Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hirst, William

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HIRST, WILLIAM (d. 1769?), astronomer, was the eldest son of William Hirst, D.D. (d. 1760), master of Hertford free school, vicar of Bengeo, and rector of Sacomb, Hertfordshire. He was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he went out B.A. in 1750–1 as fifteenth junior optime, and proceeded M.A. in 1754. He became a navy chaplain. In April 1754, being then resident at Hornsey, Middlesex, he communicated to the Royal Society an ‘account of a fire-ball’ seen there (Phil. Trans. vol. xlviii. pt. ii. pp. 773–6), which led to his election as fellow on 20 Feb. 1755. In 1755 he sailed in the Hampton Court to Lisbon after the earthquake, and made a drawing of the city in its ruins. In 1759 he was chaplain of the Lenox and secretary to Rear-admiral Cornish. While he was on the coast of Coromandel he was present at the sieges of Pondicherry and Vellore. On 6 June 1761 he made an accurate observation of the transit of Venus over the sun at the Government House at Madras, in company with the governor, afterwards Lord Pigot, of which he gave an account in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (vol. lii. pt. i. pp. 396–8). In March 1762 he was appointed chaplain to the factory at Calcutta by the favour of Henry Vansittart [q. v.], then governor of Bengal, and in November of that year sent to the Royal Society an ‘account of an earthquake in the East Indies, of two eclipses of the sun and moon,’ observed at Calcutta (ib. liii. 256–62). In December 1764 he returned to England with Vansittart in H.M.S. Medway. On the voyage Hirst took a view of the Cape of Good Hope, which was engraved in 1766 by Peter Charles Canot. At the second transit of Venus on 3 June 1769, Hirst, attended by Vansittart, acted as one of the assistants to the astronomer-royal, Nevil Maskelyne, at Greenwich. At Maskelyne's request he drew up a particular ‘Account of several phenomena observed during the ingress of Venus into the Solar Disc,’ accompanied by capital diagrams (ib. lix. 228–35; also Gent. Mag. xl. 402). He had now taken chambers in Fig Tree Court, Inner Temple. Though in comfortable circumstances, his old friendship induced him to accompany Vansittart, sent out as one of three commissioners by the East India Company in 1769. Hirst was chaplain to the commission, and William Falconer [q. v.] was purser. A Latin ode, ‘Ad Amicum Navigaturum,’ addressed to Hirst on the occasion by James Kirkpatrick, M.D., is printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (xxxix. 550). The frigate, after leaving the Cape of Good Hope on 27 Dec. 1769, was never again heard of. Hirst's interesting letters to John Duncombe and William Fazakerley are printed in Duncombe's collection of ‘Letters by Several Eminent Persons deceased,’ 2nd edit. 1773 (iii. 84, 94, 142, 154, 159); another addressed to Emanuel Mendes da Costa in 1765 is Addit. MS. 28538, f. 158.

[Duncombe's Letters, 2nd edit.; Gent. Mag. xli. 190.]

G. G.