Nevill E.N.N.

NEVILL, (Neison)  Edmund N N

Professional Astronomer

Born: 27 August 1849, Beverley, Yorkshire, U.K.
Died: 1940, Eastbourne, U.K.


In brief :
Famous for:
-Publihing the first English book on the Moon.
-Founder member of the Selenographical Society.
-Co-fouder of the Institute of Chemistry.
-Director of the
Natal Observatory, 1882 – 1910.
-Introduced Lawn tennis to South Africa.
Edmund Nevill wrote under the name Neison and is thus better known as / often referred to as Neison.

Historical background :

Historical Index:
History; Moon Career; Personal.

  Neison had a remarkable career. He was born at Beverley, in Yorkshire, on 27 August 1849, and was educated at Harrow and at New College, Oxford. During the Franco-Prussian War he joined the French forces and served on Marshal Ney’s staff; after the end of the war he was for a time Parliamentary reporter to the old Standard newspaper as well as theatrical critic. (Possibly these two roles had much in common!) [Copied from Moore, p.132]
His interest in astronomy began very early. He became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1873, and began a serious study of the Moon, making his observations from Hampstead with a 6-inch refractor and a 9~-inch With-Browning reflector. His earliest lunar paper came out in June 1873, concerning the possibility of an atmosphere around the Moon, and in the following years he also produced other papers, some of which showed him to be an expert mathematician.[Copied from Moore, p.132]
The Moon was Neison’s main interest. For a more comprehensive discussion, look at the section on
Neison and the Moon. Then came an event which transformed his whole career: a transit of Venus.
The significance of transits of Venus was that they could provide a means of measuring the length of the astronomical unit. Before the present era of space-probes and radar, the transits were of immense importance, and every effort was made to observe them. As the whole method is now obsolete there is no point in describing it further, and the transits of 2004 and 2012 will not be regarded as of more than academic interest, but the situation in Neison’s time was very different. Results from the 1874 transit were not wholly satisfactory, for various reasons, but more was expected from the transit of 1882, which would, it was thought, be well seen from South Africa. [Copied from Moore, pp. 134 – 135]
David Gill took up the problem. It had long been planned to set up a new observatory at Durban.  Gill wanted a skilful and permanent Director; and who better than Edmund Neison? There was need for haste. By the time that he was ready to issue an invitation it was already June 1882, and the transit was due in December. [Copied from Moore, p. 135]
Gill sent Neison an urgent telegram, offering him the post of Government Astronomer at Natal, and urging him to arrive in time to observe the transit. It was a challenge which Neison did not feel disposed to ignore. He accepted, packed up, and sailed for Durban, arriving on 27 November 1882. By 1 December he was already at the Observatory, only to find that things were far from ideal; for instance, the machinery for moving the dome had been carefully covered with a thick layer of paint, while the polarizing eyepiece supplied by the firm of Merz, while doubtless excellent in quality, suffered from the slight disadvantage that it would fit neither the telescope nor its accessories! The
transit instrument was in Cape Town, and could not be shifted in time. Neison had to do some frantic improvisation, and in the end he observed the transit with great success. [Copied from Moore, p. 135]
It was an encouraging start. The Natal Observatory had begun its work, and Neison made great plans. He intended to improve tables of the Moon’s motion, carry out general observations in collaboration with the
Cape, and also to set up a meteorological station. Publications were put in hand, and all seemed to be in order. Alas, the story from. then on was one of perpetual frustration. [Copied from Moore, p. 135]
The trouble was, quite simply, lack of funds. Neison had been promised an adequate salary, with provision for assistants, and also grants to help with the Observatory’s publications. As so often happens, the authorities broke their word. Publications were prepared and remained on the files; there was no money to print them. After 1887 there was no assistant, and Neison had to depend on sporadic help from local amateurs. He did have a new assistant for a while from 1888; a manuscript catalogue of the right ascensions of Zodiacal stars was prepared, as well as tide-tables for Natal, and Neison continued to do his best. He also became Government Chemist and Official Assayer for Natal, acting sometimes as pathologist in cases of suspected poisoning! [Copied from Moore, p. 135]
It was a noble effort, but as time went by things became more and more difficult. Money was not forthcoming, and publications from the Observatory had to stop, so that the records remained in manuscript form. Eventually even Neison had to admit that the odds against him were too great. Funds were cut off altogether, and in 1911 the Observatory was closed down. [Copied from Moore, p. 135]
With C. T. Kingzett, he organized a meeting which resulted in the formation of the Institute of Chemistry, and he also wrote technical papers on optics. [Copied from Moore, p. 134.]
Neison left South Africa and returned to England; he settled in Eastbourne, and lived there in retirement. His astronomical work was more or less over, though he kept up his scientific interests, and was awarded the Medal of the Royal Chemical Society in 1935. He died at Eastbourne in 1940. [Copied from Moore, pp. 135 – 136]
Quite apart from astronomy, Neison had many interests. One was sport. He was an excellent tennis-player, and it was he who introduced lawn tennis to South Africa; his wife, nCe Mabel Grant, whom he married in 1894, was South Africa’s tennis champion for eleven years. He was also a good golfer. He was extremely skilful at sketching, in a general way as well as astronomically; he was intensely interested in Babylonian history, upon which he collected a vast store of information which remains unfortunately unpublished. He also wrote some novels, but these too reniain in manuscript form, since they were never submitted to a publisher. In many ways he was shy; he twice declined an invitation to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, though finally, in 1908, he accepted. And he hated being photographed; the admittedly rather indifferent print reproduced here is the only one in existence which shows him at all clearly. [Copied from Moore, p. 136]
His marriage was extremely happy. His wife survived him by some years; of his three children one of his sons died of war wounds, and the other now lives in South Africa, while his daughter. Miss Maud Nevill, lives in London. [Copied from Moore, p. 136]

Neison and the Moon:

The Moon was Nelson’s main interest, and to set the scene it may be as well to say something about the history of selenography. In Neison’s time the Moon was just becoming “fashionable” once more, after several decades of relative neglect.
The first great selenographer was Johann Hieronymus Schroter, a German amateur who was Chief Magistrate of the little town of Lilienthal, near Bremen. Schroter’s work extended from 1778 to 1813, when his observatory was sacked by the invading French, and all his unpublished observations, together with his telescopes, were looted. Next came three of his countrymen: Wilhelm Lohrmann, a Dresden land surveyor whose astronomical career was cut short by ill-health, and two Berliners, Wilhelm Beer and Johann von Madler. Using a 31-inch refractor, Beer and Madler spent years in charting the Moon. Finally, in 1838-9, they produced not only a map which was good by any standards, but also a detailed description of each important formation on the lunar surface. Logically enough, they regarded the Moon as a totally changeless world and it is ironical that their map actually held back the progress of selenography. The general view following 1839 was that the Moon had now been fully charted, and that as it never changed there was really very little point in studying it further.
The only serious dissentient was Julius Schmidt, yet another German, who went to Greece and became Director of the Athens Observatory. Between 1840, when Beer and Madler virtually ended their lunar work, and 1866, when events took a dramatic turn, Schmidt was really the only consistent observer of the Moon, and the map by Beer and Madler remained the best, even though it had been compiled with so small a telescope.
Then, in 1866, Schmidt was studying the grey plain known as the Mare Serenitatis when he made, or thought he made, a startling discovery. In an isolated position on the plain Beer and Madler, as well as other early observers – even Schmidt himself in 1843 had drawn a deep, conspicuous crater which Madler had named “Linne” in honour of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Yet in October 1866 Schmidt found that there was no such crater in that position; all he could see was a small craterlet surrounded by a white patch. He was confident that a real physical change had occurred, and others agreed with him;
Sir John Herschel suggested that a moonquake had caused the walls of the old Linne to fall in, after which the interior had been filled up with rising lava.
This is no place to discuss the Linne controversy in detail. We know what the formation is like today, thanks to the close-range pictures taken by the Orbiter probes and by the astronauts of Apollo 15; it is a small, perfectly circular craterlet with regular walls and an interior free from debris. The balance of evidence is that there was no real change, and this was borne out by Madler himself, who was still alive at the time; but the episode certainly re-awakened interest in lunar mapping, and telescopes all over the world were directed back toward the Moon. (For a full discussion of this fascinating problem, see Guide to the Moon by Patrick Moore: Lutterworth (Britain) and Norton (New York), 1976.)
Edmund Neison took a lively interest, and he then made up his mind to revise the map by Beer and Madler as well as producing a new description of the entire Moon. He set to work, and in 1876 he published the first great lunar book to be written in English. It was entitled The Moon, and the Conditions and Configuration of its Surface; it became a classic, and established Neison as the leader in his field. He was a founder member of the newly formed Selenographical Society, and became its Secretary (indeed, the decline of the Society began with his resignation in 1883). [Copied from Moore, pp. 132 – 134.]
The above-mentioned book was used extensively used by NASA when they were planning to land a spacecraft on the surface of the moon. [Source: Miss Maude Nevill, eldest daughter, in correspondence with Andrew Gray]

-Neison started his career in the military during the Franco-Prussian War (French force)
-Reporter for the Standard newspaper (Parliamentary reporter and theatrical critic)
-He was an accomplished Selenographer and a founder member of the Selenographical Society.
-Co-founder of the Institute of Chemistry (Britain).
-1882 – 1910: Director of the Natal Observatory.
-Government Chemist and Official Assayer for Natal.
-Called upon to act as Pathologist (in Natal) in cases of suspected poisoning.
-1908: Became a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Honours Received:
1935: Medal of the Royal Chemical Society

Born: 27 August 1849, Beverley, Yorkshire, U.K.
Educated: Harrow and New College, Oxford.
Married: 1894, Mabel Grant. Two sons and one daughter.
Died: 1940, Eastbourne, U.K.
Loved sports, especially tennis. He introduced lawn tennis to South Africa and married South African Tennis champion of eleven years, Mabel Grant.
In many ways he was shy; he twice declined an invitation to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, though finally, in 1908, he accepted. He hated being photographed


Link to the Telescope Manufacturers.

Outside of South Africa, 6 inch (15 cm) refractor and a 9.5 inch (24 cm) With-Browning reflector.
8 inch telescope (Manufactured by Grubb)
3 inch transit telescope (Manufactured by Troughton and Simms)


Link to the Main Bibliography Section and more information about Sources.

Remaining Artifacts:

  • Gray, M.A., “Raindrops, Test Tubes and Galaxies”, A history of Astronomy in Natal, with reference to the allies Sciences of Meteorology, Chemistry. etc., from 1850 to 1982. Unpublished. (Note: This is the definitive work on the Natal Observatory and Edmund Neison. It was never publised but it is available to the public on the ASSA Historical Website)
  • Moore, P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, pp. 132- 136.  (General Source)
  • Smits, P., A Brief History of Astronomy in Southern Africa. (Unpublished)

By Neison
: (Nevill wrote under the name Neison)
-The Moon, and the Conditions and Configuration of its Surface. 1876.
-Technical papers on optics. [The title and other details unknown to me, CdC]

Many documents written by Neison remained unpublished. Some were destroyed by a flood. Unpublished documents include:
-Catalogue of the right ascensions of Zodiacal stars.
-Tide tables for Natal.
-Information on Babylonian Astronomical data.

Related Internal Links:
Natal Observatory



Nevill was very camera shy, thus not many photo’s exists of him.

E.N.N. Nevill (Neison), director of Natal Observatory, 1882 – 1911.