Mrs Mary Halley

On the 6 April 1699 a baptism is taking place at the church of All Hallows on the Wall on the northern perimeter of the City of London. The child – a boy – is named Edmond after his father, but his father – Captain Edmond Halley – is unaware of his son’s existence…

© Halley's Log

Boundary mark for St James’s Dukes Place, where Edmond and Mary were married in 1682 (© Halley’s Log)

Edmond Halley married Mary Tooke on 20 April 1682 at St James’s Dukes Place, a short walk from his father’s house in Winchester Street. The marriage took place less than 3 months after Halley returned from his Grand Tour and it isn’t known whether he and Mary were acquainted before he left, or if the marriage was arranged while he was abroad, or after his return, or whether Edmond or Mary had any involvement in the decision.

What is known, is that the marriage was a great success. They were married for almost 54 years until Mary’s death in 1736, which Edmond described as “the saddest day of my life” and that he had lived “in great contentment” with Mary. [1]

At the time of Edmond’s departure, they had two daughters, Margaret, born 1685, and Catharine, born 1688. The Biographia Britannica says they had several children who did not survive, but I have only found a record for one, Katherine, born while they were living in Islington, where they’d set up home after their marriage. [2]

There are very few glimpses of Halley’s personal life but those few give the impression of a close and happy family. Flamsteed describes a visit in 1712 by the entire Halley family at a time when relations between Halley and Flamsteed were at their nadir, and one senses the cheery Halleys working together to make the visit less of an ordeal for Edmond (and Flamsteed).

Halley’s gravestone, now set into a wall at the Greenwich Observatory, was erected by his daughters (his son had already died) and dedicated to Edmond and Mary as the “best of parents” (optimis parentibus) and all four are buried together, along with Catharine’s second husband, Henry Price.

Yet despite their long and happy marriage, Mary hardly makes an appearance in the written records. The Biographia Britannica describes her as “a young lady equally amiable for the gracefulness of her person and the beauties of her mind” but we know nothing else about her character or personality. [3]

In spite of this, it’s Mary I most often think of when reading Halley’s logbook. I tend to think of her as being the type of person who was very supportive of Edmond’s various projects – that’s speculation but even if it’s correct, she must have been gravely apprehensive about his voyage.

© Halley's Log

St Benet Paul’s Wharf, where Halley’s daughter Margaret was baptised in 1685 (© Halley’s Log)

Besides her concern for Edmond’s safety, she must have worried about what would happen to her and her two daughters if he didn’t return – and then shortly before Halley finally set sail, she found she was pregnant again – a hazardous event in itself.

We don’t know of any letters Edmond wrote to Mary from his ship, but he must surely have written at every opportunity to let her know he was safe and well. He was unable to write to the Admiralty between December and early April, and so presumably Mary had no word either and at the time of giving birth to their son, would not have known whether her husband was still alive. It must have been some sort of comfort to be able to name the child after Edmond.

And what of Halley’s own concerns for his family? We know he wrote a will shortly after the voyage was proposed and so was not blind to the fact he might not survive it, but I wonder how much consideration he gave to what would happen to his wife and young daughters if he didn’t return? I don’t doubt Halley would have been concerned for his family but I do wonder if his optimistic personality may have led him to underestimate the dangers of a long sea voyage.

Perhaps it’s more pleasing to reflect on the scene when Halley does return to his family: the relief of his wife, the joy of his daughters, his own delight at finding he has a son. For Mary, however, the relief will be short-lived as Halley will set off on his next voyage just two months after his return – and Mary Halley will have to spend another year wondering if she will ever see her husband again.


[1] The remarks by Halley about his wife are quoted in several books but I can’t locate the original source

[2] The spelling of Catharine’s name varies, ‘Catharine’ is used on the gravestone so I have opted for that. Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2517 note RR for the remark about his having several children. Catharine and Katherine were two different daughters as the latter was born before Margaret but Catharine is described as Halley’s younger daughter on the gravestone

[3] Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2500

12 thoughts on “Mrs Mary Halley

  1. Having some difficulty persuading WordPress to allow me to leave a reply…. my question is: how do you think the Halley family pronounced their surname at the time? I ask because my Gran reckoned that we were related to Edmond Halley. She recalls a not very popular great great uncle called William Halley, pronounced “HOR-LEE” who used to come and visit the family in the 1890s. She got into hot water for training the pet parrot to say “Damn your eyes Horlee” whenever he came into the house and removed his top hat! Obviously he would have been some generations removed from Edmond, but I wonder if the pronunciation was correct or whether this was just a “Grannyism”. Mike

    • Hello, Mike, and thanks for your comment. I did a post on the pronunciation of Edmond’s name (with a drinking song – train the pet parrot to sing that!), which was indeed sometimes spelt Hawley and so it’s often suggested that that was how it was pronounced at the time. There are so many variant spellings that I’m not sure it’s possible to settle the matter, but it would need someone with more knowledge of evolving pronunciation than I have (which is zero).

      John Aubrey says that Halley was “of the Halleys of Derbyshire, a good family” – it’s not known if that’s correct but Alan Cook (principal biographer) says Halley did have relatives there. Edmond had no grandchildren, so there are no direct descendants – did your gran say how she thought you were connected?

      Sorry to hear you had trouble posting a comment – do you think that’s anything to do with my settings? I’m still fairly new to blogging, so do let me know if it’s something I can amend.


      • You said that Edmond had no grandchildren. Do you have proof of that that i could see? I know someone who strongly claims that their grandfather of some generation (great,great,great…) was Edmond Halley. If what you’re saying is true, I would love to see some documentation on it.

        • Hi Jason, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I can prove that Halley had no grandchildren, but I can tell you more about the evidence against it. Halley had three children that survived to adulthood: the eldest daughter, Margaret, is stated as having died a spinster in the record awarding administration to her younger sister, Catharine. (The record is on microfiche at the National Archives, PROB 6/119/f208r.)

          Catharine (the spelling of her name varies) was married twice and outlived both husbands and there is no mention of any child in her will (PROB 10/2420). Most of her effects were left to three women of no specified relation, as well as some bequests to kin whose relationship was specified (cousin, niece of my husband – but no niece/nephew by blood).

          Halley’s son, Edmond, died three years after marrying a widow, Sybilla Freeman, and named her “sole heir” in his will (PROB 11/707), although the will was written not long after their marriage. The idea that they had no surviving children during the marriage comes from a short pamphlet by MacPike, in which he states that a bequest of land to Edmond junior was to pass to his sisters if he had no issue, and that land was disposed of by his sister Catharine in her will (MacPike, Extracts from British Archives on the Families of…, p7).

          Sybilla Freeman, however, did have children with her previous husband, so it may be that your friend is descended from her. If he or she has some evidence to support their claim, I’d like to hear about it. Archives are often defective, but there doesn’t seem to be anything (thus far!) to suggest that Halley’s two married children themselves had any (surviving) issue. Kate

  2. The Hawleys of Derbyshire, lincolshire, Somersetshire and Brentford are all descended form a norman knight called haule which became anglocised to Hawley which numerous variations in between. Perhaps Edmond Halley’s father came form the Parwich area in Derbyshire where many manors were owned by the Hawley family the who had very very strong links to Brentford in Middlesex in the first half of the 1600s. Most of the family members emigrated to virginia, Massachusetts, maryland and barbados.

    • Thanks for your helpful comment, Darryll – I’ve thought there was probably some French ancestry, given the preferred spelling of ‘Edmond’ for both Halley and his father, and I’ve come across a possible Derbyshire connection that I hope to follow-up in future (you presumably know that Aubrey connected Halley with Derbyshire?) but I can’t recall offhand which area of Derbyshire it related to.

      I haven’t come across any connection with Brentford that I can recall, and most of his southern relatives seem to have owned property in the City. His relatives further north were based in/had connections with Peterborough and Alconbury, and there are also connections to Barking, east of London, where his parents were buried.

      However, a surprising number of Halleys show up in genealogical searches, so I’m sure there’re more to be found: the difficulty is pinning them for sure as related to the astronomer. Eugene MacPike did a lot of work on this, which I hope to study more thoroughly in future.

      • thanks for your reply, Kate. In the early 1600s I found most of the Brentford Hawleys also lived in the parish of St Clement Dane in London. I don’t think that the spelling of Edmond is at all significant. In researching I have found that spellings followed pronunciation and that there was not a consistency in name spelling. The Hawleys had connections going back hundreds of years to the Worshipful company of Mercers. What apprenticeship did Edmond Halley serve? Please Keep me posted if you get any more info on family connections for the astronomer……I would love to know more.

        • Hi Darryll, the London connections I’ve seen for Halley’s family have been in the area roughly north of the Monument (St Clement Eastcheap, All Hallows Lombard St, Cannon St and Fenchurch St) and also near the northern perimeter of the City wall, and in Haggerston and Barking. Halley’s father was a soapboiler and member of the Salters’ Company; Halley himself did not serve an apprenticeship. Alan Cook has a section on his family connections and occupations in his book, page 32 onwards, and there’s a family tree in the appendices.

          I understood the spelling ‘EdmOnd’ to be of French derivation, and while spelling was not uniform at that time, the astronomer always spelt it that way unless he Latinised it, hence I’ve wondered if it hinted at French ancestry.

  3. I don’t exclude the possibility of Halley being of Belgian descent. Lucas Halley from Antwerp (different ways of spelling) lived around 1580 in Soaphouse Alley in East London, not far away from the places where the family later lived and made soap.

    • That’s really interesting, and I’ll look into it – thank you. I believe ‘Edmond’ is the French spelling, so I had wondered whether there might be a continental angle, though the preceding generations seem to be mainly connected with places like Derbyshire, Peterborough, and Alconbury. Thanks for getting in touch!

  4. Lucas Halley (also known as Lucas de Hailly and other spellings, French influence !) went to London in 1568 after the iconoclastic uprising in Antwerp. He was married to a daughter of a wealthy Antwerp merchand. He is metnioned as one of the “aliens” in “Sopehouse Alley” where indeed soaphouses were situated at that time. He went back to Antwerp in 1575 where he was caught and sentenced to a capital punishment.(so the year of 1580 my previous comment must be 1570 instead). In 1568, right after his arrival in London he obtained a privilidge from Elisabeht I, for “secret sciences”, perhaps the fabrication of soap, since the way soap was fabricated was kept a secret for a long time. Loking forward to hearing from you.

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