February 1, 2018

“A Miscellany of Historical Astronomy Sites and Places of Interest in the South East of England” – History of Astronomy Group Meeting – 23rd January 2018

Report by: Bobby Manoo

“Where else to start but at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.” This was quite an appropriate introduction to Malcolm’s talk at the 2nd meeting of the History of Astronomy group for this season. Malcolm has been a member of the Flamsteed Astronomy Society for over 10 years and served as Chairman for four (4) years. He has been studying Astronomy since the age of 13 and is still uncertain about which area interests him the most, Observing, Imaging, Engineering or History of Astronomy! For this session at least, it was History in the forefront.

The session kicked off with the Royal Observatory, but not as we know it today. Malcolm explained that there was once the Christie Enclosure which existed from 1898 to around 1958. Within this enclosure stood The Yapp Observatory equipped with a 36 inch Reflector Telescope, The Magnetic Pavilion and the Cookson’s Floating Zenith Telescope to name a few items within the Enclosure. Tragically, the entire enclosure with all its artefacts were removed and relocated elsewhere. What remains now is a green open area with just a small remnant of its prior glory – an old metallic sign partly buried in the ground with the words, “Fire Hydrant” etched on it. It is believed that water tanks may still exist beneath the ground at this site. Malcolm describes the dismantling of the Christie Enclosure as “wanton vandalism” especially as the current South Building of the observatory almost suffered the same fate.

Moving on to the Greenwich Meridian Line Markers, Malcolm explained that there were markers at Sheffield Park, Hither Green Railway Station, Oxted Surrey, Peacehaven and Rodmell in the North side of the South Downs.

Mention was made to some miscellaneous sites such as The Royal Artillery Institution Observatory which was located close to the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich Arsenal and also the Astronomy section of the Hampstead Scientific Society which was based in Hampstead Heath. This was equipped with a vintage Cooke refracting telescope housed within a fixed dome.

Will Hay had an Observatory near Croydon which contained several telescopes. He was credited with discovering the Great White Spot on Saturn in 1933 using a Cooke 6 inch refractor telescope and also has an asteroid named after him, the 3125 Hay.

South Kensington was home to a Solar Physics Observatory setup by Norman Lockyer. It was located close to the current location of the Imperial College and the Science Museum. Norman was a pioneer of archaeoastronomy and died in 1920.

Sir William Huggins built a private Observatory in 1858 at Upper Tulse Hill during the golden age of amateur Astronomy. He was heavily involved in Spectroscopy at the time and made significant contributions to this area of Astronomy as an amateur. The University of London also has two small surviving but unused observatories in Gower Street and still has its 1901 Mill Hill Observatory which is used primarily for research purposes.

Attention was eventually turned to central London where it is believed that there was a zenith telescope at the top of the Monument as well as a laboratory under the ticketing cubicle. Malcolm did mention that he could not find much more details on these items and it did spark some interests among those in attendance.

Some interesting information was provided on William Lassell who went from a beer brewer to the owner of a private observatory which housed a 24-inch reflector. This was used for his discovery of Triton, the largest moon of Neptune. After William’s death, the telescope and the mount was donated to the ROG and was located close to where the South Building now stands. It was scrapped in 1924.

Warren De La Rue, who perhaps should have been credited with the creation of the light bulb, had designed and built a photoheliograph with a telescope he had designed at Kew, Surrey. He used this to produce stereoscopic pictures of the Sun and Moon which was exhibited in 1862 in London. His photoheliograph was later moved to the ROG around the end of 1872.

Other sites which were discussed on the night included Sir John Herschel’s House, The Mid Kent Astronomical Society in Canterbury, Sir Henry Thompson’s Observatory at West Molesey, The Observatory Science Centre and Castle at Herstmonceux, The South Downs Planetarium at Chichester and Sir Patrick Moore’s House in Selsey.

The evening rounded up with Mike Dryland retelling the story of his meeting with Neil Armstrong at the Royal Observatory and also missed encounters with other celebrities such as Tom Hanks!

Malcolm ended off his wonderful talk by urging the audience to take a look again and see what else can be found among the various locations in South East England and urged the audience to look again at the Royal Observatory, a site rich with history which ought not to be taken for granted.


Posted under: Flamsteed, History of Astronomy, Meeting Report