Skip to main content

Ely Observatory Solar Plates Contact Prints: from Canon William Selwyn's observatory, 1863-02-11 - 1874-02-25

Reference Code: GBR/0180/RGO 202

Scope and Contents

The prints span an eleven year period ostensibly to record a whole solar or sunspot cycle. That the purpose of the exercise may have been to investigate the supposed effect of planetary configuration on the abundance of solar spots is indicated by the presence of charts of planetary positions pasted on the verso of the mount boards and corresponding in date precisely to the prints.


  • Creation: 1863-02-11 - 1874-02-25


Conditions Governing Access

From the Management Group:

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Biographical / Historical

William Selwyn was born on 19 February 1806. He attended Eton before entering St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1828; M.A., 1831; D.D., 1864), where he was a Fellow, 1829-1832. He was ordained deacon in 1829, and priest in 1831, and was Rector of Branstone, Leicestershire, 1831-1846; Vicar of Melbourne, Cambridgeshire, 1846-1853; and Canon Residentiary of Ely, 1833-1875. He was Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, 1855-1875, and became Honorary Joint Curator of Lambeth Library in 1872. He died in Cambridge on 24 April 1875. While Selwyn instigated the production of RGO 202, and indeed was elected fellow of the Royal Society on 7 June 1866 on the strength of ''having applied photography in making numerous records of the state of the Sun's disk'', the actual execution of the observations was undertaken by one John Titterton. He is listed as a ''photographic artist and tobacconist'' of St Mary's Street, Ely by the Post Office Directory of Cambridge, Norfolk and Suffolk, 1869 (see also the annotation to mount board RGO 202/67). Titterton used a six inch achromatic lens (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. xxxVI, p. 147) which may have been formally set up within an observing dome (letter: GBR/0275/Adams/15/46/2, see below for more details) itself thought to have been located within 'The College' of Ely Cathedral.


245 object(s) (1627 contact prints on 245 mount boards) : photograph/card

Language of Materials


Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

The collection has been exposed to damp conditions and shows some foxing, mould damage, minor insect damage and bleeding of colour from the planetary charts into the surfaces of the prints.

Former / Other Reference

RGO 51/8001-8245

Other Finding Aids

A handlist is kept in the Manuscripts Reading Room but contains a considerable number of keying error rectified in this electronic version. A tabulated catalogue, combined with other RGO solar image lists, and which may be sorted by various data e.g. former reference.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

It is probable that William Selwyn deposited this set of prints with the Royal Greenwich Observatory shortly after their production (however see note re the deposit of copies at St John's College Library, Cambridge below) . At some stage the provenance of the prints became obscured and they were classified with RGO 51 until 1995 when the present classmark was assigned.

Existence and Location of Copies

A duplicate set of prints was deposited by Mrs Juliana Elizabeth Selwyn, William Selwyn's widow, with St John's College Library, Cambridge at an unknown date (pre 1891). A further set of prints are held by the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy are part of the HIN451 Solar Photographs group. The prints are thought to have been made from the original glass plate negatives by the Solar Physics Observatory, before the institution came to Cambridge in 1914.

Related Materials

Seven solar photographs taken by William Selwyn at Ely in 1861 are amongst the papers of George Airy together with a letter from Airy acknowledging their receipt and advising on their improvement (classmark: RGO 6/253 folios 101-4. Correspondence between P.S. Laurie and Miss E.C. Titterton re John Titterton in 1989 is to be found at RGO 10/716/2. Further records of solar observations can be found in classmarks RGO 50, RO and RGO Solar Plates; RGO 51, RO and RGO Solar Plates Contact Prints; RGO 57, Kew Observatory sunspot observations; RGO 58, Heinrich Samuel Schwabe: sunspot drawings; RGO 64, RGO Solar Department: papers; RGO 65, RGO Herstmonceux Solar Records: Lyot filter negative films; RGO 81, Observations of the minor planet Eros to determine the solar parallax: papers and records; RGO 138, RGO Solar Eclipse Plates and Photographs; RGO 143, Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope Solar Records: Lyot filter negative films and records; RGO 144, Stonyhurst College and Zurich Observatories: sunspot drawings; RGO 157, RGO Solar Observation Records (including photoheliograph registers); and RGO 169, Royal Observatory and RGO Solar Eclipse expeditions: records.

Related Materials

Two letters of 1862 and 3 from William Selwyn to John Crouch Adams and James Challis re the dome of an observatory at Ely and the theft of a lens are amongst the papers of Adams held by St John's College Library, Cambridge (classmarks: GBR/0275/Adams/15/46/2 and 24/30/1).


The online catalogue for Janus was largely compiled from an existing list in June 2009 by Zoe A. Rees, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives. The biographical history was produced with reference to the entry on William Selwyn in J.A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, part II, vol. V (Cambridge University Press, 1953), p. 462.


Selwyn, William

Finding aid date

2009-06-23 11:02:20+00:00

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom