London Observatories

Aubert’s Observatory [1] (1769-88), Deptford, established by Alexander Aubert with a 3¾-inch Bird transit, quadrant and Shelton clocks (Howse 1986).

Aubert’s Observatory [2] (1788-1806),  Highbury House, Highbury near Islington, established by Alexander Aubert with same instruments he used at Deptford (Howse 1986).

Barclay’s Observatory (1854-86), at Knott House,  Knotts Green, Leyton, established by Joseph Gurney Barley – main Instrument: 10-inch Refractor (see Barclay 2006).

Brocklebank Observatory (1932), University College, London. In the 1930s the University of London was the only university in England to offer a first degree in astronomy. This teaching observatory was established on the roof. Equipment a 10-inch Calver reflector, a Grubb chronograph, and a Rowland grating. A small ancillary observatory, the Equatorial House, a gift of the Chadwick Trust, had been established in the courtyard in 1904 and mounted originally a 4½-inch refractor and latterly a 6-inch Cooke of 1863. The Drapers Observatory, a gift of the Drapers Company in 1904, housed a 3½-inch Cooke transit. The observatories were actively used until damaged during World War II, so that they were closed in 1946 and the instruments moved to Mill Hill Observatory (see Hutchins 2008, 413, 413-7).

Bishop’s Observatory [1](1836-61) South Villa, Regents Park, the home of George Bishop (1785-1861), now the site of Bedford College, ‘The Regents Park Observatory’ was built and equipped upon the advice of [Admiral] William Smyth, with a 7-inch Dollond refractor of 11-feet focal length on an Old English mounting, at that time a powerful instrument. Dawes used it 1839-44 to measure double stars. In 1844 the solar system comprised the seven major planets and the four minor planets (asteroids) discovered between 1800 and 1807. In December 1845, after a fifteen year search, Karl Hencke, a German amateur discovered the fifth asteroid, Astraea. In September 1846 came the sensational discovery of Neptune. Bishop decided to devote his observatory to searching for planets. From November 1846 Bishop’s assistant John R. Hind (1823–1895) began a systematic search using the newly available Berlin charts, he discovered two comets, and by October 1847 two asteroids, and in September 1850 his third, Victoria, but by then his health was strained. By 1854 he had discovered ten. Meanwhile Bishop engaged Norman Pogson [1850] then Eduard Vogel [1852] as second assistants, and when Hind left in 1853 he engaged from 1853-55 Albert Marth, and in 1860 George Talmage. Upon Bishop’s death the instruments and dome were taken by his son to establish the new Meadowbank Observatory at Twickenham (Howse 1986).

Browne’s Observatory (1825-8), established by Henry Browne () at his home, 2 Portland Place, London.  Here he conducted experiments with Captain Kater on pendulums and gave Edward Sabine advice on magnetic instruments (Howse 1986)

Buckingham’s Observatory (1861), Wandsworth Common, London. There are notes of John Buckingham making a 21-inch refractor exhibited in 1862, and then erecting it on Wandsworth (or Waltham?) Common. This needs more research. What is certain is that in 1889 it was sold for £700 to Edinburgh Council for the Calton Hill Observatory, where it was mounted by 1898. In 1926 it was dismantled and scrapped .

De la Rue’s observatory (1849-57), Canonbury, Islington.  It was established by Warren De la Rue

Evans’s observatory (1799-1820), Woolwich was, established by Revd. Lewis Evans. It was furnished with a 2-foot transit circle of 1810 by Troughton – later the ‘Lee Circle’ at Smyth’s Bedford Observatory (Howse 1986).

Groombridge’s Observatory (1806-32), established by Stephen Groombridge at his home at Blackheath. As a youth he taught himself astronomy, and then had a small observatory built at Goudhurst. After moving in 1802 to 6 Eliot Place, Blackheath, less than a mile from the Royal Observatory, he converted a stable adjacent to his dining room into an observatory. He persuaded Edward Troughton to build him a large reversible transit circle, of 3½-inch aperture and 5-feet focal length – ‘Groombridge Circle‘. It was superior to any meridian instrument in Europe. With it the observer could observe simultaneously the RA and Dec of an object at a single observation. So began the huge amount of meticulous observation and many years of reduction that eventually yielded his famed catalogue of 4243 circumpolar stars for epoch 1810, published in 1838 (Howse 1986).

Hampstead Observatory (1910- ), Hampstead Heath, established by the Hampstead Astronomical and General Scientific Society that was formed in 1899 to utilise the gift of Colonel Henry Heberden’s 10 1/2-inch reflector. The observatory was completed in 1910 on top of the Metropolitan Water Board’s underground reservoir on the highest site in London. Observing was led by Patrick Hepburn as joint Astronomical Secretary, who later became director of the BAA’s Saturn Section. The principal instrument today is a 6-inch Cooke refractor (origin c.1900) presented in 1923 by George Avenell. The original Observatory was completely refurbished in 2011-12, and now continues its long tradition of public viewing nights (see URL).

Hooke’s Observatory (1669), Gresham College, Bishopsgate, City of London, established by Robert Hooke at his college quarters.  He install a 36-foot Zenith Telescope to a attempt to measure Stellar Parallax (Howse 1986).

Huddart’s Observatory (c.1788-1816?), established by Captain Joseph Huddart at his house at Highbury Terrace, Islington, London (Howse 1986)

Imperial College Observatory (1903-36), South Kensington, established after Norman Lockyer retired as director of the Solar Physics Observatory, his son William took over. The instruments belonged to the Lockyers. But Lockyer’s former assistant the brilliant spectroscopist Alfred Fowler (1868-1940) had now achieved independent status teaching laboratory spectroscopy to students of astrophysics at the Royal College of Science. He borrowed a 6-inch Cooke ‘Simms No. 2-inch refractor from the ROG, and a small transit instrument, installed them in a roof-top observatory, and in 1905 added a 2-prism Evershed spectroscope, and in 1905 a 5-inch Zeiss triplet and object-glass prism. With this equipment his students observed sunspot and solar prominence spectra, and co-operated with the IUCSR. Between 1914 and 1924 they had no instruments as they had not been returned from the Russian solar eclipse expedition, but in 1925 Fowler’s successor Assistant-Professor Herbert Dingle (1890-1978) was able to resume instruction on the former basis. See: Solar Physics Observatory, South Kensington (Stroobant 1907; Stroobant 1931Stroobant 1936).

Lockyer’s Observatory (1869-71), St John’s Wood, established by Norman Lockyer moving his observatory from Wimbledon in 1869, and adding a spectroscopic laboratory to the 6¼-inch refractor, 1865 Herschel-Browning grating, and 1869 7-prism spectroscope. When he at last obtained a post at the Royal College of Science, Kensington, he moved his equipment there.

Marlborough House Observatory (c.?-c.1772), established by George Spencer,  fourth duke of Marlborough (1739–1817) at his London house in St James, Westminster.  His main instrument was an 18-inch reflector by James Short (1742), which he donated to the University of Oxford in 1779 (Howse 1986; ODNB)

Mill Hill Observatory,  Hendon (1929-current [2015]), established as the observatory of the University of London at Hendon. In 1924 the 24-inch Grubb reflector of 1881 was offered by J.G. Wilson of Daramona Observatory, Ireland. It was accepted, with its 1893 mount, and a 10-ft Rowland grating spectrograph, and Cooke coelostat. Hendon Council granted a long lease at nominal rent. The University Senate granted £5,000 and all the colleges contributed – a rare example of corporate consensus and generosity in founding a university observatory. The building was opened October 1929, for the use of students of all the colleges in the Faculty of Science. In 1935 when the Radcliffe Observatory moved from Oxford to South Africa, the Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Dyson effected the offer of the Radcliffe 24/18-inch photo-visual Double Refractor and its dome. These were accepted, and the telescope installed in its new building in June 1938.
In the 1990s the Double Equatorial was completely refurbished, and is cherished and regularly used (see Hutchins 2008).

Royal Hospital School Observatory, Greenwich (1849/59-1930s), in operation by 1860, with instruments by Gilbert donated by the Admiralty that were made for the East India Company – St Helena Observatory.  The building in Portland stone was originally fitted with two cylindrical domes but later extended with a larger 13-foot that  housed the Lawson Telescope, an 11-inch refractor (Turner 1990).  This telescope, originally owned by Henry Lawson (1774-1855), was first offered to the city of Nottingham for the establishment of its own observatory, but when the finances failed to materialise it was donated to the Royal Hospital School.  The observatory at the Royal Hospital School was established under the supervision of the Rev. George Fisher (1794–1873) who was appointed headmaster in 1834 (ODNB). Fisher reported observations of the 1860 solar eclipse made from the observatory (Fisher 1860).

Royal Observatory, Greenwich [ROG] (1675-1958).  The Observatory was in Kent until 1889, then the County of London. Between 1948 and 1958 (see Howse 1975; Krisciunas 1988 – for an excellent summary history of the ROG set within the international context). It moved to Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex (see: Sussex page, for Royal Greenwich Observatory, Herstmonceux [RGO] (1957-1990).

Russell’s Observatory (c.1777), 156 Strand, London, established by William Russell (Howse 1986).

Sellers’s Observatory (), 42 Church Crescent, Muswell Hill, London, established by Francis J. Sellers. He converted the attic of his home into an observatory for an 8-inch reflector and a solar telescope. Notable was his construction of a heliospectroscope,  based on a Hale example from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, which he had examined in detail (Stroobant 1931Obit., QJRAS, 1 (1960), 242-4Obit., JBAA, 70 (1960), 235-8)

Solar Physics Observatory, South Kensington, London (1879-1911), which established by Sir Norman Lockyer to be an astrophysical facility to observe the Sun.  Funded by an annual government grant the observatory was moved Cambridge when the funding was transferred to Cambridge University (Lockyer 1928; Meadows 1972; Hutchins 2008; RAS 1913).

South’s Observatory [1] (1816-24), Southwark, established by James South at Blackman Street. At first he only had a 3¾-inch Dollond of 5-feet focal length. In 1820 he acquired a superb 5-inch Tully achromatic refractor of 7-foot focal length, and borrowed a 4-inch Troughton transit from the ROG. With this instrument South and John Herschel in 1821-23 observed and completed a Catalogue of 380 double stars, which gained them the joint RAS Gold Medal in 1924. In the following year South observed a further 458 doubles, for which he was awarded another Gold Medal in 1826 (Howse 1986).

South’s Observatory [2] (1826-70), established by James South at Campton Hill, Kensington, London.  Built to house a new 11.8-inch refractor mounted by Edward – see James South (Howse 1986).

Tulse Hill Observatory, Lambeth (1856-1908), established by William Huggins at his Upper Tulse Hill home, south of the river Thames. In May 1856 he had a 5-inch Dollond, and observed mostly planets. But in 1858 he purchased an 8-inch object glass by Alvan Clark from Dawes, and had it mounted by Cooke (in 1868 he sold the instrument to Charles J. Corbett of Thames Ditton, Surrey). In 1870 he had the Cooke mounting adapted to carry a 15-inch refractor or 18-inch Grubb Cassegrain reflector funded by the Royal Society ( which was controversial, when others also sought funding). In 1882 the mounting was improved to carry both instruments coaxially. In 1859 Kirchoff’s discovery had inspired him to study stars spectroscopically. His neighbour Dr Miller, a chemist, helped him build a spectroscope. In 1862 his report to the Royal Society identifying elements in space was received on the same day that the Society received the report of Rutherford’s work. In 1864 Huggins proved that the Draco nebula was gaseous. In 1875 he tackled dry-plate photography as soon as that method was available, and subsequently his wife Margaret has been fully recognised for her vital contribution to their work for which he received most of the contemporary credit. She spent many hours of skilled guiding at the telescope, so that they achieved a sharpness of definition in the photographs that was hard to surpass. They also established the motion of stars in the line of sight. In 1908 the instruments, owned by the Royal Society, were given to the Solar observatory at Cambridge, which helped considerably to consolidate the University’s national leadership in astrophysics.

Wrottesley’s Blackheath Observatory (1829-41), established by Sir John Wrottesley to house a 4-inch transit by Thomas Jones for taking RA  meridian measurements only. From 1831-35 he made ten observations of each of 1,318 stars of 6th and 7th magnitude, a catalogue published by the RAS in 1836, for which he received the RAS Gold Medal in 1839. In 1841 he moved the observatory to Wrottesley House, Staffordshire, and added a 7¼-inch Dollond refractor (Howse 1986).