The following is an extract from the presentation of a joint meeting of the Australian Institute of Navigation and the Company of Master Mariners on the 8th March, 2017 at Sydney.
I knew that Janet Taylor was an interesting relative. What kind of woman runs a navigation school in mid- 19th century London, for over thirty years, has eight children (and three stepchildren), patents a nautical instrument and swings ships? She did – and she was my great-great-great-great aunt. Just how extraordinary she was, was something I was determined to find out about. What started as a journey of curiosity resulted in a determination to tell her story, to fill in a unique, and missing, piece in the history of sea navigation.
My interest in Mrs Taylor began with my father, Sid, who traced the family tree on his maternal side, through Olive Stella Ionn, back to the Reverend Peter Ionn, born 8 March 1762. Sid corresponded with Lt Comm Ken Alger in Surrey, whose own interest in Janet Taylor arose because Ken was teaching navigation on the same site that Mrs Taylor had run her navigation school. Sid and Ken corresponded, swapping snippets about the intriguing Mrs Taylor. I followed up, meeting Ken myself when I visited the UK in 1996. It was then I first found Janet’s grave, in the graveyard of the parish church of St Helen Auckland, in County Durham. The memorial was a simple one: ‘In memory of Janet Taylor. Born May 13th AD 1804. Died January 26th AD 1870’. Although the tribute was brief, Janet’s at least had survived longer than its neighbours – her’s being granite, the others mainly sandstone.
When Ken Alger passed away a few years later, his widow Edna swept all of Ken’s bits and pieces of research on Janet into suitcases and dispatched them to me, thus beginning my years of research, to turn the fragmentary records into a living, breathing story, a project in which my wife, Rosalind, enthusiastically participated, to piece together what could be uncovered about Janet’s fascinating life. Janet was born ‘Jane Ann Ionn’ on 13 May 1804 to the Rev Peter Ionn and his wife Jane. Peter was the curate and schoolmaster at the Free Grammar School in Wolsingham in County Durham where he also taught, among many other things, the subject of navigation. When Jane Ann’s mother died in May 1811, two months after giving birth to her sixth child Frederick, Jane was still only six years old. She attended the Grammar School as the only girl and, under her father’s instruction, demonstrated her brilliance in many subjects, especially mathematics.
When she was 9 years old, a scholarship became available for girls aged 14 and over to take their place at The Royal School for Embroidering Females that had been established at Ampthill in Bedfordshire, under the patronage of Queen Charlotte. Janet was so outstanding that she was accepted as a pupil and stayed there until the death of the Queen on 17 November 1818 when the school was then closed. Now aged 17, Jane Ann obtained a position as governess to the family of the Vicar of Kimbolton, the Reverend John Huntley. Kimbolton was a small town of only 1,500 people and only about 40 km north of Ampthill.
On 2 May 1821 her father Peter died suddenly when Jane was 16 years’ old. She inherited a reasonable amount of money from her father’s estate and went to live with her brother Matthew who had opened a linen draper’s shop at 44 Oxford Street in London. Jane Ann assisted in running the business but was still fascinated by the mathematics of navigation. She knew that she needed a husband to be ‘respectable’ and married George Taylor Jane, a widower with 3 children and some 12 years her senior: she was 29 and he was 41. As a former naval man during the Napoleonic wars and now a publican, he had an understanding of dealings with men. But what was most telling was that he was a ‘dissenter’, brought up outside the Church of England. They educated girls with boys. So Janet’s fearsome intelligence and determination were perhaps not such a surprise for him.
George and Janet were married on 30 January 1830 in the Hague, Interestingly, he changed his name to ‘George Taylor’ and she became ‘Mrs Janet Taylor’ for the rest of her life. The couple set up residence at 6 East Street, Red Lion Square, near Oxford Street in London. Janet Taylor’s spectacular life was about to unfold. Janet was a determined woman and one with great plans: to write books, to design nautical instruments and to teach navigation.
Her entry into publishing began in 1833, at the age of 29, and she went on to produce a number of major works of importance to the maritime community, most of which went into many editions. To illustrate: there were seven editions of her first book, Luni-Solar and Horary Tables (or Lunar Tables) alone, appearing between 1833 and 1854. An Epitome of Navigation and Nautical Astronomy went to twelve editions between 1842 and 1859. Each was dedicated to a member of the royal family – King William IV, whose mother had sponsored Janet’s scholarship as a child; Queen Adelaide; the Duchess of Kent (then Princess Victoria’s mother).
Mrs Taylor’s nautical tables – a vital tool in the determination of longitude at sea – were widely recognised as an invaluable aid to merchant seamen. She also discussed the use of the marine chronometer – developed by John Harrison.
But there was more. In September 1834, Mrs Janet Taylor of East Street, Red Lion Square, Middlesex, obtained a British patent for ‘A Mariner’s Calculator’, claiming ‘improvements in instruments for measuring angles and distances, applicable to nautical and other purposes’. Between 1617 and 1852 only 79 patents were awarded in the category ‘Compasses and Nautical Instruments’, the patents were awarded to renowned leaders in the field, but during this 235 year period only one of these was to a woman: Mrs Janet Taylor, aged 30.
The ‘Mariner’s Calculator’ was an ingeniously clever concept, combining several nautical instruments in one. Janet delivered a prototype of her new device to the Admiralty for assessment, and it was given to their own Hydrographer, Captain Francis Beaufort. Beaufort had had a long naval career. He was a master naval surveyor and, in 1829, at the age of 55, he was appointed the Admiralty’s Hydrographer, a position he was to hold with great acclaim for the next twenty-six years.
Captain Beaufort was a worthy one, in ordinary circumstances, to undertake an assessment of the Mariner’s Calculator. On this occasion, however, the timing could not have been worse, as he was in the throes of a great personal crisis with the imminent death of his wife of over 21 years, Alicia, from breast cancer. It was in the midst of this great upheaval of his life Beaufort finally delivered his report to the Admiralty, as noted in the Admiralty Minute Book. It was not favourable. It was not that he thought it wouldn’t work, but in the ‘clumsy fingers of seamen’, he thought not. He also thought it would encourage slovenliness (perhaps because it would do too much of the hard work).
In the light of this context, was his judgment a fair and accurate one? We commissioned a reconstruction of the instrument to test this question. It was undertaken under the supervision of Ron Robinson, one of England’s leading compass adjusters and a specialist in the restoration of period nautical instruments.
Robinson’s judgment was strikingly similar to Beaufort’s. He said, ‘to get a true sense of it, imagine giving something like the Mariner’s Calculator to someone like a coal miner, with fingers like sausages, in poor light and under seagoing conditions.’
The Mariner’s Calculator was not a success. But this meant that it became a rarity. Only one is known to survive and this was sold to a private buyer, at a considerable price, by Sotheby’s, in 1999. (We wrote about the reconstruction project in an article in the British Journal for the History of Science in 2010).