Contemporary Account from 1798


Date: 1798
Author: Thomas Evans, Assistant at the Royal Observatory (179698)
About: In his book: The juvenile tourist, or, excursions through various parts of the island of Great-Britain; including the west of England, the midland counties, and the whole county of Kent; illustrated with maps, and interspersed with historical anecdotes and poetical extracts, for the improvement of the rising generation, in a series of letters to a pupil (London, 1804, 1805, 1809, 1810 & 1818), John Evans included nine pages of text written by Thomas Evans (pp.331340 (1805 edition); 341350 (1818 edition)). They contain the much quoted line ‘Nothing can exceed the tediousness and ennui of the life the assistant leads in this place’.
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The following account, with which I have been favoured by a gentleman of talents and respectability, is entitled to particular attention *:—

*Dr. T. Evans, now Mathematical Master of Christ-Hospital, formerly one of the teachers of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and Fellow of the Linnean Society, who during the years 1796, 1797, and 1798, lived at the Royal Observatory.

The Royal Observatory was built by King Charles the Second, at the solicitation of Sir Jonas Moore, then surveyor-general of the ordnance. The first stone of it was laid by the Rev. John Flamstead, the first astronomer royal, on the 10th of August, 1675, from whom it has received the name of Flamstead-house. It is situated on the highest eminence in Greenwich Park, 160 feet above low water-mark in the river Thames opposite it, and commands one of the noblest prospects in this kingdom, for richness and variety. The various tints of green presented to the eye by the foliage of the different trees which form the avenues of the park, and the deer grazing in. the lawns below; the ranger's mansion; the hospital for disabled seamen, one of the most finished pieces of architecture in Europe; the towns of Deptford, Greenwich, and Blackwall, with their neighbouring villages, and gentlemen's seats in Kent and Essex – form, altogether, a scene on which the eye of the beholder must dwell with peculiar delight. Extending his view still farther, he beholds London, with its numerous churches, spires, and pinnacles, elevated far above the rest of the buildings, and reaching from the north to the north-west points of the horizon. Above, and farther still, are to be seen the hills of Hampstead and Highgate, and others beyond, on each side of them, as far as the eye can reach. The Observatory is composed principally of two separate buildings, one of which is the Observatory properly so called, where only the assistant lives, and makes all the observations; the other, is the dwelling-house, in which the astronomer-royal himself resides. The former being the most essential, we shall describe it first. It consists of three rooms on the ground floor, the middle one of which is the assistant's sitting and calculating room, furnished with a small library of such books only as are necessary for his computations, and a clock made by the celebrated Graham, which once served our immortal Halley as a transit clock. The face, which resembles one described by Ferguson, is the only curious part of it.

Immediately over this is the assistant's bedroom, with an alarum to awake him to make his observations at the proper time. Nothing can exceed the tediousness and ennui of the life the assistant leads in this place, excluded from all society, except, perhaps, that of a poor mouse which may occasionally sally forth from a hole in the wall, to seek after crumbs of bread dropped by his lonely companion at his last meal! This, of course, must tend very much to impede his acquiring astronomical information, and damp his ardour for those researches which conversation with scientific men never fails to inspire. Here forlorn, he spends days, weeks, and months, in the same long wearisome computations, without a friend to shorten the tedious hours, or a soul with whom he can converse. He is also frequently up three or four times in the night, (an hour or two each time,) and always one week in the month when the moon souths in the night time, with the owls perched on the fir-trees in the park below, screaming by way of answer to him when he opens the sliding shutters, in the roof of the building, to make his observations! A zealous wish on his part to promote so divine a science as that of astronomy, joined to an awful contemplation of the wonderful works of the Almighty, are the sole objects that afford him pleasure in this solitary hermitage.

The room on the eastern side of this, is called the Transit Room, in which is an eight-feet transit instrument, with an axis of three feet, resting on two pieces of stone, made originally by Bird, but successively improved by Messrs. Dollond, Troughton, and other eminent instrument-makers; near it is the transit clock, made originally by Graham, but much improved by Mr. Earnshaw, who so simplified the train as to exclude two or three wheels; he also added cross-braces to the rods of the grid-iron pendulum, which regulates the motion of expansion, so as to prevent the clock from making those sudden starts which it formerly did of a second per day in its daily rate. Here is also a chair to observe with, the back of which lets down to any degree of inclination that convenience may require. On the western side is the Quadrant Room, with a stone pier in the middle, running north and south, having on its eastern face a mural quadrant, of eight feet radius, made by Bird, in 1749, by which observations are made on the southern quarter of the meridian, through an opening in the roof, of three feet wide, produced by means of two sliding shutters. On the western face is another mural quadrant, of eight feet also, the frame of which is of iron, and the arch of brass, made originally by Graham, in 1725, but with another set of divisions laid on by Bird, in 1753, which is used but very seldom; it is now applied to the north quarter of the meridian. In the same room is the famous zenith sector, twelve feet in length, with which Dr. Bradley made, at Wanstead and Kew, those observations which led to the discovery of the aberration and nutation. Here are also Dr. Hooke's reflecting quadrant, and three time-keepers made by Harrison, one of which was for his Majesty King George the Second. On the south side of this room is erected a small wooden building for the purpose of observing eclipses of Jupiter's satellites, occultations of stars by the moon, and whatever else requires merely the use of a telescope at the time. It is furnished with sliding shutters on the roof and sides, to view any part of the hemisphere from the prime vertical down to the southern horizon, and contains a forty-inch achromatic, made by John Dollond, the inventor of them, with a triple object-glass, and is certainly the most perfect instrument of the kind ever yet produced; there is also a five-feet achromatic, made by Messrs. John and Peter Dollond, of St. Paul's Churchyard, sons of the former; a two-feet reflecting telescope, the metals of which were ground by the Rev. Mr. Edwards, and a six-feet reflector by Dr. Herschel.

There is extant an exact plan of the Observatory, made about the year 1720, to which is annexed a section of the celebrated well, 100 feet in depth, with a winding staircase of stone down to the bottom, made to observe the earth's annual parallax, and for seeing the stars in the day-time; but it has long been rendered unnecessary for that purpose by the improvements in telescopes. It has consequently been arched over, and is lost, but might easily be found again; for this plan gives its exact situation, and shews it to be near the southeast corner of the garden behind the Observatory.

We now proceeded to the house, the lower part of which serves merely for a habitation, but above it is a large octagonal room; which being now but seldom wanted for astronomical purposes, is made the repository for such instruments as are too large to be used in the places we have before described; or for old instruments which later improvements have rendered obsolete. Among the former may be reckoned a most excellent ten-feet achromatic, made by the present Mr. Dollond; and a six-feet reflector made by Short: on the south-side is a clock to be used with them when occasion requires; the latter class includes many curious and original articles, deposited in boxes and cupboards in various parts of the room; among them is probably the first transit instrument ever made, with the telescope near one end of the axis: two long telescopes, with square wooden tubes of very ancient date. In this room is also a library, where are preserved many scarce and curious old astronomical works; also the original observations of Dr. Halley, in his own handwriting, and Captain Cook's journals, with remarkably neat charts, drawn on India paper, by the late Mr. Wm. Wales, of Christ's Hospital, who sailed with him round the world.

The busts of Flamstead and of the illustrious Sir Isaac Newton, which are on pedestals in this room, were presented to the Observatory by a Mr. Belchier, and are deemed excellent. By a narrow dark staircase in one corner, you ascend to the top of this room, which is leaded, and where the beholder, coming out of so confined a place, is astonished when he opens upon the most extensive and delightful prospect the imagination can conceive: to render the pleasure still more complete, there is in the western turret on this place a Camera Obscura, whose superior excellence has stood unrivalled, where all the surrounding objects, both moveable and immoveable, are beautifully pictured in their own natural colours, on a concave table of plaister of Paris of about three feet diameter. Few places in the world can be better adapted for a Camera Obscura than this, and it is impossible to leave this little room after being so amused, but with the greatest regret, even after taking a second or third view of it. Mrs. Bryan, the author of the Astronomy, had one also, on the top of her house at Blackheath, of singular goodness, made by Mr. Huggins, nephew of the present Mr. Dollond, of St. Paul's Churchyard; but the view from that house bears no comparison to that from the Royal Observatory. On the north side of the Observatory are situated two small buildings, covered with hemispherical sliding domes, in each of which is an equatorial sector, made by Sisson, and a clock by Arnold, with a three-barred pendulum, which are seldom used but for observing comets, by taking the difference of right ascension and declination between them and some neighbouring star, whose place is exactly known. These are the principal objects worthy of attention in this venerable building.

We shall just say a few words respecting its former inhabitants; men whose talents, industry, and discoveries have raised the astronomical glory of the English nation far above that of any other in the world.

The Rev. John Flamstead, born the 19th of August, 1646, was the first astronomer royal who took possession of the Observatory in 1676. Most of the instruments which this indefatigable man used were made by himself, and his ingenious assistant, Mr. Abraham Sharp, the principal of which were the great sextant and mural quadrant, which, after his death in 1719, were delivered to his heirs. Engravings, and an account of them and other apparatus, together with a head of the author, may be seen in that great monument of his zeal and industry, the Historia Cœlestis. He died, 19th December, 1719, aged 73, and lies buried in the church-yard of Burstow, near East Grinstead, in Surry, the living of which was presented to him about the year l684. After very diligent search and enquiry no remains of any tomb or monument to his memory can be found: nor does any one in the place know in what part of the church-yard he was buried.

At his death, Dr. Halley, born in London, 8th of November, 1656, obtained this place, and applied himself principally to the moon's motions. In 1722, although then 65 years of age, he commenced his Saros, a period of observations to continue for nineteen years, with the transit instrument and the iron mural quadrant, made by Graham: these observations were published down to the year 1738, the remainder are in the Observatory in MS. He died the 14th of January, 1742, Old Stile, in his eighty-sixth year, and was buried in Lee church-yard, about two miles south-east of the Royal Observatory, where his tomb is now in a very decayed state.

Dr. Bradley succeeded Dr. Halley, and rendered a lasting service to the Observatory, by procuring the eight-feet brass mural quadrant, which has been in constant use down to the present time. Astronomers acknowledge with gratitude and pleasure the obligations they owe to this great man for his discoveries. His Majesty, King George the Second, allowed him, in addition to his regular salary, a pension of £250 per annum, in consideration of his great merit, and it has been continued to his successors. His observations were published by Dr. Hornsby, in 1798, in two volumes folio. Dr. Bradley died the 13th of July, 1762, in his seventieth year, and was buried at Minchinhampton, in Gloucestershire.

At the death of Dr. Bradley, succeeded his friend Dr. Bliss, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, at Cambridge, but he died in 1764, and enjoyed it too short a period to give any remarkable proof of his. zeal for the science.

To him succeeded, in 1765, Dr. Nevil Maskelyne who still retains the situation, and whose name is well known in the astronomical world.