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Abbott, Francis (1799–1883)

by Gordon Rimmer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Francis Abbott (1799-1883), watchmaker, amateur astronomer and meteorologist, was baptized on 12 August 1799 at Derby, England, son of John Abbott and his wife Elizabeth. He was apprenticed to a clockmaker and then set up his own business. After 1831 he moved to Manchester where he became an honorary member of the Antiquarian and Chronological Society of London and published A Treatise on the Management of Public Clocks (London, 1838). This was followed by A Descriptive Catalogue of Horological and Astronomical Machinery manufactured and sold by him at his shop opposite the railway office. On 25 October 1821 at St Werburgh's Church, Derby, he had married Mary Woolley; they had seven children. 

In August 1844 Abbott was sentenced to seven years transportation at the Central Criminal Court for 'obtaining two watches under false pretences'. He arrived at Hobart Town in the Mount Stewart Elphinstone in June 1845, served one year in gangs at Oyster Cove and three as an assigned servant, received his ticket-of-leave on 27 March 1849 and then started a small business in Murray Street, Hobart, as a watch and clockmaker. His wife and family were granted free passages and joined him in 1850. His business flourished, and he erected many public clocks, including one at Government House in 1859, but he won greater repute for his work as a meteorologist and astronomer. He started to keep observations soon after his arrival. Captain Joseph Kay gave him free access to the Rossbank Observatory and explained the method of registering and reducing. When this observatory closed in 1854 he began to record meteorological observations which were published each month in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania; his tables became the standard reference for the local climate, were sent to the United States Meteorological Department for incorporation in world charts and printed for many years by the Tasmanian government. In 1880 because of ill health Abbott discontinued his readings.

In his private observatory he pursued an active interest in astronomy and was amongst the pioneers to make observations from the southern hemisphere after Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) had named the constellations. Abbott was a competent amateur, used scientific experimental techniques and kept himself informed on the latest advances in Europe such as spectrum analysis of stars. In 1860 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, and contributed many papers to its Monthly Notices, including observations of comets in 1861, 1862 and 1865. On 17 January 1865, like Robert Ellery in Melbourne, K. W. Moesta in Santiago and observers at Cape Town, Abbott spotted with the naked eye a bright new southern comet. In a paper to the Royal Society of Tasmania, June 1863, he was the first astronomer to draw attention to changes on the variable star eta Argus (eta Carinae): 'Since my former notice of this star, April 13th 1861, there has been a considerable diminution both in its size and light, but at no regular intervals'. In 1865 he confirmed his findings in a visit to the Melbourne observatory and again in 1869 when he used the new reflecting telescope there. Later he reported to the Royal Astronomical Society: 'these changes caused great excitement in Europe yet, apart from the Melbourne Observatory, scarcely anyone in the Australian colonies appears to know it … The same physical forces that have worked out our own solar system are still at work in the stellar universe. Creation is still going on, and why not?'

In 1860-74 Abbott published in the Proceedings of the Tasmanian Royal Society a score of papers on astronomy, and others on climatology and his meteorological observations. In addition to seven papers on eta Argus he discussed the disappearance of Jupiter's four moons and the transits of Mercury and Venus. In 1861-68 he presented much of the same material in ten papers to the Royal Astronomical Society. In Hobart he published Modern Astronomy in 1878, Résumé on Modern Astronomy in 1879 and Sidereal Systems of Modern Astronomy, Multiple Suns and Far-off Worlds in 1880.

Abbott was one of the leading astronomers in Australia and collected a large philosophical and scientific library and an assortment of scientific instruments, unique in the colony. One of his bookcases is in the Van Diemen's Land Folk Museum, and many of his scientific instruments were bought by the Melbourne observatory. His transit instrument is at the University of Tasmania. He became a member of the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1855 and a life member and councillor in 1861. By 1869 he was a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and Royal Astronomical Society.

He died on 18 February 1883, leaving an estate of £3070. His wife Mary (1800-1865) and three of their children predeceased him. Charles (1824-1888), a skilled watchmaker and optician, carried on the business after his father's death and William (1830-1887) had a business in Brisbane Street, Launceston. Edward (1828-1877), who arrived in Hobart in 1869, was also a watchmaker and talented organist. Francis junior (1834-1903) became superintendent of the Botanical Gardens, Hobart, in 1859. Alfred (1838-1872), watchmaker, photographer and diarist, married Georgiana, daughter of James Fitzgerald who befriended Thomas Wainewright.

Select Bibliography

  • Wood's Tasmanian Almanack (Launceston, 1851)
  • Tasmanian Cyclopaedia, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 18 May 1849
  • Mercury (Hobart), 20 Feb 1883, 13 Jan 1888, 16 July 1889
  • Alfred Abbott, diaries and papers (privately held).

Citation details

Gordon Rimmer, 'Abbott, Francis (1799–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/abbott-francis-4/text4063, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 July 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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