1805: Spectacular meteor passes over Cuckfield

Colorful starry night sky with the Milky Way and a shooting star over Rye in USA, July 2016

Here is an account of a meteor shower that crossed England and over Cuckfield over 200 years ago on 17 July 1805 at 5.05pm, while it was still broad daylight - as seen by Mr Farey in Crown Street, Westminster.

The sun was about setting or set on the 17th, and the planet Jupiter had just begun to appear, which occasioned these three gentlemen to be locking up at the time they spied the meteor, then about one degree east of, and five degrees higher, than the planet, over which it appeared to pass, and whole light was for the instant quite eclipsed by the superior splendour of the meteor; which had a globular nucleus or body, from one fifth to one fourth of the apparent diameter of the moon, and the same exceeded in brightness the planet Venus, during her most splendid appearance in the dark, not withstanding it was yet broad daylight; there were no visible clouds, nor was any wind stirring at the time.

Suddenly extinguished

Behind the body of the meteor was a tail, of a brownish kind of light, following its course, in which tail one of the gentlemen described the appearance of bright sparks, as proceeding from the body; the tail was conical, and its length equal to three or four times the diameter of the body.

Towards the end of the apparent course the meteor did not diminish in brightness, but its tail appeared less (probably front being nearer to a line with the eye of the spectator, until the whole vanished once, as if suddenly extinguished; probably from passing behind a cloud, too rare, or else of a colour not to be visible at that time to the eye. No explosions or noises were heard, either before or after the appearance; and the apparent tract of the meteor was as nearly straight as possible.

Besides the above particulars, others were gathered from two gentlemen who saw it in Ranelagh-Street, Pimlico; and from a lady who was sitting before, but not looking out of, a window, opposite to Arundel-Street in the Strand, until the light of the meteor, thrown upon the eastern jamb of the window, attracted her notice, and occasioned her to look up and see a part of its course, till the chimnies and roofs interrupted it.

From a companion at all these particulars, Mr Farey is inclined to estimate the course of this meteor to have been about SE to NW, and that it passed at a considerable distance to the SW of London; and should this direction be correctly assumed, he concludes it to be probable that the meteor entered the southern coast of England about Pevensey Harbour, passed nearly over Hailsham, Cuckfield, Ryegate, Chertsey, Windsor, Maidenhead, Thame, Diddington, Stratford, Stourbridge, the Wrekin Hill, Ellesmere, Ruthin, Denbigh, and left the north coast of Wales near Abergelly.

The length of this supposed course of the meteor, across the British island, is about 248 miles, and with a velocity of 4.958 (answering to 5.25 miles of height), the same would be performed in the space of 50 minutes nearly. In this space of time, that part of the earth over which the meteor passed, and its surrounding atmosphere, would be carried to the eastward, by the diurnal rotation, a space nearly equal to nine miles.

Mr Farey communicates these data in hopes, as he says, that they may awaken the attention of curious and scientific readers to this subject, particularly those in the country whose residences are near the line, or track, across the kingdom described by this curious meteor, (which doubtless consisted of a very large mass of solid matter), and to induce them to communicate all the particulars within their reach, on its apparent altitude and direction in many places of observation.


And particularly, that where explosions may have been heard, or fragments seen to separate from the meteor and fall, that such fragments may be carefully sought after, in the holes in which they usually bury themselves in the ground, and be preferred for the examination of a chemist; and that as many minute circumstances as possible of the fall and finding of such fragments may be noted down.

The Monthly magazine, Volume 22, Part ll, January 1805, by Monthly literary register Google Books: https://tinyurl.com/y7nbgbqg

Photo: Colourful starry night sky with the Milky Way and a shooting star over Rye, Westchester County, New York, United States. Wikimedia public domain image by Unsplash taken July 2016.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.