Observatories: Bedfordshire

Smyth’s Bedford Observatory (1827-39), between July 1827 and 1830 Smyth established a private observatory in the garden of his house, No. 4 [or 6?] The Crescent, Bedford. It was a meridian building 17 x 12 feet, brick and ‘lathed and plastered over stout oak battens’ with a lead roof. He borrowed Colonel Mark Beaufoy’s 3-inch aperture 4-foot transit by Carey, and a small Carey altazimuth, replaced later with the Lee Circle of 1793 by Troughton, and he had a Dollond 3¾-inch aperture, 10-foot refractor, and a clock by Henry Baker. In an attached equatorial room 15 feet in diameter, in 1830 he mounted the principal instrument, a 5.9-inch Tully refractor of 8½-feet focal length, on a massive Old English mount by Sisson. It bore magnification of 1200, and with the micrometer 850. It was fitted with a clock drive by Sheepshanks (probably his first).  When his Observatory was dismantled in November 1839, the dome went to the Rev. J.B. Reade’s Stone Vicarage Observatory (see Howse 1986).

Maclear’s Observatory (1828-33), Biggleswade, established by Thomas Maclear (1794-1879), born in County Tyrone, became a house surgeon at the Bedford Infirmary. Befriended by Smyth and observing with him, he became an assiduous amateur. In about 1828 he set up an observatory in a garden behind Shortmead Street. The Transit Room was 8-feet square, and the Equatorial Room was octagonal with a rotating roof, all of wood. They housed a 2½-inch aperture Jones transit, and a 3¾-inch aperture Dollond of 45-inches focal length, the ‘Wollaston triple achromat’ of 1771 which Smyth arranged for him to borrow from the RAS. The total cost was £50. (Ken Page, ‘Shortmead Street’ http://www.biggleswadehistory.org.uk). He described his observatory, with a plan and cost, to the RAS (MNRAS2 (1833), p.90) and this surely influenced others. In 1833 he became the third Astronomer at the Cape, and from 1835 to 1845 employed Smyth’s son Charles Piazzi Smyth as his assistant (see Howse 1986).

Whitbread Observatory (1851), Cardington, established by Samuel Whitbread (1796-1879), a member of the Hartwell Synod (see Buckinghamshire, John Lee of Hartwell)  and a founder of the Meteorological Society. Within the walled kitchen garden he built an observatory equipped with a 4⅛-inch Troughton & Simms refractor with clock drive on a German mount, a 1½-inch transit on a brick pier, and Troughton’s first ever Altazimuth instrument. The brick built building has an office and transit room. At the east end is a circular drum about 10-feet across, upon which a truncated cone turns upon wooden balls. It is made from tongue and groove mahogany board, copper sheathed outside. Whitbread also had a beautiful Troughton & Simms eyepiece micrometer. He engaged John McLarin as observer in order to render the observatory useful. The French astronomer Charles Andre reported that observations had been made of lunar occultations of stars and planets, the longitude of the observatory determined, and observations made for minor planets and comets, but by 1874 the observatory was ‘abandonné’ (see Andre, I, 1874, pp. 171-2; Chapman 1998, 84-5. This account draws on Allan’s report of his visit in November 1992, which found the Observatory like a time-capsule; Howse 1986).