Mathematician, astronomer, chemist and polymath, Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871) moved to Collingwood House in Hawkhurst, Kent in 1840. Sir John was the son of Sir William Herschel (1738–1822), who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.

As well as naming seven moons of Saturn and four of the moons of Uranus, Sir John Herschel made important contributions to photography, inventing the cynatope photographic process used by Anna Atkins in 1842.

Collingwood gave Herschel the skies he needed for his observations. He wrote:

‘I must now observe, that on Friday, the 17th, and every evening since that time when I observed the comet, the zodaical light has also been displayed in the most striking and perfectly characteristic manner and, indeed with a brilliancy, which I should certainly be disposed to regard as a proof of the opinion generally entertained of its varying from season to season in its intensity, were it not for the habitual and exceeding purity of the atmosphere in this favoured corner of our island, which is altogether free from smoke, and most commonly so from haze, and (in the absence of actual cloud) quite upon a par (so far as three year’s residence will enable me to judge) with that of any region I have visited.’1

This was the Great Comet of 1843. Two nights later he observed that: ‘The tail of the comet, for such it must assuredly be, is again visible, through much obscured by haze and holding very nearly the same position.’2

Sir John contributed to the life of the village and in November 1857, read a lecture at the National School Room on the Arctic regions which had been ‘written by a lady in the neighbourhood, who had thus employed herself to beguile the tedious hours of sickness’.3 Herschel was himself plagued by gout and rheumatism at this period and sometimes needed to use a wheelchair.4 Five months later, he gave a lecture on earthquakes and volcanoes which was reported in the Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser:

‘Comment or praise would be mere waste of type; it will be sufficient to observe that the room was filled by an attentive and very respectable audience, amongst whom was a tolerable number of mechanics and other persons, who are generally supposed to take but little notice of such matters. It is some gratification to know that the humbler classes appreciate these lectures, and that a small payment at the doors of the lecture room does not prevent their attendance’.5

Despite his failing health, Herschel continued to write and correspond with the scientific community, publishing books on astronomy and translating the Iliad. He also wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia on mathematics and isoperimetrical problems and ones on meteorology, physical geography and the telescope for Encylopedia Britannica .6

He was an inspiration to Charles Darwin, who modelled On the Origin of Species on Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on Natural Science (1830), although John did not agree with Darwin’s findings.7

Sir John died at Collingwood on 11 May 1871. His body was conveyed by train From Hawkhurst to Charing Cross station where it was taken by hearse to Westminster Abbey. Sir John was buried near the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton. Charles Darwin was in the congregation8 and on his death was buried next to Herschel.

This article was published 17 December 2023.


  1. Written March 31 to the editor of the Kentish Gazette

  2. Kentish Gazette. Tuesday 11 April 1843; Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser Tuesday 11 April 1843. 

  3. “Hawkhurst.” Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser Saturday 07 November 1857. 

  4. Crowe, Michael J. “Herschel, Sir John Frederick William, first baronet (1792–1871)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press. 

  5. “Hawkhurst.” Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser Tuesday 13 April 1858. 

  6. Crowe, Michael J. “Herschel, Sir John Frederick William, first baronet (1792–1871)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press. 

  7. Pence, Charles H. “Sir John F. W. Herschel and Charles Darwin: Nineteenth-Century Science and Its Methodology.” HOPOS vol 8. no. 1, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1086/695719. 

  8. “Funeral Of Sir John Herschel.” The Times Saturday 20 May 1871.