John Rand Capron (1829-1888)
by Moira MacQuaid

Photo from the Guildford Institute Archives

Born in Shoreditch, London, John Rand Capron came from a leather-selling family, one of three children. His interest in scientific subjects started with visits to the Royal Polytechnic Institution. He was educated at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, living with his uncle, a solicitor and Mayor of Guildford three times. At 15 years old John contracted typhoid fever and during his convalescence developed an interest in botany and geology, collecting chalk fossils, many of which are now in the Natural History Museum. He was elected as a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1863.

John qualified as a solicitor in 1850 and, after his uncle’s death in 1854, he took over several roles, including Coroner and Clerk of the Peace, as well as Steward to the Lord of Burpham Manor. He married Fanny Niblett, daughter of his uncle’s ex-partner, and they had one son, who died in infancy.

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John was involved in several innovations, including the introduction of gas lighting to Guildford, bringing railways to the town, creating the first general hospital, Guildford’s Working Men’s Institution, and as a Freemason. He became an expert in Spectroscopy, publishing many magazine articles and his first book on the subject in 1877. Then, in 1879, he published a book on Aurorae, including this water-colour sketched by him in 1870. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1877, and was a member of the Council of the RAS from 1883-1887. He also contributed to a scientific puzzle of the time, the search for the planet Vulcan, although by 1877 he had reluctantly decided that there was no evidence of its existence. John developed a friendship with Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1845, as both were interested in photography, astronomy, spectroscopy, auroras and meteorology, though John had no training in science.

From the 1870s John was recording meteorological data, for publication by the Surrey Advertiser, and also by the Royal Meteorological Society, to which he was elected Fellow in 1882.

John and Fanny enjoyed many holidays both at home and abroad, and the Guildford Institute has several albums of sketches and water colours by him. There is an album of photographs attributed to him held at the Surrey History Centre.

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John Rand Capron died in 1888 in Eastbourne, and on the day of his funeral most business establishments in Guildford High Street put their shutters up as a mark of respect, and the bells at two churches were tolled. The funeral was attended by the Mayor and Corporation, including the Town Crier, Aldermen and Councillors. Obituaries reported him as a most beneficent and philanthropic character, but one who did good by stealth and blushed to find fame. Most greatly esteemed for unostentatious charity – he gave large sums annually to various charities, both at home and abroad. In his will he left legacies to reflect his interests in law, medicine and religion. Truly a great man.

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