Astronomy in Leicestershire title image

William Pearson (1767–1847)

The Reverend William Pearson played an important role in the founding of the Royal Astronomical Society.

He was born in Cumberland and taught at the free grammar school in Lincoln. In 1794 he became curate at St Martin's Church in Lincoln. He moved to London in 1800 where he was involved with the Royal Institution. In 1811 he took over a private school in East Sheen, Surrey. He became Rector at Perivale, Middlesex in 1810 and of South Kilworth in 1817, where he lived from 1821, having sold the school. He is buried in the churchyard at South Kilworth and there is a tablet commemorating him in the church.

He built, and was involved with the construction of, machines such as those to show planetary motion eg orreries. He built observatories at East Sheen and South Kilworth.

His observations include: diameters of the Sun and Moon during a partial eclipse in 1820 (East Sheen) and occultations of the Pleiades in 1821, Halley's Comet in 1835 and a value for the obliquity of the ecliptic in 1839 (South Kilworth).

His awards include: an honorary LLD from the University of Glasgow in 1815, Fellow of the Royal Society in 1819 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1829. He was a Justice of the Peace in Lutterworth and a Freeman of the Borough of Leicester.

There is a copy of his Introduction to Practical Astronomy in the Record Office in South Wigston, Leicestershire (it is not yet listed in their online catalogue).

Thomas Belgrave c1788–1854), Rector of North Kilworth became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1821, having been proposed by Pearson. Both Pearson and Belgrave signed the proposal for Richard Rouse Bloxam (1765–1840) to become a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1830. Richard Rouse Bloxam was Samuel Rouse (c1705–1775)'s grandson. The proposal describes him as the author of Urania's Mirror, a set of cards depicting the constellations. (Hingley, 1994).


William Pearson - 1846 directory entry for South Kilworth
1846 directory entry for South Kilworth

It mentions Pearson's observatory, built in 1834.

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William Pearson - 1868 directory entry for South Kilworth
1868 directory entry for South Kilworth

The observatory is now being used as a granary.

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The observatory on Google Maps.
The observatory on Google Maps


William Pearson's first orrery, which he designed, but did not construct, was made in 1796 and may have been used for public lectures. In the following twenty years he was involved in the construction of six planetary machines. In 1802 he built a planetarium to illustrate Thomas Young's lectures at the Royal Institution, where Pearson was a proprietor. A clock he designed around 1800 is now owned by the Royal Astronomical Society (Gurman, Harratt, 1994).

1813 Orrery

Drawings of William Pearson's orrery of 1813. It includes Mercury, Venus, Earth and Moon, Mars, Vesta, Juno, Ceres, Pallas, Jupiter and satellites, Saturn and Herschel (Uranus) (Brewster, 1830). However, only the Moon and Jupiter's satellites move (Gurman, Harratt, 1994).

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Orrery by William Pearson
Earth, Moon and Sun
William Pearson's orrery, 1813
Jupiter's satellites
William Pearson's orrery
Perspective view of orrey
William Pearson's orrery
Section through orrery.


Publications by William Pearson include:

Royal Astronomical Society

William Pearson - RAS publications and award of Gold Medal
Snippets of William Pearson in Royal Astronomical Society journals.

Two of William Pearson's Royal Astronomical Society publications: the construction of an Altitude and Azimuth Circle in 1825 and an observation of Halley's Comet in 1835. He was awarded a Gold Medal in 1829.

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Pearson, W., "On the doubly-refracting property of Rock Crystal, considered a principle of Micrometrical measurements, when applied to a telescope.", Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 1, p.67, 1822.

Pearson, W., "On the construction and use of a Micrometrical Eye-piece of a Telescope.", Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 1, p.82, 1822.

Pearson, W., "On the construction of a new Position-Micrometer, depending on the doubly-refractive power of Rock Crystal.", Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 1, p.103, 1822.

Troughton, Edward; Jones, T.; Pearson, William, "A Report on the Properties and Powers of a new 3-feet Altitude and Azimuth Circle, lately fixed at the Rectory-House of South Kilworth in the County of Leicester:–constructed by Edward Troughton, and divided by T. Jones. Drawn up by the Rev. William Pearson", Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 2, p.261, 1826.

Pearson, W.; Baily, Francis, "Astronomical Observations. 4. Observations of the Occultations of the Pleiades by the Moon, in July and October 1821.", Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society,Vol. 2, p.289, 1826.

Pearson, Rev., "Observations of Halley's comet, Oct. 19, 1835", Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 3, p.130, 1835.

Pearson, Dr.; Wrottesley, J.; Owen, R., "Astronomical Observations. Observations of Halley's Comet.", Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1Vol. 9, p.269, 1836.

Pearson, Rev., "On the parallax of α Centauri", Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 4, p.167 1839.

Pearson, W., "On the Obliquity of the Ecliptic", Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 11, p.73, 1840.

Pearson, Rev. "A new catalogue of moon-culminating stars, observed at South Kilworth", Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 5, p.115, 1841.

Pearson, William, "Dr. Pearson's Catalogue of 520 Stars within 6° North and South of the Ecliptic, observed at South Kilworth", Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 15, p.97, 1846.


Introduction to Practical Astronomy, 1824, 1829. It was because of this work that, in 1829, Pearson was awarded the Gold Medal of the [Royal] Astronomical Society. It consists of two volumes. The first volume, of around 200 pages, contains astronomical tables, half of which were the work of Pearson and his assistants. The second, of around 700 pages, concerns astronomical instruments with descriptions and instructions and is illustrated with 31 engravings.

Rees's Cyclopædia

Pearson wrote over sixty articles for Rees's Cyclopædia, full title, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature. It was edited by Rev. Abraham Rees (1743–1825) and published in serial form between 1802 and 1820. The articles included descriptions of Pearson's planetary machines.


William Pearson is not listed in the 1841 census pages for South Kilworth. However, at Rectory House is: Ambrose Clarke, Astronomical assistant, age 30. He is in the 1881 census for South Kilworth with his occupation given as 'Commercial Clerk'.


Mike Frost has carried out extensive research on William Pearson:

The Rector of South Kilworth, SHA Newsletter, Summer 2006.
Revd Doctor William Pearson and South Kilworth, Antiquarian Astronomer, December 2006.
The Pearson Papers, BAA Historical Section Newsletter, Autumn 2009.
The Rector of South Kilworth - by Mike Frost

Brewster, David, The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, Volume XVI, 'Planetary Machines', 1830. pp 646-651, Plates CCCCLX, CCCCLXI, CCCCLXII.

Clerke, A. M., 'Pearson, William (1767-1847)', rev. David Philip Miller, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 21 Aug 2012]

Coventry and Warwickshire Astronomical Society, "The Rector of South Kilworth", MIRA, 71, Spring 2005.

Gurman, S. J.; Harratt, S. R., "Pearson, William 1767-1847 - a Founder of the Royal Astronomical Society", Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 35, NO. 3/SEP, P. 271, 1994. Appendix 1 is an extensive list of Pearson's publications.

Hingley, P. D., "Urania's Mirror - a 170-year old mystery solved?", Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 104, p238
Urania's Mirror - a page about the cards which depict constellations.

Rees's Cyclopædia (Wikipedia)

Royal Society: "The Rev. William Pearson, LL.D. ...", Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol 69, p712, 1847. (In Abstracts of the Papers Communicated to the Royal Society of London, Volume 5)

Sheepshanks, R., Memoir, Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol 17, pp128-133, 1848.

Window commemorating Thomas Belgrave in the church at North Kilworth

The online version of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is available to members via City of Leicester Libraries Online Reference Room and Leicestershire County Council Libraries Online Reference Library.


Last updated 24th January, 2014.

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