Thomas Glazebrook Rylands and Astronomy

Collections Officer Craig Sherwood delves into the story of a prominent Warrington industrialist who rarely took his eyes off the sky.

Thomas Glazebrook Rylands was born in Warrington on May 24th 1818. The son of wire manufacturer John Rylands, on his father’s retirement he and his brothers Peter and John took over the running of the family business and made it one of the most successful in Northwest England.

Yet Thomas had many interests outside of running the family wire manufacturing business. Like many Victorians Thomas desired to collect, categorize and understand everything around him. His primary interest was measuring rainfall and cloud conditions, but all aspects of weather attracted his attention, in 1855 he published a booklet entitled ‘Observations on the Snow and Snow Crystals of Winter 1854/5′. He illustrated 43 distinct types of snowflake in the final work.

Thomas was not only interested in weather but in all the natural sciences – particularly entomology, botany, geology, mineralogy and zoology. In later life however it was astronomy that appealed to Thomas the most and he was  attracted and fascinated by the subject in equal measure. In 1865 he built a wooden two-storey astronomical observatory with a revolving dome at one of his home at his home at Heath House and installed his newly purchased 5 inch equatorial telescope along with a 2 inch transit telescope, both manufactured by Cooke of York

Thomas Glazebrook Rylands and telescope in the garden of Heath House

When the Warrington weather allowed it, Thomas used his telescope to make frequent astronomical observations and send them to the Royal Astronomical Society. Unfortunately his nights of observing the stars were often disturbed by local boys throwing stones into the open shutter of the dome and as soon as the bombardment began Thomas would close the shutter to protect himself and his telescope, waiting until “the enemy raised the siege” before beginning his observations once more.

In 1871 Thomas built a new house at Highfields in Thelwall, and constructed a new observatory consisting of a dome on top of a high tower that would remain a local landmark for some time.

Highfields House with observatory

After several years a combination of old age and cold winter nights forced Thomas to give up on astronomy in 1888 and so he donated his beloved 5 inch Cooke telescope along with a number of other astronomical instruments to the recently formed Liverpool Astronomical Society.

Prompted by Thomas’ kind donation in 1889 the Liverpool City Council Parks, Gardens and Improvements Committee discussed building an observatory in Liverpool City Centre in order to house the huge Cooke telescope. This observatory was built on the top of the Liverpool Nautical College, which at that time was situated in the Liverpool Royal Institute building in Colquitt Street, the forerunner to World Museum Liverpool and the Walker Gallery.

In October 1893 Thomas formally handed over the telescope to the Liverpool Astronomical Society who would continue to meet in the new observatory and make regular observations using Thomas’ telescope over the next 20 years.  Students of the Nautical College could even be admitted to the Society as Junior members for a subscription of two shillings (roughly £9 in modern terms) every year. Sometime between 1899 and 1901 the observatory together with its telescope were relocated to a new home when a new bigger Nautical College was opened in the newly built Central Municipal Technical College building – now part of World Museum in William Brown Street.

But what became of Thomas Rylands? Sadly, not long after officially handing over the telescopes he contracted influenza from which he never made a full recovery. Thomas died in his sleep on February 14th 1900 at Highfields in Thelwall. The former servant’s residence at Highfields can still be seen to-day, but sadly the house and Thomas’ observatory were pulled down many years ago.

One of Thomas Glazebrook Ryland’s telescopes along with some of his astronomical observations are on display on the ground floor of Warrington Museum & Library until September as part of our #SpaceOdyssey exhibition.