Northumberland

Astronomers

Acfield, Frank J. (1905-1975), born Southampton he trained and worked in the woollen industry, moving to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1936. Using a 10-inch reflecting telescope housed in an observatory erected in his garden Acfield undertook extensive celestial photography.  In addition, he was a tireless astronomy populariser giving several lectures a week.  In 1970 the ‘Sky at Night’ series, hosted by Patrick Moore, was devoted to his observatory at Forest Hall, Newcastle (Gooch 1979).

Airy, George Biddell (1801-1892) – born Alnwick, Northumberland, educated Trinity College, Cambridge, professor and director of the Cambridge Observatory 1826-35. The well known inefficiency of the Royal Observatory stimulated Airy to make Cambridge an exemplar. He became a powerful and influential Astronomer Royal 1835-81 (ODNB; Royal Observatory, Greenwich).

Atkinson, Henry (1781-1829), born in West Harle, Northumberland.  Educated by his schoolmaster father, he took over his father’s due at the age of 13.  In 1808 he moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in and continued to teach.   In 1809 Atkinson joined the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society where he presented numerous papers including astronomical topics.  He also had papers presented at the Royal Astronomical Society, which included an instrument he contrived to illustrate some of the phenomena of rotation. Atkinson was also a leading figure in the Newcastle Unitarian church.  He died of lung disease at his Newcastle home (see ODNB)

Riddle, Edward (1788–1854 born at Troughend in Northumberland. After receiving basic mathematical training locally he took up the role of schoolmaster at Shielyfield, Northumberland, then at Newcastle.  On the recommendation of Dr Charles Hutton he gained the post of master (1821) of the upper mathematical school at the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich until retirement in 1851.  His most significant published work was Treatise on Navigation and Nautical Astronomy (1824). His son John was headmaster Greenwich Hospital schools (see ODNB).

Observatories

Acfield Observatory ( -1970s), established by Frank Acfield at his home in Forest Hall, Newcastle, which housed a 10-inch reflecting telescope (Gooch 1979).

Espin Observatory  Close House, Heddon on the Wall, Northumberland.  In 1960 the Close House mansion and grounds were acquired by Kings College, Newcastle (later to be renamed Newcastle University). The two large green telescope domes were manufactured locally by Brown & Hood Ltd in Wallsend, and sited later that decade. The smaller, half-brick building with the Ash dome was constructed much later, at the end of the 1970s.

The Observatory’s 3 domes

The Espin observatory currently consists of three domes situated on a ridge to the north of the Close House mansion building, which is now a hotel. A public footpath runs alongside. The domes can be identified in Google Maps aerial photographs of the site.The 24 inch reflecting telescope housed in the largest dome was originally built by the telescope manufacturer Calver around 1914. The telescope was owned firstly by the Reverend T.H.E.C. Espin (1858 – 1934), known as “The Vicar of Tow Law,” where he worked in County Durham.

Domes made by Brown & Hood

After Espin’s death the telescope fell into disuse. In the 1960’s  David Sinden and Grubb Parsons were responsible for building some of the largest and best telescopes in the world in the 1960’s – 1980’s, including the Anglo-Australian Telescope (located in Australia), the UK Infrared Telescope (Hawaii) and the William Herschel Telescope (La Palma, Canary Islands).s the telescope was completely restored by David Sinden, the chief optical engineer at Grubb Parsons in Walkergate, Newcastle upon Tyne, after he traced its location and re-discovered it on a farm. The telescope had been dismantled and part of the tube was being used as a trough to feed the farm animals.

Close House from Google Maps

David Sinden was also a member of the Newcastle Astronomical Society, like Espin long before him. The restored telescope was donated by Sinden to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, who installed it at Close House in the mid 1960s. The 24 inch reflector remains the largest telescope in the North East of England to the best of our knowledge. 

David Sinden with the restored 24 inch telescope

Also housed in one of the domes is a 4.5 inch Cooke refracting telescope. We are unsure of when the University acquired this telescope, but it would also have been installed at Close House in the mid 1960’s. It is very similar to the 4 ¼ inch Cooke refractor used by T.W. Backhouse in Sunderland, which is currently held by the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh.

In the early 1970s Close House was also the location of research by Newcastle University on samples of lunar soil brought back from the Apollo missions, under the direction of Professor Keith Runcorn, a world recognised physicist and lunar geologist. Sheds were erected on the grounds to conduct the research, held together with copper nails: Iron and magnetic materials were not allowed near the lunar samples as this may have affected the lunar magnetism which was under investigation.

Comet Hale Bopp, taken in 1997 in the sky above one of the Close House domes.

 The telescopes at Close House were in regular use until the early 2000’s. As well as undergraduate and post-graduate work at the University, the 24 inch was used by David Sinden and members of the Newcastle Astronomical Society. Close House was sold to local businessman Graham Wylie in 2004, who converted the mansion building into a hotel and developed the grounds into a major golf course. Two smaller university telescope domes, much closer to the mansion house behind the courtyard, were emptied and taken down as part of the sale.

The University of Newcastle closed its physics department in the mid 2000’s and there does not appear to have been much use, maintenance or investment in the observatory since then.[D. Newton]

Lilburn Observatory, 1852
Built by Edward John Collingwood, the nephew of Nelson’s colleague Admiral Lord Collingwood, born 1815 North Shields, married Anna Burdett (of Co Tipperary) 1842, 3 sons, 2 daughters, elected FRAS 1851 Feb 14.

Lilburn Observatory3

Parts of the regulator and drive mechanisms for the refractor.

Lilburn Observatory

The well preserved observer’s chair – are you sitting comfortably?

Lilburn Observatory1

The 6⅓ Troughton and Simms F/12 refractor and its English mounting

Lilburn Observatory2

The 4-inch F/15 transit circle housed in a separate room next to the Dome.

In about 1852 he built the Observatory 100 yards south-west of his home Lilburn Tower, near Wooler. It was equipped with a 6⅓” Troughton & Simms on English cross-axis mounting. and a 4″ transit. (see article and photos SHA Bulletin, Issue 22 (Autumn 2012), 54-56). But EJ went blind shortly after its completion, so the Observatory was never used. In 2012 it still exists as a listed building, and is in the condition of a “time capsule” after some refurbishment in the 1990s. Collingwood died 1895, short Obit MNRAS, 56, p.197.

West Hendon House Observatory, Sunderland (south): Lat. 54d53m51s N. Long. 01d22m47s W.  Constructed 1863/4 for Thomas William Backhouse F.R.A.S., F.R.Met.S.(1842-1920). The observatory was constructed on the western roof of the property and is still there today. Renovated in April 1997 by Don Simpson.  Housed four and one-quarter inch f/15 T. Cooke & Sons (York, 1863) refractor on equatoreal mount. Scope no longer in observatory but has been located. Berthon style roof with one hatch opening out-over.

Hepple Observatory (c.1913-c.1940s), Hepplewoodside,  Northumberland, established by Dr Wilfred-Hall (1874-1950s) of Woodside, Sharperton, Northumberland (1943).  The observatory housed a 15-inch refracting telescope by Howard Grubb, Dublin, formerly owned by George Dunn at Woolley Hall, Berkshire.  In 1950s the telescope was transferred to University of Central Lancashire as part of the Alston  Observatory.

Woodside Observatory 1913

Woodside Observatory 1913

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14 Responses to Northumberland

  1. David, Ponteland says:

    Hi,
    Out of interest are you aware of a scope coming into Clse House from nr Hepple (6m west of Thropton? It used to be owned by a Capt Hall but was moved many years ago.
    Dave Ponteland

  2. ziksby says:

    Is this the 4.5″ Cooke telescope referred to in the text above?

  3. Robert Baird-Trotter says:

    Sir,
    I am researching the 6.3 English inch telescope once belonging to Rev. William Rutter Dawes the “eagle eyed” double star observer..
    Acording to Prof. C.Piazzi Smyth, in December 1862 he visited the observatory of Mr. E.J. Collingwood. His description of the Observatory states “… and is furnished, among other instruments, with an equatoreal, whose object-glass, a Munich 6-inch, had been purchased from the late Charles May, C.E., and by him procured from Mr. Dawes, ….” .
    This observatory is described as having the Merz telescope mounted on a Traughton & Simms with some fittings by Dollond in excellent style” It is also described as having a clock drive.

    Ref. Transactions of the Royal Society of Scotland Vol. XXIII, Part II p390 “On the Great Refracting Telescope at Elchies, in Morayshire, and its Powers in Siderial Observation”.
    By Professor C. Piazzi Smyth. Read Dec 1862 and March 1863.

    This is in serious disagreement with what is stated to be in the present observatory.

    Robert Baird-Trotter
    Western Australia

  4. liz elliott says:

    i have a sketch done in the 1800s of an observatory at Woodside, Hepple do you have any information on this?

    • ziksby says:

      Hi Liz, This was Wilfred Hall’s observatory. The telescope was manufactured by Grubb of Dublin and was a 15″ refractor, now situated in the Alston Observatory of the University of Central Lancashire. Prior to its installation at Hepple, it was first erected and used at George Dunn’s observatory in Maidenhead. Thanks for the enquiry and I will add some information to our pages.

    • DON SIMPSON says:

      I now have copies of the original photos taken at Woodside inc.: interior/exterior of observatory; water tower (used to generate hydroelectric for observatory): battery room/battery station; dynamo and the mansion house amongst others.

      • Liz

        Thanks for letting me know of the existence of the photos of the Woodside Observatory. If you could send me copies I am happy to add them to the survey page for Northumberland (kevin.liam.johnson@gmail.com). The same applies to the original paperwork you mention.

        Kevin

  5. liz elliott says:

    Thanks for the info. I could send a copy of the sketch but I am not sure who to email it to. Liz

  6. Survey of Astronomical History says:

    Hi Liz

    Please sent it directly to at my Gmail address, namely

    kevin.liam.johnson@gmail.com

    Thanks

    Kevin

  7. David Jackson says:

    Hi Liz,
    I visited the Lilburn Tower observatory some years ago and introduced it to my friend David Sinden . He was commissioned by the current owner (Persimmon plc.) to make a new lens for the refractor, since the original was showing signs of cloudiness, but it still exists – in a glass case!
    I purchased some circumpolar star charts and also a set of Bessel charts from Collingwood prior to his selling the estate. I still have these. I also have an original paper (see above, Robert Baird-Trotter letter) which is signed ‘with the authors compliments’.
    It was agreed that the Newcastle university astronomical society could use the observatory, but I think the fact that they had the 24″ Calver (restored by David Sinden) means that it is really not used at all now. pity!
    Regards
    David Jackson (ex RGO)

  8. len clucas says:

    I NOTE THE PICTURES OF THE LILBURN INSTRUMENT ARE THOSE I TOOK FOR THE SHA A FEW YEARS AGO. THE ORIGINAL LENS STILL EXISTS I HAVE IT HERE BEFORE ME. IT HAS BEEN MEASURED AND TESTED BY JOHN NICHOL. THE CLOUDING OVER OF A SMALL AREA IS TOO DEEPLY INGRAINED TO CURE WITHOUT A REGRIND & REFIGURING OF AT LEAST ONE SURFACE ALTHOUGH IT IS STILL USABLE. MY RESEARCHINGS SAY IT IS A MERZ LENS. ON THE LENS SIDE ARE THE INITIALS D.S. 1961. WAS DAVID AT LILBURN A YEAR BEFORE HE JOINED GRUBBS?
    THE WILFRED HALL TELESCOPE WAS BROUGHT TO GRUBBS IN 1955 FOR REFURBISHMENT WITH VERY LIMITED FUNDS. I WAS 171/2 AND PUT ON WITH A FITTER WILSON RIDLEY TO DISMANTLE & REBUILD THE INSTRUMENT IT WAS A PLEASURE TO TAKE THIS OLD TELESCOPE ( 1895? ) AND EXAMINE THE EXQUISITE ENGINEERING. THE BEST JOB I HAD AS AN APPRENTICE.

    • Is the original Lilburn telescope lens still at the observatory? It is interesting to learn first hand that the Wilfred-Hall telescope was re-furbished in 1955 by the successors to the original maker of the telescope. Do you have any information as to when it was dismantled, had it been in storage?

      • len clucas says:

        AS I SAID IN MY PREVIOUS CONTRIBUTION THE LILBURN LENS IS HERE IN MY OFFICE. TO FURTHER TEST THE ORIGIN OF THIS LENS I MEASURED IT IN GERMAN INCHES ( ZOLL ). THE OVERALL DIA. IS 6.98 GERMAN INCHES, THE APERTURE IS 6.57 GERMAN INCHES. SO THE LENS IS 7 GERMAN INCHES WITH SLIGHTLY GENEROUS 6.5 APERTURE. THIS CONVINCES ME THAT IT WAS MADE BY THE ALMOST PROLIFIC LENS MAKER OF THE 19th CENTURY, MERZ. THE FOCAL LENGTH IS 105.7 ZOLL GIVING A FOCAL RATIO OF 16.08.

        SINCERELY LEN CLUCAS

  9. DON SIMPSON says:

    Re. Lilburn Tower. I have managed to acquire some original paperwork from there. Not much, but includes measurements of double stars, mathematical equations and construction of a basic bulb barometer.

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