Thomas Gwyn Empy Elger – Selenographer, Astronomer and Author
by Linda Ayres
Thomas Gwyn Empy Elger was one of the unsurpassed amateur lunar observers of the Victorian era. Thomas had developed an interest in astronomy from an early age and was best known in his day as a ‘selenographer’. Selenography is the study of the moon. His family had lived for generations in Bedford and were prominent in local affairs.
His grandfather, Isaac Elger, (1764 -1806), a carpenter and builder, was a member of the Improvement Commission and had been Mayor of the town in 1802. He was also Lieutenant of the Bedford Volunteer Light Infantry in 1803.
His father, Thomas Gwyn Elger (1794 -1841), was a successful builder, carpenter and architect. He purchased land and quickly developed it providing cheap housing in Bedford mainly north of Tavistock Street and in the town centre. The Harpur Trust’s girls’ and infants’ school was built in 1840 and was one of his last buildings. This was demolished in 1974. As a builder, his best known remaining building is the Literary and Scientific Institute, built in 1834. This is now known as the Harpur Suite in Harpur Street. He was also a Magistrate and became Mayor in 1830, 1835 and 1838. He died at his home after a serious illness.
Isaac and Thomas, the grandfather and father, are buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, St Mary’s Street, Bedford.
His uncle, Isaac Elger (1799-1851), was a surgeon living in Elger’s Row, St. John’s, Bedford. Isaac was a member of the Improvement Commission, vice chairman of the Poor Law Guardians and a director of the Bedford Railway Company which succeeded in building Bedford’s first railway line to Bletchley in 1846.
Another uncle, John Elger (1802 – 1888), a pupil of Thomas Cubitt, was for some years Surveyor to the Harpur Trust’s London Estate and became a successful builder and developer.
Thomas was born on 27th October 1836 at 46 Cauldwell Street, Bedford. His mother, Emily Inskip (1803 – 1873), was from Northill, Beds. Thomas was the youngest of three children, his older brother, William Henry (1826 -1868), is recorded as an architect and surveyor but would die young, aged 42. His sister, Catherine (1827 – 1889) moved to London to live with her uncle, John Elger and her aunt Catherine (nee Inskip, her mother’s younger sister), soon after the death of her father, in 1842. In 1851 she is living in Scio House, Putney, London with her uncle and aunt and their eleven servants. In 1858 she married Thomas Cundy III, who became Surveyor to the Grosvenor Estate following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather (Thomas Cundy I & II).
As a young man Thomas showed promise in physics and mathematics. He attended Bedford (Grammar) School up to the age of 13 when he was withdrawn and received private tuition. He went on to study mathematics at University College London under the highly considered Professor Augustus de Morgan who would count Ada Lovelace among his notable pupils.
In 1857 Thomas entered the offices of the renowned engineer John Fowler (later Sir John Fowler) to train as a civil engineer. John Fowler specialised in railways and railway infrastructure. While Thomas was there John Fowler was the Chief Engineer for the Metropolitan Railway, building the first underground railway, and, on the death of Brunel in 1859, was appointed Chief Engineer to the Great Western Railway. After completing his training Thomas acted as a consultant engineer to a firm of railway contractors in Denmark, but this work came to an end when Prussia and Austria formed an alliance and declared war on Denmark in 1864.
In 1866 Thomas returned to Bedford to live with his mother at 13 Cauldwell Street. He inherited his share of his father’s estate which allowed him to pursue scientific studies and set up his first observatory.
His first contact with the Royal Astronomical Society from 1871 was a brief note on the colours of the components of the double star Delphini. He later became a Fellow and made various contributions including the study of Venus and Saturn.
In 1878, as his father and grandfather before him, he became Mayor following the death of the then Mayor, George Hurst.
In 1878, he became a member of the Selenographical Society – a small association of observers devoted to the study of the Moon and it was in this connection that he would become best known.
In 1880 Thomas married Fanny Gissing, the daughter of a local solicitor and County Court Registrar, and moved to Manor Cottage in Kempston, Beds where he built a new observatory with an eight and a half inch reflecting telescope. Fanny and Thomas had two sons, Thomas in 1883 and John in 1887.
He was a man of many interests, a keen archaeologist and a collector of antiquities, a supporter of the Library at the Literary and Scientific Institute and later the founder of the Bedfordshire Natural History Society and Field Club. He also continued the family’s interest in building and in 1886 is selling building plots and developing the area that was then known as ‘New Fenlake’ and is now the Cardington Road end of Fenlake Road.
From 1887 he was a regular correspondent to ‘The Observatory’ magazine and wrote a series of articles for ‘English Mechanic’, a popular weekly science magazine. ‘The Observatory’ still remains in circulation today. He continued this work in his many correspondences to the Liverpool Astronomical Society (1887-89).
In 1889 Thomas and Fanny had a new house built, Woburn House at 43 Shakespeare Road, Bedford and in the following year, 1890, he became a founder member of the British Astronomical Association, becoming Director of the Lunar Section. He was also a corresponding member of the Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto in 1897.
It was at Woburn House that he produced the book for which he became best known, “The Moon: a full description and map of its principal physical features”. The book was published in 1895; its maps are beautifully drawn, they were among the best available until the 1960’s and are still highly regarded today by some lunar observers due to their clarity.
Thomas Gwyn Empy Elger suffered a stroke on the 29th December 1896 and died of heart failure at his home, Woburn House, on 9th January 1897, aged 59 years.
Following his death Fanny and sons, Thomas and John, moved to Battle in Sussex. There is no evidence that either of the sons married. The elder son Thomas (Gwyn) Elger studied medicine at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge. He died in 1913 age 30 and is buried in St Mary’s Cemetery Dover. Fanny spent her final years in Brighton and died in 1928. Her body was brought to Bedford where she was interred with her husband. The younger son, John (Murray) Elger, died in 1955 and is buried in Bath, Somerset.
In 1912 the lunar crater ‘Elger’ was named in Thomas Gwyn Empy Elger’s honour. His observational notebooks are held by the British Astronomical Association.
Royal Astronomical Society Vol, 57. p210
The Liverpool Mercury 12th January 1897.
Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
Genealogical Society of Utah
The Universal British Directory of 1791.
Linda S Ayres
With thanks to Dan McAndrew for his contribution to this article.
August 04, 2021