Unfortunately, the engraving on this telescope does not mean that it was owned by the Duke of Clarence (later to become William IV), it just says that Thomas Rubergall in his professional business had been an appointed “Optician to H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence”. Actually, the address then quoted underneath is 24 Coventry Street, London, a location that Gloria Clifton’s book suggests he moved into in 1840, through to 1851.
Rubergall had in fact been making optical instruments etc since 1800, but by 1805 he had moved to prestigious premises, in another address in Coventry Street. William, the youngest son of George III, was appointed Duke of Clarence in 1789, when he was aged 24 and became active in the Royal Navy, mainly in the Caribbean. Effectively the Dukedom ceased when William was crowned William IV in 1830: he then died in 1837, aged 72. But Rubergall had kept his patronage after the Coronation, as he was listed as an appointed supplier to William IV. So the words on the telescope introduce some confusion as to when it was created – the answer must be “around 1830”.
Duke of Clarence
The Duke was an enthusiastic sailor, and was commanding Royal Naval ships from 1786, under Lord Nelson. He left the Royal Navy in 1790, and was annoyed that he was never asked to take command again in the naval battles of around 1800. Eventually, he was made Lord High Admiral of the fleet from 1827-28, when he was asked to step down after taking a squadron out to sea for 10 days without having notified anyone as to what he was doing or where he was going. His nickname as William IV was “The Sailor King”. The copy of the print by William James Ward here shows him as Lord High Admiral, with a telescope, but not this style!
His personal life was a little complicated, having fathered ten illegitimate children with an Irish actress called Dorothea Jordan, with whom he cohabited from 1791 to 1811.
The telescope itself is a single (short) draw style, with a leather clad brass body. The external metal fittings at each end are copper or bronze, with the actual threaded parts mainly in brass – most of these threads still work perfectly. All the copper/bronze parts were at one time silver plated: maybe with enthusiastic cleaning over 200 years by servants in a prestigious house, all the plating has worn away on normally exposed surfaces. Notably the screws holding the bezels at each end of the main barrel are original and tiny.
The construction inside is a standard approach of five lenses, one objective which is a two element lens, and two cartridges at either end of the single draw, each containing two lenses. Diameter max is 1.875”, the length is 25” open, 19.5” closed.
What’s it for?
Magnification is not that great, maybe 10x or 12x. Possibly the telescope was as much to assist poor eyesight as to supply a magnified detailed image.
It is certainly intended for naval use, in my view, just from the design and size.
The main use is to show itself off as a high quality expensive instrument, hence the size, both length and diameter, good leather, and silver plated metal fittings, with the royal appointment quotation in ‘copper plate’ writing near the eyepiece. Given that, it was surprising there was no owner’s name or mark evident: it was at this point that I found a crest and name embossed onto the leather of the barrel, half way down, on the opposite side to the stitching. It can just be read as “Louisa”, with a crown above it. The Crown is gilded, and the name at one time was also picked out with gold letters.
At least between 1829 and 1831, Lord Belfast owned a 129 ton yacht, a racing cutter, called ‘Louisa’, and this is referred to in the Royal Lymington Yacht Club’s archives of history. Their interest was because a racing cutter called “Alarm”, of around 200 tons, one of the largest of its type, was built at Lymington (Inman’s Yard). Alarm beat Lord Belfast’s Louisa in the 1831 King’s Cup Race, but lost a 1000 Guinea match race to Louisa later that year: then Lord Belfast acquired a new yacht in 1833, “Waterwitch”, for future races. What happened to ‘Louisa’ is unknown, he tried to sell it to the Navy. The picture shows the ‘Alarm’ winning the 1831 race ahead of ‘Louisa’.
The full story over this telescope did not become apparent until after I sold it in December 2020 to another collector. Obviously with sharper eyes than mine, he identified that the leather had another name, embossed along the length of the barrel: this name was “Waterwitch”. So it shows that this telescope was owned by Lord Belfast, and transferred between his two yachts, Louisa and Waterwitch, in the early part of the 1830s. It is also reasonable to assume Lord Belfast would have bought this new from Rubergall, in or before 1829 (when he also acquired Louisa). I am assuming that he would hardly buy a second hand scope, if he was in the market buying yachts!
It seems likely this telescope was in use aboard Lord Belfast’s Louisa in around 1830-32, adding some further information about the date. Possibly Gloria Clifton’s book is not right about the date of moving operations to #24, and it was earlier? The Science museum website suggests he traded from 24 Coventry Street from 1826 onwards, which would indeed contradict Clifton, and solve the problem!
Size: 1.875” diameter, 25” long fully open, 19.5” closed.
Condition – and how well was it made?
Externally it looks well made, and it still works properly, everything screws up properly, but the one criticism might be that the retention of the single draw in the bezel at the eyepiece end of the barrel is not strong enough – it may just be that the internal slider has been damaged inside, where a break in the brass is visible, but the outer diameter of the draw is a little too small for the hole it goes through. Despite layers of soft felting in there to make the draw smooth, the joint still wobbles a little too much, which can make the image seen through the telescope move around a little. Later versions of telescopes have a two point suspension, by moving the thread away from the outer end of the bezel, giving less room for a lateral wobble at this point.
The leather is original, but the longitudinal stitching is splitting, and I can’t see an easy way of repairing that. It has lasted nearly 200 years around a copper alloy metal barrel, which has some green oxide from the effects of seawater spray, so it has served its time.
The objective lenses themselves will not unscrew from the end assembly, so I cannot really confirm that the lens is just a doublet: presumably this is from bangs on the end, since the glass is right at the extremity, and could easily be damaged or the housing knocked. There was undoubtedly a lens cap on here at some time, certainly when it was made, but this is missing.
That depends on how impressed any purchaser might be with the pedigree! I bought this telescope on Ebay in November 2003, and bid as much as what I thought it was worth, and that I could afford. I vaguely remember that there were two significantly higher bidders, but eventually the seller contacted me to see if I would still be willing to pay my bid, as the other two had retracted their bids, or changed their minds! When it arrived I too was a little concerned at the state of it, but it cleaned up quite well, and has become quite interesting as more has been discovered – even today!
A purchaser at the Royal Lymington Yacht Club, or any other similar or associated yacht club, would maybe appreciate this telescope for this history, and it would be worth the £1500 they would need to pay!
Acquisition #79, bought in 2003 from an Ebay seller. I lost the initial auction to another buyer, who subsequently backed out, so the seller approached me to accept my lower bid!