Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Plume, Thomas

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PLUME, THOMAS (1630–1704), archdeacon of Rochester, and founder of the Plumean professorship of astronomy, was the second son of Thomas Plume, alderman, of Maldon, Essex, by his third wife, Helen. He was baptised at All Saints', Maldon, 18 Aug. 1630, according to the entry in the register, but in his will Plume bequeaths communion plate to the church 'in thankfullness for my Baptism there Aug. the 7th, 1630.' Plume was doubtless using the new style, which was eleven days behind the new. He was educated at Chelmsford grammar school, and on 29 Feb. 1645 was admitted a pensioner at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he matriculated 11 July 1646, and graduated B.A. and M.A. in 1649. He was admitted B.D. per litcras regis 1661, and D.D. 27 June 1673 (Grad. Cant. 1823, p. 373). He was instituted vicar of Greenwich on 22 Sept. 1658, Richard Cromwell, Lord Protector, being patron. Not far off, at Cheam, Surrey, was John Hacket [q. v.], whose friendship Plume had already for some time enjoyed. After Hacket was appointed (1661) bishop of Lichfield, he made use of Plume's services to buy books for him, and to transact other business in London. He records, 16 March 1667, his 'promise of the next prebend that shall be void if I live so long, to Mr. Plume of Greenwich, who is of great merit' (Tanner MS., Bodleian Lib. xliv. f. 108). The promised prebend did not come from Hacket, but when he died the bishop left Plume 10l. and two volumes of manuscript sermons. These Plume edited under the title of 'A Century of Sermons,' prefixing a life and death of the author in 54 folio pages (London, 1675; new ed. 1865, 12mo).

Plume's father had been a prominent presbyterian at Maldon, but he himself subscribed the declaration under the Act of Uniformity on 28 July 1662. Between 1665 and 1669 both Pepys and Evelyn visited Greenwich church on Sundays, and they have recorded their commendations of Plume's 'excellent preaching' and 'very good' sermons. He held also the sinecure of Merston, Kent, where was no church, parsonage, manor house, or inhabitants. On 10 June 1679 he was installed archdeacon of Rochester.

He remained vicar of Greenwich until his death at Longfield Court, the archdeacon's residence, on 20 Nov. 1704. On 24 Nov. he was buried in the churchyard of Longfield. Plume's portrait, which he 'forbad to be ever brought into' his library, now hangs in the council chamber at Maldon.

Plume was unmarried, and left the considerable wealth he had acquired mainly for charitable objects. The sums of 1,000l., 700l., and 202l. 12s. 6d. he devoted to the foundation of a chair at Cambridge, bequeathing the money to Dr. Covell, master of Christ's College, Dr. Bentley, master of Trinity, Francis Thompson, D.D., of Caius, and William Whiston, Lucasian professor, to 'erect an observatory and to maintain a professor of astronomy and experimental philosophy, and to buy or build a house with or near the same.' The statutes for the trust were to be made with the advice of Sir John Ellis, master of Caius, 'Mr. Newtin in London [Sir Isaac Newton], and Mr. Fflamsted, the royal mathematician at East Greenwich.' They were confirmed by letters patent issued under the great seal, 11 June 1707. The money was invested in an estate at Balsham, Cambridgeshire, purchased soon after Plume's death; Roger Cotes [q. v.] was appointed the first professor, 16 Oct. 1707; and the king's gate of Trinity College, although objected to by Flamsteed, was appropriated to his use. An observatory was built soon after over the gateway, partly by subscription raised by Richard Bentley [q. v.] the master, who described it (Correspondence, ed. Wordsworth, p. 451) as 'the commodiousest building for that use in Christendom.' In May 1792, however, report was made that 'the professor had neither occupied the said rooms and leads, or fulfilled the conditions for at least fifty years; the observatory and the instruments belonging to it were, through disuse, neglect, and want of repairs, so much dilapidated as to be entirely unfit for the purposes intended.' The trustees agreeing to its removal, it was in 1797 demolished.

The existing astronomical observatory, in the south wing of which the Plumian professor occupies rooms, was erected in 1822. Plume's gift has centred upon the professorship, although in the original bequest the observatory was placed first. It may be added that Robert Smith (1689–1768) [q. v.], Cotes's relative and successor, says that Plume was induced to found the chair through reading Huygens's 'Cosmotheoros' (1698), recommended him by Flamsteed, whom doubtless he knew at Greenwich (Edleston, Correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton, lxxv).

To his native town, where he had already erected a school and library, Plume gave his books, manuscripts, and 'my large Mapp of the World.' This has now disappeared. The library keeper was to have 40l. a year and a house, the library was to be open to students free of charge, and books might be borrowed on proper security; it was thus practically a free library. For the support of the school Plume bequeathed a house in Maldon and the farm of Iltney in Mundon, out of which also a weekly lecture was to be maintained in All Saints', Maldon, while the vicarage was augmented by 200l. Ten poor boys of the two parishes were to be taught and clothed in green baize, and an exhibition for an Essex scholar established at Christ's College, Cambridge.

Plume also anticipated the present poor-law system by giving 200l. and the residue of his estate to purchase tenements and stock for setting the pauper inhabitants to work 'according to Mr. Commins' direction and his Draught sent me by Doctor Thompson,' and for erecting a workhouse for the poor of Maldon and neighbouring villages. To his old school at Chelmsford he left books for a standing library. Others of his charitable bequests included 1,000l. to buy in the tithes of small livings worth under 100l. a year; 100l to Bromley College; various gifts to the city of Rochester, including a large sum towards repairing the cathedral; almshouses to Greenwich, and a trust to maintain a lecture at Dartford and Gravesend, and to augment poor livings in the diocese under 60l. value. Although a bachelor he devised 100l. to encourage the marriage of ten maids who had lived seven years in service.

[An article by Mr. E. A. Fitch, in the Chelmsfordian, iii. 38–43, March 1898, reprinted separately as a pamphlet. See also Fitch's Maldon and the River Blackwater, 3rd ed. 1898, pp, 19, 20, 30, 38; Newcourt, Eccles. Repert. i. 182; Hasted's Hist. of Kent, i. 34, 273, ii. 48, 64, 93; Harris's Hist. of Kent. 1719, 187; Pepys's Diary, iii. 89, 131, v. 161; Evelyn's Diary, ii. 17; Hist. and Antiq. of Rochester, 1717, 106; Morant's Hist. of Essex, ii. 333, 337–8, 357; Whiston's Memoirs, i. 133; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. viii. 105; Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, iv. 69; Wright's Hist. of Essex, i. 526, ii. 645, 649; Willis and Clark's Architectural Hist. of Cambridge, ii. 499, 500, iii. 190–8; The Plumian Professorship, a Tract containing the Letters Patent; Baily's Life of Flamsteed, App. p. 223; Edleston's Correspondence of Newton and Cotes, xxxviii, lxxiv, lxxv; Lysons's Env. of London, iv. 472; Kennet's Hist. and Reg., 309, 456, Monk's Life of Bentley, i. 202; Robert Smith's ed. of Cotes's Harmonia Mensurarum, Preface; A Century of Sermons, ed. Woolcot; Lansdowne MS. 987, fo. 266.]

C. F. S.