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  • Writer's pictureSadie

Fletton's Comet

Although I promised to bring you more stories about the Thurley family this month, unfortunately the research has been a little delayed. As I wondered what I could write about for this months blog a photo appeared on the facebook group ‘Peterborough Images’ of a Fletton born man who is remembered with much fondness; George Eric Deacon Alcock.

Due to the extensive and specialised nature of George’s work this blog is only a brief overview of his life’s achievements. For a detailed review see I would also like to thank Martin for his assistance in this article. If anyone has personal memories, or photos, of George I would love to hear from you to add to my blog.

George Alcock, the eldest of three boys, was born on 28 August 1912 to George W and Annie. George Snr was born in Grantham in 1886 to William and Annie. Like his father George Snr worked on the railways, he was a railway carriage oiler, and like many others, migrated with his family from Grantham to Woodstone, to Muston Villa. Following their marriage George and Annie moved to 59 London Road and it was here that George was born during the Great East Anglian Flood where the doctor had to be ferried to the family home.

George was a bright child fascinated by insects, plants, trains and weather. He attended New Fletton Council School in the 1920s and he thanked his headteacher’s drawing lessons for his ability to see fine detail and his conveyance of these to drawings, paintings and most importantly to memory. Mr. Tillet would urge George ‘Use your eyes boy, use your eyes’. It was also from the school playground on 8 April 1921 that George observed a large partial eclipse through smoked glass. In 1925 George moved to Fletton Grammar School and prior to attending Leeds Teacher Training College he was a student teacher at Old Fletton Council School. It was here that the headteacher admonished George for reading his lesson from a book and urged him to memorise key passages. At Leeds George shared his passion for astronomy with the principal Dr. Airey and was able to use his 4 inch refractor.

Fletton, in the Fens, is boringly flat but they provide huge skies for astronomers and for George these were dark skies. On 30 December 1930 George witnessed a giant fireball from Peterborough Bridge and he reported this to W. F. Denning at the British Astronomical Association (BAA). Whilst training to be a teacher George applied to join the Meteor Section of the BAA. In 1933 he also gained permission from the meteorological office to set up his own weather station. But meteor watching had to fit in with his teaching. He would leave school at 4.30pm, have tea and go to bed for 8pm. He would observe the night skies until 1 or 3 am before having a few hours sleep. Prior to starting work the next day George would have to send the results to Manning Prentice (BAA) from the city centre and then bike to school. George’s developing friendship with Prentice would shape astronomical history.

In 1936 George met Mary Green and on 7 June 1941 they were married. World War II saw George train as a wireless operator in the RAF and fortunately for the newly married couple he was initially stationed at nearby Polebrook. But military duties also took George further afield to Italy and North Africa and he was court marshalled 3 times. In 1945 George returned to Mary, to astronomy and to teaching at Old Fletton Council School.

George and Mary’s post war married life started at a newly built house in Farcet called ‘Antares’, the 15th brightest star in the night sky. In 1953 George embarked on his search for a comet, although he was not hopeful as none had been discovered since 1894. Events over the next few months dictated the course of George and Mary’s lives. On the 20th December 1958 Mary suffered a serious fall outside their home, a fall she would not fully recover from. In January 1959 George’s brother attended the London Boat Show and purchased for him a large pair of 25 x 100 tripod-mountd binculars. Just 7 months later George discovered his first comet and just 5 days later his second!!

Discovering 2 comets after a dearth of 60 years provoked media attention, which George was not fond of. But by the time he discovered his ellusive first nova- ‘nova Delphini’ in 1967 he had become accepting of the rightly justified acclamation. On 7th February 1979 he was awarded an MBE. But it was not until 24th March 1998 that his home city recognised his success at a civil reception held by Mayor Yvonne Lowndes.

George had an extensive career as an amateur astronomer and was one of the most successful visual discoverers of comets and novae. He memorised the stars in the night sky so that he would instantly recognise an intruder. In 1947 he became a Fellow of 3 British societies: the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Royal Meteorological Society. In 1963 he won the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1981 he received the International Amateur Achievement Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and an asteroid, 3174 Alcock is named after him. George’s discoveries of comets and novae are listed here in date order: In 1959 he discovered comet C/1959 Q1 (Alcock), the first comet discovered in Britain since 1894, and only five days later discovered another, C/1959 Q2 (Alcock). He discovered two more comets in 1963 (C/1963 F1 Alcock) and 1965. He later discovered his first nova, Nova Delphini 1967 (HR Delphini), which turned out to have an unusual light-curve. He discovered two more novae, LV Vul (in 1968) and V368 Sct (in 1970). He found his fifth and final comet in 1983: C/1983 H1 (IRAS-Araki-Alcock). In 1991 he found the nova V838 Her.

Mary died on 25th October 1991 and George died aged 88 years on 15th December 2000. George is remembered in the Peterboorugh Cathedral by a memorial .

George is remembered fondly by his many pupils in Fletton and Southfields who had the rare privilege to be taught by him. On a recent post on facebook students could recall individual lessons which had left an impression on them almost 50 years ago. They recalled the creative way he taught, organ recitals at the cathedral, an accomplished artist who produced sketches of the fens and visits to his house to view the night sky complete with hot chocolate and cookies.

Patrick Moore noted that George was ‘one of the best and most dedicated comet and nova-hunters of all time’ and George himself wished to be remembered ‘As an observer’.

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