The Life and Legacy of Lady Mary Rosse
My name is Rachel Parsons. I was born in 1885 to Charles and Katherine Parsons. I attended Cambridge University in 1910. I mention this because back then, I was one of the first three women to study Mechanical Sciences. In 1919, my mother and I founded the Women’s Engineering Society, which was the first professional organisation in the world dedicated to the campaign for women’s rights. My independent thinking, scientific curiosity and fighting spirit are a result of my paternal grandmother’s legacy. She was Lady Mary Rosse, a woman ahead of her times.
Mary Field — as she was then called — was born on 14th April 1813, in Yorkshire, to John Wilmer Field — a wealthy estate owner. As there were no sons in the family, my grandmother’s father ensured that Mary and her sister, Delia, were given an exceptional education. This included mathematics and science. Of course there were dancing lessons too and there is nothing wrong with that. But at a time when education for girls was focussed on simply turning them into good wives and mothers, my grandmother was paving the way for us with her robust educational achievements. One might argue that my grandmother’s privileged upbringing allowed her opportunities that weren’t available to other women. That is true, but not all wealthy women were pursuing subjects other than sewing, singing and dancing.
Mary was 23 when she met her husband — my grandfather, William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse —and came be to known as Mary Rosse. He was an astronomer and naturalist. They had a thirteen year age gap. I have seen photographs — he was a good looking man. But I have heard that because of his plump figure, one of his cousins rudely nicknamed him ‘the fat lord’. Despite the age difference, my grandparents had a good marriage, primarily because of their shared interest in science.
In 1841 they became Lord and Lady Rosse and took charge of the ancestral home, Birr Castle, in the Irish midlands. Despite the several children she had, hers was not a life of simple domesticity. She was involved in various architectural projects in the castle such as the construction of a moat and a new tower. Several of her design models can still be found at Birr Castle. She also built a massive dining room for entertaining scientific guests whose visits increased after my grandfather became the President of the Royal Society of London in 1848. This happened because of his creation of the ‘Leviathan of Parsontown’, a telescope which remained the world’s largest for over seventy years.
It was facilitated because of my grandmother’s inheritance money and not least because of her scientific temper and practical skills. Her son and my uncle, Randal, wrote a book called Reminiscences, which was an account of the Parson family. In it he talks about grandmother’s familiarity with blacksmithing which allowed her to cast both sets of the castle gates herself, using a peat-fired forge in the castle grounds. This forge was built for casting the speculum of the telescope.
The telescope helped my grandfather make important astronomical discoveries and gain fame. It was almost 200 years before writers such as Henrietta Heald questioned whether Mary Rosse was given adequate acknowledgement for ‘(the) intellectual, practical and, above all, financial assistance’ that she gave her husband. Another biographer would speculate that my grandmother’s silence was because she wanted her husband to receive all the credit.
Mary Rosse also possessed a sense of community and a generosity of spirit. During the Irish famine in 1845, she provided jobs for local people at Birr Castle. She worked with her uncle Richard Wharton-Myddleton, a former army officer, to redesign part of the castle grounds which employed more than five hundred men in building works that continued for several years.
Despite all her ventures, as well as managing her home and children, she made sure to develop her own independent interest in photography. Randal wrote in Reminiscences, ‘At a time when photography was invented, [my mother] had a photographic room fitted up adjoining the workroom and spent much time there.’
She started by taking photos of the development of the Leviathan telescope but soon moved to other subjects such as portraits of her children and renowned visitors to the Birr Castle as well as landscapes. She started with the wet colloidon process but moved onto and became an expert in wax-paper photography. This method allowed her to keep the sensitised material for several days before exposure. As a result she was able to travel with her equipment and take photographs whenever an opportunity presented itself.
When my grandfather sent her images to Henry Fox Talbot, he replied ‘pray give my thanks to Lady Rosse for her very interesting specimens of photography’. The images were then displayed at the first show of the Photographic Society in London, later known as The Royal Photographic Society. Mary Rosse was also the first person to win the Photographic Society of Ireland’s first Silver Medal.
Out of her eleven children, sadly only four sons survived. Despite her several commitments, she was a devoted mother. She wrote her own version of the Bible called Granny’s Chapters — an easy version for children, as she was keen for her sons to get a Christian education.
Mary Rosse was also an amazing entertainer. With the help of my grandfather’s cousin Mary Ward, who was a talented biologist and illustrator, she put on a show of homemade fireworks to mark the Great Exhibition of 1851. ‘Fireworks were then the fashion, made on the spot and a great display was once given in front of the castle to which all the neighbourhood was invited,’ Randal remarked in Reminiscences.
Mary’s sons were schooled at home and showed an aptitude for science from a young age. Three of the boys, one of whom was my father Charles, became reputed engineers and uncle Randal entered the church.
Scientifically inclined yet creative, independent yet involved with her family, Lady Mary Rosse proved that women can successfully do multiple things, while managing home and family. Granted, she was a woman of means — but she used it for scientific and creative pursuits and gave back to her community. She was instrumental in fuelling her sons’ and grandchildren’s scientific curiosities, thereby allowing us to carry forward her legacy.