Observatories: Sussex


Chambers’s Observatory, (1873), Eastbourne, established by George F. Chambers (1841-1915).  Born in Upton-on-Severn, Worcester, and became a barrister, author of astronomy books, a keen observer, and in 1893 a founder of the BAA. As a boy he frequently observed with his uncle Frederick Brodie (1823-96) who at his home in Eastborne had a 6.4-inch Merz refractor. At his home, Northfield Grange, Eastbourne, Chambers in 1873 built a Romsey-type observatory on top of a tower of his house. The dome rotated on three cannon balls. He had a 4-inch Cooke, and later a 6-inch Grubb refractors.

Hanbury’s Observatory (1905-39), Brockhurst, East Grinstead. Established by Frederick J. Hanbury who was very wealthy and set up an observatory with a 6⅛-inch Cooke refractor. He employed William Franks as observer, in part to host Hanbury’s many guests on visits to the observatory. During seven years Franks made micrometer observations of wide double stars (published 1914-20). When Franks died at the age of 85, Hanbury invited 14 year-old Patrick Moore to take charge of the Observatory. This he did until the outbreak of war, when the Observatory was dismantled.

Crowborough Observatory (1890-1904), Crowborough.  ‘Starfield’ Observatory, was established by Isaac Roberts (1829-1904) who when he retired from work and moved to Crowborough Hill, which had an elevation of 800 feet. He installed his new 20-inch Grubb photographic reflector of 1886 on a dual mounting devised by Huggins to carry a 7-inch Cooke as guide scope. In 1888 he replaced the Grubb mirror with one by Calver, and mounted a superb quality 5-inch Cooke camera. In 1890 he engaged William S. Franks as photographic assistant, and he took the thousands of negatives images – all in duplicate sets – from which Roberts worked tirelessly to select the finest images. Franks’s photographic skill was essential to the project. Roberts’s work gained him the RAS Gold medal in 1895.

In 1896 at the Vadso Eclipse, Roberts met the astronomer Dorothea Klumpke (1861-1942) of the Paris Observatory, and married her in 1901. After Roberts’s death she took charge of his plates and published two photographic atlases and a catalogue. However, they had closed the Crowborough Observatory and moved to London. Franks was left unemployed, and Professor H.H. Turner wrote to Frank Dyson: “Poor little Franks [Franks was a man of diminutive stature, but charm and energy] has had a hard time. Isaac Roberts used him of course, and left him stranded. He has struggled on one way or another … His pay is small and his means are suffering; he is selling his telescopes etc to get along – we have [at Oxford] brought one from him”. (HHT to Dyson, letter 27 Sept. 1915, RGO 7, 243, RAS corr. Cambridge Observatory Archive, Cambridge University Library). Roberts had a thorough understanding of engineering and chemistry, and was able to specify his instrumental requirements for his instruments, and devise experiments to prove his research. He was an early advocate of reflectors for photography, and proved the potential with his magnificent plates, while having the portrait lens used to amass the finest atlas. (W.S.F. [Franks], Observatory, 27, Aug. 1904, 300-03].

Cuckfield Observatory (1859-93), established by George Knott (1835-1895), first at ‘Woodcroft’ until 1873, then from 1875 at Knowles Lodge. Equipped with his newly purchased 7.3-inch Alvan Clark object glass of 9.4-feet focal length on a Merz mount, acquired from W.R. Dawes. Upon Knott’s death it was purchased by Edward Turner Whitelow (see Lancashire page, Birkdale Observatory). Upon Whitelow’s death in 1932 the observatory and telescope were donated to Stonyhurst College Observatory.

Knott was a real ‘amateur’, a specialise in variable stars. He corresponded with Joseph Baxendell and Espin among other leading observers. His results were fewer, but important and specific additions to the earlier work of celebrated astronomers. His 34 years of observations were edited by Professor H.H. Turner at Oxford, and published by the RAS in 1899.

Noble’s Observatory, (1857) Uckfield, Sussex, established by Captain William Noble (1828-1904).  Born in London, borrowing a 2¾-inch Dollond telescopeat the age of 14 and applying it to the Moon and planets ignited his passion for astronomy. For a time until 1853 he owned the 6.8-inch 12-foot refractor previously owned by Dr William Pearson, another founder of the RAS. After 1856 he purchased a new 4.2-inch Ross refractor of 5-feet focal length of ‘unsurpassed excellence, equatorially mounted, driven by clockwork, and equipped with micrometer’. He housed it in a wooden observatory with zinc-covered rotating dome. He also had a 2¾-inch Simms transit and a siderial clock. A very accurate and precise observer, he regularly observed occultations, including the Mercury transit of 1868, and made an excellent series of drawings of Jupiter. He observed in close co-operation with his neighbour Mr M.C. Lesson-Prince, who owned his own observatory also set up in 1857, but with a 7-inch Tulley refractor (Andre, 1874, vol. I, p. 165). A popular member of the RAS, and continuously a Council member from 1866-80, his pertinent witticisms in debates endeared him to some, but he could become controversial, and became an implacable opponent of Norman Lockyer’s Solar Physics Observatory and its benefit of a government grant (See: Observatory, 27, 347 (August 1904), 298-300). A generous mentor of young observers, he was selected to be first President of the BAA. The amusing obituary in the Observatory by H.P. Hollis, an appreciative colleague, is complemented by his own autobiographical note JBAA, 15, 6 (1904-5), 228-9.

Patrick Moore’s Observatory, (1968-2012) ‘Farthings’, Selsey, Sussex. The principal instrument is his 12½inch reflector which he acquired in the 1950s, and moved to Selsey in 1968. He specialised in lunar and planetary observations. The observatory operated continuously until 2012, when Patrick announced that arthritis prevented him making further observations. The instruments have been his original 3-inch Broadhurst Clarkson brass refractor acquired in 1934; a 12.5-inch reflector acquired 1945 with a Henry Wildey mirror on a Ron Irving altazimuth mount; a 8.5-inch With-Browning reflector of 1908 in a Broadhurst Clarkson tube, acquired in 1953 from the RGO, and in 2006 given to Bruce Kingsley who restored it by 2008 for his Maidenhead Observatory, Berkshire; a 5-inch Cooke refractor on a Charles Frank equatorial mount, restored by Steve Collingwood; a 15-inch reflector, the mirror of unknown origin but re-figured by George Hole, on a Fullerscopes fork mount (See: Middlesex, Moore, Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell).

Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO), Herstmonceux (1948-1990)

By World War II the ROG at Greenwich had been engulfed by urban pollution, and disturbance of the telescopes by underground trains. Harold Spencer Jones, tenth Astronomer Royal, supervised site surveys and then the move of the staff and instruments of the ROG from Greenwich to become the RGO in Herstmonceux Castle, south-west Sussex. Spencer Jones moved to the castle in 1948, but the scientific staff could not move until the completion of new observatory buildings in 1957. There the RGO was near the University of Sussex and could benefit from the very desirable collaboration with a university physics department. After long delays, the 100-inch Isaac Newton reflector was completed in 1967, but in 1979 it was transferred to the much better observing conditions of the new Northern Hemisphere Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

By the early 1980s the RGO had developed great expertise in telescope and observatory design, and made a great contribution to building the twin 8 metre Gemini telescopes on Mauna Kea and in Chile. Altogether the RGO employed some 230 staff. But as completion neared, the government wanted to cut the engineering staff and divert scarce resources to fund the astronomers and PhD students who would use them. By a decision that Patrick Moore castigated as “scientific vandalism”, the RGO was closed in 1990. The Observatories telescopes were left on site as the Observatory Science Centre, taken over by an educational charity Science Projects. A much reduced staff was moved to a new building adjacent to the Institute of Astronomy on the Cambridge Observatories site, and on 31stOctober 1998 that too was closed – truly the end of a 323 year long era of astronomy.

As stated above, we have what is now known as ……..

The Observatory Science Centre, Herstmonceux

Following the closure of the RGO in 1990, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has allowed the buildings of the Equatorial Group to come back to life as The Observatory Science Centre, an innovative and exciting hands-on experience for “children of all ages”! This work has been undertaken under the aegis of Science Projects Limited, an educational charity devoted to the promotion of science and technology to the all. Three of the six telescopes abandoned when the site was closed in 1990 have been restored to working order and are used on public viewing evenings arranged during the year. Also on the Herstmonceux Castle estate is the Space Geodesy Facility, operating under the auspices of the National Environmental Research Council.

The principal attractions include the 13-inch Astrographic Refractor, acquired by the RGO at Greenwich for the Carte du Ciel project, the lens of which was later taken to Brazil to validate Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1919; the Yapp 36-inch Reflector, used for stellar photography and spectroscopy and later as a test-bed for the Isaac Newton Telescope; and the Thompson 26-inch Refractor, still one of the largest working refractor telescopes in the world. This telescope was largely used as a powerful camera between 1897 and 1988 taking over 60,000 photographs of the night sky. The Thompson 30-inch Reflector (1896) was used in 1908 to discover the eighth moon of Jupiter and later, when at Herstmonceux, to collect the light from stars and beam this into a high resolution spectrograph to investigate the chemical composition of the stars. Two other domes at the Observatory contain telescopes which were not at Greenwich, the 38-inch Congo Schmidtand the 34-inch Hewitt Camera. The Congo Schmidt was originally destined for the Belgian Congo but civil war prevented its installation there, and after arrival at Herstmonceux was found to be unsuitable for astronomical research here. The Hewitt Camera was designed for tracking the Blue Streak missile, but when this project was cancelled the 2 cameras constructed for this purpose were used for satellite tracking, a function continued today by the Space Geodesy Facility.

Other notable artefacts housed at the Centre include an Aluminising Plant for recoating the telescope mirrors (still in occasional use); the original INT mirror – not taken to La Palma; and a 13-inch lens from the Oxford telescope which was used in West Africa to observe the eclipse central to the validation of Einstein’s New Theory of Relativity. One of the domes also houses an exhibition, ‘Domes of Discovery’ which traces the history of the Royal Observatory from its inception in 1675 .

Currently the Equatorial Group houses over 100 themed exhibits demonstrating a wide variety of scientific principles and discoveries. In early September each year, the Centre hosts an Astronomy Festival to raise funds for the essential maintenance of the telescopes. Over the course of the weekend, keen amateurs and families camp on the lawns in front of the building and enjoy a programme of lectures, trade stalls, activities and even occasional viewing! A variety of science workshops for children, adult evening courses and structured programmes for schools are also offered. The Centre is open to the public seven days a week from February to November, with Open Evenings arranged regularly during the longer evenings and private hire by special arrangement.


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