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Home Forums History of Astronomy Group Royal Observatory Woolwich!

This topic contains 4 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Andy Sawers 3 years, 10 months ago.

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    Mike Meynell
    Topics: 119
    Replies: 754

    I found a 1954 copy of the Bartholomew Atlas of London before Christmas, which I gave as a present to my brother (who loves old maps). We were both looking through it and found a rather odd map reference in the Woolwich area.

    We were quite surprised to see a building marked as “Royal Observatory”, quite close to the Rotunda, in the area of the Royal Artillery Barracks.

    I contacted Graham Dolan (who will be speaking to the Flamsteed history group later this year) to see if he knew anything about this. He thought it may have been where Sabine carried out his magnetic work as part of the magnetic crusades. Sabine was chairman of the Board of Visitors at Greenwich for a while, and Airy was rather dubious about the way aspects of the magnetic crusades were carried out. See http://www.aim25.ac.uk/cats/18/11962.htm. Thanks to Graham for providing this information.

    However, though Graham may be correct, I’ve done some more digging and found a fascinating document from English Heritage. It is an archaeological survey of the Royal Military Repository training grounds (see http://services.english-heritage.org.uk/ResearchReportsPdfs/RDRS%2014_2009%20WEB.pdf ) and contains the following paragraph:

    The construction of the Royal Artillery Institution’s observatory building to the east of the Rotunda in 1839 added yet another important element to the suite of training and educational facilities that had developed in the Royal Military Repository. It is not clear exactly why the observatory was located next to the Rotunda, but given the Institution’s wish to ‘generally further the education of artillery officers’ (Richards 2008, 58-59), this juxtaposition with the Rotunda may have been intentional. Trees may have screened it visual impact on the Rotunda’s setting. Skedd (2008, 17) notes that a few years later Chantrey’s square stone memorial to Major-General Sir Alexander Dickson (d. 1840), Wellington’s right-hand man during the Peninsular Campaign, was erected almost due south of the Rotunda in June 1845 (Timbers 2008 says 1847).


    In 1838 the Royal Artillery Institution built its new observatory immediately to the east of the Rotunda to be used for the general learning and improvement of the soldier. Its juxtaposition complemented, perhaps intentionally, the aims of the rest of the facilities.

    It appears to have been known as the “Royal Artillery Institute Observatory”, which has been shortened to “Royal Observatory” on the map that I saw!

    So there you go, another “Royal Observatory” in our area! I had no idea until now. Does anyone else know anything about its history?


    Andy Sawers
    Topics: 123
    Replies: 602

    What on earth were the magnetic crusades? It sounds like an epic Swiftian battle between the Northsouthians and the Eastwestians – a hopelessly one-sided tussle, ultimately.


    Mike Meynell
    Topics: 119
    Replies: 754

    What on earth were the magnetic crusades?

    There’s not much of a reference to it online, but it was a very well known period in the history of science. There was much enthusiasm to collect vast amounts of data in the early Victorian era, part of which was the establishment of a global network of geomagnetic observatories. For that reason, it was known as the “magnetic crusade”.

    George Airy, the Astronomer Royal at the time, agreed that it was important to make measurements, but lobbied for a more modest proposal of establishing a magnetic observatory at Greenwich (which was built). Sabine wasn’t happy about this, and went his own way, establishing a centre for geophysical research at Kew. Despite much criticism, Sabine’s work was successful, as he established a link between sunspot numbers, magnetic storms and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field.


    Christina Chester
    Topics: 19
    Replies: 196

    This is fascinating!


    Putting the observatory buildings aside for a moment as I’d never heard of the Magnetic Crusade and wanted to find out more. Probably encouraged by the fact that it does sound like an epic battle (I agree with Andy). I did some digging and stumbled upon this book in my search.


    So just to elaborate on what Mike has already explained above, this is my understanding the background of Britain’s involvement in it based on what is written in the book linked above:


    People wondered whether Earth had one or two sets of magnetic poles. The British had fallen behind on their involvement with terrestrial magnetism and France had taken the lead in this field. The lack of British involvement, especially being the premier maritime nation in the world, dismayed British scientists. Arago, a distinguished French scientist and foreign member of the British Admiralty, suggested the Britain conformed to the French project.

    “Through the support of the scientific elite in Britain and ultimately the British government, the recommendations of Arago were followed in England with the fervour of a religious calling. Thus, it became known as the Magnetic Crusade.” 


    Sabine is later described as an ardent evangelical magneticist 🙂



    Andy Sawers
    Topics: 123
    Replies: 602

    Christina, that’s fantastic! I love the story on the next page of Sir James Clark Ross who, in 1833, sledged to the north magnetic pole and became the first person to stand with the compass needle pointing vertically. But just imagine the scene…..

    Sir James Clark Ross: “Splendid! We’ve reached the north magnetic pole! Right – that’s that, then. Which way home, Jones?”

    First Mate Jones: “South, sir!”

    Sir JCR: “South it is! Umm…..”

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