Society for the History of Astronomy

shedding light on the history of astronomy

Peter D. Hingley, 1951-2012 - An Obituary


Peter D. Hingley at the SHA Autumn Conference, BMI, Birmingham, 2011


On 22 June the Royal Astronomical Society made the shocking announcement that their colleague and Librarian Peter D. Hingley had died. He had been unwell for a week, but his number came up on Wednesday 20th. Peter would certainly have thought the Reaper had lost all sense of reality, not to mention gentlemanly consideration, since he was only 60, his friend Françoise was due to arrive at the weekend to commence a trip on the Broads with him, his favourite ‘Aunt Peg’ was shortly to celebrate her 91st birthday, he had articles in draft, models half built, steam trains waiting, was well advanced on collecting data and illustrations for a new lecture and paper on agricultural wagons in Constable paintings, and had committee meetings scheduled which needed his sage input. His paternal grandfather had lived to 96, his great aunt to 98, and Peter was a man in the full flow of life.

However, his health had been noticeably poor for about eighteen months, and he was hospitalised after a fall, and with a nasty virus, in February. For a week he had a room high up in St Thomas’s with a marvellous view up the river and across the London he often walked: ‘This is better than my flat, I’m staying unless they sort me out quickly!’  He then enjoyed recuperating for a couple of weeks with his Aunt Peg Malpass in Cannock. He returned to work in good spirits, and pitched into his various commitments while at last taking his full weekends off, enjoying model making or music if it was wet, rust removal and painting old steam engines if it was fine, telling his awful jokes to anyone nearby. He felt good about clearing out old ‘tat’ from his flat as he relished retiring on 31 August and moving to Crewe – at the heart of a web of steam railways, canals, and other essentials. Alas! It was not to be. He fell ill again in mid-June, and this time his usual head of steam failed him.

Peter was a polymath scholar and dedicated librarian and archivist with a fine mind, wonderful memory, quick wit, mischievous sense of fun, passion for all things historical, and he had a great big heart. He was tirelessly interested in and encouraging and helpful to all researchers and enquirers to the RAS’s beautiful library. In 2011 Dr Barbara Becker published Unravelling Starlight, her biography after twenty years of research of William and Margaret Huggins: ‘Without [Peter’s] enthusiastic intercession on behalf of my manuscript, it would still be filed away out of public view’. 

When a team of amateurs in Australia started restoring the Great Melbourne Telescope, a friend in London asked Peter if he had any photos; he found some they did not have, and provided prints that have been immensely helpful. Another researcher Bill Sheehan recalls: ‘His generosity included not only helping me beyond the call of duty with the archives, but letting me use his flat on occasions when he was away’. He was a willing horse on any committee he was asked to serve, the first to step in to any gap regardless of personal over-load.

He was in demand to give talks to astronomical societies, learned and other societies, at home and abroad, too numerous to tally. Tina Hammond of Orwell Astronomical Society recalls: ‘He had been a fan of the Goon show, and quite spontaneously his talks would be laced with their one-liners and catchphrases where appropriate. He hardly noticed he’d done it’. Peter was largely responsible for drafting the letters to English Heritage and other bodies that resulted in the Orwell Park Observatory being designated Grade 2*.  One of the great services he achieved, and probably his enduring legacy, was to initiate the RAS having its unique 150 year-old photograph collection copied and made available by Science Photo Library. More people enjoyed, admired and had reason to be grateful to him than anyone can ever know.

At long last friends saw him beginning to get the work-life balance right. He was planning ahead and had many aspirations to write, to work on several steam railways he supported, and he and Françoise planned some explorations of England’s rivers.

Five years ago Peter amused himself by drafting a little ‘biog’, which he tongue-in-cheek headed Life and Hard Times. It was never published, but is paraphrased here. Peter Dennis Hingley was born 6 October 1951 in Pedmore, near Stourbridge, Worcestershire, and was inordinately proud of being ‘descended from long lines of Black Country ironworkers and Staffordshire and Shropshire yokels.’ His male Huguenot line to his delight produced Noah Hingley & Sons, who made chain cable and anchors for many great ships, including the Titanic – Peter; ‘The family’s best work is at the bottom of the Atlantic!’ His sister Jane says ‘Peter could read before he was five, indeed stood on a box to read the lesson in church at Christmas when he was that age. He was a totally absorbed reader. If you asked him to make a cup of tea you would find him an hour later deep in a book, the kettle gone cold. He was proud of his father Gerald, who was taken prisoner after his bomber was shot down in WWII, and he ferreted out that his naval uncle Dennis, after whom he was named, had died at age 19 of friendly fire in the same conflict. Peter sought and knew how to find detail. He hated television, and instead lost himself in the old world of black and white film on VCR tapes of railways, ships and aircraft’.

Gaining a place at King Edward VI Grammar School, he came under heavy paternal compulsion to study sciences instead of the literature and history that attracted him as moth to candle. Sustained by much viola playing and pursuit of steam, he ‘staggered out of Lancaster University in 1973 with an indifferent degree in Environmental Sciences’. He took a labouring job in a cotton mill for a short time, but having ‘been treated kindly by agreeable and civilised librarians’ he identified that profession as a route to remote locations, escape from sciences, and possibilities to engage in subjects that actually interested him. He was a countryman at heart, having spent much of his youth in his beloved Shropshire. With his usual unerring aim his first post in 1974 was in Piccadilly, London, as Librarian to the Society of Antiquaries – hardly remote, but specialising in history and archaeology. He was “rustled” to join the RAS on 20 October 1980 as Assistant and then Librarian.  He found this job most rewarding and pleasant, and stayed for the rest of his career, over thirty years. It led him to describe himself as ‘an aesthete on the edge of science’, although in reality many scholars have benefited from his profound knowledge of astronomy and other sciences. When Halley’s Comet returned in 1986, Peter cycled across London to Edmund Halley’s grave near Greenwich, and observed it from there. Of course.

Meanwhile Peter thoroughly enjoyed serving eighteen years in the Royal Naval Reserve, achieved the rank of Lt-Commander, and received the Reserve Decoration. His ex-wife Sheila visited him on his ship in Portsmouth, and never saw him happier. He could park a minesweeper before he belatedly passed his driving test. A rather hesitant driver himself, he always accused ageing Aunt Peg of being ‘too quick off the roundabouts’. But ‘he ignored motorways. In his head he knew the Roman roads and the railway routes, and he navigated across the country from town to town by that mental map’. He loved all matters maritime, especially naval, at the RAS was thrilled to find himself guardian of Captain Cook’s sextant and other treasures, and was witheringly scornful of those responsible for cuts in naval strength.



Peter D. Hingley volunteering at the Severn Valley Railway, Bridgnorth


Spare time interests included making metal models of railway equipment and ships (he had his own lathe and was an instigator of the East Kent ‘O’ Gauge Guild making working trains of 2-inch gauge, for which Peter built a double track; he was a founder of a model train society in Chatham), ‘shovelling coal into obsolete steam locomotives on the Severn Valley Railway’ (his god-daughter Lynnette’s favourite memory is of riding with him on the footplate of one of their engines), classical music (‘is there anything else?’

He was a member of the Japanese Society of Stradivari, and one of his favourite CDs was their comparison of those violins being played), and historical research on railways, the family ironworks, and history of astronomy.’  For thirteen years while living in Faversham, Kent, he was the Honorary Curator of the preserved Chart Gunpowder Mills, and very active with the Faversham Society (a cultural and heritage society founded in 1962). At one stage he was involved with the Stonehenge Society.  

Latterly he developed a keen interest in Romanesque sculpture and stonework, of course became a keen photographer, and a seeker-out of Norman churches. Peter was a member of the Prayer Book Society, and his sister said: ‘I can well understand that he would enjoy the King James Bible, and the Cranmer Prayer Book, and value them for their tradition and language. He enjoyed matins or evensong in an old church. He had no truck with modern services’. He would certainly have required thee and thou for the One who created the Universe. Last autumn he twice sallied forth as a volunteer to shake a tin by the Tube station to raise money for the Macmillan Nurses. He reported back with glee to Council that he was astonished to have raised several hundred £s. – ‘Head down commuters. Would you believe it?’ – he asked in obvious astonishment, his faith restored. Poor weary commuters, they never stood a chance!

Peter enjoyed concerts such as those at Wigmore Hall, cycling, and loved the Lake District. Sundays in London would often be spent walking canals, or to ‘Ally Pally’, and throughout his life runs a skein of a passionate interest in gardening, possibly inherited from his maternal grandfather. His passionate enthusiasms included especially canals and rivers, Thames barges and Norfolk wherries. In about 1975 he started the Severn Trow Preservation Society to rescue the last Severn Trow from Diglis Basin – The Spry is now in a display shed at Blist’s Hill open air museum, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

Recent published work included ‘Some Droitwich Sailing Barges’, and ‘A Far Off Vision – a Cornishman at Greenwich Observatory’ about astronomer Edwin Dunkin, a lengthy series of short notes in Astronomy & Geophysics on various items from the library and archives, Warren De La Rue and the HMS Himalaya expedition, Father Stephen Perry and the Transit of Venus, and other worthy topics. His computer hides drafts on Shuckburgh and the English [telescope] Mounting, Shropshire Shipbuilders (he was as much amused as intrigued by that reality), the history of Durham University Observatory, and a diverging flow of other topics.

Dr Bob Argyle noted that in particular Peter was the driving force behind the project to produce a biography of Thomas William Webb, the Victorian amateur astronomer. As RAS Librarian he was custodian of Webb’s original observing notebooks and wanted to see something done with them. Webb spent much of his later life as Vicar of Hardwicke near Hay-on-Wye. About 25 years ago the rectory passed in to the hands of Janet and Mark Robinson who, as luck would have it, are both avid and able local historians, happy to be cajoled by Peter into delving deeper into Webb’s life and times. The resulting book, The Stargazer of Hardwicke, edited by the Robinsons and dedicated to Peter, came out in 2006. His sister Clare relates the joy of coming across a copy of The Stargazer in Brecon library some years ago, and discovering his role in that work.


SHA Council Meeting at the home of Sir Patrick Moore, 'Farthings. Selsey, 12 November 2005.

L to R - Rear: Reg Withey, Roger Jones, Peter Hingley, Mark Hurn, Ken Goward, Bill Barton. Middle: Sir Patrick Moore (seated), Gilbert Satterthwaite, Madeline Cox (seated). Front, kneeling, Stuart Williams. 


For some years he had been a Consultant to Commission 41 of the IAU, and was elected a full IAU member at the 2006 General Assembly in Prague. Peter was founder member number 13 of the Society for the History of Astronomy in 2002, and was hugely supportive, including hosting Council meetings in the library, and in his own time ‘stuffing and posting’ publications and mailings. He was elected a Council Member in 2005, and in 2008 upon the death of a colleague volunteered to take on being Membership Secretary. When there was another crisis in 2010 he was about to take on the Treasury too. That’s how he was, regardless of his own well-being, giving himself to whatever he really believed was worthwhile.

Reactions from the SHA Council included: Chairman Madeline Cox: ‘Losing him has been a great shock. It is impossible to summarise all he did for the Society in the last ten years, the countless hours he gave us serving on Council, organising meetings, finding us articles and photographs, giving talks, writing articles, collecting fliers from publishers to include in our mailings so that members saw new books available. He was always cheerful, entertaining, welcoming, unfailingly generous and kind to everyone he met’. Another: ‘Truly shocking. Peter was our dearest friend and supporter, a true enthusiast for whom nothing was too much trouble. He will be very sadly missed. RIP, Peter’. Another: ‘He was hugely encouraging with my sustained research, and exceptionally generous in supplying photos. A gentleman of the old school, but irreverent, he was without doubt a wonderful ambassador for the SHA, as of course for the RAS’. Another: ‘We have lost a dear and genial colleague’. Another: ‘It’s hard to come to terms with the loss of one of our oldest and most active supporters and friends. Peter was a real character and a one-off; we shall not see his like again’. Another: ‘My log of the Council email net shows more than 1000 emails containing the signature PDH. As in his conversation, he often started with one subject, but then elaborated as in this one from 2007 in reply to my mention of the Chance Glass archives being returned to Sandwell:

That is really excellent news, a few years back there was a Chance centenary of some sort and I contacted the Archives but nothing resulted. I tend to think of Chances re lighthouses rather than astronomy though they did some lens blanks.  Incidentally also ‘Chance Lights’ for ASW [anti-submarine warfare] Wellington bombers. Long years ago in our Worcestershire village when I was very young  the church organist was a chap called Hipkiss who worked for Chances for many years (my grandfather sang in the choir). He used to give magic lantern lectures  about the places he had been to building lighthouses, but also had a fantastic collection of photos of the lighthouses themselves. I would give a lot to get my hands on those today!!’


 Speakers at the Wrottesley Memorial Conference, Black Country Living Museum, 20th March 2010.

L to R: Kevin J Kilburn, FRAS (SHA); Rt. Rvd. M. G. Bourke; John Armmitage (Wrottesley Observatory); Stuart Williams, FRAS (SHA); Peter D. Hingley (Royal Astronomical Society Librarian)


One of Peter’s oldest friends is Dr Allan Chapman, Hon. President of the SHA. He recalled:

"I met Peter in the autumn of 1970 when he came up to Lancaster University where I had started the year before. He had an early love of astronomy, and together we founded the University’s Astronomical Society. I remember that in May 1971 we observed the Transit of Mercury together. At other times he was dashing off on steam journeys, or travelling railway lines that were under threat.

Peter was always wonderful company. A raconteur, his pattern was a joke, a piece of information, then historical or political discussion, a politically incorrect swipe at whichever ‘old buffer’ in authority he believed was responsible, then another joke.

Really he was an instinctive antiquarian. Inevitably, he joined the British Sundial Society because he cared for old objects, and he could never resist a windmill. Everyone recognised that he was learned and respected, a passionate collector of information. He was without doubt one of the leading scholars of the history of astronomy. His knowledge of archives, names, places, connections, was incomparable. He enjoyed deploying it to help anyone. To amuse himself he kept a mental catalogue of how astronomers met their ends – especially if salacious.  As John Aubrey said upon the death of one of his friends: ‘When a learned man dies, much learning dies with him’. He will be greatly missed"

Peter’s funeral on 16 July was in the lovely Georgian church of St Giles in the Fields, packed with Fellows of the RAS, professors, steam and other friends supporting the family and paying their respects. Dr Allan Chapman gave the Tribute, saying that while he knew that Peter dreaded the Olympics coming to disrupt London, he thought this early demise was going a bit far. ‘An antiquary, not a scientist or astronomer, he was fascinated by anything that moved on its own, but especially clocks and trains, and he had a passion for the history of astronomy and its surviving artefacts, photos and books’. Allan concluded by wondering ‘Where is our staunch Royalist now? Did he set sail, or is he shovelling coal on a GWR engine for Isambard, to enter Heaven at 65 mph in a cloud of steam, Union Jack’s flying?’   

In his Address the Revd Alan Carr commented that while Peter attended St Giles from time to time, he was not ‘known’ there, presumably because after enjoying the words and form he slipped away rather than linger with the congregation from him he would have had little hope of ‘benefiting from hearing versions of the inexpressible about the incomprehensible’. Afterwards the RAS honoured Peter with a reception at Burlington House. Peter was cremated, and the family intend to place the ashes at one of his favourite spots, beside a steam railway line which has wonderful views, breezes to rustle the grass, and the sound of the engines passing.

Peter leaves his daughter Eleanor finishing her Master’s degree in Norfolk, his ex-wife Sheila at Durham University, with whom he kept in touch, his musical sisters Jane Rigby (singer) and Clare Walker (a fine bassoonist), Clare’s son Joseph (his godson) and his ‘Aunt Peg’ (a retired teacher and BA) with her four cats in Cannock. He also leaves Françoise Launay, his loyal, learned and wise companion.

Peter D. Hingley, 1951 - 2012

Peter’s extraordinary mind, informal ways and outgoing personality gained him many friends in many countries. A gentle man who really did make a difference, he will be remembered by anecdotes, with gratitude and smiles.

Roger Hutchins

Treasurer, Society for the History of Astronomy