HISTORY: NAS is one of the oldest societies in the region; it was founded 105 years ago: in 1904.
The Society was formed after a series of Adult Education lectures on astronomy. These were given at the Lit. and Phil. in Newcastle by the well known astronomer Rev T.E.R. Phillips in the autumn of 1903. Soon afterwards, at the beginning of 1904, his students had a meeting and decided to form an astronomical society. Progress was rapid. Only two weeks later, at the third meeting, rules were adopted and a list of officers approved. The noted astronomer Rev. Thomas (T.H.E.C.) Espin, Vicar of Tow Law, was elected as first President, while Rev Phillips became Vice-President. Meetings were first held at the Lit. and Phil.
Those were exciting days in astronomy, with many major developments; the most notable event around this time was the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1905. So it was an auspicious time to start an astronomical Society. Already, in the early years of the Society, many notable astronomers lectured to its members: people like R.A. Sampson, H.F. Newall, and Sir Frank Dyson - then Astronomer Royal - and Rev Phillips, by then President of the RAS.
Espin himself - the first of only six presidents in 105 years - was President of NAS for fully 30 years - until his death in 1934. Previously he had been President of the Liverpool Astronomical Society. He divided his time between his duties as Vicar of Tow Law and his scientific pursuits - astronomy and X— ray studies - at Wolsingham Observatory. Espin spent many years observing and cataloguing double stars. In 1910, he achieved international fame with his discovery of a nova (Nova Lacertae).
The Society ceased activities during the First World War. In 1929, the meetings began to be held at Armstrong College and by the 1930s, membership had increased to 90. Following the death of Espin in 1934, Rev T.E.R. Phillips became the new President. Guest speakers at this period included Abbe Lemaitre and Harold Spencer Jones, who later became Astronomer Royal. One of the best known members was Frank Acfield, a keen observer, who joined the Society in 1935 and served it for many years. He was well known for his regular newspaper column.
In 1939, the Society closed down for a second time because of the World War, but when it resumed activities, in 1944, the membership was 62.
By 1951 the Society had as many as 125 members, which seems to have been a maximum. But by the early 1960s membership had fallen to the 60 mark and average meeting attendances were 40. At a committee meeting, the President, Prof G. Goldsborough, of King’s College, attributed the fall in membership to the competition of television - anything new! There was a second peak in membership in the 1970s, but over the past 25 years or so membership has stayed around the 40 mark.
Prof Goldsbrough was NAS President for 20 years: from 1944 - 1964. On his death G.M. Sisson, Managing Director of Grubb Parsons, took over. Thus began close links between Grubb Parsons and the NAS, which – despite the closure of GP in the 1980s - has still continued with the annual Grubb Parsons Lecture. Later Presidents were Dr David Turnbull, Principal of South Tyneside College (1974 - 1986) and latterly - since 1986 - Prof Richard Stephenson, of Durham University. It seems that NAS Presidents tend to hold office for long periods - average nearly 20 years.
One of our most colourful characters in the NAS was David Sinden. He was Floor Manager of the optical shop at Grubb Parsons and after the firm closed he set up the Sinden Optical Company at Blaydon. David, who died in 2005, was responsible for building several large telescopes worldwide. It was through him that Newcastle University acquired the 24-inch telescope.
MEETING PLACES :
1929 - 2000 Newcastle University.
2001 - 2015 Red Cross House, near the General Hospital. Which accommodates about 40 people and ideally suited for our meetings.
2016 to date - Summerhill - Current location can support 100 + members and visitors with outside space for telescopes. JAG2021
LECTURES: The main emphasis of NAS is on lectures, although several members have a keen interest in observing. Between September and April or May we have regular monthly lectures on Thursday evenings at 7.00 p.m. Most of our speakers come from nearby - for instance from Durham University where there is a large astronomy group. Speakers from Durham have included Sir Arnold Wolfendale, Prof Richard Ellis, Prof Carlos Frenk and Rev Dr David Wilkinson.
Each year we also have one or more talks by members: on topics such as: “A Universe in your PC”; “Sky Pollution”, “Guiding a Telescope.” Programmes in recent years have been a mixture of academic lectures and more popular - practical - talks including astronomical photography. There are also occasional exhibitions.
For more than twenty years we have held a joint meeting with the North-East branch of the Institute of Physics - usually in November or December. On these occasions we invite a keynote speaker. Last year, Steve Barrett from Liverpool University gave a lecture entitled: “The 2006 solar eclipse in Libya”. This November, the speaker will be Dr Ryan Hickox - who is currently at Harvard Observatory but will soon be coming to Durham University on a three-year research fellowship. His topic will be “Black holes.”
EQUIPMENT: The Society has no fixed observatory. However, it owns several good telescopes: For instance, a portable computer controlled 6-inch ETX Meade (purchased in memory of former society member Joe McKie), and a 15-inch Dobsonian reflector (largely assembled by past members). There are also two 5-inch relectors manufactured by David Sinden.
We now have a Number of GOTO telescope including 12" lx200 Meade on EQ8 mount - with internet access comtrol JAG 2021
Several members also own some fine optical equipment. Over many years the 24-inch telescope at Close House, Wylam was frequently used by members; this instrument - which is still available for use by Society members, by arrangement - originally belonged to Rev Thomas Espin himself.
OBSERVING: Observing conditions in the city are poor, both on account of street lighting and obstruction by buildings. However, for several years we have held star parties and observing sessions at Vallum Farm - along the Military Road, a few miles west of Heddon. Here the sky is fairly dark, with a good horizon and plenty of space to set up equipment. The owners of the farm have more than a passing interest in astronomy and often provide refreshments. Observing sessions, co-ordinated by Simon Murray, are usually well attended.
For the past 10 years we've used our club site at Blagdon - quite dark and 20 mins form Newcastle by car. JAG2021
MEMBERSHIP: Currently we have about 40 members. We also have a very active committee. At most meetings we usually have 25 members, together with one or two visitors. We would like to attract new members, especially in the younger age bracket, but membership numbers have remained fairly static for a long time. Information about the Society is posted on our website: (www.newastosoc.co.uk).
Lately we have been updating our membership list, contacting former members who have not been attending meetings for some considerable time.
THE FUTURE: Over the next few years we expect to follow much the current pattern of monthly lectures, but with more frequent observing sessions - e.g meteor observing this coming November. We are keen to develop closer links with other astronomical societies in the area - e.g. by exchanging speakers - but it is fair to say that we prefer to retain a degree of autonomy.
In 2021 we will be consulting the membership and designing a 5 year plan to meet their needs - along with their commitment JAG 2021
Professor Stepehnson 2009
Edited JAG 2021