Searching for John Goodricke

St. John the Baptist at Hunsingore, North Yorkshire. The low, flat stone in the foreground marks the Goodricke Vault. The stone is the same as that used in the church.

There’s just one kind favor I ask of you…

You can see that my grave is kept clean.

–Bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson

Those lyrics, as sung by Bob Dylan on his first album, made a strong impression on me at age thirteen. Decades later, I was thrilled to hear contemporary blues singer Geoff Muldaur’s “Searching for Blind Lemon” songs, describing his road trip to East Texas to find Blind Lemon’s grave. Muldaur sang,

Gotta find Blind Lemon…

See that his grave is kept clean.

The very human plea in Jefferson’s song–do not forget me, honor my memory–is powerful and ageless. Bob Dylan and Geoff Muldaur felt it, and so did I. And, still later, I would find it relevant to the life of an astronomer who lived two centuries ago.

I have mentioned before that much of the “common wisdom” about the life of John Goodricke is incorrect. One of the primary sources of misinformation, unfortunately, was the distinguished Czech-British astronomer Zdenek Kopal. In his scientific work, Kopal did much to further our understanding of the variable stars John studied. Like me, Kopal was fascinated with the young man and made a trip here to try to see where he lived, worked, and eventually was buried. Unfortunately, Kopal did not apply the same rigorous standards to his historical research that he did to his science. His thoughts on Goodricke, published in his 1980 memoir Of Stars and Men, are almost entirely speculations. Perhaps the most egregious example of an unfounded assumption concerns John Goodricke’s burial place. Kopal visited the village church at Hunsingore, about 12 miles from York, in 1959 to look for Goodricke in the family vault in the church.

The Goodricke Vault stone seen from above. The indentation where a plaque was removed is clearly visible.

He does not mention whether he actually went into the church, but he found a plain stone in the churchyard which (he wrote) “had the initials J.G. scratched upon it.” From this, Kopal concluded that the members of John’s family had been ashamed of him and had him buried outside the family vault, because they considered his deafness a “blot on the family’s escutcheon.” This allegation flies in the face of everything I have learned about John Goodricke–his education and his access to telescopes, clocks, and everything else he needed to do his research suggest that his family supported him. Most seriously, this story has been repeated in astronomy textbooks, including the one I used for many years. I needed to know whether the story was true, and if it was not, to correct it. So in the spring of 2009 I came to York “Searching for John Goodricke.”

The words "The Goodricke Vault" can be seen on the side of the stone.  The letter "E" is above; the stone is facing east.

The words "The Goodricke Vault" can be seen on the side of the stone. The letter "E" is above; the stone is facing east.

With a baronetage, the Goodrickes were “patrons of the parish” in their local parish of Hunsingore. The family home, Great Ribston, has a chapel with parts dating back to the Knights Templars in the 12th century. The first Goodrickes were buried there, but in the 18th century Sir John Goodricke, the fifth baronet and grandfather of John the Astronomer, decided to build a family vault at the church of St. John the Baptist in Hunsingore for future Goodricke burials. Sadly, the family’s fortunes were on the wane, and their decline was to be hastened by the attractions of betting on horse racing and cards. Sir John’s son, Henry, predeceased him, leaving John the Astronomer, the eldest son, as heir to the baronetcy. When John died at 21, his younger brother Henry (the lack of imagination in names is maddening and confusing!) became the sixth baronet. It was Henry’s son Sir Harry James who finally lost the entire estate, apparently due to his gambling debts. Soon after his death in 1833 the estate was sold to the Dent family, who still own it today, and this is what has made tracking a burial place difficult.

Clearing away ivy to read monuments around the location of the old church. This one is dated 1787.

Clearing away ivy to read monuments around the location of the old church. This one is dated 1787.

In the 1850s, the Dents, as patrons of the parish, began to plan to build a new church. This required acquiring more land and arranging for the re-burial of everyone who had been buried within the old church. By 1868 the new church was finished, and that is the church that Zdenek Kopal, and I, visited. There is no Goodricke vault inside the church, because the Goodrickes are all buried in the churchyard, marked by one single stone from the original church. It is undecorated and bears no names; only on one side, often overgrown with grass, does it say “The Goodricke Vault.” The current vicar showed me the stone, and told me that the burial registrar could be found in the North Yorkshire County Record Office. He also told me that he had heard that, many years ago, a plaque with the name of John Goodricke had been fixed to the stone. One can see that something was once there. That plaque was supposedly taken to the University of York, where I am currently in residence, for restoration but no one knows what has become of it!

Interior of the current church.  There is no Goodricke vault because the Goodrickes are buried in the churchyard.

Interior of the current church. There is no Goodricke vault because the Goodrickes are buried in the churchyard.

My visit to the County Record Office was uneventful beyond a spat with the microfilm viewer. I learned to read eighteenth century handwriting fairly quickly (the records went back to the sixteenth, and that was much harder). I found entries for Sir John and Dame Mary, John’s grandparents; Henry Goodricke Esquire and his wife Levina Benjamina, John’s parents; Sir Henry, John’s brother, Sir Harry James, John’s nephew, and the following:

“John Goodricke, Esquire, Grandson and Heir Apparent of the Right Honorable Sir John Goodricke, Baronet of Great Ribston, buried in the new Cemetery at Hunsingore on Friday the 27th day of April, 1786.”

Far from being ostracized by his family, John was embraced, supported, and eventually laid to rest after his premature death at age 21. From this part of the project I have learned the importance of not projecting our own prejudices about what people might believe and how they might act. And I can sing along with Geoff Muldaur with only a slight change of words:

Gotta find John Goodricke…

See that his grave is kept clean.

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