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Walter Frederick Gale (1865–1945)

by Harley Wood

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Walter Frederick Gale (1865-1945), banker and astronomer, was born on 27 November 1865 at Paddington, Sydney, son of Henry Gale and his wife Susannah Gordon, widow of F. F. Phillips and daughter of Charles Windeyer. He was educated at Paddington House School. After five years working in insurance and commercial offices, he joined the Savings Bank of New South Wales in 1888. In 1897 he was appointed accountant at the Newcastle branch, in 1914 manager at Newtown (after it was amalgamated with the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales), in 1916 manager at Barrack Street, Sydney, and in 1917 manager and chief inspector at the head office. After retiring in 1925 he was manager of Hoskins Investments Ltd until 1938.

Gale's interest in astronomy was stimulated by his father and firmly established by the appearance of the Great Comet of 1882. About 1884 he built a telescope with an 18-cm mirror, the first of many that he owned. Elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, in 1893, that year he visited Chile with a Lick Observatory eclipse expedition, and observatories in the United States of America. He valued the contacts then made.

Back in Australia, Gale was a founder and organizing secretary in 1894 of the New South Wales branch of the British Astronomical Association and then secretary for several years. Later he was president for twenty years. He formed the habit of sweeping the sky on every clear night and discovered independently seven comets. In three cases, 1894 II, 1912 II and 1927 VI, priority was recognized by attaching his name to the comet. He also discovered some double stars which bear his name and a ring nebula. He was leader of a party to observe the eclipse of 1922 at Stanthorpe, Queensland.

An assiduous observer of the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, Gale published drawings in the Journal and Memoirs of the British Astronomical Association. He examined surface features of Mars, being first to note some, and was an ardent supporter of the suggestion of life on the planet. On the other hand, he was one who held that the great turbulent activity in the atmosphere of Jupiter must be evidence of an internal energy source—this is now recognized.

When the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales closed in 1931 Gale became chairman of a committee formed to protect depositors, and had to control several turbulent meetings, one by getting the Town Hall organist to drown the noise. His interests included coins, stamps and handwriting; he regularly played cards, solo and poker. In all his fields he was prepared to assist and advise others, particularly the young, and was a frequent and able public lecturer on astronomy.

Gale twice received awards from the (Thomas) Donovan Trust and in 1935 the Jackson-Gwilt medal of the Royal Astronomical Society 'for his discoveries of comets and his work for astronomy in New South Wales'. He was chairman of the board of visitors of Sydney Observatory and a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales in 1913-37.

Gale's usual sweep of the sky was frustrated by cloud on 1 June 1945; later that night he died in a few minutes from a heart attack; he was cremated. He was survived by his wife, Violet Marion, née Birkenhead, whom he had married on 28 June 1899 at St Mary's Anglican Church, West Maitland; and by two sons and four daughters. A portrait of Gale by G. F. Harris is held by his descendants.  A crater on the planet Mars is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Journal of Science, 8 (1945), p 73
  • A. W. W. Gale, ‘Life and work of W. F. Gale’, British Astronomical Association, Journal, 56 (1945), p 18
  • Roy Astronomical Society, Monthly Notice, 106 (1946), p 29
  • British Astronomical Association (New South Wales branch)
  • Bulletin, 1964, no 441
  • Commonwealth Bank Archives, Sydney
  • family records.

Citation details

Harley Wood, 'Gale, Walter Frederick (1865–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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