William Christie and the demise of the Royal Greenwich Observatory

Flamsteed Society Lecture, 28 April 2015

This page is intended to support a lecture given by Graham Dolan to the Flamsteed Society at Greenwich.




Underlying issues leading to the Observatory's demise
  1. Ineffective Board of Visitors (1800s-1964)
  2. Treasury rules on staffing (numbers & type of contracts)
  3. Financial crises and currency controls
  4. Post WW2 differences of view as to how Astronomy should be run in the UK


Some notable milestones on the way on the way to closure
  1. Accepting Lassell Telescope and relocating it to Greenwich leading to further development of Greenwich site in the late 1880s and 1890s (1883)
  2. Changes to the recruitment process in 1896 – resullted in no new outsiders recruited to Established Grades until the 1930s
  3. Decision to move the whole Observatory from Greenwich. Would the Observatory have survived if it had kept an administrative centre at Greenwich?
  4. WW2 (1939-45)
  5. Isaac Newton Telescope (1946 onwards) – drip-feeding of funding caused delays and disputes for which RGO was blamed
  6. Town & Country planning act (1947) – together with post war austerity, caused extensive delays to building the Equatorial Group at Herstmonceux
  7. Delays caused by post-war lack of funding (1948-58)
  8. The appointment of Woolley as Astronomer Royal (1956) – he was arrogant and misjudged the mood
  9. Creation of the new Universities (1960s) – created demand for astronomy research funding in the uk and the need for suitable UK jobs for new graduates many of whom went to work in America where there were good observing facilities
  10. Formation of SRC (1965). Woolley welcomed the change. The plus side for the Observatory was the loosening of the shackles by which it had been partly bound as a utilitarian naval observatory. The downside (and the importance of this was underestimated at the time) was that it lost a loyal champion and now had to compete for funding both with other astronomers and other scientific disciplines.
  11. Dissent in the Northern Hemisphere Review Committee (1969-70)
  12. The bungling of Woolley’s succession (1970-2)
  13. Burbidge letter in Nature (1972)
  14. White Paper – Framework for Government Research and Development (1972)
  15. Financial crisis at SRC and redefinition of Observatory’s role (1974)
  16. The Rayner Review (1983) followed by two further reviews
  17. Move to Cambridge followed by further reviews & closure



Useful links

People: William Christie, Astronomer Royal

This page covers Christie’s life and many of the changes that took place on his watch. There are links to the telescopes and buildings connected with him etc.


Abinger Magnetic Observatory (1923-1957)

This page covers in detail the whole story and background to the magnetic of the interference at Greenwich caused by the railways.


Deteriorating conditions at Greenwich and the selection of the new location for the Observatory
The buildings and grounds at Herstmonceux
People, politics and changing priorities

These three pages are essential reading for understanding the politics and difficulties that arose during the Observatory's Herstmonceux years.


The Board of Visitors

This page gives details of how the Board was constituted and how it operated.


A guide to grading and staffing structures

This page gives details of how staffing structures changed over the years.


The International Meridian Conference

This page gives details of the build up to the conference and how its resolutions were put into practice.


Longitude determinations (1888–1902)

This link takes you to the volume of results and discussions of the Greenwich - Paris longituded determinations that were carried out in 1888, 1892 and 1902.


Stables, workshops, sheds and other miscellaneous buildings

This page has woodcuts derived from the photos of the Transit of Venus huts on the South Ground. Note the Victorian equivalent of ‘photoshopping’ that was carried out on the second one.


Christie's retirement homes

For those who are into intersted in seeing for themselves where Christie lived after retirement, here are the postcodes of his houses:

Deepdale, Woldingham, Surrey, CR3 7HH

The Tower House, Downe, Kent, BR6 7JS

The Tower House has reverted to its old name Trowmers and is currently on the market. Link here. Only those who can afford the Mansion Tax will be able to buy it!