Barnacle, Henry Glanville – astronomer

See also Septimus Tebay: another Preston mathematician and astronomer

Group photo of the members of the 1874 Transit of Venus expedition to Hawaii
The members of the British 1874 Transit of Venus expedition to Hawaii. Henry Barnacle is the figure sprawled at the front of the group. It appears on page 194 of a paper by Michael E. Chauvin entitled ‘Astronomy in the Sandwich Islands: The 1874 Transit of Venus’ in The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 27 (1993). Prof Chauvin’s short article provides a very readable guide to the expedition. Download it here.

In all the various articles, biographies and obituaries relating to the Rev Henry Glanville Barnacle, the one event in his life that is invariably remarked on is his time as an astronomical observer on the 1874 Transit of Venus expedition to Hawaii. And yet it is probably the event in his life he would most wish forgotten.

His other achievements included Cambridge degrees, a long clerical career in England and Australia, a reputation as an expert conchologist, and, what links him to this website, his time as principal of St John’s College at Grimsargh. But none of these distinguishes him from his fellows.

For a full explanation of the transit of Venus, the 1874 expedition and its importance in the study of astronomy see this article in the Cambridge Digital Library.

It was his inclusion on the Transit of Venus astronomical expedition to what were then known as the Sandwich Islands that ‘made his name’, as in his entry in the Shrewsbury School register of old boys here in which his position on the expedition is singled out for particular notice:

Henry Barnacle's entry in the Shrewsbury School register
And in his entry in the list of Cambridge alumni, the expedition and his fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society are again highlighted:

Henry barnacle's entry in the Venn list of Cambridge alumni
In the Wikipedia article on the expedition there is no indication of any problems:

The Sandwich Islands team was composed of seven observers – Professor George Forbes, Henry Glanville Barnacle, John Walter Nichol, Lieutenant Francis Edward Ramsden, Lieutenant E. J. W. Noble, Captain George Lyon Tupman, and Richard Johnson – plus three Sappers of the Royal Engineers. In June 1874, the team left Liverpool in two groups carrying 93 tons of provisions on HMS Scout. They stopped along the way and met up in Valparaíso, Chile; they reached Honolulu Harbor on 9 September. The voyage out, and the rest of the expedition, were depicted in a series of caricature drawings by Lieutenant Noble, which have been digitised. [1]

The caricatures by Lieutenant Noble mentioned tell a different story.

In the record of his time as perpetual curate of Holmes Chapel in the parish of Sandbach in Cheshire the expedition is again at the head of the list of his achievements [2]:

Entry for Henry Barnacle in the 'History of Sandbach@
His obituary in the Royal Astronomical Society journal pays particular attention to his membership of the expedition, including the fact that he was ‘the donor of a telescope for this expedition’ [3]:

Royal Astronomical Society obituary for Henry Barnacle
And yet the Transit of Venus expedition was possibly the biggest and most embarrassing failure of Barnacle’s long life. The published short biographies above bear little relation to the account of his time on the Sandwich Islands revealed in unpublished journals kept by other members of the expedition, deposited in the Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives and now available on line. [4]

The journals were kept by Capt George Lyon Tupman, the expedition leader; Professor George Forbes, who at 25 was the same age as Barnacle and lead astronomer on the observation sub-station to which he and Barnacle were assigned; and Lieutenant Evelyn Noble, who filled his journal with caricature sketches of expedition life.

Prof Forbes’ journal contains the following entries relating to Barnacle, with a rather damning addition by the expedition leader Capt. Tupman:

September 9. Arrived at Honolulu.
After the instruments for Honolulu were pretty well in order I unpacked and mounted the Garnett transit so that Mr Barnacle might have some practice; his observations at Greenwich having been of a desultory nature, and his reductions of observations unsatisfactory.

October 5-7. I was occupied in adjusting the instrument and placing it in the meridian. From this time until we left Honolulu Mr Barnacle [occasion crossed out] made observations. [The following words crossed out: ‘These were unsatisfactory, and his reductions showed such ignorance of the elements of astronomy that I … gave up thoughts of wasting time by attempting to instruct him.’]

In the margin of the facing page, Tupman has added and initialled the following comment:

Mr Barnacle’s conduct at Honolulu was so extraordinary, we, and I may say the entire community, thought he had gone out of his mind. I sent him home immediately after the transit, and perhaps ought to have done so before. GT

In his own journal Tupman writes:

Nov 1. … Mr. Barnacle is apparently out of his mind. Nothing will induce him to discontinue playing the same tune over and over again on the piano forte. I doubt if I ought to send him back to England immediately, as it is almost impossible to get any work of him & no faith can be placed in anything he says …

After the 8/9 December transit Prof Forbes adds the following:

December 17 Thursday. … Mr Barnacle received notice from Capt. Tupman to prepare to leave for England by the next mail.

January 2. Saturday. … A schooner was leaving today for Honolulu, so Messrs. Biggs and Barnacle left in her, the former to rejoin his ship, the latter to catch the English mail.

Tupman in his journal briefly records Barnacle’s departure, and gives a final verdict on his departing astronomer:

Jan 11. … Mail left for San Francisco Mr Barnacle sent in her as he is no manner of use here and brings daily fresh discredit on the expedition …

Did Barnacle take his telescope with him?

In the official report of the exhibition published six years later, which stretched to 512 pages plus appendices, there is not a single mention of Barnacle: the other six observers who accompanied him on the expedition are mentioned and their contributions acknowledged. The report thanks the various persons who contributed instruments for use on the exhibition as in the following:

Professor Forbes was supplied with a fine transit instrument by Messrs. T. Cooke and Sons, which was kindly lent to the Astronomer Royal by WILLIAM GARNETT, Esq., of Bashall Lodge, Clitheroe. [5]

There is no mention of Barnacle’s telescope.

Some rather cruel and unflattering caricatures of the unfortunate astronomer can be found in one of the journals kept by Lieutenant Evelyn Noble.

It was a sad end to Barnacle’s career as an astronomer. After leaving Cambridge, he had gone to work with Prof George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal, at Greenwich, and in the year that he joined the expedition he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. [6]

On his return, Barnacle resigned his position at the Greenwich Observatory and became an assistant master at Chigwell School in Essex, and then took holy orders, serving as a curate in various churches. While at his final posting as a curate or possibly as vicar in Gleadless, Yorkshire, he married Sophia Lucy Yorke, daughter of the vicar of Marbury in Cheshire.

In 1882 he was appointed vicar or perpetual curate of Holmes Chapel, part of the parish of Sandbach in Cheshire. This was by no means a lucrative position, as Earwaker, the historian of Sandbach parish notes, ‘The stipend paid to the Incumbents has always been small’. [7] Given that by the time they left Holmes Chapel the couple had seven children (another had died) [8] their life probably resembled that of one of the impoverished curates in Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles.

St John's College, Grimsargh, lancashire
St John’s College, Grimsargh: the home of Henry Barnacle and his family in the first years of the last century. From Tom Smith’s History of Longridge (facing p216)

Barnacle left Holmes Chapel to take up his post at Preston as the principal of St John’s College, Grimsargh, in 1898. The college was well-established, with ‘upwards of 100’ pupils a few years before his arrival. [9]

The 1901 census finds Barnacle, aged 52, living at the college with his family, another schoolmaster, nine servants and 18 boarding pupils. Although the official records above show him at Grimsargh until 1907, he is still there in 1911, according to the census of that year, living with his family, a son-in-law schoolmaster, four servants and four pupils.

While at the college he appears to have involved himself to some extent in the life of Preston and interested himself in its history, to judge from a lecture he gave entitled ‘Old Preston – Contrasts and Curiosities’, a report of which was published in the Preston Guardian of 30 March 1901.

Possibly the college was failing and it was that which prompted him to take his family to Australia at the age of 61 in 1911, to become rector in the town of Mount Barker in Western Australia. He served there and in Rosalie, now a district of Perth, until his retirement in 1933. He died at the age of 89 in 1938 in Subiaco, Perth.

While in Australia he continued his interest in astronomy, becoming a founding member of the West Australian Astronomy Society. He was also continuing his interest in conchology, a study in which he had begun showing an interest while on the Transit of Venus expedition. The criticisms of his observational skills by other members of the expedition might also have applied to his study of snails, with Barnacle mixing up his molluscs, to judge by the following:

In 1874 Henry collected a snail shell from “Hawaii, 8 miles away from Kailua [Kona]”. This shell was described by E.A. Smith in 1877 as Helix barnaclei in the genus Papuina. No similar or related species has ever been recorded from the Hawaiian Islands but Smith was convinced at the time, following correspondence with Henry, that the locality was correct. Nevertheless Smith knew that the new species was almost identical to a snail from the Admiralty Islands, but he recognised it as different due to the distance between the two localities. Subsequent surveys of the area did not result in the discovery of any further specimens and its presence in Hawaii may have been a temporary introduction or, perhaps more likely, Henry had just muddled up his labelling!

When Barnacle sailed for Australia his eldest son, Granville Alban Barnacle, set out for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to become a tea and rubber planter. While there he followed his father’s interest in snail studies.

A final Preston connection comes in 1922 when Barnacle junior was back in England. He visited the town and while there married Lesley Hazelgrove. The newly-weds sailed back to Ceylon, returning to England in the 1930s. He died in 1980 at the age of 95 shortly after his final journal article was published: Barnacle, G.A.S (1980) A Caribbean land shell in Lancashire. Conchologist’s Newsletter. No. 72, 217.

The above information on the Barnacles’ interest in shell study is taken from a detailed and well-written account by Peter Topley in the journal Mollusc World. [10]

[1] ‘1874 Transit of Venus Expedition to Hawaii’, in Wikipedia, n.d.,
[2] John Parsons Earwaker, Holmes Chapel (Chapelry), and Goostrey (Chapelry), The History of the Ancient Parish of Sandbach, Co. Chester. Including the Two Chapelries of Holmes Chapel and Goostry. From Original Records ([London Redhill, Printed by the Hansard publishing union] for private circulation, 1890), 176,
[3] ‘Obituary Notices: Fellows:- Barnacle, H. Glanville’, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 99, no. 4 (1939): 298,
[4] ‘Transit of Venus : G.L. Tupman Private Journal 1875. Age 36.’, Cambridge Digital Library, n.d.,; ‘Transit of Venus : Honolulu Station Journal (Kailua Sub Station)’, Cambridge Digital Library, n.d.,; ‘Transit of Venus : The Life & Adventures of Station B, Album 1’, Cambridge Digital Library, n.d.,
[5] George Biddell Airy, Account of Observations of the Transit of Venus, 1874, December 8 : Made under the Authority of the British Government : And of the Reduction of the Observations (London: Printed for H.M. Stationery Off., under the authority of the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury, 1881), 213,
[6] G. B. Airy, ‘Henry Glanville Barnacle, Esq., 3 Park Terrace, Greenwich’;, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 34, no. 7 (8 May 1874),
[7] Earwaker, Holmes Chapel (Chapelry), and Goostrey (Chapelry), The History of the Ancient Parish of Sandbach, Co. Chester. Including the Two Chapelries of Holmes Chapel and Goostry. From Original Records, 169.
[8] ‘Class: RG13; Piece: 3960; Folio: 54; Page: 2’, 1901 England Census –, n.d.,; ‘Class: RG14; Piece: 25349; Page: 1’, 1911 England Census –, n.d.,
[9] Thomas Charles Smith, A History of Longridge and District (Preston: Printed by C.W. Whitehead, 1888), 216–17,
[10] Peter Topley, ‘H.G. Barnacle (1849-1938) and G.A.S. Barnacle (1885-1980): Father and Son Conchologists’, Mollusc World, no. 18 (November 2008): 4–6,

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