Where, in the Ripon area, can you find an internationally-famous astronomer buried in a grave marked with a small pyramid-shaped monument and why?
The answers can be found in the churchyard of St John’s Sharow, where Charles Piazzi Smyth was laid to rest following his death on 21 February 1900.
Smyth was born in Naples on 3 January 1819. At the age of 26 he became the youngest-ever Astronomer Royal for Scotland — a title given to the director of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.
Smyth, who held the position for more than 40 years, was also professor of astronomy at Edinburgh University.
He has the distinction of being the man behind the introduction of Edinburgh Castle’s one o’clock gun, which is fired six days a week as a guide to shipping.
In an era of unprecedented industrial growth, which saw polluted skies obscure the stars, Smyth literally took his career to new heights when he and his wife climbed the mountains of Tenerife and used a 7.5 inch refracting telescope to view the night sky at altitude.
His pioneering work demonstrated the need for observatories to be located on high ground to achieve best results and he set the standard for astronomers across the globe, which saw him named as the ‘father of mountain astronomy’.
Move to Ripon
Claims made in his 1864 book The Great Pyramid: Its Secrets and Mysteries Revealed, including a conclusion that its construction was ‘guided by the hand of God’ were criticised and rejected by many of the scientific community and 10 years later, he resigned from The Royal Society.
Following his retirement in 1888, Smyth and his wife left Scotland and moved to a house called Clova, in Clotherholme Road, Ripon, where they lived in relative obscurity, away from members of Edinburgh’s scientific elite, who had turned their backs on him.
Smyth, who was also an accomplished photographer, artist and meteorologist, shares his grave in Sharow with his wife, Jessie, who died four years earlier.
A snapshot of their remarkable time together is captured in the words of a weather-beaten epitaph on the pyramid.
It says that Jessie was:
“His faithful and sympathetic friend and companion, through 40 years of varied scientific experiences, by land and sea abroad as well as at home, at 12,000 feet up in the atmosphere, on the wind swept peak of Tenerife, as well as underneath and upon the Great Pyramid of Egypt.
The reference to the Great Pyramid at Giza provides the reason for their unusual memorial.
In his epitaph, where key words are emphasised by capital letters, a posthumous message conveying the hurt feelings he took to his grave can be seen.
“As Bold in enterprise as he was Resolute in demanding a proper measure of public sympathy and support for Astronomy in Scotland, he was not less a living emblem of pious patience under Troubles and Afflictions and he has sunk to rest, laden with well-earned Scientific Honours, a Bright Star in the Firmament of Ardent Explorers of the Works of their Creator.”