Stones from the sky: A meteoric tale

Click to follow
On 13 December 1795, a 56lb stone plunged out of the misty clouds to land on the damp Yorkshire Wolds. It missed John Shipley, a ploughman, by nine yards. Mr Shipley recovered the stone and took it to his master, Edward Topham.

The Wold Cottage meteorite, as Topham's stone is known, became directly responsible for the acceptance of the idea that Earth is regularly bombarded by the debris from other bodies which share our solar system.

Denied a living, rightfully believed to be his, in the church, Topham was first a soldier and then a successful playwright. He was a dandy whose exploits caused him to be subject matter for cartoonists of the day.

Topham also followed a newspaper career as part owner and a leading writer for The World. He specialised in reporting scandal and promoting the arts, in particular the career of Becky Wells, an actress of extreme beauty who bore him four illegitimate children. Eventually, Topham sailed too close to the wind in an article about the recently dead Earl Cowper. He was forced by his partners to surrender his interests in the paper, and following his break-up with Wells, he withdrew to Yorkshire with three of his daughters.

It was thus fortuitous that the Wold Cottage meteorite ceased its 4.5 billion year wanderings to fulfil its appointment with destiny and Mr Topham. He recognised a good story and took the stone, measuring nearly 3ft in circumference, to London for display in Piccadilly.

It is conceivable that Topham knew some astronomy; he had recently sat for a portrait by John Russell (which is shown above right), the society painter. Russell may have told him about his maps of the moon, produced from telescopic observations.

At the same time as he was painting Topham, Russell was working on portraits for the family of the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. Sir Joseph certainly paid his shilling to see the Wold Cottage meteorite. Probably he was surprised to find it was identical to another stone he had in his possession, given to him the previous year by Sir William Hamilton, husband of the infamous Lady Emma.

Sir William's stone came from Siena in Italy, where it had been seen to fall 18 hours after a violent eruption of Vesuvius. There was no way the Wold Cottage stone could be associated with an active volcano, so Banks persuaded Topham to part with a fragment and acquired several more stones, rumoured to have fallen from the clouds from the Hon Charles Greville, a mineral collector.

Banks could now commission a skilled chemist, Charles Edward Howard, to analyse eight fragments of rock. Howard found all the samples contained fresh metallic iron, contaminated with nickel. Iron does not occur free in any natural earth rock and its association with nickel is totally unknown, so meteorites were proved to have come from beyond our planet.

Thus it became a popular theory that meteorites were rocks thrown from lunar volcanoes - it was calculated that a stone would need to be given the velocity of only four times a cannon ball to reach earth. The idea was, however, short-lived once asteroids were discovered (in 1801) by telescope. Then all meteorites were accepted as bits of a broken-up planet - an interpretation that lasted for 180 years until American scientists found a rock on Antarctica which exactly matched what the Apollo astronauts brought back from the moon. It is now back in vogue to believe that a few meteorites are genuinely lunar (thrown to earth by impacts on the moon, not volcanoes), and indeed some are accepted as coming from Mars in this way.

As for Topham, he erected a monument to the stone which had aroused so much curiosity. Thinking it would be better in a public place, he sold his specimen to a private museum proprietor James Sowerby for 10 guineas, whence it passed to the Natural History Museum where it can be seen today.

Topham's promised memoirs never appeared in print, and he failed to realise his dearest wish, which was to die on horseback.