Robert MAIN (1808–1878)
St Giles section: Row 36, Grave K35

Robert Main




Revd. Robert Main

Radcliffe Observer.

Born 12th July 1908

[Died 17th May 1848]




R. M.



The footstone has been moved and now obscures the text on the lower part of the gravestone


See the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the full career of Robert Main, Radcliffe Observer

Robert Main was born at Upnor in Kent on 12 July 1808 and baptised at Dartford on 30 October. He was the eldest son of Thomas Main and his wife Elizabeth. He became a grammar school master, and saved up to go to university, graduating from Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1834. He was elected to a fellowship there and also took holy orders.

In 1835 Main became assistant or clerk at the Royal Greenwich Observatory under Sir George Airy.

In the first quarter of 1838 in the Bideford registration district, Robert Main married Mary Kelland, daughter of the Revd Philip Kelland (curate of Dunster, Somerset), and they had three children:

  • Robert Main (born at Park Terrace, Greenwich on 7 February 1839 and baptised at St Alphege's Church there on 27 March)
  • Philip Thomas Main (born at Park Terrace, Greenwich on 22 April 1840 and baptised at St Alphege's Church there on 8 May)
  • Francis Main (born at Park Terrace, Greenwich on 27 February 1843 and baptised at St Alphege's Church there on 26 April).

The 1841 census shows Main, described as a clerk, living at Park Terrace, Greenwich with his wife and first two sons, plus one servant. In 1851 they were described more precisely as living at 9 Park Terrace, and Main’s occupation was given as “Clergyman & Astronomer”: they now had three sons, and two servants.

His second son Philip Thomas Main was admitted as a Scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1859.

Main took up the position of Radcliffe Observer on 19 June 1860, in succession to Manuel Johnson, and was incorporated at Pembroke College, Oxford on 12 October 1860 at the age of 52. He was granted an M.A. by decree on 25 October.

Observatory from BlavatnikRadcliffe Observatory, viewed from the top of the Blavatnik Building in Walton Street

The 1861 census shows him living at Radcliffe Observatory House in Woodstock Road with his wife Mary and two servants. None of their sons was at home: Robert (22) was a clerk in the Admiralty and boarding in Chelsea; Philip (20) was a student at St John’s College, Cambridge; and Francis (18) was a midshipman on the Emerald.

From 26 October 1861, Main provided a summary of the previous week’s weather and a forecast for the following week in Jackson’s Oxford Journal.

His youngest son Francis Main, who had served as a midshipman, was matriculated at the University of Oxford from Pembroke College on 19 October 1865 at the age of 22, gaining his BA in 1868.

Their son Robert was the only one who married:

  • On 10 August 1867 at St Mary Magdalene Church in Reigate, Surrey, Robert Main married Harriett Mary Pownall, the daughter of the solicitor William Pownall.

Robert Main and his wife Mary were still living at the Observatory at the time of the 1871 census, and now had three servants.

Main died in 1878:

† Robert Main died at the Observatory on 9 May 1878 at the age of 69 and he was buried at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery on 15 May (burial recorded in the parish register of St Giles’s Church).

The following death notice appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 11 May 1878:

May 9, at the Observatory, Oxford, the Rev. Robert Main, M.A., F.R.S., &c., &c., Radcliffe Observer, in his 70th year. The funeral will take place on Wednesday next at one o’clock, in St. Sepulchre’s Cemetery.

There was a report on his funeral a week later on 18 May 1878:

THE LATE REV. ROBERT MAIN.—The funeral of the late Radcliffe Observer, the Rev. Robert Main, M.A., took place on Wednesday afternoon, in St. Sepulchre’s Cemetery, Walton-street. The members of the family circle of the deceased followed the remains to the grave, and there were also present as mourners Professors Pritchard, Westwood, Bartholomew Price, H. J. S. Smith, Clifton, and Gandell, the Rev. R. H. Charsley, Mr. E. Chapman, &c. The Rev. H. Deane, Vicar of St. Giles’s, read the Burial Service.

His personal estate came to under £6,000, and his son Robert was his executor.

His widow Mary Main died at 4 Tottenham Place, Clifton, Bristol at the age of 73 on 11 December 1880. Her effects came to under £5,000, and her executors were her sons Robert and Francis.

The three sons of Robert & Mary Main
  • Robert Main (born 1839) was still working as a Clerk in the Admiralty in 1871, when he was living at 39 Abingdon Villas, Kensington with his wife Harriet and their daughter Ethel Pownall Main (2). By 1881 he and Harriet had moved to 12 Manor Park, Lee, Lewisham where they were living with their son Melville Pownall Main (9). They were still there in 1891 Robert Main was now Assistant Accountant General to the Royal Navy, while his son Melville (19) worked as a Clerk on the Lloyd’s Register. Robert Main died at his home in Lewisham at the age of 59 on 14 July 1898. His effects came to £3,598 12s. 9d.
  • Philip Thomas Main (born 1840) was Fellow in Chemistry of St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1871 was paying a visit to the home of his brother Robert, and in 1891 he was living at the college. He never married, and died at his college rooms in Cambridge at the age of 59 on 5 May 1899. His effects came to £6,372 5s. 10d.
  • Francis Main (born 1843) was a Barrister at Law in the Inner Temple in 1873, and a master at Bristol Grammar School in 1881. He emigrated to the USA in about 1885, and died at Rochester, Monroe County, New York at the age of 48 on 16 March 1891.



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