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Being Volume XV of a New Series

And the Two-Hundred and Fifteenth since the Commencement

(London, 1863), pp.760-762



Sir,—I wish to call the attention of your subscribers to a Yorkshire astronomer who lived in obscurity and died at a very early age, but who nevertheless lived sufficiently long to produce an instrument the invention of which would have rendered his name illustrious, had not his untimely death, and the melancholy circumstances which produced it, given another an opportunity of claiming the honour and receiving the measure of applause the invention so nobly deserved—I mean William Gascoigne, the inventor of the micrometer.

 The reason why I make this appeal, is the hope that some of the learned and curious who read your pages may not only be able but willing to assist me in my attempt to rescue the memory of this long-neglected genius from the undeserved oblivion into which it appears to have fallen.

 William Gascoigne sprang from a noble race, one that produced a man who fearlessly committed and English prince to prison for offending the laws of his country, and that, too, at a period when might was considered a right, which few were hardy enough to doubt, and non except himself ever dared to put to the test. William was the son of Henry Gascoigne, Esq., of Thorpe-on-the-Hill, a small village in the parish of Rothwell, near Leeds; and Henry was descended from John Gascoigne, Esq., the fourth son of Sir William Gascoigne, of Gawthorpe. John Gascoigne married Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Sir Thomas Swillington, of Thorpe-on-the-Hill, and in right of his wife became possessed of property there which had been for centuries belonging to her ancestors. According to the pedigree compiled by Hopkinson, a native of the same parish and a man who must have known him, Henry Gascoigne married, firstly, Jane, the daughter of William Cartwright, and by her had issue William,Henry, John, Margery, and Eleanor. His wife, who in the parish register is called Margaretta Jana, was buried at Rothwell on the 31st August, 1617. I have diligently searched the registers, but nowhere can I find a notice of the baptism of William; neither are the names of the children there mentioned the same as those given in the pedigree. The first is “Elizabeth filia Henrici Gascoigne, armigeri, primo die Januarii, 1613-14;” “Henricus filius Henrici Gascoigne, armigeri, 27 die Sept., 1615;” “Johannes filius Henrici Gascoigne, armigeri, primo die Januarii, 1616-17;” and those are all I can find mentioned: the others have either been omitted, or else they have been baptised in another parish. Hopkinson tells us William was slain in the Civil War at Melton Mowbray, while Aubrey states that he was killed at the battle of Marston Moor, being at the time of his death about the age of twenty-four or twenty-five at most. It is also stated that he fell at York fight, but at which of the battles he really was slain I am unable to decide. In his account of the first siege of Pontefract Castle in December, 1644, Drake enumerates among the gentlemen volunteers under the command of Sir John Ramsden, a Mr.William Gaskon, but whether he is the same William Gascoigne I cannot say.

 His age, however, must be incorrectly given, for his mother died in 1617, so that he could not have been killed at Marston Moor in 1644 when in his twenty-fifth year. Henry, his younger brother, was born in 1615, Elizabeth his sister was older than Henry, and therefore if William was the oldest he must have been born not later than 1612.

 According to one of his friends, Mr.Townley, of Lancashire, it appears that it was “on Marston with Rupert ‘gainst traitors contending,” when he lost his life; for in a letter to Thoresby dated from Townley, Jan.16, 1698-9, Mr.Chas.Townley says:—

 ”My brother Townley desires me to acquaint you that he has several letters and papers, and some instruments, that were Mr.Gascoigne’s, and hopes you will print nothing of that great astronomer till he can have looked over and digested what he finds, that so deserving an ornament of your country may not want what he can contribute towards the setting of him forth in his good and true colours. Sir Edward Shireburn, once a considerable man in the Tower, in his translation of Manilius de Spaero, makes an honourable mention of him amongst astronomical writers, of whom he gives a large catalogue. By the superscription of letters to him, it appears that he lived at Middleton, near Leeds; he followed King Charles the First’s party, and wasslain at the battle of Marston Moor, (at the age of 23, Ann.Reg.1761, vol.iv,p.196,) where my father, being in the same interest, was likewise killed.”

 Mr.Townley appears to have had the most intimate knowledge of Gascoigne and therefore his assertion that Marston Moor was the scene of his death may be considered to put the matter beyond dispute, notwithstanding what has been said by Hopkinson. The few accounts we possess of this man appear so contradictory, that it becomes almost an impossibility to settle the place of his birth.

 The letters mentioned by Mr.Townley were probably part of the correspondence that had passed between Gascoigne and the Lancashire astronomers, Horrox and Crabtree:—

 ”And it is to the mutual correspondence of this triumvirate that we owe the letters my brother Townley has of theirs de re astronomica. They are many and intricate, and we think not to be made use of without particular hints or instructions from himself. You may assure the curious that he has, under Mr.Gascoigne’s own hand, wherewith to entitle him to the invention of the micrometer before all foreigners or English: it was invented before 1641, for then he mentioned it as in being. My brother has been told by my uncle that Mr.Gascoigne, at his father’s house when he was slain, had a whole barn full of machines or instruments; it is not known what he intended them for, but perhaps if some of them could be found, guesses might be made which way his endeavours or further studies looked.”

 Mr.Townley tells us that at the time of his death Gascoigne had a treatise on optics ready for the press, “but though I have used my utmost endeavours to retrieve it, yet have I in that point been totally unsuccessful.”

 In 1715 Dr.William Derham told Thoresby he had prepared a paper for the Royal Society relating to Gascoigne, whom he calls “an admirable son of Sir William Gascoigne, of Middleton, near Leeds;” and then he proceeds to say that Gascoigne was killed at Marston Moor when at the age of twenty-three. Where the paper is I cannot find, nor do I think the Doctor had much matter to communicate to his learned friends for me, finding him asking Thoresby to investigate the matter for him. In describing one of his rambles on March 16, 1702, Thoresby says:—

 ”We walked up-hill to Thorpe-super-Montem, as it is writ in the Rowell register, now the seat of Mr.Ingram …. Thence to New Hall, once the seat of the most celebrated mathematician, not only in these parts but I believe in the world, viz., Mr.William Gascoigne, eldest son of Henry Gascoigne, Esq.”

 On what authority he is call a son of Sir William Gascoigne I am ignorant: the New Hall spoken of is an ancient house in the township of Middleton, and on Thoresby’s information we may presume once the seat of his father, and as Gascoigne’s letters to Crabtree and Horrox appear to have been written from Middleton, it was probably the place of his residence up to the time of his death.

But on what grounds Dr.Derham calls him a son of Sir William Gascoigne I should like to learn. I am not aware that any branch of the Gascoigne family (except the Thorpe branch) ever settled at Middleton, which is a township adjoining Thorpe, and also in the parish of Rothwell; but there was a branch of the Gawthorpe Gascoignes settled at Hunslet, another adjoining township, in 5 Henry IV., the founder of which was Richard Gascoigne, brother of the celebrated judge; but they appear to have become extinct long before this time, and their estates passed into entirely different hands. Whittaker says William Gascoigne, of Thorpe-on-the-Hill, who is so deservedly celebrated for his astronomical discoveries and mathematical genius, was the last of the Thorpe branch; and as Henry Gascoigne’s grandfather was called William, the mistake probably arose from his profound ignorance of the family and the district, for he naively asks whether Middleton is nearer to Leeds or Wakefield.

 If any of your correspondents or subscribers possess information concerning Gascoigne I shall be most sincerely obliged to them if they will favour me with it; and as I neither possess nor have access to a copy of Manilius, for the information therein given I appeal to those who have, nor do I think the appeal will be made in vain.

                          I am, &c.              W.WHEATER

                                                          8 Albion-street, Leeds