Moses Holden, 18th Century Celebrity Astronomer.
20161230 Moses Holden, 18th Century Celebrity Astronomer.
Mr Stephen R Halliwell gave an illustrated talk about a self taught person, Moses Holden, who became a 'celebrity' from his researches and made his own astronomical tools and lenses and theatre props. He gave paid lectures all over the north of England to earn a vast amount for these days, after having started out as a Methodist Lay Preacher.
His earnings once established on the lecture circuit of 18th century England were comparable only with a 'celebrity' footballer or singer in
today's terms. Ultimately he had a modern research telescope named after him, “The Moses Holden Telescope” at the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute, UCLAN, itself named after Moses Holden’s boyhood hero astronomer Jeremiah Horrox.
Refer to "Further Study" at end of this page to obtain photographs and diagrams which can illuminate the popular astronomers who followed in Moses Holden's footsteps.
We learned at the end of the talk that this Moses Holden telescope was opened by our speaker. A most notable event for his biographer.
The telescope team has reported investigations and discoveries in fields which are listed on the UCLAN website with details of the folk involved:
The current astronomers:
A link to the opening of the telescope by Stephen R Halliwell.
University of Central Lancashire [UCLAN] link to opening:
Meanwhile to the report of the interesting talk, which by its opening about his early theological activities as a Methodist Lay Preacher
might have indicated a dreary talk, but no! It was a talk of a bold young man determined to learn about his hero Jeremiah Horrocks and
learn among many other subjects astronomy, which meant of course learning mathematics and physics and making his own lenses and apparatus, which he also made and sold to others. The cost for his books when learning were very great relative to his income level,
however he got them to improve himself.
A report from a University of The Third Age at Todmorden on a similar talk by Mr Halliwell gives a better description than the
current writer could do, so it is quoted in full:
Moses Holden talk at Todmorden U3a
Moses Holden, Autodidact of Preston written by Anthony Peter
Steve Halliwell with Gill Radford, Vice Chair of Todmorden U3a
Steve Halliwell, Todmorden U3A’s guest speaker on Thursday 15th September, is a man who clearly knew a lot about a Preston man, Moses Holden, who also knew a lot. Consequently, by the end of Steve’s lecture we had been as well enlightened as those who attended Moses Holden’s packed lectures on the science of ‘ouranology’ in the first half of the nineteenth century would have been.
Steve’s first slide showed we were in for a less dull ride than the phrase ‘methodist evangelist’ might have suggested to many of us:
‘Moses Holden: self-taught genius, the Mozart of the astronomical world, a founder of UCLAN, constructor of telescopes, travelling
lecturer (pre-railway) – From hand-loom weaver to Freeman of Preston’.
And so it proved. Steve’s interest in local history had led him to research Preston’s Learned Societies that grew out of the town’s
early Literary and Philosophical Society, and which, when it established its Mechanics’ Institute in 1828, named it instead its
Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge at the suggestion of one Moses Holden.
Indeed, The University of Central Lancashire regards itself as the descendant of that Institute.
Moses Holden was undoubtedly a remarkable man. Born in Bolton in 1777, his father, a hand-loom weaver, moved the family to Preston in 1784.
Father Holden liked to read stories to his children, and Moses, after hearing about Jeremiah Horrocks and his recording of the Transit of Venus
in 1639, determined that he would be an astronomer when he grew up.
Moses followed his father into the cloth industry as a weaver and married a woman from Whitehaven with whom he had three children with the
exciting names of William Archimedes, John Horatio and Annie Leonora.
The fact that the boys were born in Pontefract and Banbury tells a story itself. Moses became a travelling preacher and lecturer.
In 1810 he undertook an eighteen month circuit tour of the north-west for the Methodist Church, based in Poulton-le-Fylde. He ran Sunday Schools and Bible Groups and was known for a good sermon. He probably travelled on foot.
However, by 1815 his private studies of mathematics and astronomy enabled him to offer triennial lectures at the Theatre Royal in Preston.
These would be lectures given over a period of three evenings, each lecture packing the building. In time, Moses toured these lectures, and
Steve’s researches of where the lectures were held led him to conclude that Moses was using the canals (much as Mikron Theatre do today).
This presumed use of canals explains the circumstances of the Holden sons’ births.
The lectures were quite something, featuring a magic lantern and an orrery (mechanical model of the solar system), both of Moses’ own making.
Doubtless, he would also have made some profit from sales of his ‘Celestial Handbook and Almanac’, copies of which he sent to both William IV
and William Rogerson, the Astronomer Royal with whom he became very friendly.
Nevertheless, after his death in 1864, Mrs Holden advertised the almanac as available by post at the knock-down price of 2/-.
Perhaps by then they were cluttering up her house!
As a lecturer, Moses could turn a pretty penny. In 1844, in Liverpool he was in such demand that he could packs halls for three sets
of three lectures. And in 1852, his account books show that his set of farewell lectures in Preston netted him about £120 with only
£21 expenses (which included a consideration for ‘oils’ with which to freshen the air of the theatre).
For this writer, ( "Anthony Peter") Moses was most impressively a self-taught man excited by knowledge and its capacity to enrich life. He was also skilled in making and selling telescopes. His achievements have recently been celebrated and commemorated by UCLAN who have named their ‘70 cm diameter state-of-the-art robotic telescope’ the Moses Holden Telescope at a ceremony Steve was delighted to have attended.
There is a brief note in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900,Volume 27 on “Holden, Moses; by Charles William Sutton
Some of his letters are held in Lancashire Archives:
Mr Halliwell’s biography is available from him at a cost of £11.99 including postage or from booksellers.
University of The Third Age [ U3a] links:
UCLAN, University of Central Lancashire links:
The University of Central Lancashire's Jeremiah Horrocks Institute sometimes offers a series of free public observing nights
at their Alston Observatory (http://www.star.uclan.ac.uk/alston/) over the winter months.
Link to photo of telescope:
University_publicity_posters. The man and the curent work.
The portrait (copy of one in a relative's possession) and note on Moses Holden published by UCLAN
At the conclusion o fthe talk, the audience of CLHG members and visitors gave a warm appreciation to the speaker at our Archivists vote of thanks.
Webmaster's notes. Further Study.
For the members and guests of CLHG who are interested in the 'popularisation' of astronomy, during the 1800s
of whom Moses Holden was an early and learned example, and who are interested in views/diagrams/photos of the
machines involved, there is a reference to a Ph. D. Thesis and articles by Dr Hsiang-Fu Huang.
The diagrams and photographs are at the end in the appendices on pages 385 to 416 and include beautiful photographs
of various orreries and possible interpretation of the big 16 feet (5m) or more accross great orreries.
Dr. Huang's Ph. D. thesis reference.
Title: Commercial and Sublime: Popular Astronomy Lectures in Nineteenth Century Britain
Author: Hsiang-Fu Huang
Academic institute: UCL (University Colledge London); Department of Science and Technology Studies
Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in History and Philosophy of Science March 2015
Text and illustration of thesis available at