He was born the son of Joseph Sheepshanks, a Leeds textile manufacturer of the well-to-do Sheepshank family of Bilton, Harrogate and received education at the Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1816. He was called to the bar in 1824 and took orders in Church of England in 1825, but did not practice either profession as the death of his father left him with sufficient wealth to pursue his scientific interests. He had six children from a relationship with an Irish dancer, one of whom was Eleanor Louisa Moravia Henry, also known as Nelly, mother of the painter Walter Sickert and the feminist Helena Swanwick. Sheepshanks gave financial support to the dancer and her husband, who in turn claimed paternity.
He served as editor of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and greatly improved their content. In 1830 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society In 1832, he got involved in the lawsuit of Edward Troughton against Sir James South, in which Troughton demanded payment for an equatorial mounting that he had supplied to South, but which South claimed to be defective. Sheepshanks informally served as legal counsel to Troughton; South's legal counsel was Drinkwater Bethune. Troughton prevailed in the lawsuit. In 1833, he recommended withholding publication of an early edition of Stephen Groombridge's star catalogue, which was being published posthumously, after discovering the edition contained errors. A final corrected edition was later published in 1838 under the auspices of George Biddell Airy. In his later career he worked on establishing a standard of length for imperial measures. He was reportedly deeply sceptical of the work of Charles Babbage and of his ability to deliver a working Difference Engine or Analytical Engine. The two men publicly attacked each other.
Death and legacy
He suffered a stroke ("apoplexy") on 29 July 1855, died on 4 August and was buried at Trinity College. There is a memorial notice at St. John's Church, Bilton in Harrogate After his death, Richard's sister Anne Sheepshanks contributed a legacy towards research to be conducted by the Cambridge Observatory and a scholarship in her brother's name.
- Richard Sheepshanks at Find a Grave
- MNRAS 16 (1856) 90, obituary
- More on South Versus Sheepshanks Authors: Hoskin, M. Journal: JOURN. HISTORY OF ASTRONOMY V.22, NO. 68/MAY, P.174, 1991
- Agnes Mary Clerke (1897). "Sheepshanks, Richard". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 52. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- "Sheepshanks, Richard (SHPS811R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art By Walter Sickert, Walter Richard Sickert, Anna Gruetzner Robins, Published by Oxford University Press, 2000 ISBN 0-19-817225-7, ISBN 978-0-19-817225-3
- "English.Unitecnology.ac.nz". 2014-02-12. Retrieved 2016-12-24.
- "FindArticles.com | CBSi". findarticles.com. Retrieved 2007-01-14.
- "Library and Archive catalog". Royal Society. Retrieved 2012-02-28.
- "RootsWeb: ENG-YKS-HARROGATE-L [Harrogate] St John's Church, Bilton". archiver.rootsweb.com. Retrieved 2016-12-24.
- Society, Royal Astronomical (1877-01-01). Monthly Notices ...: Containing Papers, Abstracts of Papers, and Reports of the Proceedings of the Society.