British stargazers are locked in a bizarre court fight over the £400,000 fortune of a celebrated astronomer who left everything to his ‘best mate’ in his will – but didn’t say who that was.
Amateur astronomer Roy Panther found national fame in 1980 when he discovered a comet with a home-made telescope from his suburban semi.
The discovery earned him a mention in the record books and he also featured on long-running BBC astronomy show ‘The Sky at Night’ when he was interviewed by Sir Patrick Moore.
Mr Panther, who died in 2016, had planned to leave almost all his worldly goods to the British Astronomical Association (BAA), but a bitter court row has since erupted after the discovery of a new will written on his deathbed.
The hand-written document simply promises everything to ‘my best mate’ – and now lifelong friend and fellow star-gazer Alan Gibbs is fighting in court to prove he is the ‘mate’ and so the rightful heir.
Astronomer Roy Panther (pictured) found national fame in 1980 when he discovered a comet with a home-made telescope from his home
He made his discovery on Christmas Day in 1980 when he spotted the faint signs of what would become ‘Comet Panther’ (pictured) from his home in Walgrave, Northants
Mr Panther’s former suburban semi (pictured) where he spotted the comet with a home-made telescope
However, the case – to be fought next year – is being contested by the BAA, which says simply stating ‘my best mate’ is not enough to make a valid will and that Mr Panther was too frail and ill at the time to fully understand what he was doing anyway.
Mr Panther, who was 90 when he died in hospital in October 2016, was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, who had created an observatory using home-built equipment at his Northamptonshire home.
He made his amazing discovery on Christmas Day in 1980 when he spotted the faint signs of what would become ‘Comet Panther’ from his home in Walgrave, Northants.
He was conducting a ‘systematic search’ of the night sky when he spotted the new comet in the far north, within in the constellation of Draco.
It was his first success after over 600 hours of searching and he later said in a television interview that it would mean his name would not be ‘forgotten to posterity.’
In 1986, he made a will, leaving almost all of his fortune, including his home in Old Road, Walgrave, to the BAA, of which he was a long-standing member.
Two friends got small cash sums, while another, Colin Eaton, was named executor of the will and was left £10,000 and Mr Panther’s optical and meteorological charts and equipment.
Mr Panther’s friend Colin Eaton (pictured outside Central London County Court) was named executor of the will and was left £10,000, optical and meteorological charts and equipment.
But Mr Gibbs, also from Northampton, now claims that while in Northampton General Hospital before his death, Mr Panther had dictated a new will, leaving everything to him.
Dated September 11, 2016, the will, which Mr Gibbs says he transcribed on the instruction of his old friend, states that ‘if I die’ his estate would go to ‘my best mate,’ which Mr Gibbs says can only refer to him.
‘Mr Gibbs and the deceased were lifelong friends, having known each other for around 77 years,’ says his barrister, Chris Bryden, in documents filed at Central London County Court ahead of next year’s trial.
‘They shared a keen interest in astronomy and together established an observatory. The deceased purchased the premises and Mr Gibbs provided equipment for this observatory.
‘It is admitted and averred that the 2016 will does not refer to Mr Gibbs by name but rather to ‘best mate’. However the compelling inference is that the deceased by this phrase was referring to Mr Gibbs.
‘The deceased dictated the terms of the 2016 will to Mr Gibbs. It is therefore natural that he used a colloquial phrase, rather than identifying him by name.
‘The ordinary and natural meaning of the phrase ‘best mate’ and the intention of the deceased was clearly to refer to Mr Gibbs.’
But the BAA denies that the 2016 document was duly executed because it did not actually name the beneficiary.
They are also raising questions over how it was witnessed, as well as insisting Mr Panther was very frail and vulnerable at the time and did not fully understand what he was doing.
Sir Patrick Moore (pictured), who interviewed Mr Panther, recording the 650th ‘The Sky at Night’ for BBC television at his home in Selsey, West Sussex
Before the will was written, the BBA say, he had suffered a fall at home and been hospitalised and was said by medical staff to be ‘finding it difficult to understand’ communications.
He also had dementia, say the BBA, and there had also been concerns about his welfare as he had been leaving his front door unlocked, allowing people to come and go uninvited.
Although previously an ‘articulate’ man, he had been described as ‘very confused’ in hospital, where his only visitor was Mr Gibbs.
‘The deceased was extremely vulnerable from 30 August 2016 until he passed away,’ says the BAA’s barrister Mukhtiar Singh.
‘At the time of making the handwritten note, the deceased lacked capacity and did not understand the nature and effect of it.
‘The deceased had serious communication difficulties due to his hearing and/or he was unable to make decisions for himself due to his cognitive impairment.’
But Mr Bryden says that is only part of the story, since other medical notes suggest that Mr Panther’s condition had improved while in hospital.
He was said to be ‘bright and chatty’ and talking in sentences days before the will was made and ‘bright and communicative’ on the day it was written.
‘The deceased himself dictated the terms of the 2016 will and was aware of the nature and extent of his property and clearly expressed that he wished for Mr Gibbs to receive the same,’ Mr Bryden added.
The battle over the 2016 will is set to be heard during a three-day trial at Central London County Court next year, but reached court last week for a short planning hearing dealing with the evidence to be heard.
Judge Alan Johns KC granted an application for medical evidence to be given at the trial by doctors relating to Mr Panther’s capacity to make a will at the time he was in hospital.