RÜMKER Carl Ludwig Christian; LEE John (1844-62)


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A collection of 90 ALS between Karl Rümker and John Lee, with others, incl. copies; 13 letters from Rumker’s son Georg to Lee; 2 further printed items.

An impressive archive of the correspondence between astronomer Rümker (1788-1862) and amateur astronomer and founder member of the Royal Astronomical Society, John Lee (1783-1866), along with an additional, smaller group of correspondence between Lee and Rümker’s son Georg (1832-1900).  


Rümker’s letters to and from John Lee, in London, mostly relate to astronomical observations from Hamburg, with some from Lisbon, where he convalesced. There is one letter from Rümker’s wife written after the astronomer’s death (21 December 1862), detailing the circumstances of his demise in Lisbon. The letters (13) from Georg Rümker, Christian’s son, date from between 1848 and 1854 and are written from the Observatories at Durham and Oxford. The letters are all endorsed in a small neat hand (Lee’s) with details of sender and date.    


Born in 1788 in Stargard, Germany, Rümker enjoyed a varied early career as mathematics teacher in Hamburg, midshipman for the East India Company, sailor in the Merchant Navy, and subsequently – thanks to being pressganged – schoolmaster in the Royal Navy. It was not until 1816 that he became interested in astronomy, on which his first publication, based on observations at Malta, appeared in 1819 in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal.   He was recommended by a former commander for the role of private astronomer to the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane, and arrived in Sydney in 1821 to take up his post at Australia’s first observatory, Brisbane’s private observatory at Parramatta, assisted by Scottish astronomer James Dunlop (1793-1848). On 2 June 1822 he rediscovered Encke’s comet, for which, along with plaudits from the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institut de France, he was awarded a land grant of 1000 acres at Stonequarry Creek (Picton) by Governor Brisbane, which Rümker named Stargard, and where he retired in 1823 (he would later acquire more land there). He continued his observations and discovered two comets in the Lion constellation; in May 1826 he was recalled to Paramatta where in September he discovered a new comet in Orion, and would go on to ‘create an extensive star catalogue of the southern hemisphere, documenting the position of over 7,000 stars’ (see ‘Curriculum Vitae Carl Ludwig Christian Rümker’, Leopoldina, Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften [open access]).  


On 21 December 1827 Governor Sir Ralph Darling appointed him Government Astronomer, the first to hold that post in Australia.” (see ADB).  Unfortunately his time in the role would be shortlived; a quarrel with Sir James South (1785-1867), then president of the Royal Astronomical Society, led to Rümker’s dismissal from British government service in June 1830. Returning to Hamburg, he was much decorated and extremely prolific in his later years, culminating in his receiving the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal in 1854. In 1857 he was granted permanent leave for health reasons, and, as these letters relate, he went with his wife (Mary Ann Crockford of Clerkenwell) to Lisbon, where he died in 1862 (biographical information drawn from G.F.J Bergman, ‘Rümker, Christian Carl Ludwig’, Australian Dictionary of Biography; see entry for further details).  


Lawyer, antiquary and astronomer John Lee spent his early career travelling on a scholarship around Scandinavia – witnessing first-hand Nelson’s bombardment of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in 1801– and, joining his brother’s and subsequent naval expeditions, to the Mediterranean. The majority of Rümker’s letters to Lee in this archive are addressed to him at Doctor’s Commons in London, where he held various offices as an advocate after November 1816, but it is for his scientific interests that he is best known. He was a keen astronomer, building an observatory at Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire, and was a founder member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1824, acting as treasurer and later president (1861-2). As illustrated by this archive, his interests led to an extensive correspondence with the leading astronomers of Europe, many of whom came to visit him as friends. In 1830 he assisted in the formation of the British Meteorological Society, of which he was treasurer and later president; he was the first president of the Numismatic Society in 1837, a founder member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830, and member of the Society of Arts, the Geological Society, the British Archaeological Association, the Syro-Egyptian Society, the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and the Chronological Society, and many others.


The majority of the letters are scientific in focus, containing tabulated observations on comets, references to apparatus, as well as notes on figures and developments in the broader scientific community of the time, both lesser- and better-known. One of the letters of May, 1857, refers to the ‘equatorial telescope’ at Lee’s Hartwell House, designed by his neighbour Admiral William H. Smyth (1786-1865), which is now at the Science Museum. Rümker refers to experiments underway by a colleague in distilling seawater to create drinkable fresh water – ‘likely to become of the highest importance for navigation’ (July 28, 1856). A later letter from Georg Rümker to Lee, dated March 2, 1863 and with a black mourning border marking his father’s death, thanks Lee for interceding on his behalf with extraordinary scientist and polymath Sir John Herschel (1792-1871).  


These letters thus offer an insight into the thriving, international republic of letters that existed in nineteenth-century scientific circles.  While principally of technical and scientific interest, they also add colour to elements of both Lee’s and Rümker’s lives and careers. In their chattier, conversational moments the correspondence gives the impression of a real friendship existing between the two men; included here are complaints about the exorbitant charges of the bookseller Asher in Berlin for sending books; accounts of the breaking of Rümker’s telescope in Lisbon, and so on. In a letter dated 25 April, 1845 Rümker seeks Lee’s consideration and advice on an enclosed document: ‘Articles of agreement …13 September 1844 between Charles Louis Rümker of Hamburg [and] Adolphus William Young of Sydney… and William Lumsdaine of Sydney the purchaser of the third part’ concerning the sale of Rümker’s land and dwelling at Picton, Australia.  


Along with correspondence, there are a handful of other items, including a pastoral letter dated 1849 addressed to the parishioners of St. Michael Paternoster & St Martin Vintry; and a passport dated 5 November 1864 for ‘going to France, Italy and Austria on the Public Service’ for a Mr. Reuben Townroe (1835-1911), Godfrey Sykes’ assistant to the architectural decorations for what would become the V&A. The association between Townroe and Rümker/Lee is not clear.  


Provenance: 1. Carl Ludwig Christian Rümker (1788-1862) astronomer. 2. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Rumker (1832-1900); interested in astronomy from an early age, Georg taught at the Hamburg Navigation School, studied in Berlin (1851) and in 1853 came for two years to Durham Observatory in the United Kingdom.  He returned to Hamburg in 1855, where he took over his father’s position after his departure for Lisbon. 3. John Lee (1783–1866), antiquary, astronomer and founder member of the Royal Astronomical Society. There was a sale at Sotheby’s in April 1938 of books from Hartwell House, and it is likely that these items were sold around that time. The family papers of Lee are in the British Library (BL Add. MSS. 47490-93), together with a number of items from the Lee collections (including one Arabic manuscript), but there are also papers in the Bodleian, and in other institutions from Canada to Australia.    

Stock Code: 216273

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