A forgotten Cambridge hero

The short but inspiring life of England’s forgotten astronomer brought to life at the Cambridge Festival

Jeremiah Horrocks. 

A name you’ve probably never heard of but he is one of the most important and greatest astronomers in history. His story is also a tragic, and short one. Living only until the age of 22, Horrocks changed the way we see the universe in his short life.

Now, a new play which will premiere at the Cambridge Festival in March 2023, will bring the extraordinary life of Horrocks back into the public eye and chart his amazing achievements. 

Jeremiah Horrocks was born in Toxteth Park near Liverpool in 1618 and brought up in a Puritan family. Little is known about Horrock’s upbringing, but in 1632 he matriculated at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, at the age of 15 to study the stars. It is unknown why, but in 1635 Horrocks left Cambridge to return to Lancashire where he committed himself to his astronomy work. 

Despite being relatively unknown to the general public, Horrocks is best known in astronomy circles for being the only person to correctly predict the Transit of Venus in 1639, an event which he observed and recorded with his friend and fellow astronomer, William Crabtree.

After looking at tables published by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1627, Horrocks saw they needed some correction. Kepler's tables had predicted a near-miss of a transit of Venus in 1639 but, having made his own observations of Venus for years, Horrocks predicted a transit would indeed occur at around 3pm on 24 November 1639.

Romanticised Victorian painting of Jeremiah Horrocks observing the 1639 transit of Venus (The Founder of English Astronomy by Eyre Crowe, 1891)

Romanticised Victorian painting of Jeremiah Horrocks observing the 1639 transit of Venus (The Founder of English Astronomy by Eyre Crowe, 1891)

Romanticised Victorian painting of Jeremiah Horrocks observing the 1639 transit of Venus (The Founder of English Astronomy by Eyre Crowe, 1891)

Waiting in his location at Much Hoole, a village in Lancashire, at approximately 3.15pm Horrocks first observed the tiny black shadow of Venus passing the Sun. He continued to observe until sunset 30 minutes later. 

His observations allowed him to make an informed guess of the size of Venus as well as to estimate the distance between the Sun and the Earth. His figure of 95 million kilometres was far from the 150 million kilometres known today, but it was more accurate than any suggested up to that time.

His sudden death at 22 caused a shock in the world of astronomy. His friend William Crabtree said of his death, "What an incalculable loss!" Horrocks has often been described by contemporaries as the bridge which connected Newton with Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe and Kepler. He is memorialised by a plaque in Westminster Abbey as well as having a lunar crater named after him. 

Horrox, premiering at the ADC Theatre on 28 March and running until 1 April, is written and directed by amateur astronomer David Sear. Working with two Cambridge drama groups - Bawds and Corkscrew Theatre - the play conveys the triumphs and the sad fates of both Kepler and Horrox as they struggle to hold onto their beliefs against a world almost universally ranged against them. 

Horrox brings to the stage a forgotten Cambridge hero; a young man’s passionate search for the answer to one of humanity’s biggest questions: what is our place in the Universe? 

“Jeremiah Horrocks should be world-famous!” said Sears. “He should take his place amongst the greatest astronomers of his and any other time, like his heroes Kepler and Galileo.” 

“During the transit of Venus in 2012 I discovered and was inspired by the story of this young man (of just 21), who in 1639 was the first human to understand the scale of the Universe - and who changed all of our lives forever. I wrote the play to highlight this forgotten Cambridge hero, a truly astronomical genius”, added Sears. 

HORROX: A forgotten Cambridge hero will be performed at the ADC Theatre, from Tuesday 28 March - Saturday 1 April 2023. Tickets cost: Tuesday–Thursday £11–£14 and Friday –Saturday £13–£16. Book by scanning the QR code or by going to https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/horrox/