The thing that set the Observatory apart, of course,
was the people. With a staff of over 200 during its heyday, it was the
unique mix of skills and personalities that made the place what it was
and enabled it to enjoy a world-wide reputation for excellence.
But how did an establishment, known as the Royal
Greenwich Observatory, come to be situated in 380 acres of Sussex
countryside just outside a village with a decidedly French-sounding
When the Royal Observatory had been founded in 1675,
Greenwich had been a village in open countryside, several miles outside
London. With the growth of the capital, however, the area became
urbanised and gradually deteriorated as an observational site.
Smoke from factories and houses, along with mercury
vapour street lighting, meant that by the end of the second world war,
the only option was for the Admiralty, which in those days was
responsible for the running of the Observatory, to re-locate it.
After what are described as ‘extensive investigations’,
Herstmonceux in Sussex, ten miles north of the resort
of Eastbourne, was selected as its new home. Because of
the importance of the establishment, and the fame of Greenwich, it was
re-named the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Herstmonceux. To those who
worked there and their colleagues in the astronomical community around
the globe, it became known simply as ‘the RGO’.
In retrospect the site now seems an odd choice. In the
past three decades virtually all new observatories have been sited on
mountain tops, where the ‘seeing’ qualities are excellent and the number
of clear nights per year is far greater than at lower levels. By
contrast, Herstmonceux is nearly at sea level and lies adjacent to
marshland, the mists from which sometimes made observing a problem. Even
so, it probably enjoys more clear nights than any other site in the
Whatever the site may have lacked from a climatic point
of view, it more than made up for aesthetically. The
15th century brick castle, nestling between
two gentle hills, provided the perfect environment for the astronomers
and their colleagues.
Castle was one of the first large brick buildings in the country.
The name is derived from the Saxon word ‘herste’ meaning ‘a clearing in
the woods’ and by which name both the manor and the family which lived
there was known. A marriage between the de Herst and the de Monceux
families in the twelfth century gave us the present name of
Originally constructed in 1441, the castle fell into
decay and the interior was gutted in 1777. The ruins became a popular
attraction until acquired by Colonel Lowther who began the
reconstruction and renovation of the interior in 1911. The castle later
passed into the hands of Sir Paul Latham who completed the restoration.
Once purchased by the Admiralty, it became the home for the
Observatory’s library, refectory, offices, the director’s residence and
provided accommodation for astronomers and visitors.
Before we go any further, perhaps it is useful to look
briefly at what the Observatory’s role was in those
days. Its original purpose had been to map the heavens in order to
improve navigation at sea. Over the years, this work on pure positional
astronomy had led to investigations into the nature of objects such as
stars and galaxies themselves, spawning the science of astrophysics.
Positional work still played an
important part of course, with the annual publication of the Nautical,
Air and Star Almanacs by the Nautical Almanc Office (NAO). These were
published in collaboration with the United States Naval Observatory for
use by astronomers, navigators and surveyors. Information included daily
positions of the Sun, Moon, planets and natural satellites. The NAO was
also responsible for supplying astronomical data for civil and legal
Other aspects of the Observatory’s work included
investigating the earth’s magnetic field, determining the rotation of
the earth and the measurement of time.
Greenwich Mean Time was, and still is, known the world
over and it was the RGO’s responsibility to provide a national
time service and to generate the familiar six ‘pips’ which were
then broadcast by the BBC. It was because of this connection with time
keeping that the Ministry of Defence’s Chronometer
Department, responsible for the servicing and repair of Naval
chronometers and RAF navigator’s watches, was also attached to the
The many departments, in turn, were supported by
mechanical, electrical and electronic workshops and laboratories, a
drawing office and the usual administrative services that any large
organisation requires. So the work of the RGO encompassed a number of
different disciplines, each of which had to be accommodated at
The move from Greenwich was not
achieved overnight, of course. In fact it took ten years, mainly due to
the post-war shortages of manpower, building equipment and an initial
lack of local housing for the staff. A group of Nissan huts provided
temporary accommodation and the Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold
Spencer Jones, moved into the Castle in 1948. No significant
building work started until 1953 and it wasn’t until 1957 that the
scientific staff left Greenwich and started work in offices within the
During the war many of the departments had been
evacuated from the capital, including the Time Department and the office
of the Astronomer Royal, which were at Abinger, in Surrey, the
Chronometer Department, which went to Bradford, and the Nautical Almanac
Office, which was in Bath. Gradually the different departments and their
staff transferred to Sussex and the establishment became whole
In addition to the facilities in the castle, a
purpose-built block, known as the West Building was constructed to house
the Nautical Almanac Office, the Time
Department, the computer installation, and various other
offices, workshops and laboratories. On the east side of the estate, on
higher ground than the castle, the Equatorial Group of
Telescopes was built.
Named after the ‘equatorial’ type of mounting that each
of the telescopes utilised, this complex consisted of six domes, three
of which were linked by a large building which housed photographic dark
rooms, optical laboratories and an aluminising plant for the telescope’s
mirrors. The other three domes were accessed by raised walkways and the
whole complex was situated within an enclosure with flint-knapped walls
and a large ornamental pond.
The reason this strange edifice had been constructed
was the concern by the locals as to the impact on the environment the
arrival of the Observatory was going to have. When the first small dome
was erected to house the solar telescope, local residents expressed
their dismay at this strange building. The outcry led to a severe delay
in the design and construction of the Equatorial Group. The Fine Arts
Commission was called in to give its views and the result was an
attractive, but in some ways impractical, enclosure.
The architect had a difficult task: he was expected to
construct six large domes for the telescopes, together
with all necessary servicing facilities, and to make the resulting
construction elegant and attractive. This he did very successfully but
the night observers who subsequently worked in it would have preferred
simpler designs more suited to their professional needs.
For example, one of the domes had its entrance only a
few yards from the ornamental pond, and directly facing it. The story
goes that one student, tired after a long night’s observing, stepped out
of the dome and failed to turn left or right, with the inevitable
It was also at the Commission’s suggestion, that
each of the domes was clad in copper so that, with the
passage of time, they would gradually turn green and "blend in with the
Once the design had been settled, work was able to
progress and the buildings were completed around 1956. The telescopes
which had previously been at Greenwich, and which had been removed from
their domes for safety during the war, were carefully installed in their
new homes and by 1957 most of them were operational again.
The telescopes contained within the Equatorial Group
were the Thompson 30-inch reflector, the Yapp 36-inch reflector, the
Astrographic 13-inch refractor, the Thompson 26-inch refractor and the
‘Great Equatorial’ 28-inch refractor. A Schmidt camera was planned for
the sixth dome but this was never installed.
To the north of the castle lay the Spencer
Jones Group of Meridian instruments. These consisted of the
Photographic Zenith Tube (PZT) which was used for time determination and
for measuring latitude variation; the Danjon Astrolabe, also used for
time and latitude determination; and the Cooke Reversible Transit
Circle, used for determining star positions and planetary positions and
Located between the castle and the West Building,
the Solar Dome housed the Newbegin 6¼-inch refractor,
the Photoheliograph and an underground Spectrohelioscope.
Extensive plantations around the estate helped reduce
atmospheric turbulence while the woods and castle moat provided a
habitat for a variety of wildlife. Also within the grounds were a
cricket pitch, tennis court, swimming pool and a clubhouse, the latter
built by the staff and including a licensed bar. The cricket pitch, in
particular, saw good use during the time when Sir Richard
Woolley, an ardent player, was the Astronomer Royal. At one
match, the RGO took on, and beat, a World XI, consisting of
internationally renown astronomers, most of whom had apparently only
learned the rules of the game a few hours beforehand.
Woolley had taken over as Astronomer Royal from Spencer
Jones in 1956. His intention was to build up the observatory, train new
astronomers and thereby promote modern research into astronomy and
astrophysics. He was the guiding light that helped the RGO establish
itself at its new location and build even further on its world-wide
reputation. One of the ways in which this was to be achieved was through
the provision of a very large telescope on the site.
Long before the move to Herstmonceux, there had been
talk of providing UK astronomers with a telescope large enough to allow
them to compete on equal terms with their counterparts abroad,
especially in the USA where a 200-inch instrument was in operation, and
Russia which was building one of 237-inches.
It was eventually agreed that a 100-inch
telescope be constructed, funded jointly by the Treasury and
the Admiralty. The telescope would be for the use of all UK astronomers
and, although located at Herstmonceux, would be administered by a Board
of Management. It was RGO staff, however, who were to subsequently
maintain and operate the telescope.
A 98-inch glass disk, originally intended for a
telescope at Michigan University, was donated to form the prime mirror
of the new instrument. After much discussion and delay concerning the
design of the optical systems, mounting and guiding of the telescope,
construction finally got underway. In 1967, Her Majesty the Queen
performed the opening ceremony for the new Isaac Newton
Telescope (INT) at Herstmonceux.
Over the years, the INT was used for a number of
research projects. These included direct and electronographic
photography of nebulae, galaxies and quasars, infra-red spectrometry and
direct TV scanning of optical spectra.
Meanwhile, the other telescopes continued in regular
use and it was not uncommon, on a warm summer’s night, to hear the
strains of music across the air as one or more of the astronomers kept
themselves entertained during a long observing session, playing tapes of
anything from Bach to Led Zeppelin.
Other research work carried out by RGO
staff included the determination of radial velocities, parallaxes and
proper motions of stars, the study of globular clusters and the
Magellanic Clouds, the measurement of the chemical composition of
different stars and research into black holes. In 1971 an RGO team
identified the X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1 with a particular star,
which was thought to be part of binary system, the partner of which was
most likely a black hole.
Astronomical research is not just carried out at night,
of course. The shelves of the RGO library, which occupied a large
portion of the castle, contained every significant book relating to
astronomy that had been published in the past 300 years. The RGO’s
archives also included the correspondence of all the previous
Astronomers Royal. This treasure of astronomical lore attracted
researchers and historians of astronomy who came from all over the world
to search the records.
The RGO also played a significant role in the
training of new, young astronomers. Woolley was instrumental in
ensuring that astronomy was included on the syllabus at the nearby University of Sussex, at
Brighton. From 1965 it was a recognised subject for MSc and D.Phil
degrees and some RGO staff became visiting members of the faculty.
Other students benefited from the annual summer
vacation courses run at Herstmonceux. Many of today’s
astronomers cut their teeth in this way, spending a summer living in the
Castle, observing on the telescopes at night, enjoying the a game of
cricket at the weekends and retiring to the bar afterwards. To a young,
aspiring astronomer, it must have seemed like heaven.
Another annual event was the Herstmonceux
Conference. This was established by Woolley in 1957 and was
held each spring on a different subject of topical interest. Over the
years, leading astronomers from all over the world in a wide range of
astronomical disciplines enjoyed the unique atmosphere and hospitality
of these conferences. The RGO was enjoying its heyday at
By the mid-seventies, though, things had begun to
change and the probable start of the decline of the RGO
can be traced back to the opening of the INT in 1967.
Up to the time the decision to build a large telescope
was taken, astronomers had to make do with whatever facilities were
available in their own country. With the advent of cheap air travel in
the 1960s, however, it became feasible for them to travel abroad and use
telescopes which enjoyed better weather conditions than the UK could
provide. The result was that, almost as soon as it opened, it was
realised that the INT was in the wrong place.
The bigger and more powerful a telescope is, the better
the site it needs to realise its potential. A large telescope will be
used to look at the faintest, most distant objects and to glean the most
information possible about them. It therefore requires the very best
observing conditions that can be obtained. Such conditions are found at
higher altitudes than Herstmonceux, usually on the top of mountains.
Smaller instruments, like the others at Herstmonceux
and used for different types of observation, can cope with less than
perfect conditions. The INT, during its time in Sussex,
was used for only about a third of the time it could have been had the
climate been kinder. It was little wonder then, that in the early
seventies, a decision was taken to move it to an overseas
site in the northern hemisphere, where it could be put to
After testing various sites, including Hawaii, the
Canary Island of La Palma was chosen and plans made to establish an
international observatory there. In 1979 the INT was removed from its
dome at Herstmonceux to be completely refurbished and fitted with a new
mirror, before being shipped to the Canaries.
Other changes were also under way. The 1950s and ‘60s
had been a period that saw great advances in science and technology, and
these were to have a profound effect on the work of the Observatory.
The first computer was acquired in
1958 – by today’s standards a primitive device with a memory of one
kilobyte and which could only be used to speed up calculations. Even so,
it quickly made an impact and within a few years was replaced by a much
more powerful machine. As computers became smaller and more powerful,
they came to be used for other purposes, until it was difficult to find
an instrument of any type, including the telescopes, that was not
In the 1950s and ‘60s, most junior staff were recruited
from secondary schools with ‘A’ or ‘O’ level qualifications, and they
learned astronomy through the performance of their duties. The operation
and maintenance of the new technology, however, required
operators with specialist training in many fields to
carry out the research and instrument development. As a result, by the
eighties an honours degree or a PhD were the minimum qualifications
needed to join the scientific staff.
Perhaps the greatest effect that the advance of
technology had was to make some of the traditional work of the RGO
redundant. In the past, the Admiralty had needed accurate time,
propagated by radio time signals, as an aid to navigation. During the
mid-seventies, the Time Department, in collaboration with the US Naval
Research Laboratory, took part in experiments in the distribution of
time using earth satellites, which was to lead to the establishment of
the Global Positioning System of navigation.
This, together with the ever-increasing accuracy of
atomic clocks, meant that there was no longer a requirement for a
national time service. Accurate time could be easily and readily
obtained via satellite. The development of automatic transit instruments
and dedicated satellites also meant that observations for positional
astronomy no longer had to be made at Herstmonceux.
The Solar Department was closed down
and the instruments replaced by the Satellite Laser Ranger (SLR). This
specialised instrument measures the distance to specially designed
satellites to within a few centimetres, by sending a pulse of laser
light and measuring the time it takes to return. The laser pulse is
reflected by mirrors on the satellite which direct it back in the
direction from which it came. Other stations around the globe make
similar observations and the results are used to study the rotation and
gravity field of the Earth. Results from this meant that the Time
Department’s Photographic Zenith Tube was no longer required.
Gradually, the need for the fundamental services which
had once been the raison d’être of the RGO, was slowly eroded.
Once the INT ceased operating at Herstmonceux, all
thoughts were focused on its new home. However, the work of establishing
an overseas observatory, which was known initially as the Northern
Hemisphere Observatory (NHO) and later as the Roque de los Muchachos
Observatory, was a drain on the resources of the RGO.
Science, and astronomy in particular, has never been over-funded in the
country and setting up a project team of design engineers and optical
experts meant that resources for other work diminished.
The result was that when maintenance or repair work was
required on some of the telescopes of the Equatorial Group, there was
neither the manpower nor the money to undertake it. The
instruments, whilst still being used as best they could,
began to be run down.
Policy decisions within the RGO were partially to
blame, as was the direction in which astronomical research had gone. The
forefront of research no longer concentrated on ‘nearby’ objects such as
stars and neighbouring galaxies but lay instead in the furthest known
objects, such as quasars and other distant galaxies. Those involved in
stellar research saw their budgets cut first and the morale of some of
the staff began to fall.
It had not always been like this. In the fifties and
sixties, the majority of staff lived in the nearby village of
Herstmonceux itself. Private cars were relatively few and so the
facilities that the castle and clubhouse offered meant that it was only
natural that staff and their friends spent much of their leisure time
there. The RGO was truly a focal centre for village
In the sixties, more people began to own their own cars
and living close to your place of work was no longer a necessity. As
some staff began to live slightly further afield, so the desire to drive
back to work for leisure reasons declined. By the mid-seventies the
clubhouse was still actively used, but nothing like to the extent that
it had been. A decade later, with morale at an all time low, there was
little desire among the staff to socialise.
By this time, the RGO had also seen a number of
changes at the top. Woolley had retired in 1971 and was
succeeded by Margaret Burbridge. The powers that be
took the decision that, for the first time, the posts of director of the
RGO and that of Astronomer Royal should be separated. No individual was
to hold these posts at the same time again.
Burbridge’s stay was a short one. She and her husband,
also a prominent astronomer, were vocal in their condemnation of the
siting the INT. Their scientific conclusions were correct, but they won
themselves few friends. Burbridge retired from the post in 1973 after a
serious road accident.
She was succeeded by the, then, deputy director,
Alan Hunter. Hunter was a popular figure appointed to
oversee the Tercentenary celebrations of the
Observatory in 1975. After his retirement, later that year, the post was
taken by Professor Francis Graham Smith, a radio
It was Smith who saw the RGO through the NHO project up
until his own retirement in 1981. His successor, Professor Alec
Boksenberg, would be the last of the directors of the RGO at
Boksenberg’s style was different to that of any of his
predecessors. He was younger, and came from an instrumentation
background (he was the inventor of the Image Photon Counting System
(IPCS), a ground-breaking instrument which came to be universally used
The expertise of the RGO was now fully focused on
La Palma, particularly the design and construction of
the giant 4.2 metre William Herschel Telescope and all its associated
instrumentation. Development of instrumentation was, in fact, one of the
RGO’s greatest strengths. From the early days of image tubes to the
Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) detectors of the eighties, the RGO research
teams were at the forefront of development.
Now, with all effort abroad, and the RGO charged with
operating the La Palma telescopes on behalf of the UK astronomical
community, it didn’t take long for someone to question whether that role
couldn’t best be carried out from a different location.
The arguments went along the lines of: "why do you need
a 15th century castle and 380 acres of Sussex countryside to
run an overseas observatory?" The answer, of course, was that you don’t,
but many felt that if funding were made available to keep the other
telescopes running, they could still be have been used for valuable
research, for testing new instruments and for training students. The
arguments were to fall on deaf ears.
It has never been a policy of any British government to
fund any basic research that does not have some
practical purpose. That is left to the universities. With the decline of
fundamental work, such as time determination and positional astronomy,
the very need for a national observatory was being questioned.
In 1965, responsibility for the RGO had passed from the
Admiralty to the newly-formed Science Research Council (SRC) later to
become the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). Report after
report was instigated by the SERC, each one detailed to examine the
workings of the observatories – not just the RGO but also the Royal
Observatory, Edinburgh. Instead of being able to concentrate on their
work, staff spent much of their time writing reports justifying what
they were doing.
Many of the scientific arguments for the RGO to
leave Herstmonceux were justified, but there was a feeling
amongst some of the staff that a hidden agenda existed. Protests were
dismissed as being ‘parochial’ and, eventually, it was announced that
the Observatory was to re-locate to Cambridge, on a
site adjacent to the University’s Institute of Astronomy. In 1990 the
RGO moved for only the second time in its existence. Less than ten years
later it was shut down completely.
From today’s perspective, life at the RGO during the
early years at Herstmonceux must have been unbelievably idyllic. The
staff were working in extremely pleasant surroundings, many pursuing
research into a subject dear to their hearts, and everyone feeling that
they belonged to something worthwhile, indeed that they were doing
something worthwhile themselves. This was, after all, the Royal
Greenwich Observatory. The setting of the castle and its grounds were
far removed from an office in a city centre. This was the days of jobs
for life. Conditions of employment were linked to the civil service and
staff enjoyed good holiday allowances, a guaranteed job and a pension at
the end of it. The pay may not have rivalled that available in outside
industry, but that didn’t matter.
Idyllic as it sounds now, it wouldn’t have been any
different from what people expected though. The sixties was a time of
optimism across the country. If you worked at the RGO life was relaxed,
there was cricket in the summer and the living was easy. The problems
that afflicted the RGO during the seventies and eighties were the same
problems that were affecting society: uncertainty about the future,
concerns about funding, adapting to new technology and a culture change
to a more commercial way of thinking.
The RGO may have only spent ten per cent of its long
history at Herstmonceux, but it is not unreasonable to describe that
time as a sort of ‘golden age’ when the best and most
innovative work was done. Its passing from the site merely reflected the
passing of an age and its like will never be seen again. The RGO at
Herstmonceux was truly unique.