BY BRYN JONES
While other pages on this web site describe past astronomical activities
it may now be of interest to discuss the context behind the subject,
allowing the author to voice some personal opinions.
These opinions are necessarily subjective.
It is clear that before the middle of the twentieth century,
astronomical activity in Wales was mostly pursued by amateur astronomers.
There are remarkable stories of the work of amateurs in studying
and observing the Universe, sometimes achieving personal success
in spite of adversity.
An obvious conclusion is that many amateur astronomers in Wales tended
to work in relative isolation up to the close of the nineteenth
century. Some did have frequent contact with collaborators, locally and
further afield, allowing them to achieve considerable success in their
such as Sir William Lower and John Prydderch in
their early use of the telescope around 1610, or Nathaniel and
Edward Pigott near Llantwit Major in the 1780s, or John Dillwyn
Llewelyn's early success in photographing the Moon in the middle
of the nineteenth cenutry.
However, the majority did not belong to larger scientific networks.
This isolation largely ended with the establishment of the Astronomical
Society of Wales in 1894, and its limited replacement by local
astronomical societies in the 1910s and 1920s.
High-level academic research began with the activities of
Thomas George Cowling, first in Swansea and later in Bangor in the
1930s and 1940s. His activities in the University of Wales were, however,
within the context of mathematics departments, relatively isolated from
Only with the establishment of research groups in astronomy in
Aberystwyth and Cardiff in the last three decades of the twentieth
century did a strong research base emerge in astronomy, achieving
prominence on an international basis.
Despite this, research activities were limited before the 1960s:
it should be remembered that the real significance of
of astronomical activities must be judged by cutting-edge research,
involving the discovery of new principles and explaining for
the first time how the Universe operates.
Universities came relatively late to Wales, in particular as far as
science was concerned. Science was very important in the University
of Wales from the start in the second half of the nineteenth century,
but astronomy was slow to develop.
It is important to remember that teaching at a level broadly equivalent to
that of universities was established in the colleges of various
religious denominations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
These colleges, however, existed to train people for their religious
ministries alone and therefore concentrated their teaching on theology and
The first institution formally associated with the word university
(though not actually a university in its own right) was
St. David's College, founded in Lampeter in 1827 to train candidates
for the Anglican priesthood, and which received
the power to award its own Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1852.
Like the nonconformist academies, it was fundamentally a theological
institution and had scant involvement with science.
The university colleges at Aberystwyth (founded 1872), Cardiff (1883),
Bangor (1884) and Swansea (1920) were strongly committed to scholarship
and research across the sciences and humanities, but did not include
astronomy in their early years.
It is regrettable that there was not more university activity
in Wales before the nineteenth century, as was the case in England at
Oxford and Cambridge
or in Scotland at St. Andrews, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Had there been we could expect that scientific research would have
Equally people trained in them
might have pursued scientific research aided by the formal education
that universities provide.
Figures born in Wales such as Robert Recorde, Joseph Harris,
William Jones and Rev. Lewis Evans relocated to England to pursue
their careers. The presence of universities in Wales might have
acted to retain some of these individuals closer to the communities
from which they came.
There were many proposals to establish universities in Wales before
the mid-19th century, most famously in the years following 1400.
Had any of these succeeded we might well have more historical
astronomical activities to record in these pages.
The isolation of amateur astronomers up to the late nineteenth
century was overcome by the Astronomical Society of Wales between
1894 and 1914, and by local astronomical societies after this.
Relatively little information survives of the activities of the
local societies in the first half of the twentieth century, making
it difficult to assess their success
if any. Participation in Britain-wide organisations, particularly
the British Astronomical Association after its foundation in 1890
was moderately strong, although these tended to be rather remote
geographically from amateur astronomers in Wales.
The ending of the Astronomical Society of Wales around 1914 was
a major set back to amateur astronomy in Wales.
Had the Astronomical Society of Wales continued it could have offered
a focus to the activities of amateur astronomers through the period
up to the later twentieth century when local societies became numerous.
Lessons for the present and future
Academic astronomical research is healthy in Wales today through
activities in Cardiff and Aberystwyth. This is likely to continue.
Amateur astronomy is very active, and some integration has been
achieved in South Wales through joint meetings of local astronomical
societies. Some areas, particularly mid, southwest and northeast Wales are
poorly served by local astronomical societies.