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John Oswin

An early example of an amateur astronomer amongst the "middling sort" can be found in the life of John Oswin (c1735-1800), a banking clerk resident in Coventry. He appears to have been fairly well off, owning property in the Jordan's Well area of the city and leasing it to other residents. Little detail is known of his life but his will was proved in the records of the Dioceses of Litchfield and Coventry on 10th October 1800, and reveals a strong interest in scientific enquiry.

His will assigns his land titles and clothes to his son Thomas, and an annuity and his furniture to his (second) wife Catherine (who he married in Coventry in 1777). Interestingly though, he also assigns Thomas:

"all my Mechanical and Astronomical Machines (that is to say) my barometer, cometarium, jupitarium, orrery and diarium, as a memorial to be preserved in remembrance of me."

Extract from the will of John Oswin of Coventry (1800)

That he associates these instruments so strongly with himself and his memory is perhaps indicative of the depth of his interests. A barometer is a meteorological instrument for measuring pressure. A cometarium was a device to demonstrator Kepler's laws, with a token sweeping out equal areas in equal times. An orrery is a mechanical representation of the orbits of planets around the sun in the solar system. The two remaining terms are a little more obscure, although a jupitarium likely describes an orrery which prominently features the orbits of the Gallilean moons around Jupiter.

While it is not clear whether the legatee Thomas Oswin (1774-1834), a silk manufacturer, was himself interested in scientific enquiry, evidently he did indeed keep the machines in question in the family. His daughter, Sarah (1798-1878) married Timothy Glennan, one of Coventry's early postmasters, and worked for decades as a post office clerk. When she died, her will left a range of bequests including to family, friends and charity, but importantly added "an electrifying machine and astronomical instruments" should be left to John Wyley (a wholesale druggist in Coventry) - quite likely including those belonging to her grandfather.

This was a fairly well-to-do family. Both Timothy Glennan and John Wyley were members of the city council in the 1860s and Glennan, despite his postmaster duties described himself as a gentleman. But nonetheless these men are part of the commercial culture of the city, and are a long way from being gentry of independent means, and so this history gives an interesting insight to the interest in astronomy and other sciences amongst the professional and merchant class of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Sources/Key dates:

1800: Will of John Oswin, banking clerk. Records of the Dioceses of Litchfield and Coventry, Staffordshire Record Office.

1846: Timothy Glennan, postmaster, stands unsuccessfully for Spon End ward of the City Council. Coventry Standard, 6th Nov 1846

1851, 1861: UK census returns for Timothy and Sarah Glennan

1862: City Council members - Coventry Standard, 1st November 1862

1878: Will of Sarah Glennan.