Born Hester Periam Lewis on 13th November 1846 in Wantage, Berkshire, Hester went on to marry Joshua Hawkins, a Methodist minister, and then move to Bedford, when Joshua purchased a part-ownership of the Bedfordshire Times newspaper. He went on to become Bedford’s five-times mayor and was responsible for many improvements to the town.
It is not known when Hester began her interest in astronomy but there was considerable scope in Bedford, given that Admiral William Smyth’s observatory in The Crescent was considered the best-equipped private observatory in England and he wrote the first book for amateur astronomers. Other notable astronomers in the area were Thomas MaClear, Thomas Elger, Samuel Whitbread and John Brereton.
A student of Astronomy should not more be without it than a writer should be without a dictionary
Hester Hawkins revealed her wide mastery of astronomy by writing several small books on this subject in the early 1900s, some of which are still in print. She began publishing The Star Calendar (1905), The Stars From Year to Year – With Charts for Every Month (1908), The Star Almanac (1910). A larger work, The ABC Guide to Astronomy (1910), ran to four editions. The Yorkshire Weekly Post said of it, “A student of Astronomy should not more be without it than a writer should be without a dictionary”. It was well-reviewed in Nature: International Journal of Science in January 1914.The BAA Journal [British Astronomical Association] said, “…we have only praise for these useful publications”.
With modesty, she began publishing using only her initials but by 1912 was using ‘H Periam Hawkins’. Guiding Stars (1916) was described by the BAA Journal “a cheap and handy little book intended for soldiers on the march”. Other publications included Astronomy for Busy People (1922) and Halley’s Comet (1929).
This was quite an achievement for a woman
On 14th January 1921, at the age of 70, she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. This was quite an achievement for a woman and an amateur astronomer but demonstrated that she had succeeded in making her mark in the male-dominated world of astronomy. Hester was undoubtedly an outstanding populariser of astronomy in Britain. She was a great supporter of the theories expounded by Charles Smyth, son of Admiral Smyth.
She died, aged 81, in Reigate, Surrey, on 18th May 1928 and is buried with her husband in Bedford Cemetery, Foster Hill Road. A blue memorial wall plaque to both Hester and Joshua Hawkins was erected on 28th January 2019 and can be seen on the front of one of the houses they occupied when in Bedford, at 18 Linden Road.
Images from the Blue Plaque unveiling on 28th February 2018. All images kindly supplied by Stuart Antrobus.
Author: Stuart Antrobus
Mary McKeown, “Hester Periam Hawkins” in Bedfordshire Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 197, pp208-214
Further research by Trevor Stewart, founder Chairman of the Bedford Association of Tour Guides, and Linda Ayres of Friends of Bedford Cemetery