Hester Periam Hawkins Astronomer and Author
by Linda Ayres
Hester Periam Hawkins was dedicated to the study of the heavens, and her deep spirituality characterised her thinking and writing. Apart from astronomy, Hester spent much of her time in social service, and the British-Israel movement. The movement held the belief that the people of Great Britain are the direct descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel.
She was formerly Hester Periam Lewis, born on the 13th November 1846 at Wantage, Berkshire, and was one of nine children born to Joseph and Sarah Lewis. The family lived at the Market Place, Wantage, where her father held many roles as postmaster, chemist, druggist, and printer, employing three men and two boys.
When Hester was 12 years old, her family narrowly escaped a fire at their home. The Berks County Paper of Saturday 30th April 1859, reported: “About seven o’clock on Wednesday in the occupation of Mr. Joseph Lewis, Postmaster, Chemist, and Druggist in the Market Place, narrowly escaped destruction by fire. It appears that one of Mr. Lewis’s assistants was boiling turpentine on the cellar kitchen fire, and the inflammable matter running over the floor, the apartment was in a few seconds in a blaze. Assistance was promptly rendered by neighbours and others, and with considerable difficulty owing to the dense and suffocating smoke, the fire was subdued before communicating with any other part of the establishment, and without doing a large amount of damage. Had it communicated with the stock of oils and other combustible matter in close proximity to the kitchen, the result would have been most disastrous. On the fire becoming known the danger of an explosion appeared so imminent that the removable of the most valuable articles of stock, in the shop was resorted to.”
On the 26th August 1869, in the Wesleyan Chapel, Wantage, Hester was married to the Rev. Joshua Hawkins. He was a Wesleyan Minister of Oxford. After their marriage, they moved first to Warwickshire then Bournemouth, and Surrey. In 1879, Joshua gave up his life in the Ministry, and moved to Bedford. They lived with their six children and three servants at ‘Sunnyside,’ in 18 Linden Road, Bedford.
In the early 1880s, Hester’s parents moved to Bedford. They lived at Maple Cottage, 126 Bromham Road, Bedford. Her mother’s time in Bedford was short lived; she died aged 77 years on the 9th February 1885. Her father died 10th March 1891 aged 81. Sadly, Hester could not be at her father’s funeral due to Joshua’s failing health.
Joshua died on the 24th April 1892 aged 46 years. He had lived in Bedford for just thirteen years, but in that time he had made a lasting impression on the town. Joshua served five times as Mayor of Bedford, and at one time, he had been part owner of The Bedfordshire Times and Independent. Hester had shared all her husband’s interests in the public improvements and developments in Bedford throughout the 1880s.
Hester’s interests were religious, political, benevolent, and social. She was Vice-President of the Bedford Women’s Liberal Association, and a life long supporter of the temperance movement.
Soon after her husband’s death Hester, aware of the needs of the fast-growing district of Queen’s Park and wishing to honour the life of her late husband, made some provisions for the residents. Her first wish was in the form of a Workman’s Rest. This would be largely self-supporting and run by volunteers who would give up their time in the Band of Hope work, entertainments on the weekdays, and religious work on Sundays. The second phase was the building of the Memorial Hall, where religious, charitable and social work would take place. The hall included a library and a room for refreshments. Mr. Samuel Whitbread, M. P., laid the foundation stone on the 1st December 1894, and Mr. S. Howard Whitbread, opened the hall in the absence through illness of Lady Isabella Whitbread on the 30th May 1895.
Another tribute to her husband’s memory took the form of a little book published in 1894, entitled “Thoughts Worth Remembering,” with a portrait of her late husband, in which it contained a collection of her husband’s inspirational quotes and sayings.
In September 1927, the Wesleyan community of Bedford purchased the Memorial Hall for the use of a Mission Hall. At the re-opening, Hester’s son, Lewis Maurice Hawkins, presided over a large gathering.
Hester was one of the sixteen women responsible for the hand painted tiles illustrating old nursery rhymes and tales in the Victoria Ward in Bedford Hospital. Her name, as well as the other fifteen women, is on the decorative tiling above the entrance door to the Victoria Ward. Some tiles remain on the walls of the ward to this day. The tiles were to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The ward was thought unique, and certainly the most beautiful children’s ward of the time.
In 1885, Hester compiled a hymn book for use in the home. She was the writer and composer of several of the hymns and tunes that it contained. This book eventually developed into “The Home and Empire Hymn Book,’ a manual of sacred song for the family circle. Three editions were published between 1885 and 1886.
Hester also wrote ‘The Star Almanac for 1912’ – two editions published in 1911. ‘The A.B.C. Guide to Astronomy’ – thirteen editions published between 1900 and 1920. ‘Astronomy for Busy People’ – four editions published in 1922. ‘Guiding Stars’, including a revolving map, made for the small pocket and for use in the War. ‘Halley’s Comet’. ‘Stella Maitland’, or ‘Love and the Stars’ – two editions published in 1921.
These, with other astronomical publications, won her the honour of a Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society on 14th January 1921. Hester was also author of “The British-Israel A.B.C”, which she completed just before she died.
The Bedfordshire Times and Independent on Friday 10th December 1909, wrote, “An interesting and useful publication by Mrs Hawkins, is a small quarto pamphlet (price one shilling) “The Stars from Year to Year,” with indigo coloured charts of the stars for every month. The pamphlet also contains a very useful and interesting introduction of six pages on the study of astronomy, and some valuable explanatory references to the principal stars and other details of the chart. Mrs Hawkins, motivated by her own pleasant experience of the study, urges others to follow her example, promising the student that many a delightful hour may be thus enjoyed if there be but brought to the study an observant eye, and an enthusiastic mind.”
‘The Stars from Year to Year’ is still in print.
After her husband died, Hester moved to Hastings. She returned to Bedford in 1925 when she attended the 80th birthday celebrations of the Bedfordshire Times.
Hester died aged 81 years at her home St. Mark’s Cottage, Reigate on Friday 18th May 1928. The following Monday she was laid to rest with her husband. The grave is a little to the northeast of the Cemetery Chapel in a quiet corner and sheltered by shrubs and evergreen, and a few feet from where her parents were buried.
All her children, three sons and three daughters, survived her.
Joshua and Hester – Grave Ref: E5.56
Sarah and Joseph – Grave Ref: E5.67
Berks County Paper 28th August 1869
Bedfordshire Times and Independent 25th May 1928
Monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
August 23, 2021
October 01, 2018
September 02, 2018