Image: Robin Mork
The world was against her, right from the start,
Wrong time and wrong gender; a mother’s hard heart.
Typhus as a child, fever and chill,
And though unlike many, recovery from ill
She never grew much beyond four feet tall
Perhaps this is why she rose above of it all,
To become a groundbreaker, a real pioneer,
Caroline Herschel – the woman once here.
Denied education, trained only to serve
It was going to take some dedication, some dare and some verve
To get the hell out of 18th Century Germany
And join her brother William across the wide sea.
He was already the talk of the town,
With his songs and his concerts and his wig and his gown.
She joined in the singing but never did blend
Into life, society – no status, no friend.
But now was her chance to start to learn,
And now was her chance to start to earn.
A sibling as your tutor is a real mixed blessing
For algebra, geometry, trigonometry lessons
He also taught her to sing like a bird,
But she felt trapped in his cage, and refused to be heard
At any concerts that weren’t his own.
Blood thicker than water and loyal to the bone.
Soon the sky became William’s wanderlust,
Astronomy called, leaving scores gathering dust.
And although she desired to still share her own voice
She worked to support him, did she have any choice?
She referred to herself as his “well trained pup”
Doing as he commanded, as they both looked up
To the stars and recorded whatever they found.
Through the telescopes he built and the lenses she ground.
In March 1781 he was victorious!
His superior telescope discovered Uranus!
It meant one last concert and then her voice no longer heard
As he became court astronomer to King George the Third
But it wasn’t just her singing that she felt had been taken
But her own astronomy practice, as she was always making,
The parts for his scope – hours of polishing with care
And climbing to fit them, fifty feet up in the air.
“I am much hindered in my practice by my help being continually wanted in the execution of the various astronomical contrivances.”
This Celestial Cinderella was told to ‘sweep’ the sky
She found she had quite a flair for it; she found she had an eye
For nebulae, comets, hundreds of stars no man had seen
Sitting for hours in dark frosty fields with no other human being
Then after years as his go to girl, events begin to change,
William fell for rich widow Mary Pitt – Caroline’s life was rearranged.
He moved in here, they moved her on, she’d lost her role, for now,
But when William died her nephew John took her back to The Observatory in Slough.
The first ever woman in the world to be paid,
For the contribution to science that she made.
Honorary Member was bestowed on she,
By the totally male Royal Astronomical Society.
They awarded a Gold medal in 1828,
The next woman had 160 years to wait (Vera Rubin fact fiends)
And in her 96th year, for doing her thing,
A Gold Medal for Science; from the Prussian King.
Buried with a lock of William’s hair,
The headstone of her grave declares:
“The eyes of her who is glorified here below
turned to the starry heavens” – yet though,
where other mortals just have granite to be remembered by,
Caroline has markers in the sky:
A place on the moon, ever dancing with earth;
A Comet of ice with a tail of fire bursts.
A remarkable woman, an inspiration to us
Who made her mark on the cosmos, without any fuss.
But there’s just one thing that’s getting me down –
Remembered in this universe, but not in this town.
I’ve minded the heavens, but now I must,
Return to the universe, once more to star dust.
A century of this life for me is enough.
The cosmos is within us. We’re made of such stuff.
anna jones ©2016
Discover the Discovers, The Herschel Family, Slough
18th century Slough based pioneers the Herschel family developed the modern mathematical approach to astronomy and made many discoveries including the planet Uranus, infra-red light and several comets, stars and nebulae and developed many inventions including telescopes and cyanotypes, early blue print photography.
Anna has been discovering, celebrating and sharing her home town’s currently under-valued cultural heritage, learning about William Herschel, his sister Caroline, and his son John. The Herschels lived, loved, were born, died, are buried in Slough and yet their heritage seems to only be known by a few. Slough tends to be referred to as a ‘new’ town, and less favourably as a place lacking culture and heritage.
Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Anna created a self directed town wide trail for people from Slough and beyond to learn more about the Herschel’s through sites across the town, including William Herschel’s burial site at St Laurence Church, Slough; Mary Pitt’s house in Upton Road who William married and the public art sculpture created in the 1980s to mark the site of Observatory House.
You can download the trail here, or pick one up from the ‘Herschel’ pod at The Curve, Slough…