For sale, a William IV period marine night telescope or night glass by George Stebbing of Portsmouth. Optician to the Royal Yacht Squadron.
This rare type of maritime or navigational telescope was designed specifically for night observations or for poor light conditions and its size and lens structure was produced accordingly. The two and a quarter inch objective lens would have been conceived to allow for as much natural light to enter the large 3 inch diameter barrel of the telescope and the eyepiece and single draw tube contains a further two lenses. The combination of lenses presents an intentionally inverted image as an additional erector lens (making it a refracting telescope) would also reduce the overall power of the instrument and thus defeat the purpose. The leather covered barrel measures 43cms when closed and 55cms when drawn to its full extent. The draw is engraved to “George Stebbing, Portsmouth, Optician etc to the RYS” and the word, “Night” to denote its use. It also retains its original dust slide to the eyepiece and objective lens cap with further dust slide which when open creates a 1 inch aperture for the main objective.
A near contemporary publication of 1828, “The Panorama of Science & Art” by James Smith describes the night glass in the following way:
“The telescope called a night glass is nothing more than the common astronomical telescope with tubes, and made of a short length, with a small magnifying power. Its length is usually about two feet, and it is generally made to magnify from six to ten times. It is much used by navigators at night, for the purposes of discovering objects that are not very distant, but which cannot otherwise be seen for want of sufficient light, such as vessels, coast, rocks etc. From the smallness of its magnifying power, and the obscurity of the objects upon which it is employed, it admits of large glasses being used, and consequently has an extensive and well enlightened field of view”.
George Stebbing was born in Holborn in 1775 and moved to Portsmouth at around the turn of the century where records show him becoming active as an instrument maker from around 1805. Apprenticed in London to the famous Robert Brettell Bate, he was presumably enticed to Portsmouth by the volume of naval and army officers that would have been frequenting the city during the height of the Napoleonic wars.
Stebbing had a wife Mary and by 1815, she had given birth to eight children, most notably the first five sons, George James, Richard, Frederick, Joseph and Horatio, all of whom followed in their Father’s footsteps. He kept strong ties with London and joined the Vintners Livery Company in 1807, became a Freeman of the City of London in 1816 and maintained links with his former Master by acting as a sub-agent for Admiralty charts under Bate.
Trading from various addresses in the city such as Broad Street, Common Hard, and latterly the High Street, Stebbing grew his reputation for quality manufacture and is known to have entered patents in July 1810 for “actions of land & sea compasses” and in December 1826 for “apparatus for ascertaining the trim and stability of ships or other vessels”. In 1812 he undertook numerous experiments with Matthew Flinders and the Rev, James Inman (Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Naval College) and in 1818 he produced a prototype ship’s binnacle which was tested by the Navy and later adopted as a standard.
Clearly an outstanding maker, Stebbing received a Royal Appointment from the Duchess of Kent and became Optician to the Royal Yacht Squadron as well as serving the Admiralty.
His son’s also had similarly successful careers with his eldest son George James being employed on the famous HMS Beagle expedition as instrument maker and librarian alongside Charles Darwin. On his return, he became a supplier in his own right to the newly founded Meteorological Office, perhaps unsurprising given his obvious connections with Fitzroy.
Joseph Rankin and Horatio Stebbing seem to have worked in partnership setting up business in nearby Southampton and according to records, gained Royal Appointments from Queen Victoria, The Duchess of Kent and The Royal Yacht Squadron. Joseph later served as mayor of the town.
Stebbing’s wife Mary died shortly after giving birth to their last daughter Ann in 1816, and he later remarried in 1822 to Charlotte Butcher with whom he had a further five children. He eventually died in 1847 and the business was bought out by Samuel John Browning, grandson of Samuel Browning of Spencer, Browning & Rust fame.
The manufacture date of this high quality telescope can be narrowed down by virtue of the engraving to after 1833 as this is the point when The Royal Yacht Squadron was given its title by William IV. Stebbing was only active for another 14 years and latterly, the company became George Stebbing & Son, it can therefore be quite precisely dated to within the earlier end of that period.
Circa 1833 - 1847