Society history

The 1950s

We present a collection of information, miscellaneous scans and photos that may bring back memories to some of our long-term members.

The society started life in 1953 as the Junior Astronomical Society. It formed after a group of astronomers decided that not enough was being done for the beginners to astronomy, and in particular youngsters. The founder members included Patrick Moore, Ernest Noon and Eric Turner, all of whom became presidents of the society in its early years. Legend has it that the discussion took place on the steps of the Royal Astronomical Society rooms at Burlington House in Piccadilly, London, following a meeting of the British Astronomical Association.

At that time there were few astronomical resources available other than a few books in public libraries, probably many years out of date. The only astronomical items in the press were brief items buried in the inside pages of the Times and the Telegraph on the first of each month, listing the events that would take place that month. Astronomy stories rarely made the headlines, other than space missions to the planets during the 1960s. So the JAS was one of the few sources of information about what was in the sky for many budding astronomers.

Here is a scan of the first printed issue of the society magazine, then called Junior Astronomer (2 MB PDF), dated June 1953. In its pages the first president, Eric Turner, made it clear that the term ‘Junior’ referred not to age but to all people who were juniors in astronomy. There is also an article by Dr J G Porter, who became our first Patron.

Further scans currently available:

Junior Astronomer, Volume 1 No 2, August 1953 (1.5 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer, Volume 1 No 3, October 1953 (2 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer, Volume 1 No 4, December 1953 (1.9 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer Vol 1 No 5 and 6. March 1954 (1 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer, Volume 2 No 1, June 1954 (0.9 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer, Volume 2 No 2, October 1954 (0.8 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer, Volume 2 No 3, January 1955 (1 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer, Volume 2 No 4, April 1955 (0.9 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer, Volume 2 No 5, June 1955 (1 MB PDF)

Junior Astronomer, Volume 2 No 6, October 1955 (1 MB PDF)

The 1960s

In those days the majority of members were indeed teenaged, with a few elder statesmen keeping the society on track. Curiously, for a society with young members, London meetings in the early 1960s started at 6 pm on a Saturday night and finished at 9 pm. London was a safer place then.

Meetings were held at Caxton Hall in Victoria, a venue best known for its Register Office, which was the scene of many celebrity weddings including those of Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr. The JAS met in the Tudor Room, upstairs, which had rather spartan seating for about 130 people and a grand chair for the chairman of the meeting, which was rarely used in our meetings as it was behind the projection screen.

Caxton Hall meeting with Peter Lancaster Brown
Caxton Hall meeting with Peter Lancaster Brown in the chair (left) and Alan Hunter of the RGO at right. (1969-71)

The Tudor Room had been the location of the murder in 1940 of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who had been responsible for the notorious 1919 Amritsar massacre in India. None of us younger members were aware of this!

The society magazine, at that time quarterly, was renamed Hermes after the first few issues.

Hermes Vol 8 No 1, October 1960 (2.2 MB PDF)

Hermes Vol 8 No 2, January 1961 (1.8 MB PDF)

Hermes Vol 8 No 3, April 1961 (1.8 MB PDF)

Hermes Vol 8 No 4, July 1961 (1.8 MB PDF)

Hermes Vol 9 No 1, October 1961 (2.1 MB PDF)

Hermes Vol 9 No 2, January 1962 (2.4 MB PDF)

Hermes Vol 9 No 3, April 1962 (1.4 MB PDF)

Hermes Vol 9 No 4, July 1962 (2.4 MB PDF)

Hermes Vol 10 No 1 October 1962 (2.2 MB PDF)

Here are scans of copies of Hermes from July 1966 to October 1968, made by Jon Gregory of St Benedict’s Catholic Secondary School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. The copies were donated to the school by a former member, now Prof. Ian Williams of the University of Bath. Please note that the resolution has been limited to avoid large downloads.

July 1966 (2.5 MB PDF)

October 1966 (3 MB PDF)

January 1967 (3.4 MB PDF)

April 1967 (2.7 MB PDF)

July 1967 (2.5 MB PDF)

October 1967 (2.5 MB PDF)

January 1968 (2.1 MB PDF)

April 1968 (1.6 MB PDF)

July 1968 (1.9 MB PDF)

October 1968 (4.2 MB PDF)

From 1966 onwards an additional publication was inaugurated, the JAS News Circulars. These were produced with a rapid turnaround, so as to be able to feature news from the observing sections and to report discoveries of new bright objects such as novae and comets. At that time, news of such events was slow to spread around even the professional astronomical community. A few observatories received telegrams about discoveries, but most information was sent out by mail from the International Astronomical Union in the USA.

On one occasion, JAS members received news of a nova discovery within a day or so as a result of rapid work, such as sticking printed labels on the back of envelopes that happened to be already addressed for mailing out!

1970s onwards

From 1970, meetings were held at Alliance Hall nearby, then briefly in 1977 and 1978 the Swedenborg Society. Subsequently we met at Holborn Public Library (1980-1993); The University of Westminster (1993-2001); St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington (2002-2006); the School of Oriental and African Studies (2006-2017); and University College London (2018-2020).

In 1980 the magazine changed its name to Popular Astronomy, and in 1992 the name of the society followed suit after much discussion.

The society celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003 and the magazine carried a list of society officials from its inception up to that time, which you can read here.

Members remember

Here are some memories from members of their early days as astronomers.

Prof Stuart Malin – Memories of Astronomy Back in the Day