Ancient Toxteth

Liverpool Mercury, Nov 8th, 1886

Ancient Toxteth

Nearly three centuries ago, a great park on the shores of the river Mersey was thrown open to the tillers of the soil, and a few farmers settled there. Although their lord was a Roman Catholic, he was liberal to the puritan tenants. The church of St Nicholas, in the parish of Walton-on-the-Hill, was some miles away, so these farming folk for some time held their prayer meetings in the Dingle, a quiet dell by the river, but by 1612 they built a little school house for their children, and doubtless met there for worship. They sent to Winwick for a teacher, and the headmaster sent his best scholar, Richard MATHER, to fill the place. This teacher was greatly loved by his scholars and their parents, and children came from far and near to the little school in Toxteth Park, close by the beautiful Dingle.

Richard MATHER was a godly man, and in due course became the preacher to the people, and the Roman Catholic landlord, Sir Richard MOLYNEUX, either built them a chapel or helped them build it. Those were troubled times, those were the days of war with foreign countries, of civil war at home, of bitter religious feuds and cruel persecutions. In the Church of St Nicholas it had been ordained that, "The clerke of the church shal weare his surplus and reade the first chapter in the body of the church, and lykewise cause his haier to be cut of a comely and seemely length in such decent manner as best befitteth a man in his place."

In the chapel of Toxteth the minister never wore a "surplus" but he doubtless cut his hair in strictly Puritan fashion. This same Richard MATHER had to leave Toxteth Park ere many years had passed, however, and he followed the Pilgrim Fathers to that "wild New England shore" where they could worship God after their own fashion. The Puritan idea of liberty was the liberty to compel every one else to worship as the Puritans did, and Richard MATHER and his famous sons took part, in that far country, in putting to death many members of that "cursed sect of heretics" known as Quakers, in exterminating Baptists, and the burning of witches. Though King William had not yet crossed the Boyne, the sound of intolerance seems to have been heard in Toxteth Park. Amongst the children who lived in that remote settlement was one who was full of a strange and romantic genius. He watched the tides rise and fall on the Dingle shore, and wondered at the reason thereof. He looked up to the mystic orbs in the dark sky, and felt as our children feel today when they look up from the crowded streets of our city and sing :-

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are!

Up above the world so high

Like a diamond in the sky.

The Puritan preacher doubtless taught him many things, and his uncle, a watchmaker, initiated him into mechanics and mathematics, but the boys hungered for more than his surroundings gave him. When only 13 years of age he started for Cambridge, and entered Emmanuel College as a "sizar" a poor boy who must have made that long journey on foot, or at best on horseback, for those were the days when even mail coaches were not. Here he learned to write beautiful verses in Latin, and here they taught him to compose elegant prose in a dead language, but there was no man to teach him mathematics or astronomy. For three years he studied here, but that is nearly all we know concerning him. He found books in Latin, but no teacher in the subjects he most yearned to know, and he lived sadly alone. He made some simple astronomical instruments, thanks to the skill acquired at Toxteth Park, and somehow, he acquired for half-a-crown, a telescope that did him good service. Many a strange story is told of his boyhood, but little is really known concerning him, and in his own writings there is little save astronomy, the subject he loved best. He returned to Toxteth, and it may be while he tarried there he taught in the school and preached in the chapel, but we can only surmise. We know that his heart was pure and his hands were clean, and that he loved God more than he loved astronomy, so we can be certain that he was not idle. In the year 1639 he was appointed to preach at Hoole, a little village near Southport, and here he found peace to pursue his studies. In those days Hoole was a straggling place on a strip of reclaimed land near the Ribble, but the stars shone as brightly in the sky over his little chapel-of-ease as they did in any part of England, so he was content, "passing rich with forty pounds a year"

A rich man in Lancashire had brought a few solitary students into touch with one another by means of letters, but writing was not so easy then as now, Rowland HILL had not been born, yet these men corresponded with one another, and the record of their brief friendship is touching. One of the little circle was William GASGOINE, of Yorkshire, a rich young landowner, who loved science and the king. He invented the micrometer, and died fighting for King Charles at the bloody battle of Marston Moor. Another one was a clothier at Broughton near Manchester, named CRABTREE, and he stood nearest of all to our poor curate. The library of this satronomical preacher was a large one for so poor a man, and included Kepler's works and the tables of Lansberg. Now, the great Kepler had in his day been even poorer than the curate, but by faith and patience had surmounted all obstacles, and had written his name in the sky along with the immortals. From the little brick house in Hoole the preacher resolved to follow in his steps and nobly did he do it. Kepler had predicted that the bright planet Venus would pass between the sun and the earth on December 6th, 1631, and its transit would be visible in England. No mortal man saw it, however, because it passed at night and few people cared. There was not to be another for over a century. The young curate worked at the tables of his great teacher Kepler, who had died a year before the expected transit of 1631, and he worked also at the tables of Lansberg. According to the latter, Venus would pass to the north of the sun in 1639, but according to Kepler it would pass to the south. By the figures of the curate it ought to cross the sun, so he wrote to his brother Jonas in Toxteth Park, and told him to watch for the transit on Dec 6th 1639, at about 3pm. He wrote to CRABTREE and told him to do the same thing. There was no newspaper in which to publish it, no Royal Society to announce it, no telegraph to flash it over the world, Kepler was dead, Galileo was old and blind, in the hands of the Inquisition, Sir Isaac Newton was not born, and science was almost unknown in our land. Foreigners taught us all we knew. The 6th December fell on Sunday, the curate watched all Saturday. In Liverpool Sunday was cloudy and poor Jonas saw nothing. Sunday in Hoole was cloudy too, but with occasional gleams of sunshine. The curate had his telescope arranged so as to throw the image of the sun onto a sheet of white paper, six inches in diameter, ruled into degrees. He attended to his church duties that day, but one can imagine his feelings! He was bound by his religious sentiments to minister to his little flock, and it is touching to hear him say in his sweet, full, rounded Latin. "During the intervening hours I was called away to matters of higher importance, which for these pursuits I could not under any circumstances properly neglect."

After service he reached his little room at a 3.15 on that winter's day, adjusted his telescope, and there on the clear white sheet of paper, was a round black spot travelling slowly across the disc! He was the first man who had ever beheld it "since the creation of the world" His friend CRABTREE saw it a little later at Broughton, but was so transported by joy and amazement that he could make no scientific use of his opportunity. The calculations of the poor curate were right, while both Kepler and Lansberg were wrong. The transit would not again occur for a century and a quarter, or rather, 122 years, and so the poor curate saw what no man then living could ever see again.

For a few months he lived at Hoole after that, then returned to the Otter's Pool and the Dingle shore to mourn ever his broken health and troubled life. What his troubles were we know not, few and short are the glimpses we catch of his own self. We only know that he watched the tides again as of yore, when they rose and fell on the pleasant shores of the Toxteth Park, and he hoped to make some great and important discoveries therewith. He explained one of Kepler's laws by his lucid statement that the orbit of the moon was an oval not a circle. Sir Isaac NEWTON, in later days, wrote of him as a great discoverer. For more than 20 years his books were unknown and unheard of, but a German named Hevelius published one in 1662, and England heard of her noble son. When the Royal Society was founded they sought for his writings, but in those troubled days much was lost of priceless value. Soldiers burnt manuscripts, journeys were long and tedious and few cared about stars. What with fighting Charles 1, praying with Cromwell, and feasting with Charles 11, poor science had a troubled time, and so had manuscripts. When they sought for the poor curate they could only find that he had died in Toxteth Park, and been buried in a nameless grave. He was only 22 years old when he died, but his fame will endure while the stars twinkle down on the sons of men.

The "Holy Land" at Toxteth Park is almost forgotten "Jericho Farm" has been changed by the railroad, and all about the poor student's birthplace is misty. The old chapel where his bones rest, stands where it stood then, but a century ago the crumbling walls were rebuilt, and the churchyard laid out afresh. It is one of the quietest nooks in all busy Liverpool now, and the ivy climbs over the little church, and the flowers bloom as sweetly in the churchyard as when our poor astronomer studied there in Puritanical days of long ago. Our Government voted 15,000 to watch the last transit, and there were observers in every part of the world, but the first who ever saw it sleeps in a nameless grave in the little churchyard at the end of Park Rd. There is no monument in Liverpool to this poor curate, and only a marble slab in the church of St Michael's-in-the-Hamlet, placed there by a stranger to our town. When the next transit occurs on June 9th, 2004, the eyes of scientific men will turn towards the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, and they will wonder why we neglect the poor curate's resting place. Only a few years ago Dean Stanley wrote some sweet words, to be graven on a marble tablet in Westminster Abbey, to the memory of the astronomer of Toxteth Park, but Jeremiah HORROX has a greater monument for he has written his name in the

Regions of lucis matter, taking forms,

Brushes of fire, hazy gleams,

Clusters and beds of worlds, and bee-like swarms

Of suns and starry streams.


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