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History of the Leeds Astronomical Society

The Leeds Astronomical Society is, as far as is known, the earliest founded local amateur society in the UK. The first attempt to found an astronomical society in Leeds was in early 1825, when a certain group of gentlemen, members of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, suggested that such a society be formed, and that the meetings of the Phil & Lit be held in premises (to be built) on Woodhouse Lane, which would provide good views to the south. Since the Phil & Lit had only in recent years opened its prestigious purpose-built Philosophical Hall on Park Row, the suggestion was presumably not well received! At any rate, no record of the putative Astronomical Society exists from this date.

There was a successful attempt to found a Leeds A.S. in early 1859. This followed on from the highly successful meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Leeds in September 1858, in the newly opened Town Hall.

   
Mr. William Trant
William Trant
   

The new group was formed in part by members of the Phil and Lit; one of the founders (son of a Phil & Lit “family”) was fifteen-year-old William Trant. Society legend has it that he was the prime mover in the enterprise. However this may be, the encouragement and help of Sir John Herschel was secured (he had attended the 1858 BAAS meeting), as well as many of the notable citizens of Leeds, Yorkshire, and the national scientific scene. George Biddell Airy, Astronomer Royal, was one of those who gave his name in support of the new group. With the support of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, meetings were held in East Parade. A small observatory at Love Lane, off North Street, and not far from the site of present day meetings, housed a Ross 3.25" refractor telescope, which was obtained with the assistance of Sir John Herschel in 1863.  The hope was that a low subscription fee would encourage a wide spectrum of local people to join, and classes and lectures were held both at the observatory and elsewhere. There were initially strong hopes that the new Mechanics’ Institute building under construction on Cookridge Street would incorporate an observatory, which would be used both by the Society and the townsfolk of Leeds. Sadly this was not to be; however the LAS did hold meetings in the new building for many years.

The group had its own library, and around 30 subscribing members, including many of the town’s professional elite, its clergy, leading manufacturers and commercial figures, and indeed some of the local gentry. Unfortunately, the desired influx of enthusiasm and funds from eager members did not materialise, and the activities of the group could not be sustained. The observatory building on Love Lane had to be disposed of by the end of the 1860’s. The death of some members reduced the number of to so few that for some years it was almost inactive. In 1889 William Trant himself moved overseas; he had pursued an active and eventful career as a journalist and writer (although stemming from a family of apothecaries in Leeds), eventually fetching up in Canada as a rancher on the plains – as other Leeds types were also doing around this time.

However, with the stimulus of the founding of the British Astronomical Association in 1890, the Leeds A.S. underwent an effective re-birth. On 5th December 1892 a few surviving members, together with new ones, held a public meeting at the Leeds Philosophical Hall. With the assistance of W.D.Barbour - a member since 1859 - and Washington Teasdale, well-known engineer and keen pioneer photographer, the Society was re-established.

Several of the Leeds A.S. members were involved with the British Astronomical Association (BAA); indeed, Leeds telescope maker David Booth was an early Director of the Meteors Section.

From 1893 to 1922 the Society published its annual Journal and Transactions. A joint venture with the Leeds University in 1906 saw the erection of the Cecil Duncombe Observatory on Woodhouse Moor, which housed an 18.25" reflector. It remained in operation until 1936, being used primarily by university students, but fell into disrepair over the war years, and was eventually demolished in 1948.

From 1940 to 1946 all Society meetings were suspended due to the war. Dr.J.W.Belton, who was President of the Society in 1940, chaired the first meeting on 23rd November 1946 in the Mathematics Department of Leeds University. Much of the Society's success in the 1940's and 1950's was due to the efforts of Professor T.G.Cowling and other pre-war members.

In 1959 the 100th anniversary year was celebrated and a provincial meeting of the BAA was held. Between 1962 and 1972 thirty-four issues of Occasional Notices were published. A change of meeting venue to the Leeds YMCA in Albion Place took place in the late 1960's.

From 1972 to 1983 meetings were held in the Lecture Theatre belonging to the City Museum and in March 1973 the Society's present journal, NEBULA, was created. Due to building alterations the Society moved its meetings to Leeds Polytechnic in June 1983.

During the 1970's a new Society observatory at Coal Hill, Bramley, housing a 12" reflector, was built. Unfortunately, there were many problems, including vandalism, which meant that the observatory was never operated successfully.

On 23rd June 1984 the Society celebrated its 125th anniversary with a one day Symposium at the University. In September of 1991 the Society meetings were moved to their present home at Centenary House in North Street, and in recent years the Society has hosted meetings of the BAA's observing sections. In 1976 the Leeds Astronomical Society organised the first annual Yorkshire Group of Astronomical Societies' 'Astromind' Competition. More recently the Society's full day ASTROMEET gathering has become a popular annual event on the amateur astronomy scene, and has gained a national reputation for being the finest event of its kind held in the north of England.

In July 1999, the Society held a celebration to mark the 140th Anniversary of its founding, and in the same year it acquired a 14-inch f6 dobsonian telescope for members’ use.

The society currently has around 40 members



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