William was born on 9th March 1877 in Walsall, Staffordshire, to parents Richard and Hannah, in Walsall, Staffordshire. He was recorded on the 1881 census aged 4, living with his parents (Richard worked as a bridle cutter) and three brothers at 95 Upper Wallhouse Street in Walsall - a modest terrace in a relatively new part of Walsall. The street was renamed Walhouse Road in 1925 but his early family home still stands.
By the end of the 1880’s or into the start of 1890 the family, which had grown considerably by the 1891 census, had moved east of Walsall to Sutton Coldfield. That census provided more information - William’s father Richard still operated as a bridle cutter, but worked on his “own account” - or had his own business, where he employed his eldest son as a saddler/ironmonger. William was then 14 and had gained a further 5 siblings. Richard’s livelihood provided enough for his family to also employ a domestic servant to help with the house and children. A year later William was admitted to King Edward’s School in January 1892 (to 1896) as a Foundation Scholar where he obtained an open mathematical scholarship of £50 per annum at Trinity College, Cambridge as he was a distinguished mathematician and in 1899 he graduated as Sixth Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos. For several years he held the post of Demonstrator in Physics at the University of Aberdeen before moving to Cambridge in 1903 where he was appointed Second Assistant at the Cambridge Observatory, and later Chief Assistant of the Royal Geographical Society, in charge of the Meridian-Circle when his predecessor Mr Hinks left. There is no record of him on the 1901 census although there is mention of an Englishman University Assistant boarding in Princes Street, Edinburgh.
He was a very successful and popular teacher of practical astronomy to university students at the Observatory and was considered as having a great gift of a lucid explanation, combined with his skill in the manipulation of astronomical instruments. During the following few years, he contributed greatly to several important academic studies on stellar kinematics.
In September 1910 William married Norah Aldis and they were both recorded on the 1911 census, living at Rectory Farmhouse, Coton, Cambridge, where they resided for at least 2 years. In 1912 they had a daughter, Anne and three years later in 1915 had another daughter, Catherine.
At the start of the Great War William, Norah and their girls had moved to Madingley Road, Cambridge and as the war continued William accepted a post as Naval Instructor at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich on 4th January 1916. His first vessel posting was aboard HMS AFRICA in May 1916 and later the same year, in December, he was transferred to HMS VANGUARD.
A letter of condolence was sent to his widow from Admiral Sturdee following the explosion and his death and his father in law, former headmaster of Queen Mary’s School, Walsall, James Aldis, from Minsmere, Suffolk, inscribed a book which is held within the Cambridge University Library (Autobiography of Sir George Biddell Airy)
"James A. Aldis February 7th 1912". "Presented to the Cambridge Observatory in memory of a very happy time spent there as "Celestial Housemaid" (Honorary Resident Assistant during the War) from Decr. 1915 to July 1919: during the absence of the First Assistant (my son-in-law W.E. Hartley) who volunteered as a Naval Instructor and was killed in the explosion of H.M.S. Vanguard".
He is remembered locally on the Coton war memorial.
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England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915 - Free BMD
1881, 1891 & 1911 England Census
England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1837-1915 Free BMD
Cambridgeshire, England, Electoral Registers, Burgess Rolls and Poll Books, 1722-1966 Cambridgeshire Archives; Cambridge, England; Cambridgeshire Electoral Registers; Reference: Er 1913 West
Cambridgeshire, England, Electoral Registers, Burgess Rolls and Poll Books, 1722-1966 Cambridgeshire Archives; Cambridge, England; Cambridgeshire Electoral Registers; Reference: Camb/1914-15
Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 78, p.248
City and County Directories, 1766 - 1946 1913 Street & General Directory of Cambridge; Publisher: W. Spalding
Navy Lists, 1888-1970 Peter Singlehurst; Year: 1916
British Army and Navy Birth, Marriage and Death Records, 1730-1960 National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Admiralty and predecessors: Office of the Director General of the Medical Department of the Navy and predecessors: Service Registers and Registers of Deaths and Injuries. Registers of Reports of Deaths
England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, 1973-1995
Plaque image courtesy of private contributor
Coton memorial image courtesy of Mark Hurn ℅ Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge