Mrs Janet Taylor — 19th Century Pioneer of Sea Navigation by John S. Croucher
On 4 February 1870 the Durham County Advertiser included the following short obituary: At the vicarage, St Helen’s Auckland, at the house of her brother-in- law, 21st ult,. Mrs Janet Taylor, fourth daughter of the late Rev Peter lonn, vicar of Sately in this county. She was the authoresss of several books on Navigation and Astronomy and a few years ago a pension was granted to her for her services by the Government.
In a few short lines were concentrated the barest of outlines of the career of an extraordinary woman, who in the very male world of sea navigation made a distinct mark. Others wrote of her in a few tributes, dotted over the years: that she was a ‘competent astronomer’, that her books were ‘of the best’ of their kind, that she was an instructor ‘without equal in her day’ and that her ‘Nautical Academy’ was ‘much patronised’ by naval and merchant seamen. Her youngest brother wrote simply that she was ‘the Great Gun of our family’.
I knew that Janet Taylor was an interesting relative — my great-great-great-great aunt. I am descended from her eldest brother William, and like Janet, I am a mathematician and teacher. I was intrigued by my super-talented ‘aunt’, and the mathematical ‘gene’ that connected us. Just how extraordinary she was I was determined to uncover. What started as a journey of curiosity resulted in a determination to tell her story, to fill in a unique, and missing, piece in the history of sea navigation.
After the death of her mother when she was just seven years old, Janet gained a scholarship at the precociously young age of nine, to attend Queen Charlotte’s school in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where the other girls were all aged over 14. Her life thereafter took her into the heart of maritime London.
Her father, the curate of the church of St Mary and St Stephen and schoolmaster of the Free Grammar School at Wolsingham, inspired her in the wonders of navigation. She became a prodigious author of nautical treatises and textbooks, born of a fascination in particular in measuring longitude by the lunar distance method. She conducted her own Nautical Academy in Minories in the east end of the City, not far from the Tower of London; she was a sub-agent for Admiralty charts; ran a manufacturing business for nautical instruments, many of which she designed herself; and embarked on the business of compass adjusting at the height of the controversies generated by magnetic deviation and distortions on iron ships.
Through her scientific work Janet established a respectful correspondence with those in the highest positions in the maritime community: men like the head of the Admiralty’s Hydrographic Office, Captain, later Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, and Professor Sir George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Where they were hesitant at first in their engagement with Mrs Taylor, she clearly won their support and respect.
In 1835, in consideration of ‘services she has extended to seamen’, through her Lunar Tables, the Admiralty awarded her £100 ‘from scientific funds’, a ‘handsome pecuniary award’. She was similarly honoured by the two other members of the ‘big three’ of the 19th century maritime world in Britain: the Elder Brethren of Trinity House and the East India Company. She also received international recognition for her contributions: gold medals from the King of Holland and King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia; and, by 1844, a medal from the Pope. Then in 1860 her contributions to navigation were acknowledged by her own country when she was awarded a civil list pension of £50 per year, ‘In consideration of her benevolent labours among the seafaring population of London’.
Like women of her time, she had many children, eight of her own and three step-children, but it was her contributions to science and to navigation that are to be remembered. So little of her story has so far been told and there is so much more to know.
Ten days after her death in 1870, an obituary published in The Athenaeum concluded by saying: “Perhaps some surviving relative or friend may be able to throw light on the life and labours of one who was as extraordinary from her acquirements of knowledge as from her social reticence.”
And so, some 150 years after her passing, I am that relative – seeking to introduce my brilliant, great-great-great-great aunt to a wider public to give her the proper recognition she deserves. Over the past decade my labours in uncovering my aunt’s story, a journey in which my wife Rosalind also enthusiastically joined, has resulted in a biography, in the hope that, in a small way, Janet Taylor’s story may now be seen in the light it deserves: the story of an extraordinary pioneer of sea navigation.
John S. Croucher & Rosalind F. Croucher's new book Mistress of Science is available for purchase now.