On Friday 27th May 1768 James Cook took charge of the Endeavour at the Yard at Deptford; he was making preparations for his first Voyage to the South Seas. He had instructions that his task was to observe the Transit of Venus from Tahiti which would take place on 3rd June 1769. Also on the voyage would be the astronomer Charles Green to help in this task. Green had served as an assistant to three Astronomers Royal at the Greenwich Observatory.
Two days later, on Sunday 29th May 1768, William Wales entered in his Journal "Having settled all my affairs in London; about 22 hours I set off for Greenwich, where I received my instructions from the Rev. Mr Maskelyne, his Majesty’s Royal Astronomer, to observe the Transit of Venus".
Wales was also making preparations to leave the Country; he was bound for Fort Prince of Wales at the mouth of Churchill River, on Hudson Bay, Canada – still under construction, the fort took 40 years to build and was completed in 1771.
It was a previous Astronomer Royal, Edmund Halley who had urged that every advantage be taken of opportunities to observe the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 - suggesting northern Norway, India, Burma, the East Indies and Hudson Bay as observation sites. The need to observe particularly this astronomical event was vital to the future of navigation at that time, and on 12th November 1767 a Royal Society Committee, which included Nevil Maskelyne, met and established the need for two observers to be sent to each of three sites, North Cape, Hudson Bay and a site somewhere in the South Seas. And so it was agreed that William Bayly and Jeremiah Dixon would go to North Cape, that William Wales and Joseph Dymond would go to Hudson Bay, and that James Cook and Charles Green would go to Tahiti. Of these Green, Dymond and Bayly had all worked as assistants to Maskelyne – the curriculum vitae of Wales is not so immediately apparent.
Wales’ Early Life
John and Sarah Wales of Warmfield were "parents of humble circumstances" according to Beaglehole. Their son William was baptised at Warmfield in 1734. John, from nearby Wakefield in Yorkshire married Sarah Cay at Wragby in 1733. They had another son and a daughter also baptised at Warmfield - John in 1736 and Sarah in 1739, when her father was described as a "banksman".
In the 17th century the Wales family had lived in Birkin parish on the old River Aire and moved along the Aire and Calder rivers, made navigable to Leeds and Wakefield in the early 1700s. John the banksman probably worked on the bank or head of a local coal mine.
Beaglehole wrote that young William Wales had walked to London with a Mr Holroyd who became plumber to George III. The Royal Archives at Windsor Castle hold two records of John Holroyd - in 1785 living in Scotland Yard, London he worked at Carlton House for the Prince of Wales, and he had witnessed the attempted assassination of George III in 1800. The International Genealogical Index (IGI) has just one John Holroyd married in London to Sarah Button in 1755, indicating that he and Wales perhaps went to London in early 1750s.
The first record of William in London is in 1762, when he published an Ode to William Pitt. Copies were sold for one shilling. During the mid 1760s he distinguished himself as a contributor to Ladies Diary, a magazine which, despite its name, contained very advanced mathematical problems. On 13th June 1765 he was appointed, along with others, by the Astronomer Royal Maskelyne to compute tables for the first Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris. It was published in 1766 and has been published annually ever since. For this he was paid £70 per annum per Almanac, raised to £75 in 1767. Beaglehole reported that during the Cook voyage Wales had written in his Journal "I have ventured to call the Maskelyne Islands by the name of a person to whom I owe very much indeed; one who took me by the hand when I was friendless, and never forsook me when I had occasion for his help". It is not known how Wales received his education.
On 5th September 1765 he married Mary Green, sister to the aforementioned Charles Green, at Greenwich. The entry from the Parish Register reads: "William Wales, Gent. of the parish of Greenwich in Kent and Mary Green, Spinster of the same Parish, were married by Licence in this Church this Fifth day of September 1765 by me John Green AB. This marriage was solemnized between us. [signed] Wm Wales. Mary Green.
In the presence of John Naylor. Jos. Stack."
In 1788, Wales’ biography of Charles Green was included in a work by Andrew Kippis, The Life of Captain James Cook. It reveals that Charles was the youngest son of Joshua Green of Swinton, Rotherham, Yorkshire. Charles had received most of his education from his eldest brother Rev. John Green, of Denmark Street, Soho, London. John was a master of a school in that place, and after some time he took his brother Charles on as an assistant teacher. It may be that William also received some education from John Green. I did note from the Swinton parish registers a family called Cay - this had been the maiden name of William’s mother, and is a very rare spelling.
Preparing for Hudson Bay
Charles Hutton in 1815 writes of William Wales "by his natural talents and close application, he rose from a low situation, little connected with learning, to some of the first ranks in literary pursuits". Knight in 1856 suggests of Wales’ education "..it is probable that he was one of the many persons who, for their attainments in science, owe more to nature and intense application than to the precepts of a teacher".
No matter how he gained his education, the Royal Society Committee agreed he join the select team of Transit observers. Wales had asked to be sent to a warm climate after researching the fate of the 1761 transit observers and learning of the expedition of Jean Chappe d’Autoroche, who had observed this transit from Tobolsk in Siberia. He had travelled through the Siberian winter by sled and then, when an early thaw flooded the town, was accused of interfering with the sun. He narrowly escaped a lynch mob. Fears of global warming are not new!
Despite his pleas, the Royal Society decided to send Wales to Hudson Bay. There was a problem with this venue, in that the Bay was subject to pack ice that limited the shipping season to just two months, starting after the June 3rd transit, so it would be necessary for the observers to go in 1768 and over-winter there. This must have made Wales even more apprehensive. But if their work was judged a success on their return, Wales and Dymond were promised pay of £200. Cook was to leave Plymouth on 26th August 1768, Bayly did not set off for the North Cape until the following year on 13th April 1769.
The Royal Society wrote to the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) asking for "an estimate of the expense to convey Wales and Dymond by their annual ship to Fort Churchill in May 1768, and return in October 1769, that they may be maintained by the Company, and furnished with all necessary articles throughout this time, that the Company supply them with materials and servants to assist in the erecting of an observatory. The cost of all to be paid to the HBC by the Royal Society."
The Company wrote to Maskelyne asking for details of the Portable Observatory which was to be shipped over for the Astronomers. They also asked what lengths of timber were required for transporting the supplies. This Observatory had been designed by John Smeaton, civil engineer and Fellow of the Royal Society. He had been engaged in conjunction with Maskelyne. Smeaton presented his design to the Royal Society in February 1768; this design was also used on the various Cook Voyages.
There is evidence from the catalogue of Wales’ Library after his death that he helped Smeaton in 1788 with a paper for the Royal Society on the Application of the Quadrant. John Smeaton was born at Austhorpe, eight miles north of Warmfield.
The Company replied that it was "ready to convey the persons desired, with their baggage and instruments, to and from Fort Churchill, and to provide them with lodging and medicine while there, gratis, they to find their own bedding." The Company demanded £250 for diet during the absence of the astronomers from England, which would be about eighteen months. The Adventurers recommended the Society to send the intended building in frame, with all necessary implements, tools, etc., which "will be conveyed upon freight, the Royal Society likewise paying for any clothing that may be supplied to the observers during their residence in Hudson’s Bay."
Included in those affairs which William Wales had to settle prior to him going to see Maskelyne in May 1768, must have been to arrange for his heavily pregnant wife and their young daughter Sarah (born c1767) to travel to Yorkshire, almost certainly by coach.
I discovered that their eldest son was christened on 10th June 1768 at North Witham, which is on the Great North Road in Lincolnshire. The parish register records the baptism of "William, son of William and Mary Wales of Fleet Street, London". So it seems Mary would have set off for Yorkshire at the time William started out for Hudson Bay. A month later, on the 10th July, the baby was christened again at Warmfield.
It was in 1760 that the first regular coach started running from London to Leeds, being advertised as "Flying Machines on Steel Springs". They ran twice a week, setting out at 4 am, and took three days to complete the journey, stopping at Northampton the first night, and Mansfield the second night. By 1765 the Leeds to London post coaches being "an easy and genteel construction with the latest new patent spring" travelled from Leeds to London in two days, carrying 6 inside passengers, each paying £2.10s and allowed 14lb weight of luggage.
Assisting Wales with the Transit observations was Joseph Dymond. He had been appointed Maskelyne’s assistant in March 1765, when Green left, and had stayed until November 1766 when William Bayly was appointed. I was curious to find out more about Dymond, and I eventually discovered that he had been born in 1746 at Brierley in Yorkshire, a small village mid-way between Warmfield and Swinton. Could this be pure coincidence or had Wales, Dymond and Green some "Yorkshire" link apart from the "Maskelyne" one? Little is known of Dymond after the Hudson Bay voyage, except that he died on 10th December 1796 at Blyth aged 50.
The Expedition Departs