James Nolan, Forgotten Bush Astronomer


On 21 March 1896 the Adelaide Chronicle published the following story:

“The Commissioner of Police on Monday received a report from Millicent stating that on Friday, March 6, a man who gave the name of James Nolan had been found lying half naked near Mount Muirhead. The man was in a very weak condition, having had nothing to eat for five days, and said he had come from Victoria. Dr. Gribble ordered him to be fed on strengthening food, and after being formally charged with being a pauper lunatic he was remanded till March 10. During the interval the arresting constable became suspicious that he was running away from Victoria to avoid punishment for some crime, and reference to the Gazette showed that a man of the same description was wanted at Casterton on a charge of forging and uttering…” [1]

So, who was James Nolan and why is his story worth retelling?

I first came across James Nolan twenty years ago when he was referenced in a scientific paper on theories of the origin of the Moon. [2] This referred to a book published by him in 1885 titled “Darwin’s Theory of the Genesis of the Moon“. [3] It was a slim volume of some 16 pages. Puzzled by finding no reference to Nolan in histories of Australian astronomy I visited the State Library of NSW to view his second book, published ten years later titled “Satellite Evolution. The Evident Scope of Tidal Friction. The Meaning of Saturn’s Rings“. [4] This was a much more ambitious volume of 114 pages. Both books were published in Melbourne by the well known publisher George Robertson & Company. They were aimed at a mathematically educated reader, not the general public. It’s possible that both were published at Nolan’s expense.

Book 1

Nolan’s First Book

I was able to find out that Nolan had a brief exchange of views at the time with the then preeminent physicist G. H. Darwin in the journal Nature, and that his work was acknowledged in the popular history of astronomy by Agnes Clerk titled “A Popular History of Astronomy in the Nineteenth Century“. This is a quote from Clerk’s book:

“To recapitulate. Analysis tracks backward the two bodies until
it leaves them in very close contiguity, one rotating and the other
revolving in approximately the same time, and that time certainly
not far different from, and quite possibly identical with, the critical
period of instability for the terrestrial spheroid. “Is this,” Professor
Darwin asks, “a mere coincidence, or does it not rather point to the
break-up of the primeval planet into two masses in consequence of a
too rapid rotation.

We are tempted, but are not allowed to give an unqualified assent.
Mr. James Nolan of Victoria has made it clear that the moon could
not have subsisted as a continuous mass under the powerful disruptive
strain which would have acted upon it when revolving almost in
contact with the present surface of the earth ; and Professor Darwin,
admitting the objection, concedes to our satellite, in its initial stage,
the alternative form of a flock of meteorites.”

James Nolan’s Life

I recently revisited the story of James Nolan with the benefit of new research resources available on line and was able to piece together some idea of his remarkable life.

This article from The Herald of 17 June 1895 tells his story as it appeared some 9 months before his appearance half-naked and starving in South Australia:

“PUBLICATIONS RECEIVED. From his post of of observation in his bush home near the township of Chetwynd, James Nolan has issued the result of more philosophical reflections upon natural phenomena. In many respects Mr Nolan is a remarkable man. Whether he is fated to become a second Hopkins [5 ] we may hardly venture to predict. But it is certain that, difficult as the conditions were under which Hopkins rose to fame as an astronomer, those of James Nolan are even more trying.

A man of small means — in point of fact a struggling selector in the far-off Chetwynd district he does his daily round of work and yet finds time for pursuing very abstruse studies indeed. He possesses no observatory, no instruments, not even the advantage of regular association with men who are (sic) considered kindred problems, yet he does good work. Several of his publications have been favorably reviewed by the learned societies, and he now adds to their number one on Satellite Evolution (George Robertson and Company. Melbourne). The evident scope of tidal friction and the meaning of Saturn’s rings are treated in this work. In due course, we doubt not, it will run the gauntlet of criticism by the learned societies. To even the uninitiated in the subject it demonstrates how wonderfully acute is the faculty of observation, and how profound the power of thought in its bush author. The book is published at 5s 6d.”

James Nolan’s Family

Nolan was born in 1850 to William Nowlan and Margaret Carroll, both believed to be from Ireland. They had married in Victoria in 1842. At some stage William took up land at a place in south-western Victoria near to the present town of Casterton. This was referred to in the Port Phillip Government Gazette in 1850 as comprising 9,000 acres with a grazing capability of 2,000 sheep, and named as the Glenmire run. It lay about 4 miles from the Glenelg river. However Nowlan was in occupation not later than 1 June 1848 when 4 Nowlan children (now spelt as Nolan) were baptised by the first visiting Roman Catholic priest in the area, one Father Kavanagh from Portland Bay. [6]

Glenmire locality

Location of Glenmire Run, Casterton District

William Nowlan died in 1856, when the oldest child was presumably around 13 years of age, leaving his wife Margaret to raise the children. She may have kept farming, as her death, when it came in 1882, was recorded as having been at Glenmire.

These were pioneer days in Victoria, when options for schooling were limited. I’ve not been able to find out how James was educated, [6] but however it took place he learnt sufficient to be able to write on celestial mechanics by the age of 35. In this some parallels can be seen with the life of the astronomer John Tebbutt in Windsor, New South Wales, who also received a small town education. [8] However Tebbutt had advantages that seem not have been available to Nolan, such as proximity to a major city and its scientific coterie. By contrast, Nolan lived some 360 kilometres from Melbourne.

Nolan married, to Johanna Mulcahy, although I’ve not found a marriage registration. They had at least 5 children.


Nolan’s world came crashing down around his ears in February 1896 as this article, which appeared in the Launceston Examiner of the 17th, explained:

“MELBOURNE, TUESDAY. For some time past rumours have been current that James Nolan, a grazier on a small scale in the district, had been guilty of a series of extensive forgeries, and matters reached a crisis to-day when a warrant on a charge of forgery was issued for his arrest by Mr Robert C. Miller, J.P., on information sworn by Mr J. Beckett, manager of the local branch of the Colonial Bank. Nolan, who lives at Glenmire, about 16 miles from Casterton, had been in the habit of discounting promissory notes of varying amounts from £60 to £250 for about 12 months past. …

Nolan, who lived almost the life of a recluse, recently published a book entitled “Satellite Evolution.” He has not been seen in the district for some weeks, and was last heard of at Mortlake. It is believed that all the money which he obtained from the forgeries was spent in the publication of his book.”

I’ve not yet been able to ascertain the result of the charges or much about his subsequent life. He died in 1911 in the area where he had lived most of his life and left an estate to his surviving children that comprised various parcels of land with a value of over two thousand pounds.

No later references to his astronomical work have come to light, although on the concluding page of his second book Nolan wrote:

“In concluding this short work, which it may be noted does not essay to trace the history of a system further than from the annular to the post-annular or advanced satellite stage, it is my intention to return to the subject in a more comprehensive work, treating also of theories of planetary and stellar evolution, which I hope soon to complete.”

I am sure there is much more to the story of James Nolan. Whilst his fall from grace may seem to be a case of monomania, there is little doubt that Nolan had gifts that in other circumstances may have led him to greater fame.


  1. There is some doubt as to whether this was the wanted man. The Hamilton Spectator of 24 March 1896 reported that the Constable sent to retrieve him had returned convinced that he was not.
  2. Hartmann, W. K., Phillips, R. J., & Taylor, G. J. “Proceedings of the Conference “Origin of the Moon” held in Kona, HI, October 13-16, 1984″
  3. Available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-442659124/view?partId=nla.obj-442666782
  4. Available online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112068010682&view=1up&seq=7
  5. A reference to Benjamin John Hopkins – see https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/sts-observatory/2018/12/11/the-astronomer-behind-the-bar/
  6. Centenary 1844-1944 : All Saints’ R.C. Church, Portland (available at https://nla.gov.au:443/tarkine/nla.obj-755286556)
  7. A Church of England school opened in Casterton in 1857. Nolan may have attended this, but, if so, he would have needed to board in the town as Glenmire was too distant for daily travel. A Roman Catholic school opened in Portland in 1849 but this was even more distant than Casterton.
  8. Tebbutt received a classical education at local schools in Windsor, including subjects such as Greek, Latin, algebra, Euclid and the use of globes. See Ragbir Bhathal, Australian Astronomer John Tebbutt, Kangaroo Press, 1993 pp. 12-13

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