One year from now the 200th anniversary of the death of one of Slough's most important residents will be commemorated across the world.

This is the celebrated astronomer William Herschel, who died in 1822 whilst living and working in Slough. Many people in Slough will not know about this genius who emigrated to this country from Germany.

A part of the Herschel stained glass window in St Laurence Church

A part of the Herschel stained glass window in St Laurence Church

Countless academic books have been written about Herschel but I will be focussing on his family and his connection with King George III, and my own family who arrived in Datchet around the same time as Herschel.

It is my privilege to be not only an ancestor of the Lewin family who arrived in this area in the 18th century, but also to have known a direct descendant of William Herschel.

William Herschel was born in Hanover in 1738 and became a Bandsman in the army during the wars in Germany, before deciding to leave Hanover with his brother, Alexander, and join a band in Bradford, England. William became a very accomplished musician and composer of over twenty symphonies. His talents soon came to the notice of King George III.

During this time William became interested in Mathematics and Astronomy.

Caroline Herschel offers William a cup of tea whilst he is grinding a metal mirror

Caroline Herschel offers William a cup of tea whilst he is grinding a metal mirror

He moved to Bath and purchased a telescope. His sister Caroline still lived in Hanover, but the domestic and military situation was such that William went there to bring her back to Bath. He recognised that she was a very capable but modest person and he encouraged her to develop her singing voice. He also taught her mathematics and astronomy, so that she could assist him.

With the help of his sister, William started to explore the Heavens and soon realised that to make sense of his observations, the times and the positions of the stars, planets and comets needed to be accurately recorded.

He decided to send his observations to the Royal Society.

At first they were amused at the discoveries of this amateur musical Astronomer.

One of Herschel’s findings described a fuzzy object that he thought was perhaps a comet. Further investigation showed it to be a newly discovered planet – the first planet ever to be discovered by a human being.

The Herschel stained glass window in St Laurence Church

The Herschel stained glass window in St Laurence Church

George III heard of this discovery in 1781 and could see the benefit to his image of being closely associated with this discovery and with William Herschel.

Close-up view of the Herschel Arms pub sign, 2016

Close-up view of the Herschel Arms pub sign, 2016

The King suggested that Herschel should move from Bath to be near Windsor Castle.

He offered to pay him a retainer and award him the title of King's Astronomer. In response, Herschel offered to name the new planet Georgium Sidus. This was readily accepted by the King.

The King’s offer was an attractive one and William decided to move with his sister Caroline to the small village of Datchet, just across the river from Windsor Castle and set up a workshop in the adjacent village of Upton.

In Datchet he planned to design and make the best telescope in the world in order to to pursue a new level of observations.

Much of the work to construct the telescope would have been carried out by the local villagers who passed his house and telescope every day on their way to work at Windsor Castle.

The Datchet house and grounds were not ideal due to the damp, cold and boggy conditions, but William and Caroline worked in the open every night to maximise the good viewing conditions.

Herschel was very dependent on his sister who would write down the observations called out by her brother. One night, she recorded that her long dress was frozen to the ground!

Herschel’s declining health persuaded them to move to a large Georgian property in Slough. This they named, Observatory House.

The house and grounds were ideal for designing and constructing what became the largest telescope in the world in 1786.

This is the 40 ft diameter Reflector Telescope.

Herschel then became extremely busy with a team of craftsmen, who were trained to make telescopes which were all finally checked by Herschel before they were sent to Royal customers and universities in many parts of the world.

Making telescopes was still technically very difficult and so Herschel was preoccupied with refining the designing and making of telescopes.

The first telescopes had clear glass lenses but they suffered problems with coloured fringes, rather like those seen through the colours when passing sunlight through a prism.

A completely new principle had been discovered by Isaac Newton in 1660 and is still known as the Newtonian reflector which does not have colour fringes.

While studying the fringe effect Herschel carried out a simple but very important experiment using a beam of sunlight which contains the complete colour spectrum.

Using a standard thermometer, he moved it through the whole colour range of the spectrum to see whether the temperature changed.

No significant change was observed until the thermometer was moved just beyond the deepest red colour into the dark band when the temperature suddenly increased.

The result was completely unexpected and the name given to this special area was called ‘beyond red’ or ‘infra-red’.

William Herschel married widow Mary Pitt at the Anglo-Saxon church of St Laurence in Upton on May 8, 1788.

Their son John was born in 1792 and baptised on May 8th.

This was not a happy time for Caroline, who was still living in the family house, but she continued to work diligently with her brother, helping to make telescope mirrors and record the Heavens at night.

William remained living at Observatory House until he died in August 1822.

He was buried in a tomb in the Chancel of St Laurence parish church, which now also includes other members of the family.

Sadly, Caroline had returned to her family in Hanover several years before, where she died, having never returned to Slough.

The last ancestor of Sir William Herschel was the Rev’d Sir John Herschel (1869 -1950). and his wife Lady Herschel.

We became good friends and enjoyed studying the insects and flowers in their garden where the 40ft telescope stood and where parts of the tube were tucked into the hedge but are now outside at the Greenwich Museum.

The Herschel Arms in Herschel St, Slough, 2016

The Herschel Arms in Herschel St, Slough, 2016

I hope that this brief history of the Herschel family will whet your appetite and prepare you for the Slough Heritage Week in August 2022, when St Laurence Church will open its remarkable museum.

I am sure you must feel that it is an irony that most people who now live in Slough don’t know why so many names include the word Herschel or are associated with Sir William Herschel.

I make it 12 links – can you name them and perhaps think of others?