n 1772, George Gilpin, aged 18, joined HMS Resolution at Sheerness, as servant to William Wales, the astronomer on Cook’s Second Voyage. In 1812, John Elliot, midshipman on the same voyage, described Gilpin in his memoirs as a “quiet y(oun)g man”.1 This comment is practically the only hint of Gilpin’s part in that voyage, and yet he was to go on to play a significant part in the history of science until his death in 1810.
George Gilpin was born on 5 October, 1754, at Kirkgate in Leeds, Yorkshire.2 In 1758, his father Joshua was working at the Leeds Coal Staithe of Charles Brandling, who owned the nearby Middleton Colliery.3 In that same year, Joshua Green, as Brandling’s agent, appeared before a House of Commons Committee to petition for a waggon-way to Leeds from the Colliery.4 Joshua Green was an elder brother of Charles Green, astronomer on Cook’s First Voyage, and later on they both became brothers-in-law of William Wales.
When George Gilpin was 14 in 1768, his father had a serious accident at the Coal Yard. On 10 May an empty wagon body ran off the frame, and struck him. It is thought his back was broken. The next morning, George’s father died.5 Two weeks later, there appeared in a local newspaper a notice that a farm in Leeds was to be let for the remainder of the lease, being then in the occupation of the widow of the late Joshua Gilpin. Further particulars could be obtained from Joshua Green of Middleton.6 Soon afterwards (as revealed in 1785, when George Gilpin was applying for a position) Gilpin left school, at which he had learned some Latin and a little Greek.7 Rev John Green, another brother of Charles, had an academy in London at that time, and among the subjects he taught were Latin and Greek.8
Three weeks after Joshua Gilpin died, William Wales left London to observe the Transit of Venus at Hudson’s Bay. Wales had married Mary Green at Greenwich three years earlier. On William’s departure, Mary set off by coach to visit their Yorkshire relatives, and gave birth to their son in Lincolnshire the following week, during her journey along the Great North Road.9
When Wales returned from Hudson’s Bay, he was chosen to go on Cook’s Second Voyage as astronomer. Wales was accompanied by George Gilpin as his servant. During the voyage Wales taught Gilpin mathematics and astronomy.10
Gilpin returned to London in 1775, and on 25 March, 1776, was appointed assistant to the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne.11 Charles Green had been assistant to the previous two Astronomers Royal. Maskelyne had been having trouble keeping an assistant for any length of time, having just one assistant at the Observatory at Greenwich. Gilpin must have proved useful as he held the post for over five years. There is evidence that during this time he was paid by the Board of Longitude for winding and comparing watches, made by Messrs Arnold, Mudge and Kendall. For two years and 18 days winding, he received £8.12s.0d.12
In May 1781 Gilpin married Lydia Green at St Bartholomew-the-Less church in London. She was a daughter of William Green, another brother of Charles Green. Two months later, on 30 July, Gilpin left the Observatory, the pay of the Astronomer Royal’s assistant being not very lucrative. In April 1782, their first son George was born. He was baptised at St John the Baptist Church, Clerkenwell.13
Gilpin had started computing for the Nautical Almanac while he was Maskelyne’s assistant at the Royal Observatory, including the 1779 edition, because at that time editions were computed three years in advance. He continued this work on and off until 1791.14
After James Cook was killed during the Third Voyage, Resolution and Discovery headed back to England via China. It was while the ships were moored at Macao, in order to obtain much needed supplies, that the ships’ companies traded sea otter furs they had collected for goods, and discovered their high value. In the official publication of the voyage, James King, captain of Discovery, laid down detailed plans for a possible further fur-trading voyage.15
Subsequently, a voyage was planned by William Bolts, head of the Imperial Asiatic Society of Trieste, for the Emperor Joseph II. The Imperial and Royal Ship Cobenzell was due to sail in 1782. Bolts, a merchant adventurer, had engaged three men from Cook’s Third Voyage, Heinrich Zimmerman, AB; George Dixon, armourer; and William Walker, carpenter’s mate. Gilpin was also chosen to go as astronomer. When the voyage failed to go ahead due to lack of financial support, Gilpin returned to London with Dixon, who then tried to interest Joseph Banks in supporting the fur trade. By now Banks was President of the Royal Society.16
At this point Gilpin’s career took another turn. A letter from Banks to members of the Royal Society, on 28 February, 1785, stated that Members of the Society’s Council had been unanimous in declaring their preference for George Gilpin as candidate for the post of Clerkship of the Royal Society. Banks added that Gilpin had spent nine years in the practice of astronomy and mathematics as assistant to Mr Wales and the Astronomer Royal, and both men had testified to Gilpin’s proficiency in these subjects, as well as to his assiduity and diligence in all things entrusted to his care. Banks urged the members to support Mr Gilpin in the election.17
George Gilpin was subsequently appointed Housekeeper and Clerk to the Royal Society, a post he held for 25 years until his death. The Royal Society had moved to Somerset House in the centre of London, so George, Lydia and their family moved there from nearby Fisher Street. When the last five of their seven children were born, all were baptised at the nearby church of St Mary le Strand.18
Gilpin’s new career was now to prove his worth. He collaborated with many Fellows of the Royal Society, notably, Sir Charles Blagden, and Hon. Henry Cavendish, and helped them with their scientific experiments. Gilpin published several pieces in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. In 1792, together with Blagden, he wrote Supplementary Report on the best Method of proportioning the Excise upon Spirituous Liquors.19 Two years later he wrote Tables for reducing the Quantities by Weight, in any Mixture of Pure Spirit and Water...20 From 1786 to 1805 Gilpin worked on a variation compass at the Royal Society, with the results appearing in 1806 as Observations on the Variation and on the Dip of the magnetic Needle...21
In 1791 Gilpin was given custody of the warehouse of the Board of Longitude and the Royal Society, which held the instruments to be lent out, some for global voyages. Gilpin had to care for these instruments as well as to test their capabilities by undertaking trials with them.22
During Cook’s Second Voyage, William Wales, with George Gilpin, trialled a watch by John Arnold as well as Larcum Kendall’s copy of John Harrison’s latest timepiece. At the end of that voyage, when Gilpin joined Nevil Maskelyne at the Royal Observatory, he trialled timepieces by Thomas Mudge, known as “blue” and “green”. When these proved not to perform well, Mudge accused Maskelyne and his “staff” of incompetence.
In 1793 Thomas Mudge’s son petitioned Parliament on behalf of his father regarding the Board of Longitude refusing to give him a reward for his work on timepieces. He accused Maskelyne of deliberately applying erroneous testing methods on them. Joseph Banks defended the Board, and decried this unjustified attack on Maskelyne. When the matter was brought before a special Parliamentary Committee, Gilpin was among the ones to give evidence on the Board’s behalf.23
On Mudge’s heels for a part of the Longitude Prize was John Arnold, who had invented, and in 1775 patented, a spring detent escapement that also went on trial at the Observatory, the results being published in 1780. Meanwhile, Thomas Earnshaw claimed that he had also invented the spring detent escapement, prior to Arnold, but he didn’t patent it until 1789, when it was also submitted to the Board of Longitude for trials.
The papers of the Board of Longitude include receipts for expenses paid to George Gilpin for attending the Committee of the House of Commons on Mr Earnshaw’s petition; also for examining the date of Mr Arnold’s Patent at the Patent Office.24
In 1804 Joseph Banks printed a pamphlet laying down his protest against a decision to grant Thomas Earnshaw a reward.25 With it were some tables that he claimed proved the superiority of Arnold’s timepieces—tables compiled by George Gilpin.26 Later that year, the Board of Longitude decided to award both Arnold and Earnshaw £3000. However, as Maskelyne favoured Earnshaw’s argument, and Joseph Banks supported Arnold, there was a rift within the Board itself.27
On considering Gilpin’s part in these proceedings it becomes apparent that he played a significant role in the intensive competition between the various contenders for parts of the Longitude Prize throughout his career. He did so even more when, on William Wales’s death in 1798, he took over the position of Secretary to the Board of Longitude, as well as continuing his work for the Royal Society. This work involved him writing and transcribing a huge amount of correspondence, and he would calmly “hold the fort” while Joseph Banks was away at his family home in Lincolnshire.28
Amongst Gilpin’s other accomplishments were two noteworthy ones relating to maps. In 1794, Aaron Arrowsmith published a world map and an accompanying book, in which he acknowledged the help of “Mr. George Gilpin, Clk. to the Royal Society, for his kind attention to various appliances”.29 In the first edition of the New Itinerary, 1798, John Cary of the Strand, London, advertised “a Pair of New Twelve Inch Globes”, adding “In the Execution of which the utmost Pains have been taken”. He goes on to explain that the celestial globe was “laid down by Mr Gilpin of the Royal Society who had calculated stars to 1800”. The terrestrial globe traced the different routes of Captain Cook and other navigators.30
Henry Cavendish died on 24 February, 1810. George Gilpin died soon afterwards, and was buried on 2 May at St Mary le Strand, London.31 On 8 September, Joseph Banks wrote to William Scoresby, FRS, of Whitby, “The Loss of these two admirable men, for such they were both of them, made me at the time too negligent of and indeed unfit for my usual pursuits”.32
The sale of George Gilpin’s library was advertised in the Morning Post of 23 July, 1810, by Leigh and Sotheby. It ran over three days, being described as a Mathematical Library with maps, charts and mathematical instruments, and a small but very choice Library of a Gentleman.33 Gilpin’s early interest in languages apparently lasted him throughout his life, so that when his wife’s second cousin wrote his will in 1808, he left George Gilpin his books in French, Latin, German, Italian and Russian.34 Unfortunately, Gilpin pre-deceased him.
At the end of 1811, there appeared in several newspapers, notice of a “New Year’s Gift” to be published on New Year’s Day, 1812. It was the first number of “the NEW GRAND NATIONAL MAGAZINE, The MENTOR, and ENCYCLOPÆDIA MENTORIENSIS”. Agents for the Mentor were appointed all over the kingdom, where also could be bought for two shillings “DICKSON’S CATALOGUE OF SCIENTIFIC BOOKS for 1812, selected from the celebrated Libraries of the late Alexander Dalrymple, Esq, Hydrographer to the Admiralty, FRS.; Andrew Mackay, Examiner at the Trinity House, LL.D. and FRS; Samuel Horsley (Bishop of St. Asaph) FRS; Rev. Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, and FRS.; George Gilpin, Esq. FRS (Secretary to the Royal Society); and various other sources”.35
This newspaper notice indicated that George Gilpin was a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). The promoters perhaps assumed he was; however, he was never so elected. He does have quite a lengthy entry in Professor Taylor’s book of mathematical practitioners,36 which also includes mathematical instrument users and makers, teachers and writers, many of whose works contributed to the success of Cook’s voyages.
George Gilpin had been a faithful servant of the Royal Society, and as a result his eldest son George was considered by the Council to succeed his father as clerk. However, in 1810 he took up a post in the Navy Office, in another part of Somerset House, so was unable to accept the offer. His younger brother Ebenezer was ineligible as he had only just left school, so it was decided to award an annuity to their mother of £100 for the time being.37 On 6 December, 1810, the Commissioners of Longitude examined and approved an account submitted by George. The balance of £35.4s.6d. was to be paid to the family on behalf of his father as their late Secretary.38
Six of the Gilpin's seven children were still alive when Lydia became a widow, Joshua having died when a baby. There were two sons, George and Ebenezer, and four daughters: Lydia, Ann, Mary Ann and Rhoda. In 1810, the Royal Society approached Queen Charlotte, who approved that one of the daughters be placed under the care of Mrs Pawsey, who had the royal embroidery school at Ampthill in Bedfordshire.39 Unfortunately, we do not know which daughter was favoured.
The following year, George died, aged 29, and was buried in July 1811 at St Mary le Strand.40
At some point, the family moved from Somerset House in the centre of London, to the Somers Town area of Camden, near St Pancras Church. According to the Land Tax Records, Lydia was a tenant in Union Street between 1813 and 1822.41 It lies just east of modern Euston Station.
Ebenezer, Lydia’s surviving son, died in 1819 at the age of 25, leaving her with four adult daughters. Lydia died, aged 70, and was buried in the church of St Mary le Strand on 29 September, 1827.42 She had been a widow for seventeen years.
On the death of their mother, the four Gilpin sisters found themselves in a distressed condition. Mary Ann wrote to the Commissioners of Longitude in October 1827 from 16 Union Street.
The extreme urgency of the distressed condition of the four daughters of the late Mr George Gilpin, who was secretary for many years, to the Board of Longitude, and whose name we trust is still remembered by you will we hope plead our case in begging you to lay our case before the Board and solicit them to do something towards our relief. It is the first time of our requesting their aid, and if we can assure you, with the most painful feelings we do so at present, and most earnestly hope it will not be in vain. As we have lost our dear and invaluable mother, who had an Annuity granted her by the Royal Society, and as that was nearly the whole of her Income, we are so greatly reduced, as to be obliged to give up our home, which has emboldened us to lay our case before you and trouble you with this.
Sir, I am your most obedient humble Servant.
Mary Ann Gilpin43
The Royal Society paid the Misses Gilpin £50 in November 1827.44 By 1838, they had moved to Birmingham, where they opened a boarding school at 36 Newhall Street.45 The 1841 census records show six pupils, aged between 12 and 15, and also a lady, Jane Bullock, aged about 20. In July the following year, Rhoda passed away.46 In 1847, a Miss Gilpin appears in the local Newspaper of Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, under “List of Arrivals” to Steep Holme House, The Beach.47 In 1850 all three of the remaining daughters of George Gilpin are listed under “Gentry and Clergy, etc.” in Hunt’s Directory, with an address of Steep Holm House, Weston Super Mare. They are not listed in this publication under “Schools”.48
It seems that the fortunes of the Gilpin sisters had received a boost. The 1851 Census records lists them, together with Jane Bullock, still at “The Beach” at Weston, now aged 62, 58, and 57. In 1860 Ann died; a local paper announced that she was “The second surviving daughter of the late George Gilpin Esq, Royal Society, Somerset House, London”,49 indicating that the sisters had remained proud of their heritage. In the 1861 Census records the household, still with Jane Bullock, had moved to 12 Oriel Terrace in Weston, and Lydia’s occupation is shown as “Owner of Houses”. A note against the entry says that Mary Ann Gilpin had been blind for the past three years. Lydia died in 1862, and Mary Ann in 1869, at the age of 80.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 32, volume 43, number 4 (2020).
your email address will not be published