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Five autograph letters from Fearon Fallows (BA 1813) to J.W. Whittaker (BA 1814). Purchased March 2013.

Fearon Fallows (1788-1831) was an English astronomer and Fellow of St. John’s College. After becoming one of the earliest members of the Astronomical Society (later the Royal Astronomical Society) in 1820, he was appointed by the Admiralty to travel to South Africa and to establish an observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. As Director of the Astronomical Observatory there, Fallows helped to catalogue more than 300 stars.

The letters recently acquired by St. John’s College Library were sent from Fallows to the English Anglican clergyman, John William Whittaker (c.1790-1854), a friend and contemporary of Fallows while he was a student at St. John’s College. Written between March 1822 and June 1824, the letters provide a fascinating insight into the work of Fallows and his associates during their time in South Africa. Fallows describes the progress that he and others have made with the Observatory and, revealing a competitive streak, his determination to remain ahead of the Cambridge Observatory.

Yet the letters are of equal interest for the picture they evoke of life in the colony. Fallows writes of the barreness of the soil and the poor quality of water. The land is a “horrid desert” and many English settlers may well complain at having been misled in their expectations when they decided to move to such a hostile place. Fallows hopes that he himself will have opportunity to move back to England later in life, rather than remain in South Africa indefinitely. He also comments on the state of religion and politics in the colony, and his desire to steer clear from both as much as possible.

Perhaps most poignant of all is the frequency with which Fallows describes his personal illness and the death of his children: the first, a six-day old son, and then several years later, a premature child. The letters record how Fallows suffered from rheumatism, sunstroke and inflammation of the stomach. He eventually died of scarlet fever in Simon’s Town, South Africa, in 1831.