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History of Swansea Astronomical Society

The Society owes its origin to two founder members, Gordon Taylor and Clifford Davies. In January 1948, Gordon sent a letter to Clifford enquiring as to whether there were 'any astronomical activities in the town (Swansea)'. His enquiry stemmed from the fact that he had recently transferred from Bristol where he had served as Secretary of the Bristol Astronomical Society. Clifford's reply led to a meeting between them and their decision to attempt to attract the attention of like-minded individuals by means of an article in the 'Evening Post' on Thursday 12th. February.

The meeting was held in Room 3 of the Y.M.C.A. at 7.30 and ten people attended. These pioneers were:-

Dr. W. H. Thomas     Mr. Gordon E. Taylor     Mr. Hubert A. Johns
Mr. Clifford Davies     Mr. Trevor Jones     Mr. W. C. Davies
Mr. W. A. Hill     Mr. David J. Rees     Mr. & Mrs. C. J. E. Prosser

The Early Years
Swansea Astronomical Society was duly formed and Messrs. Thomas, Taylor and Johns were elected as its initial Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer. A second meeting was agreed for Monday 1st. March but before the meeting broke up it was decided that Mr. Taylor would present a public lecture to 'stimulate enthusiasm for astronomy' on Saturday 6th. March.

This was duly advertised in the Evening Post of 5th March, with an accompanying article. The lecture was illustrated by lantern slides that had been obtained from the British Astronomical Association, but unfortunately a problem with the lantern delayed the start of the lecture; a reoccurring problem even fifty years on!

The minutes of the early meetings of the Society reveal a purposeful and business-like approach, which established principles that have survived the intervening years. These are - an active junior section, close links with schools and an 'aim to further the knowledge of and to stimulate public interest in the science of Astronomy'.

The second meeting of the Society Committee on Monday, 1st. March took place in Church House and set the subscription rates as: Members 10/-: Married Couples 15/-: Juniors 2/6

The third meeting decided that the Society should become affiliated to the British Astronomical Association, a Society Constitution should be compiled and that the local authority be approached regarding a suitable site for the building of an observatory. This meeting saw the expansion of the Committee and a reallocation of duties to accommodate the arrival of Ted Featherstone, who was to figure on the South Wales astronomical scene for the majority of the intervening fifty years.

The Committee consisted of the following: Dr. W. H. Thomas - Chairman, Mr. Clifford Davies - Vice Chairman, Mr. Ted Featherstone - Secretary, Mr. Hubert A. Johns - Treasurer, Mr. Gordon E. Taylor - Director of Observations, Mr. David Thomas - Junior Representative and Mr. W. A. Hill

This meeting also saw the hope expressed that funds could be raised for a telescope and observatory in the next few years. In the mean time observation sessions were planned at the home of Mr. Featherstone using his telescope.

Ted Featherstone was able to announce at the next meeting that the Society's application for affiliation to the British Astronomical Association had been accepted on March 31st and a one-guinea subscription fee (£1.05) had been requested. The Committee decided that alternate Tuesdays would be devoted to instruction classes and the intermediate Tuesday set aside for practical observation. Messrs. Taylor, Thomas and Featherstone were appointed as the Society's official lecturers, so after some six weeks things were beginning to take shape. By the end of the first year the Society had grown to 36 members.

When the Society's second Annual General Meeting took place in September 1949, it was possible for Dr. Thomas to announce the acquisition of a 9" Newtonian telescope and the initiation of discussions on a possible site to house it. The year had also seen the departure of one of the Society's founder members, Gordon Taylor, to pastures new - an appointment as a professional astronomer at the new Royal Greenwich Observatory at Hurstmonceux. His departure caused a further reshuffle of the Society's officers, which led to the appointment of Ted Featherstone as Director of Observations and Mr. Wyndham John as Secretary.

The First Observatory
The period of 1950 to 1953 was particularly frustrating for the Society, with many sites being considered for the observatory but each one being disappointed by legal clauses or site problems. Eventually the choice was narrowed down to the Cefn Coed Hospital site and it was this one that was developed throughout 1953 and 1954. Then, on June 19th. 1954, having been preceded by an Exhibition week in the Royal Institution of South Wales, the observatory was opened by the Mayor of Swansea who, in turn, invited the Society to a reception at the Guildhall after the ceremony. During 1954 the Committee adopted the title of Council and it now consisted of the following:

Dr. W. H. Thomas - Life President, Ald. Percy Morris - Life Vice President, Mr. Clifford Davies - Vice President, Mr. W. A. Hill - Vice President, Mr. Ted Featherstone - Director of Observations, Mr. O. L. Day - Chairman, Mr. R. Richards - Vice Chairman, Mrs. Eunice Roberts Secretary, Mr. E. A. Hill - Treasurer, Mr. C. J. Phillips - Librarian and Mr. Richard E. Roberts.

This includes the husband and wife team of Eunice and Dick Roberts who were involved in all aspects of the Society and who both held the position of Secretary in the years that followed.

It is interesting to note that during the years that followed, the Director of Observations repeatedly complained of the lack of support by the members in the use of the observatory. A theme that continues to the present time.

The Second Observatory
The twice monthly meetings of the Society continued at the Royal Institution throughout the 50's, 60's and most of the 70's, until, in 1976, the venue was switched to Lecture Room 'B' in the University College of Swansea. The change was made because reservation problems had been encountered and the lack of curtains in the windows made the projection of slides difficult on the light evenings. (Note how projection or lantern problems plague the Society!)

In 1976 the Society made the important decision to transfer the observatory away from the urban spread of Swansea, and its associated light pollution, to the better observing conditions of the University playing fields at Fairwood. The observatory was closed and over the next two years the dome and its telescope was transferred to a newly constructed supporting wall and base.

The 'new' observatory was opened on Saturday 14th. October 1978 by Dr. David V. Thomas. Dr. Thomas was, in fact, the Junior representative on that original Committee of 1948 who had progressed to become Assistant to the Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

The start of the Eighties was traumatic for the Society with the departure of several key figures in the form of Ted Featherstone and Dick Roberts. The loss of these two stalwarts of the Society threw Gerry Lacey into the arena as Secretary of the Society. His immediate task was to save and build up a Society that was reeling from the shock of these departures. Gerry guided the Society throughout the Eighties, remaining at the helm for thirteen years until his untimely death in 1993. The current standing and outlook of the Society owes a lot to the dedication of Gerry and the Council of that time. During his term of office the Society switched its meeting place to the Dillwyn Llewellyn Comprehensive School.

The Third Observatory
The third observatory owes a great deal to two members who are, alas, no longer with us, Gerry Lacey and Dr. Fred Jenkins. In the late eighties, Gerry persuaded the Swansea City Council that a working observatory at the prestigious Maritime Quarter would be an asset to the city. He saw it providing the Society with a public forum to introduce the subject and enjoyment of astronomy. The original plan confined the Society to a fourth floor observatory and a second floor 'darkroom', but when the Society assumed the tenancy in February 1993 it had been extended to the whole site, yielding the ground-floor room for exhibitions and lectures. The Society installed a fine 20" Shafer-Maksutov telescope (the largest in Wales), that was specially constructed by Dr. Fred Jenkins in his garage. The telescope and Marina Towers observatory are fitting memorials to both members. The Lord Mayor of Swansea opened the site on September 24th. in a blaze of media publicity and the observatory has become the flagship of the Society in the years that have followed. It is here that the Society meets the public for monthly public 'Star Parties' between October and March.

In 1994, the Society returned to the University campus for its regular meetings in Lecture Room 'C' of the Mathematics & Physics Department. It is grateful for the close relationship that it enjoys with the Department of Adult and Continuing Education and is particularly indebted for the work of Dr. Patrick Walters in this connection.

In 2008, the Society celebrated its 60th Anniversary. You can read about the celebrations here.

Finally, no account would be complete without a mention of the excellent contribution of the band of volunteers in the education section who continued the inspirational scheme started by Brian Stokes. During term time, they welcomed groups of schoolchildren to the Marina Towers site, for educational talks before 'blasting' them off on a simulated tour of the Solar System and beyond. Unfortunately, the Society's involvement with the Marina Towers ended in January 2010.

The Present
While most of this historical account has been taken up with an account of the milestones in the history of the Society, it would be wrong to overlook the 'Raison d'etre' of the Society, that is the practical enjoyment of astronomy. This is achieved either by using the Society's telescopes, the 'sharing' of members telescopes or by using binoculars in groups for the development of one's knowledge and understanding of the pastime with 'like-minded individuals' - as intended by Gordon Taylor and Clifford Davies in those early months of 1948. This aspect of the Society has, if anything, been overlooked in the past few years with a great deal of time and effort being expended in the administration and public output of the Society. It is pleasing to note that in the past few years there have been encouraging developments which will serve to strengthen the practical side of the Society. There is now a nucleus of an astrophotography section that encompasses the exciting new technique of C.C.D. imaging. At the same time strong links are being forged with our fellow societies in the South Wales area for the mutual enjoyment of the subject, which resulted in the initiation of a Biennial South Wales Astronomy Convention in 1997 and 1999.