth, this was a great night for children, with fireworks, a bonfire, lots of kid-friendly food, terrified pets, and the exciting possibility of burns and explosions.

Fires are not a good idea in early November in most of Australia after a dry winter, and eventually state governments intervened to ban open fires.  The fireworks first moved to ‘Cracker Night’ in May, but the alternative festival never quite took off, perhaps because they chose 25 May, Empire Day, which was by then barely alive, let alone kicking, as a day of community celebration.  There was scarcely a murmur when the private use of fireworks was banned a few years later.

But I think there were also social reasons for the demise of Guy Fawkes Night and the rather reluctant reinstatement of Halloween.

Halloween is a much older festival, closely linked to All Saints and All Souls Days, and widely celebrated throughout Catholic Europe and South America, where these are the Days of the Dead.  In its original form, these were days set aside for Christians to pray for the release of their dead relatives from purgatory.  Protestants rejected the idea of purgatory, and of masses for the dead – and Halloween came under close scrutiny as a result.

Guy Fawkes Night, on the other hand, was the quintessential Protestant festival – and in its unreconstructed form, a very nasty sectarian affair it was.  It celebrated the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Westminster in 1605.  In England, Guy Fawkes Night was a state-sanctioned anti-Catholic revel.  In many places, such as Lewes in Sussex, the Pope is still burned in effigy, rather than the ‘Guy’.

Guy Fawkes Night, Lewes, Sussex

Guy Fawkes Night, Lewes. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005

Guy Fawkes Night was an English custom, not followed in Scotland, where Halloween remained important.

Guy Fawkes Night didn’t translate very well to Australia.  In the 19th century, Australia’s population was about 2/3 Protestant, 1/3 Catholic.  Such a solid minority of Catholics meant that sectarian squabbles were much more troublesome, and authorities were keen to keep a lid on them.  Many of the Protestants, too, were Scots, Irish or German, for whom the concept was new.  Guy Fawkes Night – ‘Cracker Night’ in Catholic households – was a night for the kids, but it lacked the ferocity of the older English tradition.

There’s a further point.  In the Northern Hemisphere, both Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night mark the beginning of winter.  Opinion is divided as to whether Halloween is a Christian version of the Celtic Samhain, but these festivals all share an emphasis on bonfires to keep the dark and cold at bay, whether literally or metaphorically.

At the beginning of winter, in pre-industrial societies, people expected to be cold and hungry during the winter months.  With harvest in, paid farm work dried up, so a traditional feature of these festivals is that they were ‘doling days’, days on which it was customary for the poor to beg for a ‘dole’ in food or money from their betters.  There are faint echoes of this tradition in the idea of a ‘trick or treat’. But once it was the young men who went around the big houses asking for ‘a penny for the guy’ – and men with burning torches in their hands can be very persuasive.

In Australia, October 31/November 5 marks the start of summer.  There’s no need to rage against the dying of the light.  In Catholic parts of the Southern Hemisphere, such as Argentina and Brazil, the Days of the Dead have kept their religious significance, despite the reversal of the seasons.  But here in Australia, neither Halloween nor Guy Fawkes Night ever had much purchase.  It’s just a bit of a game.  My local supermarket is selling pumpkins complete with carving instructions, which suggests the tradition isn’t very deep.

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Mud-wrestling on St Crispin’s Day

This day is called the feast of Crispian.

Or, in other words, it is 25 October, the 594th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, without which virtually nobody would have heard of St Crispian.

Even Shakespeare seems to have been a bit hazy.  In Henry V’s speech, he refers to both ‘Crispin’ and ‘Crispian’, depending on where the word comes in the iambic pentameter, getting increasingly desperate towards the end, when

Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world…

In fact (and I use this term very loosely), they were two brothers, Crispin and Crispinian.  According to the Oxford Companion to the Year, they were martyred in c.285.  There is an English tradition that they worked in Faversham – Preston St., to be exact – which became a site of pilgrimage.  The French, on the other hand, believed that they were shoemakers in Soissons.  Either way, they are patron saints of leatherworkers – which led one church in Toronto, with a gay congregation, to reinstate them as patron saints of leather and people wearing leather.  It all sounds like a load of old cobblers to me.

In 1976, John Keegan published The Face of Battle, the book that made his reputation as a military historian.  He set out to describe the direct, personal experience of ordinary soldiers in battle across the centuries.  He used three case studies, Agincourt (25 October 1415), Waterloo (18 June 1815) and the battle of the Somme (1 July to 18 November 1916).

I won’t summarise his book.  It deserves to be read in full.  But I was struck by Keegan’s point that these 3 battles all took place so close together.  Agincourt (Fr. Azincourt) is in the Pas-de-Calais department of north-west France, with the Somme River running through it.  Waterloo is just across the present Belgian boundary, a few miles from Brussels.

As I’ve said elsewhere, this area marks a cultural boundary between a French speaking, wine drinking region, and a Germanic-speaking, beer-drinking region.  Its ports also hold the key to control of the English Channel.  So it is no wonder that this region was known as the cockpit of Europe, because of the number of battles that took place there.

Agincourt archers

Archers at Agincourt, from Chronicques d'Enguerrand de Monstrelet, in Wikimedia Commons

Apart from geography, what did these 3 battles have in common?  One common denominator was mud.  High rainfall was an inevitable characteristic of its strategic position close to the Channel.  Agincourt was fought on a recently ploughed field, where the heavy cavalry wallowed in mud.  Napoleon delayed the start of battle at Waterloo because he wanted the fields to dry out first.  And we have all seen the photographs of mud at the battle of the Somme.

Yet the timing of the battles was very different.  Agincourt took place on a single day, and the battle was won and lost by sunset.  The battle was crucial because 25 October was late in the fighting season.  The harvest was over, and soon it would be too cold for campaigning.

The timing of Waterloo, on the other hand, was determined by Napoleon’s escape from Elba, rather than by the rhythms of the seasons.  He escaped in March, made his way north to Fontainebleau, then to Paris, seizing the initiative from the reinstated Bourbon king, Louis XVIII.  But by mid June, his One Hundred Days were up.

The Battle of the Somme, by comparison, was a feat of terrible endurance for the men who fought there, lasting from mid summer until mid November.  In Henry V’s day, dates were reckoned according to the Julian calendar, a matter of 11 days difference from the Gregorian calendar.  [I’ve explained this here]

The date of withdrawal from the Somme, 18 November, is therefore only 11 days later than the date of Agincourt.  (25 October according to the Julian calendar, but 7 November according to the Gregorian)

Unlike Agincourt or Waterloo, the battle of the Somme ended as a stalemate, with no clear winner.  By then more than half a million men were dead – and the land was a quagmire of mud.

Note: Actually, today is 26 October.  Doing my tax, due by the end of October, had to take priority over blogging.  The calendar can be a tyrant.

That Missing Curtsey

In Love in a Cold Climate (1949) Nancy Mitford wrote a hilarious account of life in the British aristocracy between the wars.  One of her characters is Lady Montdore, a dedicated royalist.  Before her daughter’s coming-out ball, Lady Montdore held a dinner party for 40, inviting various royals and ex-royals.

Lady Montdore loved anybody royal.  It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtsying was the consummation of this love.  Her curtsies, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind.  She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance, painful it might be supposed to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought.  Her knees cracked like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.

Curtsies, outside the ballet, are always a bit like this, so I’m quite relieved that Julia Gillard decided again one, when meeting the Queen in Canberra this week.

Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson, The Duchess of Devonshire and the Countess of Bessborough, in Yale Digital Commons

According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) women used to curtsey by placing their feet at an angle to each other (second-position in ballet) and bending their knees in a plie, the back remaining straight.  This looked elegant when all the action took place behind a long and voluminous skirt, but those widespread knees became unacceptable when hemlines rose in the early 20th century, and physically impossible in the narrow skirts of the 1920s.

So a new method had to be developed.

I learned to curtsey at school in preparation for meeting Lady May Abel-Smith, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who presented the prizes at our school in the late 1950s as the wife of the Queensland Governor.

Place one leg behind the other, lock knees together (always important for blossoming schoolgirls), and bend.  It is impossible to descend evenly, since everything tends to bend, not just the knees, so the result is an awkward waddling movement, the shoulders at an angle, and the back and neck jutting forward.

It probably looked quite cute when I did it for Lady May at the age of 12 – but as you get older, Nancy Mitford’s description becomes increasingly accurate.  Maybe earlier generations of older women had knees that cracked like revolver shots, but if so, the noise, like the action, was smothered in their skirts.

No doubt it’s a coincidence, but women’s skirts began to rise at about the same time that the House of Lords lost its ability to veto money bills from the House of Commons, in the 1911 Parliament Act (1&2 Geo. 5. C. 13).  The power and privileges of the House of Lords were by no means over, but in 1911 Prime Minister Lloyd George – and that other George, the new king George V – collaborated to bring the British aristocracy to heel.  Australia rejected the idea of an aristocracy in the 1850s. (See Bunyips)

It’s also striking that most of Lady Montdore’s guests were ex-royals.  Love in a Cold Climate is set between the wars, when various post-World War I revolutions had cut a swathe through the European monarchies.  One of her guests was the cousin of a King who ‘was daily expecting the crown to be blown off his head by a puff of east wind.’

A hundred years on, the curtsey seems entirely obsolete – although there’s a rather similar move in Tai Chi, which is good for the knees, hips and lower back.  Like most things, it is equally good for men and women, and like most things, you may be at a disadvantage in a skirt.

Phar Lap and the Australian Dictionary of Biography

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning carries an obituary for Ruth Frappell (née Teale).  From 1968, Ruth Teale worked for the Australian Dictionary of Biography where she appears in their ‘Authors’ Roll of Honour’ with 56 articles.

I didn’t know Ruth Teale personally, and it is a long time since I read her book, Colonial Eve: Sources on Women in Australia, 1788-1914 (1978), but various friends and colleagues of mine have worked for the ADB, and I know how important and under-valued such work can be.

Thank you all, for where would we be, as historians, without ready access to dictionaries of biography?  Today I use the ADB and the British Oxford Dictionary of National Biography every week, and American, Canadian and New Zealand equivalents fairly frequently.

So it is ironic but inevitable that, when I cleared out my office earlier this year, and gave away most of my books, nobody wanted my hardback copies of the ADB.  They are available on-line now, and all the more valuable for the added searching opportunities that gives.  (Though while the ADB is freely available on the web, the DNB is only available behind a pay wall.  Ready access is a relative term.)

In their electronic versions, these dictionaries of biography are forever works in progress, updated and corrected as necessary, but it wasn’t ever thus.  Each new hard copy volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography arrived with an erratum slip, listing a little collection of mistakes from earlier volumes, which the conscientious owner was meant to hand correct.  I remember one such slip said, of some long forgotten sibling to the great man:

For ‘died young’, read ‘lived to a ripe old age in Orange’.

Meanwhile, things converge.

Jimmy Pike riding Phar Lap c. 1930

Jimmy Pike riding Phar Lap c. 1930, from Wikimedia Commons

Melbourne Cup is only 2 weeks away, and not coincidentally a new film, The Cup, has just been released, based on the 2002 Melbourne Cup.  And Black Caviar won her 14th race from 14 starts to equal Phar Lap’s record (and has her own website).

So here, for those who don’t know it already, is Phar Lap’s ADB entry – a great parody written by Barry Andrews for the first Making of Sporting Traditions conference in 1977, later reprinted in the Australian History Association Bulletin, and then in Sporting Traditions (1988).  The National Centre of Biography at the ANU has put it on line here.

LAP, PHAR (1926-32), sporting personality, business associate of modest speculators and national hero, was born on 4 October 1926 at Timaru, New Zealand, the second of eight children of Night Raid and his wife Entreaty, nee Prayer Wheel. The family had military connections, including Carbine and Musket (q.q.v.) although Raid himself had emigrated to Australia during the first World War.

A spindly, unattractive youth with chestnut hair, Lap was educated privately at Timaru until January, 1928, when he formed a liaison with the Sydney entertainment entrepreneur Harold Telford. With Telford, Lap moved to Sydney and established premises in the suburb of Randwick, a number of short term (distance) ventures were unsuccessful, although after James E. Pike (q.v.) commenced employment and Telford became a silent partner, the business flourished. A small, dapper man who dressed flamboyantly in multi-coloured coats and hats, Pike’s nervousness caused him to lose weight before each speculation with Lap; yet their affiliation lasted for over two years and proved beneficial to hundreds of Australian investors.

The most successful years were between 1930 and 1932, when the business expanded into Victoria, South Australia and Mexico. Pike and Lap received numerous awards for services to the entertainment industry, including an MC in 1930; they shared with Telford a gross taxable income of over 50,000 pounds. This income was substantially increased, however, by generous donations from several Sydney publishers, including Ken Ranger and Jack Waterhouse (q.q.v.)

Early in 1930 Lap journey to North America to strengthen his interest there; Telford, who disliked travelling, and Pike, who had weighty problems to contend with, stayed behind. Tall and rangy, known affectionately as ‘Bobby’, ‘The Red Terror’ and occasionally as ‘you mongrel’, Lap died in mysterious circumstances in Atherton, California, on 5 April, 1932, and was buried in California, Melbourne, Canberra and Wellington. A linguist as well as a businessman, he popularised the phrase ‘get stuffed!’ although owing to an unfortunate accident in his youth he left no children.

I. Carter, Phar Lap (Melbourne, 1971), and for bibliog; information from J. O’Hara and T.H. Mouth; inspiration from anon. ADB contributors.

Occupying Wall Street and Boundary Streets

Wall Street.  The name has been in the news lately – describing a concept, capitalism, rather than a real place.  But the Occupy Wall Street movement has thrown up some interesting historical references – so let’s look again at the place itself.

The Dutch who settled Nieuw-Amsterdam in the early 17th century first occupied the southern tip of Manhattan Island, the area around Battery Point.  Along the northern limit of their settlement, using African slaves, they built a defensive wall or palisade.  The earliest map of the settlement, the Castello Plan, shows this fortification along what is now Wall Street.

Early New York / New Amsterdam

Castello Plan, from Wikimedia Commons. North is on the right, with Wall St running from top to bottom.

The Wall marked the boundary between the Dutch settlement and the local Lenape people of Manahatta, part of the Algonquin language group, who ‘sold’ Manhattan Island to Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company for 60 guilders worth of trade goods, and who were no doubt startled to discover later that the exchange was meant to take away their land in perpetuity.  (Many people on Wall Street today have the same problem with derivatives.)

It was partly a defensive barrier, but also a place to trade.  The Dutch, after all, had come as fur traders, so wanted good relations with the local tribes.  But a tradition began – so they say – that Native Americans who hung around the settlement were evicted at dusk, with Wall Street marking the boundary between civilized and savage worlds.  (Maybe it still does, though which side are the savages these days?)

While Broadway followed a Lenape pathway, and was sympathetic to the local topography, Wall Street was not, running directly at right angles to the ancient route.

Fast forward from Peter Stuyvesant and his 17th century colonists to 19th century Brisbane.

Boundary St, Brisbane

Brisbane has many streets called Boundary Street, but 2, through Spring Hill to the north of the river, and West End to the south, are critical.  These streets too run in straight lines in defiance of local topography, a good hint that early surveyors were involved.  Using chains and trigonometry, the surveyors marked out straight lines across the landscape, carving out a chunk of land that would be put up for sale for town lots.

According to local tradition, both Boundary Streets also marked the border between the white township and the local Aborigines, who were ordered out of the town at dusk. [see History of the Boundary St Curfew put together by Storyteller Daryll Bellingham]

The evidence is sketchy, and often based on the repetition of the same oral tradition, but it goes back a long way.  In any case, as Brisbane was surveyed and sold, lot-by-lot, the surveyors’ pegs creeping across the landscape marked the alienation of the land from its original inhabitants.  In Australian law today, freehold title extinguishes native title, and introduces the idea of trespass on private land.

Meanwhile in America, the Occupy Wall Street movement has thrown up an interesting irony for today’s Native Americans, who argue that Wall Street is already occupied territory.

Algonquin territory

Guilty can’t be inherited, but property can be.  Forgive us our trespasses.

Vale Steve Jobs

Somewhere amongst the tsunami of comments in the last few days on Steve Jobs’ death, I read that there were 3 important Apples in history.  The first was the apple eaten by Eve; the second was the apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head; and the third was the Apple that Steve Jobs invented.  No doubt he named the Apple after one of the other two – after all, the company also produced an unsuccessful computer called a Newton.

Jonathan Mak

Jonathan Mak's wonderful image. I'm usually pretty conscientious about only using images in the public domain, but this one seems to have gone viral in the last few days, so I may as well use it too! I feel sure Jonathan Mak's future career in design (he is only 19!) is now assured.

My first computer was an Apple IIC.  It had a small, boxy screen cantilevered over a separate keyboard, and in retrospect the design was probably quite elegant.

In 1985 I was the first person in my department to get a computer.  On my casual teaching salary, it cost an arm and a leg, but in those days, you relied on the typing pool, or got your wife to type your manuscripts – not an option in my case.

Access to the typing pool depended on a pecking order, with casuals at the very bottom.  I bought my Apple IIC after one of my chapters languished there for over a month.  Luckily I could touch type, which none of the men could do.

At our school only girls in the commercial stream learned typing (along with other lost craft skills like shorthand, book-keeping and domestic science), but on a visit to the Ekka (Brisbane’s agricultural show) in my senior year, I won a typing course.  For weeks I spent my afternoons sitting at a typewriter in earphones, following instructions to type F, J, G, H, etc.  The neural pathways I acquired that year are now broad highways through my brain.

I wrote my first book on the Apple IIC, in a pre-Bill-Gates operating system called ProDOS.  This involved adding lots of strange instructions to the text to get italics or indentation – what you saw was nothing like what you got.  I saved the files to 5¼ inch floppy disks which eventually grew mouldy.  I printed off quite a lot of these files, on a dot matrix printer on special computer paper, because you could only work on one file at a time.   This is fortunate because the files are unreadable today.

Thanks to that book, I got study leave for the first time in 1988.  By then I was hooked on computers, but I needed a laptop for travel, and Apple didn’t yet make one.  Instead I bought a Toshiba with the new standard operating system, MS DOS.  My new Toshiba had a narrow band of LCD screen showing 2 lines of text, just adequate for note taking, but almost impossible for serious writing.  All the same, I rewrote my PhD for publication on that Toshiba, and gathered notes for another book.  I printed quite a few of these files, but a lot remain on the 3½ inch disks.  They are unreadable today.

During that leave, I also discovered email.  Having email in 1988 was like having a telephone in 1888, because there were so few people you could communicate with, apart from tech heads.  It took a while for email to penetrate the Arts Faculty back home, but computers eventually became standard issue at university – and that issue was Microsoft, not Apple.

IPods passed me by, so I never used an Apple again until I bought my first iPhone in 2008, and became a convert.

I’ve taught European history long enough to recognise the symptoms of religious mania, and my conversion fits the profile.  I followed the iPhone with a Mac, an iPad, and recently a MacBook Air.  The iPad (700g.) cost me $A700; the Air (1100g.) cost me $A1100 – so my Apple mania comes at a cost of $A1 a gram, or roughly 3 times the price of smoked salmon.

Recently my iPhone packed up, and I went to the local Apple Store to see what I could do about it, short of replacing it 3 days before a new upgrade was to be announced.  I found I could hand in my old phone, pay $A109 (= 3 sides of smoked salmon) and get a recycled phone.  Synched with iTunes, and it’s essentially the same phone.  No gorillas in Rwanda were killed in the quest for rare earths – and I hope no Chinese workers suffered either.

I no longer print out most of my files, because I carry them around with me on my iPad – and no doubt, one day they too will be unreadable.  Sorry, future historians.

Thomas Brisbane: the star-gazing governor

Congratulations to our new Nobel Prize winner, Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University – and, of course, to our Ignobel prize winners as well.  We don’t do enough to publicise science in Australia.  Very few scientists enter politics, for instance.  We might have a more sensible debate on issues such as climate change if they did.

Yet in the past, science and scientists were better recognised here.  The cities of Darwin and Brisbane are both named after scientists who never visited the places.  We all know Darwin – but how many people these days would know of Sir Thomas Brisbane if it wasn’t for the city that bears his name?  He probably pronounced that name differently, too – BrisBANE, rather than BRISbane.

Brisbane was Governor of New South Wales for 4 years, 1821 to 1825, covering the period when the Brisbane River was discovered and named after him, and a settlement began here that eventually became Brisbane.  These 4 years, though, meant much less to Thomas Brisbane than they do to Australian historians.  For him, his main achievements were as a soldier – and an astronomer.

Governor Brisbane

Sir Thomas Brisbane, from Wikimedia Commons

Brisbane was born in 1773 into a wealthy Scottish family, and joined the army, as so many Scots did.  In 1798, he was sailing home with his regiment from Jamaica when the ship was almost wrecked when the captain made a navigational miscalculation – not an unusual event in these days.  This triggered his interest in celestial navigation.  He bought books and instruments, and took to carrying a pocket sextant and chronometer with him wherever he went.

In 1808, Brisbane built an observatory in the garden of his estate, Brisbane House, at Largs, Ayrshire.  He ordered the newest chronometers and the first ‘mural circle’, built by the most respected instrument maker of his day, Edward Troughton.  ‘Mural’ in this instance means ‘wall’, and a mural circle consists of a circular frame mounted on a wall aligned north-south.  The circle is marked from 0 to 360 degrees, and a telescope is clamped to the circle, so that both telescope and circle can be pivoted in different planes.  In this way, you can observe and measure the angular height of a star.  Brisbane’s mural circle was two feet wide; in 1810 Troughton built another for the Greenwich Observatory, based on the Largs design, which was six feet in diameter.

Brisbane spent his spare time developing this private observatory in Ayrshire, but his day job was as a soldier.  Britain was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and he served in Spain and southern France, as the British army gradually fought its way north.  Wellington’s army needed all the mathematical and engineering skills it could get, and Brisbane’s hobby was a valuable asset.  Throughout the Peninsular War, Brisbane kept daily observations with his pocket sextant, and according to the Duke of Wellington, it was Thomas Brisbane who ‘kept the time of the army’.

In occupied France after the defeat of Napoleon, Wellington asked Brisbane to work out a table so that soldiers could tell the time easily from observations of the stars and planets.  He also drew up a table comparing English weights and measures with those of France, to help the British commissaries when they were buying supplies in French measurements.  This means he was one of the first Britons to get his head around metric weights and measures.

In 1816 Brisbane was unanimously elected a corresponding member of France’s premier scientific institution, the Institut de France, not because of his scientific reputation, but because he stopped allied soldiers from sacking the premises – what a pity he never got to Baghdad!

In 1821, Brisbane replaced Lachlan Macquarie as Governor of New South Wales, on Wellington’s recommendation.  It seems that he took the job largely because it would give him a chance to observe the stars in the southern hemisphere.  He brought out with him many of the instruments he had set up at Brisbane House, including the mural circle and a transit telescope, also built by Edward Troughton, which is now in the Powerhouse Museum.  He also brought out at his own expense two assistant astronomers, James Dunlop and Christian Rümker.

Brisbane set up an observatory at Government House, Parramatta.  At the time, the most important study of the southern sky was the work of the Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, who in 1763 had published a catalogue of nearly 10,000 stars called the Coelum Australe Stelliferum, based on his observations at the French island of Reunion.  Brisbane and his assistants reviewed Lacaille’s work, a matter of checking the location of many thousands of stars.  They also recorded the return of Encke’s comet on 2 June 1822.  After Halley’s comet, which returned as predicted in 1759, this was the first time a comet’s predicted return could be verified, so Brisbane’s work in Australia was really very important.  He also observed the transit of Mercury on 3 November 1822.  Despite the claims of his many critics that the Governor spent too much time on ‘star-gazing’, in fact Brisbane was far too busy with administration to do much astronomical work himself, though he personally observed the winter solstice of 1822.

In 1825, Sir Thomas Brisbane was recalled to Britain after just four years as Governor.  He left behind his astronomical instruments and 349 volumes of his scientific library as a gift to the colony, saying that he wanted his name to be associated with ‘the furtherance of Science’; the government took over his Observatory at Parramatta, and appointed his assistant Christian Rümker as the first Government Astronomer.  After Rümker left, Dunlop became Government Astronomer in 1831.

Meanwhile Brisbane returned home to Scotland.  In 1826 he built another observatory, this time at Makerstoun, near Kelso.  He was a member of the Royal Society of London from 1810, a member of the Astronomical Society, an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, and presided over the 1834 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Edinburgh.  In 1832 he was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  He died in 1860.

Governor Brisbane was undoubtedly the father of astronomy in Australia.  Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane was named after him, and several of his instruments, including a portable telescope, are held there, on loan from the Museum of Brisbane.  The remnants of the mural circle he brought to New South Wales are in the Powerhouse Museum.  Otherwise few would now remember Sir Thomas’s important scientific work, though there’s information about him on the Sydney Observatory’s website.

Except that in 2006 the curator of the planetarium, Mark Rigby, asked the Scottish-Australian astronomer, Robert H. McNaught, if he would name a newly discovered asteroid after Sir Thomas Brisbane.  McNaught was delighted to do so, particularly as he was born just 20 km from Sir Thomas Brisbane’s place of birth and death in Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland, on the 96th anniversary of Sir Thomas’s death.  So Brisbane – the man and the city – have just been recognized with the naming of a mountain sized lump of rock, ‘a new namesake that is literally out of this world’.