People: John Pond, the sixth Astronomer Royal


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Name Pond, John
Place of work Greenwich
Post Astronomer Royal

18 Feb 1811 – 31 Sep 1835 (see notes below about exact start and end dates)
Previous appointments None
Born 1767

London, baptised twice on Nov 18 (privately) & 23 (publikly) at St Katharine Coleman, City of London
Died 1836, Sep 7

At home at Blackheath; interred 13 Sep at St Margaret’s Churchyard, Lee Terrace, Blackheath
Marriage 1807, Apr 16 Anne Gordon Bradley; St Martin in the Fields, Westminster
Known addresses 1811–1835
Flamsteed House, Royal Observatory Greenwich
Blackheath (unknown address)

Wealth at death Unknown
Probate: 4 Oct 1836


John Pond, the sixth Astronomer Royal, has been far less studied than his predecessor Nevil Maskelyne, or his successor, George Airy. This historical over-looking, is unfortunate as it has allowed errors and half-truths to creep in and for some of them to become embedded in the literature.

Pond was a more skilled observer than either Maskelyne or Airy and it was on his watch as Astronomer Royal that some of the most significant new telescopes and improvements in observing techniques were introduced. It was also under Pond that the Observatory underwent its greatest expansion in staffing (in percentage terms) – the number of assistants being increased from one to six.

Maskelyne and Airy have a reputation for being good record keepers and administrators. Pond alas does not. When Airy was appointed, he was already Director of the Cambridge Observatory and had proven experience as a highly efficient administrator. Pond's background, was entirely different. It was that of an independently wealthy gentleman astronomer who had never worked for anyone else in his life. He was appointed, so it seems, on the strength of his not inconsiderable observing and analytical skills.

From day one, as well as running the Royal Observatory, Pond became responsible for overseeing the production of the Nautical Almanac. His administrative inexperience came to public light when a lack of proper attention on his part allowed a greater number of errors to creep into the printed text and the Almanac was brought into disrepute. It was partly for this reason that the 1818 Longitude Act was passed. Clause xxi made provision for two new paid positions to be created: a Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac and a Superintendent of Chronometers. The first holders of the two posts were Thomas Young, who became Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac in 1818 and Thomas Hurd, who became Superintendent of Chronometers in 1819. The lightening of Pond's administrative load did not last long. In July 1821, his burden increased massively when the post of Superintendent of Chronometers was taken from Hurd and given to him instead. Overnight, Pond suddenly became responsible for the distribution of chronometers to the Royal Navy. The following year, he was also expected to conduct annual chronometer trials as well. To make matters worse, when Young died in 1829, responsibility for the Nautical Almanac reverted back to Pond.

The 1820s were a turbulent time in British Science as battles and powerstruggles played out between the supporters and detractors of the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Board of Longitude and the Admiralty. Their impact was felt not only by Pond, but by the rest of the Observatory staff as well. The powers secured by the fledgling Astronomical Society, lead to the Observatory coming under intense scrutinity, especially after the Board of Longitude was abolished in 1828 and the Board of Visitors was reconstituted in 1830. But that was not all, Pond also found himself caught up in protracted arguments and discussions about the type of Assistants that should be appointed at the Observatroy as well as having to defend himself against the very public accusations of incompetence by Stephen Lee. Many of these topics are dealt with in more detail below.

Pond’s life and work are full of contradictions, made all the harder to understand by a dearth of documents of a personal nature. As his obituarist said:

‘Mr. Pond, though independent in temper, was remarkably mild and gentle in his manners; and his health and disposition, together with his attention to his office, and his dislike to every thing like contention, which almost amounted to a failing, kept him very much at home, and out of the reach of general acquaintance.’

We know nothing about Pond’s relationship with his wife Anne and far too little about the true nature of his relationships with his members of staff. Some of what we know in this area comes to us from documents at the National Archives that are available through genealogy web sites such as Ancestry. Most of the rest, comes from records relating to Airy’s appointment as Astromomer Royal, together with information he later gleaned and recorded, that was provided by Pond's wife and the Assistants who had worked for him. Hugely important as this last source is, it has is in part, been selectively filtered by Airy for his own purposes.

Pond’s obituarist’s comment about his ‘dislike to every thing like contention’ is particularly manifest in his dealings with the Admiralty and the Observatory’s Board of Visitors during discussions about the type of Assistants that should be employed.


In the beginning (1767–c.1800)

Much of what has been written about the early life of John Pond is little more than a rewriting of the first four paragraphs of his obituary as published by the Royal Astronomical Society. Much of the information those paragraphs contain has been impossible to independently verify, so rather than attempt a further rewriting, their contents are reproduced below.

‘Mr. Pond was born in London about the year 1767. His father realised in trade a fortune sufficient to enable him to retire in the prime of life, and to settle at Dulwich, where he passed the remainder of his days. When about seven years old, Mr. Pond was sent to school, under the Rev. Mr. Garrow, at Hadleigh, near Barnet; and, two or three years afterwards, to Mr. Cherry, then master of the free grammar-school at Maidstone. Mr. Cherry was afterwards head master of Merchant Tailors’ School.

At the age of fourteen, he resided at home with his family, and attended as a private pupil Mr. Wales, then mathematical teacher at Christ’s Hospital, better known as the nautical astronomer who accompanied Capt. Cook in his voyages of discovery. To Mr. Wales, Mr. Pond remarked an appearance of discrepancy in the Greenwich Observations, implying some imperfection in the instruments, but his suggestion was, naturally enough, neglected by the veteran mathematician, himself a friend and admirer of Dr. Maskelyne. At a subsequent period, Mr. Pond verified his early suspicion.

At sixteen, he was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, with a parti­cular introduction to Dr. Waring, the Lucasian professor of mathematics. Mr. Jones was his public, and the late Professor Lax his private tutor. Un­fortunately, his attention was not directed to the studies of the university as steadily as it should have been. His mathematical taste and talents were of a high order, and so esteemed by his fellow students; but he had all along been extremely fond of chemistry, and this distracted his application to geometry. He had erected a furnace and laboratory at his father’s house; and at Cambridge he attended with a delight, which he never forgot, the lectures of Dean Milner, who then filled the chair of chemistry with great ability. It is more to our purpose to notice that he was one of three students who united to induce the Plumian professor, Mr. Vince, to give a course of lectures on practical astronomy.

His health, however, gave way, and a severe pulmonary attack compelled him to seek a warmer climate. He spent two or three years in the south of France and in Spain, and then returned to college, where, during a residence of two or three years, he formed many valuable friendships, which were only dissolved by death. To this part of his life he always reverted with great pleasure; and, among her numerous sons, Trinity College had none more zealous and affectionate than Mr. Pond. A second attack of illness obliged him to go abroad, and he resided for some time in Portugal, Constantinople, and Egypt. On his return he settled at Westbury, in Somersetshire.’

Although it is not known who wrote the obituary, it does contain details that were possibly culled from the speech given by Humphry Davy (1778–1829) when presenting the Royal Society’s Copley Medal to Pond in 1823.

Some of the information conflicts with that recorded by Venn in Alumni Cantabrigienses from the earliest times to 1900. Said to have been compiled from College and University records, Venn states that Pond attended Carshalton School in Surrey, making no mention of any schools elsewhere. He also states that Pond was admitted to the Inner Temple on 3 November 1794, but withdrew on account of ill health. The information Venn has given on other alumni studied for this website has been found to be inaccurate. In light of this, what he says about Pond should be viewed with a degree of caution.

John Pond’s parents

John Pond is thought to be the second child of John Pond (1734–1793). His father married Arabella Raven when he was 28 and she was 22, the wedding taking place at the end of 1765. A licence was obtained on 16 December, the wedding taking place three days later, on 19 December, at All Hallows, Barking by the Tower. His profession was given on the marriage bond as linen draper. The Ponds’ first child Arabella was born in 1766 and their second, John (the future Astronomer Royal) in 1767. Both John Ponds were baptised at St Katherine Colman: Pond senior on 2 February 1734 and Pond junior on 18 November 1767 (privately) and again on 25 November (publickly). Pond’s mother seems to have died while he was an infant as his father remarried in 1770, the marriage to Mary Smith taking place on 3 May at the church of St John the Baptist in Croydon.

The Land Tax records show that the family had settled in Dulwich by 1780 at the latest. When his father died in 1793, Pond was about 25 years old. His father’s will suggests that he received a large inheritance. It is hoped to have it transcribed in due course.


Westbury and the Westbury Circle

The Westbury Circle. Engraved by J Basire. Plate XX from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 96. Digitised by Internet Archive from the library of the Natural History Museum, London

It’s not know exacly when Pond settled in Westbury, nor at present is it known why. What is known, is that he was certainly there by 1800, because in October of that year Pond made the first of a series of observations with what has become known as the Westbury Circle.

On the declinations of some of the principal fixed stars: with a description of an astronomical circle, and some remarks on the construction of circular instruments. John Pond, Phil. Trans. R. Soc.96420–454 (1806)

Appointment as Astronomer Royal

The wording of the Royal Warrant by which Pond was appointed as Astronomer Royal harked back to Flamsteed's time. Flamsteed was appointed as ‘Our Astronomical Observator’ and so too, were all the Astronomers Royal up to and including Airy.

The exact date of Pond’s appointment is not known for certain as threre is no known copy of the Warrant appointing him. However, the Navy Estimates for 1812 (ADM181/20) show that he was paid from 18 February 1811 (nine days after Maskelyne had died). Also, The London Gazette (Issue 16457 p.336) carried the following announcement:

Whitehall February 23, 1811.
His Royal Highness the Prince Regent has been pleased, in the Name and on Behalf of his Majesty, to appoint John Pond; Esq; to be Astronomical Observator in the Observatory at Greenwich, in the Room of Nivil [Nevil] Maskelyne; Esq; deceased.’

By comparison, the Warrrant appointing Maskelyne is dated 8 February 1765, but the announcement in the London Gazette is dated 26 February. On the other hand, the announcement of Airy’s appontment in the London Gazette is dated 11 August 1835 and is the same date as that on his Warrant. In light of this, the most likely date of Pond’s appointment seems to be 18 February 1811.

Forbes (1975), without giving references, states that ‘Pond took up his appointment as sixth Astronomer Royal on 13 April 1811’. The date is erroneous as the Warrant almost certainly contained the following wording ‘it is our Will and Pleasure that you forthwith take possession of our said Observatory’. Forbes’ date appears to derive from an entry on p.47 in the published volume of Greenwich Observations for the year 1811, which states: ‘All the observations made before April 13th, were made by Mr. Thomas Taylor, the Assistant’.

Ponds appointment in 1811 was as Astronomical Observator to George IV. Following the death of the King on 26 June 1830, Pond’s appointment would have technically lapsed. It fell upon his successor, King William IV to either reappoint Pond or to take the unprecedented step of appointing someone else. The former path was the one adopted. The London Gazette (Issue 18715 p.1689) carried the following announcement:

Whitehall August 6, 1830
The King has been pleased to appoint John Pond. Esq. to be Astronomical Observator in the Observatory at Greenwich.’

No copy of the accompanying Warrant has been discovered.


The Board of Visitors

In much the same way that a school has a Board of Governors, the Royal Observatory had a Board of Visitors, whose function was similar. Whilst the Astronomer Royal was responsible for the day-to-day running and management of the Observatory, it fell to the Visitors to ensure that it operated within the constraints of the Royal Warrants and to lobby on its behalf when needed. The minutes suggest that they were more active during Pond’s tenure as Astronomer Royal that at any other time.

When the Observatory was founded, no thought was given as to how it should be overseen. The Board of Visitors did not come into being for a further 35 years. Set up by Royal Warrant on 12 December 1710, the Board initially consisted of the President of the Royal Society (at that time Newton), and in his absence the Vice-President, ‘together with such others as the Council of our said Royal Society shall think fit to join with you’.

In 1830, when a new Warrant was required on the accession of William IV, the composition was changed to incorporate members of the recently formed Royal Astronomical Society. For the future, it was to consist of the Presidents of the two societies, any former presidents, five further fellows from each, together with (as ex officio members), the Savilian Professor of Astronomy from Oxford and the Plumian Professor of Astronomy from Cambridge.

Because until 1830, the composition of the Board was effectively that of the Royal Society Council, its business (apart from visitations) was conducted as part of general Council business, the minutes of which are preserved in the Society’s Minute Books. Extracts from the Minute Books together with minutes of some of the visitations from 1763–1815 are preserved in MS600 at the Royal Society. Other important documents relating to the Observatory are held at the Royal Society in MS371, MS372 and DM5. They contain a wealth of information including several inventories. Their organisation is somewhat chaotic.

In the early years, the business of the Visitors was carried out only spasmodically. By the time Maskelyne took up office in 1765, there had been just four visitations (one for each of his predecessors). From 1774 onwards, visitations became an annual event. The Board was also unusually busy during the whole of Pond’s earlier tenure as Astronomer Royal, particulary from 1820 onwards which coincided with the restruturing of the Board of Longitude (1818), the founding of the Royal Astronomical Society (March 1820) and the death of Joseph Banks, who had been President of the Royal Society since 1778 (June 1820). The records show that for much of its life, the the reformed board met just once a year at the Visitation. However, in the first year of its existence, in 1831, it met on seven separate ocassions.

In 1852, Airy reported to the Visitors that he had borrowed from the Royal Society a manuscript book that appeared to be ‘an official copy of the minutes of the Board of Visitors from their institution in 1710 to 1784’. The receipt for this is preserved in MS372/159. Over the following decade, he made exhaustive enquires as to the wherabouts of the volume(s) of minutes for the years 1784 to 1830, before coming to the conclusion in 1863/4 that separate volumes for those years had never existed. Airy reported this to the Visitors along with the fact that he had arranged to have the relevant extracts copied from the Council’s Minute Books.

Preserved in the RGO archives at Cambridge are two volumes containing Airy’s copies of the minutes for the years 1710 to 1830. RGO6/21 covers the years 1710 to 1784 (with a couple of later items). RGO6/22 covers the years 1784 to 1830. There is an assumption that RGO6/21 is a copy of the material that Airy borrowed – a transcript of Airy’s receipt (dated 2 May 1966) having been pasted on its inside cover. Still in Airy’s possession in 1859, the original volume can no longer be located. Between them, RGO6/21 and RGO6/22 include material not present in MS371, 372, 600 and DM5. However, despite the fact that they contain additional material, they are not a complete record of the Board’s business as many of the minutes of the visitations are missing (as they are from MS371, 372, 600 and DM5). Whilst decisions were made in good faith as to which entries in the Council’s Minute Books were relevant to the Visitors, it is likely that if the task of trawling them were to be repeated today, additional material would be deemed to be relevant.

Minutes of the Board for the years 1831 to 1964 were much better organised and are held at the National Archives in Kew in two volumes (ADM190/4 and ADM190/6).

Click here to read more about the Board of Visitors


A switch in funding and a significant increase in responsibility

Originally funded though the Board of Ordnance, the Observatory began to receive a top-up from the Civil List in 1752. This joint funding continued until 1811 when the Board of Admiralty started to make a contribution as well. As a result, between 1811 and 1818, the Observatory was funded by no less than three different Government Departments.

In 1818 the Board of Ordnance’s responsibilities transferred to the Board of Admiralty with payments from the Civil List continuing as before. In 1830 payments from the Civil List were ended, with responsibility for making up the subsequent shortfall being transferred to the Admiralty which became the Observatory’s sole source of government funds.

The Admiralty first became directly involved in the Observatory’s financial affairs when John Pond was appointed Astronomer Royal in February 1811. Pond’s predecessor Maskelyne had earlier asked for a rise in salary, but been declined in part because of his considerable personal wealth. With Pond’s appointment, the salary of the Astronomer Royal was raised from £350 to £600 a year. Maskelyne’s salary of £350 had been made up of £100 from the Board of Ordnance and £250 from the Civil List. These payments were continued for Pond, with the top-up coming from the Admiralty – the extra money being initially allocated via the 1812 Navy Vote with a backdated amount for the year 1811. A full breakdown of the salary and allowances paid to Pond is given in the next section.

In 1811 an extra assistant was taken on (ADM/BP/40B/48 also referenced as ADM359/40B/48 and held at the National Maritime Museum). This was Pond’s ward John Henry Belville. His salary appears to have been paid by the Ordnance, until 19 March 1814 when he was put on the establishment list as Second Assistant with his salary being paid by the Admiralty (ADM181/24). Meanwhile the First Assistant continued to have his salary paid by the Board of Ordnance (£26) and the Civil List (£173. 16s.).

There was a great deal of confusion amongst those in authority in the early days of Pond’s tenure, as to how the salaries were being paid. Even the Board of Visitors who had oversight of the running of the Observatory and who scrutinised bills before they were sent to the Ordnance for payment didn’t have a proper picture of what amounts were being paid and by whom. It wasn’t until 1814 for example that Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society and chairman of the Board of Visitors since 1778, understood how things worked (and what he understood seems only an approximation to the truth) (RS MS372/157). An explanation of how Pond’s salary was made up (also incorrect) was later given to MPs in the House of Commons in April 1815.

The First Assistant was awarded a salary rise in 1816, the additional salary being paid by the Admiralty. Recognising the potential difficulties of the general management of the Observatory being shared between three government departments (the Treasury (who administered the Civil List), the Admiralty and the Board of Ordnance), the Observatory's Board of Visitors recommended in November 1816 that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty should become responsible for the management of the Observatory as in their opinion ‘it would save much trouble to the Public Offices … and at the same time be of essential advantage to the observatory and to the interest of Astronomical Science’ (RGO6/1/41).

On 27 June 1818, a letter was sent from Treasury the treasury to the Admiralty, saying that the whole of the expenses of the establishment with the exception of the sum of £420 paid from the civil list towards the salaries (of the Astronomer Royal and First Assistant) were to be transferred from the Board of Ordinance to the Admiralty as soon as was practicable. Steps to put this in place were completed by that December (RGO6/1/49&50).

On the accession of William IV in 1830, the link between the Sovereign and the cost of civil government was removed when the sum voted by parliament for the Civil List was restricted to the expenses of the Royal Household. The Navy Estimates show that the Civil List responsibility for paying part of the salaries of the AR and First Assistant was transferred to the Admiralty on 12 January 1831 (ADM181/40).

Click here to read more about the different source of funding at the Observatory


Pond’s salary and allowances as Astronomer Royal

When Pond was appointed in 1811, he continued to be paid as Maskelyne had, but his salary was augmented by the Admiralty to the tune of £292.10s a year, in order to bring his total emolument to £600 a year – the £250 pension having being reduced in valued to only £207.10s a year because of fees and taxes which (according to Howse) had been in place since at least 1773. Responsibility for the Board of Ordnance's contribution to the Astronomer Royal’s salary was transferred from the Board of Ordnance to the Admiralty in 1820, the amount contributed by the Admiralty rising from £292.10s to £376.8s a year and staying at that level until 1830. How the figure of £376.8s was arrived at is not clear – the difference being only £83.18s rather than the £100 that had been previously paid by the Ordinance. The shortfall may be a result of deductions that had previously been made from the £100 for fees and taxes. By 1831, the whole was £600 was being shouldered by the Admiralty. The Admiralty were also responisble for funding the Cape Observatrory (established 1820), and it is interesting to note that at this point in time, The Astronomer at the Cape was paid at the same basic rate as the the Astronomer Royal. Pond’s income was enhanced between 1819 and 1828 by a payment of £100 a year expenses for attending meetings of the Board of Longitude (up from £15 a meeting). In 1821 he was required to take on the role of Superintendent of Chronometers for which he was paid a further £100 a year. He was also paid an allowance for coals and candles (probabaly from the date he was appointed, but certainly by 1815 and worth £200 a year in 1835), from which he was also expected to provide for the non-residential as well as the residential parts of the Observatory.

Airy was first sounded out about his willingness to take on the office of Astronomer Royal in May 1834. He provisionally accepted the appointment on 10 October 1834, accepting it formally on 17 June 1835. He was paid at a new consolidated rate of £800 a year, with no separate allowance for coals or as Superintendent of Chronometers. The following table is a summary of the above.


1752–1811 (Maskelyne)
£350 + house £350 = salary of £100 + pension of £250

1811–1818 (Pond)
£600 + house +
coals & candles
£600 = salary of £100 from Board of Ordnance + pension of £250 (but worth only £207.10s in 1811) + £292.10s from the Admiralty.

1819–1820 (Pond)
£700 + house +
coals & candles
£700 = salary of £100 from Board of Ordnance + pension of £250 (but worth only £207.10s) + £292.10s from the Admiralty + £100 as a commissioner of the Board of Longitude)

1820–1821 (Pond)
£700 + house +
coals & candles
£700 = pension of £250 (but worth only £207.10s?) + £376.8s* from the Admiralty + £100 as a commissioner of the Board of Longitude

1821–1828 (Pond)
£800 + house +
coals & candles
£800 = pension of £250 (but worth only £207.10s?) + £376.8s* from the Admiralty + £100 as commissioner of the Board of Longitude + £100 as Superintendent of Chronometers.

1828–1830 (Pond) £700 + house +
coals & candles
£700 = pension of £250 (but worth only £207.10s?) + £376.8s* from the Admiralty + £100 as Superintendent of Chronometers.

1831–1835 (Pond) £700 + house +
coals & candles
£700 = salary of £600 + £100 as Superintendent Chronometers).

* Assumed to be made up of the previous amount of £292.10s from Admiralty + the £100 previously paid by the Board of Ordnance, from which a deduction of £16.2s appears to have been made.


Pond’s Assistants

Until Pond’s arrival as Astronomer Royal, only one assistant was normally employed at the Observatory. On his arrival, this was Thomas Taylor who had been taken on My Maskelyne in 1807. Pond arrived at Greenwich in 1811 with his 15 year old ward John Henry Belville who at once began to help out, presumably being paid as a supernumerary. By 1816, he had been put on the establishment payroll. This brought the number of established assistants to two, the two post holders being referred to respectively as the First and the Second Assistants.

After the Admiralty took over responsibility for the Observatory from the Board of Ordnance in 1818, the extra work associated with a new requirement to test and rate chronometers, the introduction of a second mural circle (which was used simultaneously with the first), together with pressure for observing to take place during more hours of the day, lead to an increase in the number of assistants to six – two additional second assistants being appointed in 1822, and two supernumerary computers in 1825. The later were referred to as ‘extra assistants’ and became established in about 1830. Three of Pond’s assistants came from Yorkshire: William Richardson, Thomas Ellis and William Rogerson, (the last two having been recommended by the first), with both Rogerson and Richardson, coming from the town of Pocklington.

As the longest serving Assistant, Taylor became, by default, the First or Chief Assistant. In a note written for his successor Airy in 1835, Pond described him as having been a most trusted servant, but went on to say ‘He may now be considered as quite superannuated; his sight is imperfect; he has grown petulant and has latterly taken to drinking’. His duties were described as observing with the Transit, superintending all the computations and corresponding with the captains of ships respecting chronometers. Like the other assistants, he also spent time rating the chronometers and operating the Time Ball, which had been installed in 1833 and at that time, was dropped by hand (RGO6/72/223&226).

As well as the number of assistants increasing under Pond from one to six, there was another important change. In the past, just a handful of assistants had served for five or more years. Under Pond, a new pattern emerged with many remaining at the Observatory for their entire working life.

Pond’s assistants (with dates of service in parenthesis) were:

1807–1835        Thomas Taylor
1811–1856        John (Thomas) Henry Belville, also known as John Henry (Junior Assistant)
1822–1830        Thomas Glanville Taylor (Son of Thomas Taylor & appointed as a supernumerary in 1820)
1822–1845        William Richardson    
1825–1852        Thomas Ellis
1825–1853        William Rogerson
1830–1835        Frederick Walter Simms

The appointment of new Assistants was not without controversy. The type of Assistant to be appointed was a constant item of discussion by the Visitors over a period of four year period commencing in 1822. This topic is covered in detail in a section below.

See also:

Pay rates 1811–1835


Housing the Assistants

Until the nineteenth century, there was normally only one assistant employed at any one time and he lived in on the Observatory site. Before the building in 1750 of the ‘Bradley Observatory’ (what is now the western end of the Meridian Building), the assistants had always been accommodated in Flamsteed House. After that date, they were accommodated in a small apartment on the top floor of the new building. A second and larger apartment was built in 1813, on the eastern end of the by then already extended Bradley Observatory. Now much altered, it presently houses the Observatory shop. 

With the arrival of John Pond as Astronomer Royal in 1811, the number of assistants increased to two with the appointment of his ward, the young John Belville as second assistant. Like the first assistant, Belville resided at the Observatory. The pattern of living in was broken in 1822 when Belville moved into nearby accommodation paid for by the Admiralty on the edge of the Park at 16 Park Row (now demolished). This move coincided with the doubling of the number of assistants from two to four. Of the two new assistants, William Richardson was accommodated alongside Belville at 16 Park Row and Thomas Taylor at the Observatory where his father was already in occupation as First Assistant.

 In 1825, plans were formed to build further accommodation at the Observatory and in 1826 procedures were put in place to enclose an additional part of Greenwich Park to build three houses (Work16/126). By 1827, Admiralty approval had been given for the work to proceed (ADM359/47B/60). But meanwhile, Belville had moved in 1825 into a house in the newly built Park Terrace at the western end of what is now Park Vista, with arrangements being made for the Admiralty to pay his rent, together with his bills for coals and candles and certain of the smaller expenses. The arrangement proved rather convenient and as a result, all plans for erecting new accommodation at the Observatory were abandoned. They were revived for a while in the 1830s, but were again abandoned. (RGO6/44f25)

Documentation detailing the provision of accommodation between1822 and 1835 is sketchy. Free housing seems to have been provided for the four assistants who were in post in 1822, but not for any later appointees. These arrangements were altered in 1836, when rather than paying the bills, the Admiralty was persuaded by Airy to alter them for his administrative convenience, and to pay a rent allowance instead.

More about staff housing can be found via the link below:

Housing, 1822–1910


The Troughton 10-foot Transit Instrument. Drawn by J Farey and engraved by T Bradley. Plate 16 (adapted detail) from Pearson's An introduction to practical astronomy (London, 1829). Image courtesy of Robert B. Ariail Collection of Historical Astronomy, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries

Telescopes acquired during Pond’s tenure

Mural Instruments

Troughton 6-foot Mural Circle (1810)

Jones 6-foot Mural Circles (1821 & 1822)

Troughton 10-foot Transit Instrument (1816)

Zenith instruments

Pond’s 9½-foot Zenith Tube (1812)

Pond’s 8-foot Achromatic Zenith Telescope (c.1820?)

Pond’s 25-foot Great Zenith Tube (1833)

Fixed telescopes for special investigations

α Aquilae and α Cygni Telescopes (1816)

Large equatorial telelscopes

The Shuckburgh Equatorial (erected 1816)

The Western Equatorial (c.1824)

Large Herschelian reflectors

Ramage's 25-foot telescope (c.1820)


Innovations in observing techniques



The Observatory’s involvement with Chronometers dates back to 26 April 1766 when the Board of Longitude resolved that Harrison’s longitude watch (H4) along with his three earlier seagoing clocks should be tested there. Over the next 50 years, a small number of other chronometers were also tested mainly for the Board (these included Kendal No.1, Mudge “Green” and Mudge “Blue”).

In 1818, a new Longitude Act was passed, as a result of which, the post of Superintendent of Chronometers was created with a salary of £100 a year. Initially this was bestowed upon the Hydrographer of the Navy, Captain Thomas Hurd. On 23 July 1821 it was transferred to John Pond, the Astronomer Royal.

A month earlier, on the 25 June, following up a suggestion from the chronometer maker WJ Frodsham, the Admiralty instigated a series of annual trials at the Observatory ‘for the purpose of further encouraging the improvement of chronometers’. To encourage makers to submit their instruments, it was announced that the Admiralty would ‘purchase, at the end of each year, the chronometer which shall have kept the best time, at the price of £300, and the second best at the price of £200’.

The first trial began in 1822, and was followed by twelve others. From 1828 instead of agreeing to purchase the two best chronometers, the Admiralty instead purchased the best three for £200, £170, and £130 respectively. Each of the trials, which became known as the ‘Premium Trials’, lasted for a period of 12 months. They were discontinued in 1836 at the end of the thirteenth trial as no useful purpose seemed likely to be served by continuing them. Over the course of the trials, there had been no marked improvement after the first four trials nor had there been any new inventions or discoveries. Worse still, some individuals had abused the system by entering chronometers that they had not made. In 1840. a new series of trials in a different format was begun by Pond's successor, Greorge Airy.

As well as being responsible for conducting the trials Pond was also required to run the complete administration for the issuing and receiving of chronometers. Airy objected to this arrangement and managed to ditch much of the administrative work as he told the Visitors when he presented his Annual Report in June 1836:

‘ I have on a former occasion expressed to the Visitors my belief, that the oppression of business arising from the care of chronometers has been most injurious to the astronomical efficiency and general reputation of the Royal Observatory: and I take this opportunity of repeating that belief. I also beg to remark, that this oppression has not been produced by that part of the business which relates to the rating or reporting upon or experimenting upon chronometers, but by that which relates to the money accounts, the accounts of chronometers in store, &c., and the delivery of chronometers to ships. At my representation, alterations have been made in several of the arrangements, the effect of which has been to diminish in some degree the various interruptions to the astronomical business of the place. If at any subsequent time it should be necessary for me to request an expression of opinion from this Board, I trust that I may represent their sentiments correctly by saying, that the persons of this establishment are astronomical observers and calculators, not clerks; that the Observatory is an astronomical institution, not a storehouse; and that any regulation which makes the account-keeping and storekeeping department predominant over the astronomical is an unjustifiable and injurious diversion of its powers.’

Click here to read more about the Chronometer Trials

Click here to read the letter appointing Pond to the position of Superintendent of Chronometers


Changes to the buildings and grounds

Pond not having any children, meant that there was no pressure on the living accomodation in Flamsteed House which had been extended only twenty years earlier for Maskelyne. Apart from the addition of the time ball on the roof in 1833, he made only one other change to Flamsteed House. The ground between the western summerhouse, the boundary wall and Flamsteed’s study on which Halley’s transit instrument had stood, was excavated in 1820 to create a room ready to receive his 25-foot Great Zenith Tube. It was described by Airy as ‘a square tower like a steeple’. At the same time, to give uniformity to the appearance of the important north front of Flamsteed House, the wall was built which connects Flamsteed House to the eastern summerhouse.

Flamsteed House. Drawn by TH Shepherd and published on 1 October 1824 by R Ackermann in his Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions &c. The two converted summerhouses with their domes can be seen to the left and right. By 1824 (or soon after), the east dome (left) housed the Shuckburgh and the west dome the Western Equatorial. Each had a restricted view of the sky due to the presence of the Octagon Room (centre) The lantern on the top of the room created by Pond for the Great Zenith Tube is just visible between the Octagon Room and the western dome

In 1813, the footprint of the Meridian buiding was increased by an extension to the east of the Circle Room.  The foundation stone was laid on 8 July and the architect was Mr Full from the Ordnance a (RGO6/1/53). The extension was of two stories where it joined the existing building (echoing the central section of the earlier Bradley Observatory), and of single story at its eastern end. Unlike the extension built in 1808/9 for the Mural Circles, the new extension could only be accessed from the outside, not from the existing building, a situation that remained until the late 1840s. The two story part contained a conical shaped pier and was surmounted by a dome for the Shuckburgh Equatorial. The pier proved defective and the telescope was never mounted there, being mounted instead, in 1816, in the east dome that had been created from one of the Summer Houses. The single story section contained apartment rooms. These were the last part of the extension to be completed and were finished in February 1815. When Airy took over as Astronomer Royal in 1835, when all the assistants were required to live out.

When in 1821, charge of the chronometers of the Royal Navy was transferred from the Hydrographic Office to the Observatory. The library housed on the upper floor of of the 1813 extension was appropriated for the chronometers and an additional floor built above the single story apartment to accommodate the displaced library (RGO6/1/55). In 1824, a second mural circle was erected alongside the first, necesitating an alteration to the layout of the Circle Room and its roof.

The Meridian Building (left) with Flamsteed House to the right. Detail from a pencil drawing by an unknown artist, 1838Ė1840. The left end of the Meridian Building with the dome on the roof is Pond's extension of 1813/1821 remained unchanged until 1855 when a further extension was added

Under Pond, as under both his predecessor and his successor, the grounds were also extended. In Pond's case, the additional land enclosed was to the south of the Meridian Building. Enclosed in 1814, it was put to use as a kitchen garden.

In 1816, the Admiralty asked Pond, to make regular observations of magnetic variation (declination). A Magnetic House was put up in the newly enclosed ground during April and May 1817 (RGO6/1/54), and observations commenced in 1818. Since the level part of the ground was in use as a kitchen garden, it was perhaps for this reason, that Pond made the unwise decision to place the observatory on the east side on the slope of the hill. The foundations rapidly gave way, causing the building to become so dangerous, that the instruments were removed. The building was demolished in 1824 and magnetic observations ceased until a new observatory was established on a new site by Airy in 1838.

The Kitchen Garden as it existed between 1814 and 1837 when the Magnetic Ground was enclosed for Airy. Bounded by the existing south facing wall (centre) and a wooden fence, the garden was highly visible to members of the public in the Park. Pencil drawing by Caroline Smith, 1836. Reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 3.0) courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library (see below)

More about the buildings and grounds and their evolution can be read here:

Flamsteed House and the Summerhouses
The Meridian Building
The Magnetic Observatory

Discussions with the Admiralty and Visitors on increasing the number of Assistants

In July 1822, following a request from the Astronomer Royal, John Pond, a proposal was put forward to the Admiralty by the Visitors, (who prior to 1830 consisted of the President and Council of the Royal Society), for two more assistants to be employed so that observations could be ‘continued without disruption though the whole of the twenty four hours’ and then speedily reduced (RGO6/22/120). On the strength of this, the following month Pond took on two new assistants on a temporary basis (Thomas Glanville Taylor and William Richardson).

The Admiralty responded to the Visitors’ proposal in March 1823. Whilst agreeing in principle to two extra staff, they proposed that rather than the lowly type of assistant that was currently being employed, the new assistants should be of a superior class with a university education and paid accordingly, with the salary of ‘the First Assistant to commence at £300 a year and to increase by £10 a year to [a maximum of] £500’. (RGO6/22/124). At their meeting in June, the Visitors endorsed the proposal for assistants of a superior class to be employed (the minutes implying that the President and the whole of the Council agreed) (RGO6/22/127). In December 1823, the Admiralty sent the proposal for approval to His Majesty in Council, suggesting to the Visitors that the posts should be filled as quickly as possible after approval was given (RGO6/22/130).

In early 1824, John Herschel conveyed this news to George Airy and suggested that he would ‘be an excellent person for the principal place’. To find out more, Airy went to London on 7 February to be present at one of Sir Humphrey Davy’s Saturday evening soirées and to find our more from him as President of the Royal Society and also from Thomas Young, another of the Visitors (who had taken over as Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac from Pond in 1818). When Airy found ‘that succession to the post of Astronomer Royal was not considered as distinctly a consequence of it’, he was unimpressed and after staying overnight with Sir James South returned to Cambridge the next night.



In the end, no assistants of a superior class were appointed while Pond remained Astronomer Royal.


The Ponds and the Taylors – one big happy family?

On the 16 April 1807, John Pond married Anne Gordon Bradley at St Martin in the Fields, Westminster. As far as can be ascertained the couple did not have any children.

In March 1802, Pond’s Assistant, Thomas Taylor (1772–1843), is said to have married Susanna Glanville (1774?-1820?) in Devon. Taylor’s will shows that he had four children who survived him. They were Susanna Taylor (who married William Richards), Thomas Glanville Taylor, Henry Taylor and Harriett Taylor (who appears to have been unmarried at the time of her father’s death).

In 1822, Thomas Glanville Taylor was taken on by Pond as one of two new assistants. He was appointed Director of the East India Company’s Observatory in Madras in 1830 and elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1842.

Born in 1810/11, six years after his brother Thomas, Henry Taylor went to St. Mary Hall (later known as Oriel College), Oxford where he took the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law (B.C.L.). At about the age of 21, he got married, the wedding taking place at St James’s Piccadilly on 28 July 1832. Intriguingly, his bride, who was ten years his senior, was Mary Ayrton Ellen Bradley, sister of Anne Pond, the wife of the Astronomer Royal. In other words, John Pond’s sister in law was also now the daughter in law of Thomas Taylor. Henry’s first child Mary Gordon Taylor was baptised at St Mary's Lewisham on 24 November 1833. His address was given as Dartmouth Cottage. Having taken Holy Orders, Henry became curate of Christ Church Marylebone. After the death of John Pond in 1836, Henry swore the truth of an affidavit stating that Pond’s will appeared genuine (transcript below). In December 1839, he was appointed incumbent of All Saints’ Church, Stepney, and it was there on 5 January 1840 that he performed the baptism of his second(?) child, Thomas Henry Sanderson Taylor.

In 1840, Thomas Glanville Taylor was back in England on leave from Madras. The following year, Henry Taylor was appointed Chaplain to the East India Company. When Thomas Glanville Taylor returned to India at the end of 1841, Henry travelled with them. Henry remained in the service of the East India Company and later the Colonial Office (after the reorganisation of 1858) until1860. The 1851 census shows him back in England (presumably on leave), and apparently living on the Isle of Wight with both his wife and with Ann Pond. Further confirmation that he was on the Isle of Wight at this time comes from a press report in the 29 March 1851 edition of the Southampton Herald:

‘Propagation of the Gospel.– The Rev. Henry Taylor B.C.L., chaplain to the Hon. East India Service at Madras preached and excellent and impressive sermon at Trinity Church Ryde, on Sunday morning the 16th inst; ...’

The 1871 census shows Henry and Mary Taylor together with Ann Pond and two servants as the sole occupants of South Lodge in Broadstairs, a house that the electoral register shows had been in Taylor’s occupation since at least 1867. The probate records show that both Anne Pond and Henry Taylor died at South Lodge; Anne on 17 April 1871 and Henry three years later on 26 June 1874. Mary Taylor died in the same parish as her husband on 23 February 1878. It is not presently known if Anne Pond or his wife and children accompanied Henry Taylor to Madras. Neither child is mentioned as living with him in the 1851 census suggesting that they both may have died young.

The question arises as to how it was that the Ponds and the Taylors became so close and what bearing did this have on the working relationship between them?

When Thomas Taylor was taken on by Maskelyne in 1807, he was already married with two Children (Susanna and Thomas G). Henry was born a few months before Pond arrived at the Observatory in 1811 as Astronomer Royal. At that time, Thomas Taylor was the only Assistant. Although accommodation was provided for him at the Observatory, it is not known if the rest of the family resided there. Given the hours he seems to have been required to work, it seems probable that they did, a view supported in a note about the assistants that Pond wrote for Airy in 1835 that states that ‘his [Taylor’s] eldest son was brought up at the Observatory and is now astronomer at Calcutta – to the East India Company’ (RGO6/72/233). The new apartment rooms completed in 1815 seem to have been initially shared between the First and Second Assistants (RGO6/44/9), however a plan from 1831, indicates that by then, one of the rooms had been divided and that the whole suite of about 400 square feet was in use by Taylor (RGO6/45). 

Taylor’s wife Susanna is said to have died in 1820, leaving him with four children between the age of seven and seventeen to bring up on his own. It seems highly likely that from an early stage that the Ponds took an interest in the welfare of the children and also their education. How else would Henry have got to meet Mary Bradley let alone to marry her?

Although Henry Taylor was never employed as a member of the Observatory staff, he was clearly conversant with the process of reducing the observations for publication as both he and his brother were involved in the production of Groombridge's Catalogue of Circumpolar Stars, the production of which was being funded by the Board of Longitude. Of the two brothers, it was initially only Thomas Glanville Taylor who was involved. After his departure for India, it became necessary to appoint a new superintendant of the computations; and Pond, apparently in his official character as Astronomer Royal, nominated Henry Taylor for the role, the calculations, being put into his hands about in about June 1830. Computers were employed by him; the reductions completed; the Catalogue in every respect prepared for press; and, after the necessary sanction from the Board of Admiralty, the Catalogue and Introduction were completely printed at the expense of the Government. To cut a long story short, before the volume was actually published, aspects of the work were found were found to be erroneous. The errors were of such a nature that no system of cancelling or errata could remove them and it was decided that the work ought to be suppressed. Following a significant amount of extra work by Airy and others, the volume as edited by Airy was eventually published in 1838. An account of the Taylors and others involved in the production of the volume were given in its preface. It is worth spending a few minutes reading it. A slightly different account is given in the official history of the Royal Astronomical Society where it is also stated that feeling aggrieved, Henry Taylor resigned as a fellow of the society.

Preface to A Catalogue of Circumpolar Stars, deduced from the observations of Stephen Groombridge … (1838)

History of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1820–1920

By his own admission, administration was not one of Pond’s strong points. This applied not only to the management of his staff, but also to some aspects of the day to day record keeping of the observatory. As a result, when Airy arrived at the Observatory, he seems to have found no formal records relating to the structural changes that happened during Pond's tenure (funding, reconstituted board of visitors, minutes of the Visitors etc.). Nor could he find any record of how the site and instruments had evolved since Flamsteed's time. Time being of the essence, in 1837, Airy wrote to Anne Pond who roped Maskelyne's daughter Margaret and Thomas Taylor in to help fill in the details.

The first letter received from Anne Pond on the subject (RGO6/44/6) is dated 19 August 1837 and carries the address 19 Elm Tree Road, the address of Henry Taylor. A second letter (RGO6/44/20) dated 17 June 1839 was sent from 17 Melbury Terrace (Dorset Square), the same address from where Thomas Taylor had written to Airy the previous week [exact date needs confirmation] and also the address given on his last will and testament which was signed in October 1839. It is also the address given for Henry Taylor when the birth of son (Thomas) was announced in the January 1840 edition of The British Magazine and Monthly Register of Religious and Ecclesiastical Information

On the face of it, it appears that by 1837 if not before, Anne Pond had moved in with Henry and Mary Taylor in Elm Tree Road and that the three of them subsequently moved in with Thomas Taylor (and Harriett?) at Melbury Terrace. Court records held by the National Archive (HO 17/47/144) suggest that he had been living there since 1835.

As well as getting information via Anne Pond, Airy also had sight of a private journal kept by John Belville for the years 1811–1825, from which he made copious notes. The undated notes made from the journal  (but not the journal itself) are preserved in the Observatory archives (RGO6/1).

For reasons unknown, in March 1847, Belville also gave Airy sight of a bundle of private letters Pond had written to him from Hastings whilst on sick leave and recuperating. A page and a half of notes consisting of 41 lines of text and about 300-400 words that Airy made from them are also preserved in the Observatory archives (RGO6/1/58) under the heading: Remarks on a bundle of letters addressed by Mr. Pond to Mr. Henry during his long absence from the Observatory in 1831. (See also an accompanying letter RGO6/1/57)

Airy’s notes give the impression that there were eleven letters from Pond in total, the first having been written on 27 July 1831 and the last four months later on 29 November. Airy transcribed sections from eight of them. Together, they show that Pond was in a seriously bad way both physically and mentally and that at one point, he feared that he would never return to Greenwich.

In the absence of the originals letters it is not possible to tell either the original context of the copied extracts nor why Airy recorded these sections of them and not others. Two extracts (about 20% of the text that was copied) make reference to the Taylors. Taken at face value, they are exceedingly damning.

Letter 1. ~ 27 July 1831

‘Rely on it that whatever becomes of me you will be comfortably provided for at the Observatory with proper dilligence. I have been ill used by the Taylor family, but do not notice this or pretend to know it’

Letter 2. ~ 31 July 1831

‘I hope to have no intercourse any more with the Taylor family, but do not pretend to know this. Nothing can equal the ingratitude of their conduct.’

But what was it that the Taylor family was supposed to have done to bring on this outpouring at this time? The answer is not at all clear and is currently under investigation And what did Pond mean by ‘but do not notice this or pretend to know it’ and ‘but do not pretend to know this’. Was it that he, Pond, was pretending not to know it, or was it an instruction to Belville not to share with the Taylors his (Pond’s) thoughts on them? And if, as seems more likely, it was the second of these, it suggests a somwhat divided workforce.

At the time when Pond was writing, Thomas Glanville Taylor was off the scene having departed for Madras more that a year before, and the Groombridge / Henry Taylor incident was still more than a year away as was Henry’s marriage to Mary Bradley.

1831 was certainly a stressful year for Pond. The newly constituted Board of Visitors was not slow in getting off the mark, holding seven lengthy meetings between 19 January and 13 June. Of these, the only meeting that Pond was invited to was the Visitation on 3 June. Most of the discussions related to printing the observations in a revised format and also re-separating the posts of Astronomer Royal and Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac. Although the latter would potentially reduce Pond’s workload, the former increased it with immediate effect. At the Visitation, Pond made a lengthy statement that began as follows:

‘That only one assistant is lodged at the observatory, and that only on sufferance, and that it is his [Pond’s] opinion that the Royal Observatory never can be fully effective until all the assistants are enabled to reside in it or in the immediate vicinity of the same. ... ... That, the Astronomer Royal is satisfied with his present power over the assistants, but thinks that more might be desirable ... The Astronomer Royal also stated that is is his decided opinion, that provided the above arangements [about pay and housing] are carried into effect, no assistant should be allowed, on any account whatever to undertake any other business than that connected with the immediate duties of the observatory [see below]’ (ADM4/62)

The reference to the assistant lodged at the Observatory is presumed to be a reference to Taylor. However, the reference to him residing there ‘under sufferance’ can be read in at least three different ways.

1. Taylor and Pond's relationship had broken down
2. After nearly 25 years of doing so, Taylor was fed up with both working and living under the watchful eye of the Astronomer Royal in the same immediate environment
3. That the accomodation provided at the Observatory was too basic given that Taylor could easily afford to rent nearby accomodation of a much superior nature.

Nothing is known about how or where Pond met his future wife. Nor is anything known about their relationship. Given that he made no provision for her in his will (transcribed below), and that she apparently got on well with her sister and brother in law, one does have to wonder just what it was that had upset Pond so much about theTaylors.


The working hours enigma

According to a four page document dated 20 April 1825 that was specially printed for Pond under the title A memorial relative to the appointment of new assistants at the Royal Observatory, the hours of attendence of his four assistants were as follows:

‘The 1st assistant [Taylor] attends from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M., with the exception of one hour, and ocassionally earlier; and from one to three hours later in relieving the night assistants, in observing eclipses, and other incidental duties.

The 2nd assistant [Belville] attends from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M., with the exception of one hour, and ocassionally later for eclipses, &C.

The two night assistants [Thomas Glanville Taylor & Richardson] attend from three to four hours during the day, for computations, from nine to about twelve at night, and from between three and four in the morning till about nine.’ (RGO6/1/51)

Title page of the 1826 edition of Rogerson's Temporis Calendarium

Despite the long working hours, the assistants still seemingly had time to take on other work.

Thomas Glanville Taylor (as mentioned above), was involved in preparing the Groombridge Catalogue. Thomas Taylor senior did computations for the Nautical Almanac (at least in the time of Maskelyne). William Richardson was responsible for computing the data for A catalogue of 7385 stars: chiefly in the southern hemisphere, prepared from observations made ... at the observatory at Paramatta, New South Wales ... which was published for the Admiralty in 1835. In a note about the assistants that he left for Airy, Pond elaborated on this:

‘… He is a very able clear headed man and rather above his work and salary – Accordingly he has been allowed to undertake computation for others; for instance those required for the catalogue of Sir Thos Brisbane – and some for the astronomical society by these means he has improved his salary.’ (RGO6/72/223).

William Rogerson also found time to continue publishing editions of his Almanack, Temporis Calendarium after he was taken on in 1825. First published in 1820 (for the year 1821), the last volume to be published was in the year 1850. Likewise Simms (taken on in 1830) supplemented his income by giving lessons in navigation to officers in the merchant service, and by surveying iron steam-ships for the adjustment of their compasses. In 1834, he also published his first book: A treatise on the principal mathematical instruments employed in surveying, levelling and astronomy.

It seems that the only assistant not to have taken on extra work was Thomas Ellis.


Pond’s comments on of his Assistants and Airy’s accusations against Thomas Taylor

Before he resigned in 1835, Pond provided Airy with a spreadsheet titled: Statement respecting the assistants at the Royal Observatory (RGO6/72/223&226). The eight columns are headed: Name, Age, Length of Service, Salary, Other Emoluments, Total of Salary & Emoluments, Duties, and Remarks. The remarks column occupies just under half the width of the table and typically contains about five lines of text on each assistant, brief extracts from which are reproduced below:

Thomas Taylor

‘... he has been a most faithful servant. He may now be considered as quite superannuated; his sight is imperfect; he has grown petulant and has latterly taken to drinking’

John Henry [Belville]

‘He is steady tho’ not clever – is a good computer; but when much exertion is required he requires exciting’

William Richardson

‘He is a first rate observer with the Circle, and he keeps the Circle computations in a very masterly manner – His ability as an observer is shown by the observations made with the circle on the star γ Draconis, in the paper of Mr. Pond. ... He is a very able clear headed man and rather above his work and salary – Accordingly he has been allowed to undertake computation for others; for instance those required for the catalogue of Sir Thos Brisbane – and some for the astronomical society by these means he has improved his salary – He gave instructions to the assistant employed by Mr. Airy at Cambridge [Glaisher] to fit him for that situation.’

Thomas Ellis:

‘He is a very useful, well behaved respectable man’

William Rogerson:

‘very well behaved, honest and trustworthy; though less able than Mr. Ellis’

Frederick Simms:

‘has been very able and diligent ... But in consequence of his having committed a great irregularity regarding the rates of chronometers [unspecified], it is expected he will retire’

When first sounded out about the post of Astronomer Royal in 1834 (see below), Airy indicated that he would like Taylor to be removed from his post (RGO6/1/145). In the letter dated 15 June 1835 and written in confidence to Lord Auckland (First Lord of the Admiralty) before finally accepting the post, he listed the changes he would want to make at the Observatory (RGO6/1/158). His list began as follows:

‘The first, which I consider absolutely necessary, is the removal of the present first assistant Mr. Taylor. He is a drunkard, he has lost his authority over the other assistants by having recourse to them (as I believe) for the assistance of his son Henry Taylor in a scandalous business, and he is under the accusation (printed as I have heard, in some periodical) of receiving bribes from chronometer makers.’

Whilst Pond was aware of the drink problem, he didn't warn Airy of anything relatingto the other accusations (which are unsubstantiated). The Henry Taylor business is presumably a reference to the Groombridge Catalogue mentioned (see above). Airy seems to be implying that Taylor persuaded the other assistants to assist Henry Taylor with the work (for which they were presumably paid). Given that Pond himself both sanctioned his assistants to take on other work of this nature, and permitted them to undertake other paid work, the charge should probably have been levelled more against Pond than against Taylor (who was duly pensioned off). As for the chronometers; given that Simms had ‘committed a great irregularity regarding the rates of chronometers’ perhaps Taylor was being blamed for this as well.

Taylor does not seem to have been made aware of the charges or given the right to reply. Based on what people have subsequently written about Taylor, the mud slung at him by Airy seems to have stuck.


The misjudged manouverings of Stephen Lee

Although Pond had a reputation as a first class observer, he was, as mentioned above, a rather less good administrator. At the end of 1824, Stephen Lee took Pond to task in two letters that he wrote in a personal capacity that were published in the Philosphical Magazine. The subject matter was inconsistencies and errors that he had found in the recently published volumes of Greenwich Observations for the years 1821 and 1822.

Stephen Lee however was no ordinary member of the public or astronomical community. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1798, he had been appointed the Society's Clerk, Housekeeper and Librarian in 1810 (and as a condition of taking up the post had had to resign his fellowship). Retitled Assistant Secretary in 1823, his duties would have included minuting the meetings of Council, who, as mentioned above, discussed matters relating to the Board of Visitors as part and parcel of their regular meetings. He would therefore have been privy to the ongoing discussions regarding the establishment of a new well paid class of Assistant at Greenwich (see above). As Assistant Secretary, Lee had both access to and made use of the original manuscript observations which had been deposited with the Society (as required under the Warrant of 1820 that had reappointed the Board of Visitors on the accession of George IV).

According to a letter from John Herschel sent to James South on 8 January 1824, Lee was, at that time, in the running to be appointed as the new First Assistant. Given that the contents of the letters were unlikely to result in a good working relationship between Pond and himself, perhaps Lee wanted to topple Pond and aspired to become the new Astronomer Royal in his place. The question that has to be asked is: did Lee send the letters in a misguided attempt to enhance his prospects or did he genuinely send it for the reason he set out in the opening paragraph of his first letter as set out below?

‘Being lately engaged in the investigation of a question which requires a reference to the most accurate astronomical observations that can be procured, I naturally turned to those of  the royal observatory at Greenwich; but the results which I obtained from them, were by no means satisfactory to my purpose. The first impression on my mind was, that I must have fallen into some mistake in respect to the conclusions which I had supposed could be drawn from them, and under that impression I gave up the inquiry. A hint however, which I shortly afterwards received from a friend, to whom I accidentally mentioned the circumstance, led me to suspect that my disappointment was occasioned, not by any false reasoning in the investigation alluded to, but by errors in the observations; and a careful, though not yet complete examination of those for 1821, have fully confirmed my suspicions. ...’

Whatever Lee's objective was, the events that followed ended badly for him. Not only did he not get a well paid job at Greenwich (nobody did), but he also ended up loosing his job at the Royal Society. The chain of events surrounding the whole saga appears to have gone as follows:

1824, Nov 30. First letter from Lee, dated 24 November, published in Philosphical Magazine (Click here to read)

1824, Dec 31. Second letter from Lee, dated 20 December, published in Philosphical Magazine (Click here to read)

1825, Feb. On about the 25th? Lee had a converstation with the President of Royal Society (Humphry Davy) about the subject of his two papers. Davy told him that he should address any remarks on the matter to the Council of the Royal Society, 'who as Vistors of the Royal Observatory ... were the proper authority to appeal to on such an ocassion (RGO6/22/144)

1825, Feb 28.  Lee writes the letter as Davy had suggested. (RGO6/22/140 & 144-151)

1825, Mar 3. Lee's letter read to the Council (at which Pond was present). Pond asked to repond to it at the next meeting of the Council (RGO6/22/137). Pond either did not respond at the next meeting on 17 March, or if he did his response was not minuted.

1825, Mar 17, Lee asked at a meeting of the Council to provide Pond with a copy of his remarks on the Greenwich Observations for 1822 (RGO6/22/138).

1825, May 5. At a meeting of Council, Pond presented statement on the 1822 observations (RGO6/22/139 & 151-160). Committee set up to examine Lee's claims (Baily, Colby, Gilbert, Herschel, Kater, Wollaston & Young) (RGO6/22/139)

1825, Jun 16. The committee formed on 5 May, (having met on 25 May and 1, 4 & 16 June) delivered its report, the findings of which were unanimous. In a statement they said that Pond was 'acquitted of any culpable inattention to the immediate duties of his important office ... but that a certain degree of negligence is too apparent on the part of some of the assistants especially with regard to the registers of the heights of the Barometer and Thermometer in conssequence of which an error of nearly a second had been introduced into the single results of some few of the observations ...' (RGO6/22/162-168)

1825, Jun 17. Day of annual visitation.

1825, Jul 2. Lee wrote to Admiralty on the matter, assuming that they had recieved a copy of the committe's report. In it he said: 'It contains besides some expressions respecting myself which is is utterly impossible for me to endure in scilence, one or two Egregious Mistakes ...' going on to say 'before I appeal to public opinion which I wish if possible to avoid ...' whether if he wrote 'to the Lords of the Admiralty on the subject, leaving out everything of a personal nature' if it was likely that any attention would be paid to it. RGO6/22/169&170)

1825, Jul 4. Admiralty replied telling Lee to take the matter up with the Royal Society. (RGO6/22/170)

1825, Sep 17. At a meeting of Council, Lee's letter to the Admiralty discussed. 'Ordered that Mr Lee be called in and informed by the President that the Council feel extremely indignant at the expressions theirin contained which they consider highly improper and indecorous & they expect Mr Lee to offer some explanation of or offers some apology for the same at the next meeting of the Council'. (RGO6/22/172)

1825, Dec 15. At a meeting of Council the following was minuted: 'A letter having been read from Mr Lee it was Resolved that the Council do not consider his explanation relative to his correspondence with the admiralty as at all satisfactory & that they cannor admit of its insertion in the minutes of the Council in consequence of the offensive expressions which it contains.' (RGO6/22/173)

1826, Mar 9. James Hudson appointed as new Assistant Secretary pending Lee's resignation (Hall, 1992)

1826, Apr 6. At a meeting of Council, Lee's letter of resignation read and Hudson's appontment made permanent (Hall, 1992)

Interstingly, it was only the fact that Lee wrote to the Admiralty that put him in bad odour with Council, not the fact that he published his findings in the Philosphical Magazine (albeit in a personal capacity). Rather than wash the dirty lined in public via the Philosphical Magazine, one might have thought that a better apporach in the first instance would have been take take the matter up directly and in person with the Royal Society. Lee's motives for publishing remain unclear. Whatever his aim, the way he went about things backfired spectacularly.

The minutes consulted for this section were those transcribed for Airy from the books of Council minutes. What would be interesting to study in the future, (but Covid-19 has prevented at the time of writing), would be the original volumes of minutes and rough minutes to see whose hand they were written in. It is hard to imagine that Lee would have minuted the meetings mentioned above.

The story of Stephen Lee has been told, by both Eric Forbes (1975) and Marie Boas Hall (1992). Both accounts are flawed because neither author was unaware that Lee's two letters had been published. In his letter to Davy dated 28 February 1825, Lee referred to the Philosphical Magazine as the Philosophical Journal. Forbes appears to have taken this to mean the Philsophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Since he couldn't find anything in those volumes, he seems to have concluded that Lee's complaints were never published. This was despite the fact that the minutes clearly state that they were. Hall, who seems to have relied at least in part on Forbes in her account fails to mention the fact either.


John Brinkley and a dispute over parallax


Problems with the Nautical Almanac

From day one, as well as running the Royal Observatory, Pond became responsible for overseeing the production of the Nautical Almanac. His administrative inexperience came to public light when a lack of proper attention on his part allowed a greater number of errors to creep into the printed text and the Almanac was brought into disrepute. It was partly for this reason that the 1818 Longitude Act was passed. It both changed the remit and composition of the Board of Longitude of which Pond, was and continued to be, a Commissioner.

The Parliamentary debate took place on on 6 March 1818. It was lead by John Croker, First Secretary to the Admiralty, who said:

‘ … The intention of the bill which he should have the honour to propose was, that the commissioners of the board of longitude should remain just as they were, but that there should be added to them such gentlemen in the scientific world as, by a residence in or near the metropolis, would become useful members and assistants. His object was, indeed, to replace the board in that state of efficiency in which it ought to be – to restore it to that situation in which it was intended to be at its very foundation and commencement. There were many important considerations which would show the necessity of resorting to this proceeding. In the first place, he would beg to state, that, in the year 1767, Dr. Maskelyne, a name which could never be mentioned without the highest respect, projected the Nautical Almanack, a work which was published during his lifetime with the greatest honour to himself, and the most essential service to the country. But, after his death, the reputation of that book greatly declined, and it had latterly fallen to a very low state. Mr. Croker said, he had himself looked into the whole of the almanacks, from the earliest period, and had found only two or three errata in any one volume. The latter publications, however, were very incorrect, and he was sorry to be obliged to say, that the volume for the present year did not contain less than eighteen grave errors, and the publication for the next year not less than forty. In fact, the nautical almanack was a by-word among the literati of Europe. He would mention, however, that, generally speaking, they were not scientific, but typographical errors: but the mischief that must arise from such a publication was an injurious in the one case as in the other. From this consideration, it would be part of his measure, that the House should select a proper person, with moderate but adequate salary, to superintend the publication of that work. Another object which deserved great attention …’

‘Mr. Davies Gilbert said, that ... . With respect to the Nautical Almanack, he begged to inform the House, that the reputation which that work had acquired was owing to the unremitting care and attention of the rev. Mr. Hitchins, a gentleman whose name had not been sufficiently known, nor his labours duly rewarded. Since his death, the publication had fallen into other hands, and was not so well conducted. Another clergyman, the rev. Mr. Edwards, had greatly distinguished himself by his calculations on these subjects, in which his wife and daughter frequently assisted; but Mr. Edwards was now dead, and his widow and daughter had not met with that degree of attention which they deserved. In point of fact, they were no longer employed.’

Clause xxi of the act made provision for two new paid positions to be created: a Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac and a Superintendent of Chronometers. The first holders of the two posts were Thomas Young, who became Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac in 1818 and Thomas Hurd, who became Superintendent of Chronometers in 1819.

Prior to 1818, although supervised by the Astronomer Royal, most of the work that was done in preparing it for the press was done by other people – a team of Computers and a Comparer. Each calculation was done independently by two different computers and if the results were different they were done again by the Comparer.

In 1799, Maskelyne set out a set of instructions for both the Computers and the Comparer. It would appear from these that Maskelyne’s involvement in the production of the volume was fairly minimal, consisting mainly of assigning work to different individuals and paying them; and signing off each volume for the press. He took no part in the calculations. Maskelyne was fortunate to have Malachy Hitchins working for him as his Comparer. He was a diligent worker and performed this role for 40 years from the time of his appointment in 1769 until his death on 28 March 1809. It has been suggested (and was certainly implied by Gilbert in Parliament), that it was at this point, rather than in 1811, that the quality of the Almanac began to decline.

The ‘Diary of Nautical Almanac work‘ (RGO/4/324), begun by Maskelyne in 1791 (when work commenced on the volume for 1803), lists the Computers and Comparers employed at different times. Hitchins is the only comparer listed for all the volumes up to and including the volume for 1815, which he appears to have just completed when he died. Given that Hitchins was the lynch-pin of the whole organisation, it seems rather remiss on the part of Maskelyne and the Board of Longitude that there had been no succession planning. With no suitable candidate trained up, Maskelyne spread the work of the Comparer between the existing computers. There were five Comparers for the 1815 volume and two for the one for 1816, which seems to have been the last volume to be produced before Maskelyne died on 9 February at the age of 79. When Pond took over, the Almanac it seems was already on wobbly foundations. To get a proper overview of the errors that occurred under Maskelyne and Pond, it would first of all be necessary to analyse the number and nature of the errors corrected by errata in later volumes and then to recompute the data entirely to find the errors not previously identified. Regrettably, this work is beyond the scope and resources of this website.

The precise wording of Clause xxi was as follows:

‘And whereas it is necessary to continue the Appointment of a Secretary to the Board of Commissioners for discovering the Longitude: And whereas it is highly expedient to the Interests of Navigation, and the Honour of this Country, that the said Nautical Almanack should be accurately computed, compared, and published, and that the Method of finding the Longitude by Timekeepers should also be encouraged; and that the Timekeepers belonging to His Majesty for the Use of His Ships of War should be carefully examined and regulated; be it further enacted, That some Person of competent Skill and Ability shall be nominated and appointed by the Lord High Admiral or Commissioners of the Admiralty to be Secretary to the said Board of Commissioners, and for superintending, under the Directions of the Board in general, and the Astronomer Royal in particular, the due and correct Publication of the Nautical Almanac, and for taking care of and regulating such Timekeepers as may be intrusted to his care by the Lord High Admiral or Commissioners of the Admiralty.’

Although Thomas Young managed to restore its reputation for accuracy, he failed to satisfy the growing demands of astronomers for a wider range of tabulated information. In the vanguard of charge were Francis Baily who had been the driving force behind the founding the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820 and Sir James South who was one of the founding members.

Yet Young was not a free agent. Under Clause xxi,  he was to work ‘under the Directions of the Board in general, and the Astronomer Royal in particular’. Whatever Young may or may not have thought, control of the Board of Longitude was very much in the hands of the Admiralty and the Royal Society, both of whom resisted change. Indeed, the 1818 act had strengthened the role of the Royal Society by appointing additional fellows of the Society as Board members. As Sophie Waring has pointed out, the real power of the reformed Board lay with the Admiralty, and one of its secretaries always chaired the meetings. As for Pond, whatever his feelings, as in so many things, he seems to have kept quiet and gone with the flow.

When Young died suddenly in 1829, Airy sensed an opportunity not only to push though the reforms desired by the astronomers, but to increase his income as well. In his autobiography he records:

‘In a few days after Dr Young died: I applied to Lord Melville for the superintendence of the Nautical Almanac: Mr Croker replied that it devolved legally upon the Astronomer Royal’.

And so, once again, Pond was lumbered with having to oversee the production of the Almanac, a situation that neither he nor the Admiralty were particularly happy with. Waring has suggested that this was a tactical move on the part of the Admiralty Board to prevent the Almanac falling into the hands of its critics and cites a letter from John Barrow at the Admiralty to Edward Sabine (RGO14/22/103) in which Barrow asks for Sabine’s help with examining the annual accounts for the Almanac.

In 1828, the Board of Longitude was abolished and in 1830, the Admiralty went cap in hand to the Royal Astronomical Society to ask for their help. The following year, their secretary, William Stratford was appointed as the new Superintendent and Pond was relieved of this responsibility once again.

The story of the Almanac under Thomas Young is complex and has been looked into many times over the years. For a general overview from the reformers perspective see:

History of the Royal Astronomical Society: 1820–1920, pp.55-63 (1923)

Other sources include:

Remarks on the present defective state of the Nautical Almanac. Francis Baily (1822)

Practical Observations on the Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris. James South (1822)

Further Remarks on the present defective state of the Nautical Almanac. Francis Baily (1829)

Thomas Young. Natural Philosopher 1773–1829. Alex Wood (1954)

Thomas Young as a Civil Servant. Edmund Dews (1954) – this is Appendix 2 of Wood’s book above

The Bicentenary of the Nautical Almanac. Sadler, D. H. QJRAS, Vol.8 pp.167–168 (1967)

Thomas Young, The Board of Longitude and the age of reform. Unpublished PhD. Sophie Waring (2014)


Resignation and the appointment of Airy as Astronomer Royal

In the autumn of 1835, Airy succeeded John Pond as Astronomer Royal. It is often said (without citing the evidence) that Pond was forced, or in more extreme cases compelled, to resign. Patrick Moore in his book Astronomy (1961) states that Pond ‘neglected his duties so badly he was compelled to resign’. John Hunt in his article The handlers of time (1999) states Pond ‘was harassed into retirement in 1835’, and appears to have copied the phrase from Eric Forbes (Greenwich Observatory Vol.1, 1975). Allan Chapman in his book Comets, Cosmology and the Big Bang (2018) uses neither the word force nor the word compelled, but merely states that Pond ‘retired on health grounds’. It is certainly true that Pond neglected his duties. It’s also true that he suffered from ill health and it’s true that he resigned. But was one the consequence of the other? And when exactly and under what circumstances did he resign ... and did he perhaps resign not because he had neglected his duties or because of his health, but because he was made an offer that was too good to refuse?

The resignation of an Astronomer Royal was unprecedented. All five of Pond’s predecessors died in post – Flamsteed at the age of 73, Halley at the age of 85, Bradley at the age of 69, Bliss at the age of 63 and Maskelyne at the age of 78. In 1835, Pond was just 67 years old. There was no established process for an Astronomer Royal to retire, or to be removed from office, or to be awarded a pension.

Pond’s health had never been good. As early as December 1818 there was speculation that his post might soon become vacant. Charles Babbage thought that John Herschel would be a good candidate, but at that time, Herschel did not think himself qualified. Five years later, at the end of 1823, there was again speculation that Pond might resign, partly because of his health and partly because of his resisitance to the imposition at the Observatory of a new superior class of Assistant with a university education. At this point, Herschel declared to James South, that were the post of Astronomer Royal to become vacant, he would be ‘anything but disinclined to offer myself for it’. He followed this up by saying that although he would be interested in the post if it were to become vacant, he would not wish to work with Stephen Lee, who was apparently then under consideration for appointment as one of the superior Assistants.

Having taken charge of the Cambridge Observatory in 1828, Airy had rapidly gained a reputation for its efficient running, causing Heschel to change his tune. In 1831, he told William Stratford that if the position of Astronomer Royal should become vacant, he believed that Airy would be interested and that he would gladly support such a candidacy.

In the absence of materials that document the events leading up to Pond’s resignation from his own perspective, it is necessary instead to look at events solely from Airy’s perspective. It would appear that the process of recruiting him began in May 1834, more than a year before Pond left office. The following extracts are taken from Airy’s autobiography. They are based on notes in his Cambridge journal and correspondence now preserved in the archives (RGO6/1/144 onwards)

‘On May 10th [1834] I went to London, I believe to attend one of the Soirées which the Duke of Sussex gave as President of the Royal Society. The Duke [who was also the chairman of the Observatory’s Board of Vistiors] invited me to breakfast privately with him the next morning. He then spoke to me, on the part of the Government, about my taking the office of Astronomer Royal. On May 19th I wrote him a semi-official letter, to which reference was made in subsequent correspondence on that subject. ... On Aug. 25th Mr Spring Rice (Lord Monteagle) wrote to me to enquire whether I would accept the office of Astronomer Royal if it were vacant. I replied (from Keswick) on Aug. 30th, expressing my general willingness, stipulating for my freedom of vote, &c., and referring to my letter to the Duke of Sussex. On Oct. 8th Lord Auckland, First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote: and on Oct. 10th I provisionally accepted the office. On Oct. 30th I wrote to ask for leave to give a course of lectures at Cambridge in case that my successor at Cambridge should find difficulty in doing it in the first year: and to this Lord Auckland assented on Oct. 31st. All this arrangement was for a time upset by the change of Ministry which shortly followed.

... in dining with the Duke of Sussex in the last year, I had been introduced to Sir R. Peel, and he had conversed with me a long time, and appeared to have heard favourably of me. On Feb. 17th [1835] he wrote to me an autograph letter offering a pension of £300 per annum, with no terms of any kind, and allowing it to be settled if I should think fit on my wife. I wrote on Feb. 18th accepting it for my wife. In a few days the matter went through the formal steps, and Mr Whewell and Mr Sheepshanks were nominated trustees for my wife. The subject came before Parliament [on 16 March], by the Whig Party vindicating their own propriety in having offered me the office of Astronomer Royal in the preceding year; and Spring Rice’s letter then written to me was published in the Times, &c.

The Ministry had been again changed in the spring [of 1835], and the Whigs were again in power. On June 11th Lord Auckland, who was again First Lord of the Admiralty (as last year), again wrote to me to offer me the office of Astronomer Royal, or to request my suggestions on the filling up of the office. On June 15th I wrote my first reply, and on June 17th wrote to accept it. On June 18th Lord Auckland acknowledges, and on June 22nd the King approved. Lord Auckland appointed to see me on Friday, June 23rd, but I was unwell. I had various correspondence with Lord Auckland, principally about buildings, and had an appointment with him for August 13th. As Lord Auckland was just quitting office, to go to India, I was introduced to Mr Charles Wood, the Secretary of the Admiralty, with whom principally the subsequent business was transacted. At this meeting Lord Auckland and Mr Wood expressed their feeling, that the Observatory had fallen into such a state of disrepute that the whole establishment ought to be cleared out. I represented that I could make it efficient with a good First Assistant; and the other Assistants were kept. But the establishment was in a queer state. The Royal Warrant under the Sign Manual was sent on August 11th. It was understood that my occupation of office would commence on October 1st, but repairs and alterations of buildings would make it impossible for me to reside at Greenwich before the end of the year. On Oct. 1st I went to the Observatory, and entered formally upon the office (though not residing for some time). Oct 7th is the date of my Official Instructions.

I had made it a condition of accepting the office that the then First Assistant should be removed, and accordingly I had the charge of seeking another. I determined to have a man who had taken a respectable Cambridge degree.’

The text of Spring Rice’s letter as recorded in Hansard was as follows. In all material respects it is identical to the original (RGO6/1/147):

Downing-street, August 25, 1834.

MY DEAR SIR.—It is highly probable that a vacancy may take place very shortly in the office of Astronomer Royal. If this event occur[s], it will be of course the duty and the object of the Government to make such a selection as shall be most conducive to the interest of science, and as shall secure to our national astronomical establishment and its observations, the greatest respect and authority throughout Europe. On these principles it is more than natural that the Government should be desirous of knowing whether the appointment is one which you would accept; as it would be most gratifying to us all to have an opportunity of marking the admiration which we feel for your eminent attainments, and the respect which is justly due to your character as an individual. As a Cambridge man, I am fully aware that to our University the loss of one of its greatest ornaments cannot but be felt as irreparable; but we ought not to be selfish, we should think of England as well as of Cambridge; and I trust there is not one of our scientific friends who will not feel that in selecting a new Astronomer Royal, it is towards you that the earliest attention of his Majesty's Government should be directed, less in justice to science, than to the credit and character of the country.

Pray let me hear from you at your earliest convenience, and believe me, &c.


To rev. Professor Airy, Cambridge.

In summary then, Airy was sounded out about the post in May 1834 and informally offered and accepted the job in August 1834. He was formally offered the post on 11 June 1835, and accepted it on 17 June. Although the news wasn’t officially announced until 11 August (the date the Warrant was issued), the news was circulating in the press by early July. The Bury and Norwich Post carried the story on 8 July:

‘Professor Airy has been appointed to the distinguished situation of Astronomer Royal, vacant by the resignation of Mr. Pond, with a salary of £800l. [£800] a year. It may safely be predicted that the office will derive as much distinction from the occupant, as the occupant from the office’

When Airy was offered the post on 11 June 1835, Pond had not actually resigned. He had merely indicated to the First Lord of the Admiralty that he was willing to do so (RGO6/1/156). It has to be supposed that by the end of the month he had formally tendered his resignation. And presumably if he wasn’t already involved in some sort of negotiation he would have known that serious efforts were afoot to replace him as far back as August 1834 when Spring Rice read out his letter in parliament. Interestingly, in a letter to Herschel dated 19 October 1834, Airy states that Pond had been asked to resign. Further research is required to find out who asked him and on what authority.

The wording of the Warrant by which Airy was appointed as Astronomer Royal harked back to Flamsteed's time. Flamsteed was appointed as ‘Our Astronomical Observator’ and so too were all the Astronomers Royal up to and including Airy. Using words that were almost identical to those used for his predecessors, the Warrant (was signed and sealed by King William IV at the Court of St James’s on the 11 August 1835) stated:

‘We being well satisfied of your learning, your industry and great skill and ability in the science of Astronomy, do by these presents, consitute and appoint you Our Astronomcial Observator in our Observatory at Greenwich during Our pleasure; requiring you forthwith to apply yourself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, in order to find out the so much desired longitude at sea for the perfecting the art of navigation; and it is our Will and Pleasure that you forthwith take possesion of our said Observatory ...’

Bizarly, although the Warrant was signed and legally came into effect on 11 August, it was understood by by both Airy and the Admiralty as the date on which he would actually take up office until 1 October. So when did Pond formally leave? We don’t actually know. We do know however that the published observations up to the end of September 1835 were published under his name. And what was the reason for Pond’s departure? Again, we don’t know. Pond died a year after leaving office. His obituarist however recorded that:

‘For several years Mr. Pond was sbject to very painful and harassing complaints. He resigned his office towards the close of 1835, when a retiring pension of 600l [£600] was granted him for life.’

At that time, there was no automatic pension that went with the job. The pension offer was a generous one and equal in size to Pond’s basic salary. Regretably, the obituarist’s statement is ambiguous. So, did Pond resign because he was made an offer of a pension that was too good to refuse, or did he resign not expecting a pension and was then pleasently suprised to receive one? This writer believes it was the former and that Pond was paid off in order to remove him from office


Burial at Lee

The 1835 reappearance of Halley's comet. Drawing by Sir John Herschel. From the January 1910 edition of The Popular Science Monthly.

As a possible omen of things to come, Pond’s resignation in 1835 coincided with the reappearance of Halley’s Comet which had last been seen in 1758. It was observed from the Observatory on various dates between 28 August and 9 November 1835 (click here to view the published observations).

Pond died a year later on Wednesday 7 September 1836 at his home in Blackheath. He was buried nearby on Tuesday 13 September at St Margaret’s Lee, in the same churchyard as his predecessors Halley and Bliss. But, as can be seen below, the burial plot was not a conventional one. Identical reports of the funeral were published in The Times and The Standard on Thursday 15 September. The first section is transcribed below:

‘On Tuesday last the remains of the late astronomer royal were deposited in the churchyard of Lee, Kent. They were attended to the grave by his successor, Professor Airy, by the three assistants of the deceased, by Mr Henry Warbuton, M.P., together with a few relatives and personal friends. Mr Pond having always expressed a desire that the place of his internment should be the beautifully-situated churchyard of Lee, application was made to the rector for his consent to carry the wish into execution, but, on account of the place being small, and already so full that room was with difficulty found for the actual parishioners, permission was not in the first instance granted. On reflection however, the Rev. Mr. Lock, recollecting that the tomb of a former astronomer royal, the celebrated Dr. Edmond Halley, who died in 1743, and was buried at Lee, had never been tenanted by a single individual except that distinguished philosopher himself, and his wife and daughter, and considering that, as 93 [23 in The Standard]years had elapsed since he was therein deposited, it was highly improbable that any claim would be made in behalf of his descendents, with very good feeling directed that the receptacle of Dr Halley’s remains should also become that of one of his successors. Thus, by an accidental and remarkable coincidence, the material part of two philosophers, who held the same appointment, who, while living, inhabited the same dwelling, now rest in the same grave. …’

Whilst some parts of the report are corroborated by Airy, others are not. In his journal (RGO6/24), on 7 September he recorded: ‘Mr Pond died at 7 this morning’ and on the 13 September: ‘Rainy. This morning I attended Mr Pond’s funeral; only Mr Main and Mr Glaisher left at home.’ Main and Glaisher were both appointed by Airy. The remaining four assistants, Belville, Richardson, Ellis Snr. and Rogerson had all been appointed by Pond and Airy implies that all four of them were in attendance. Given that Belville had been Pond’s ward, it is possible that he was included amongst the relatives rather than the assistants in the press report. There is no mention of Anne Pond. Although one might assume that this was because at that time, women often didn’t attend funerals ... there might perhaps have been another reason.

The inscription relating to Pond is on the east end of the tomb. Note the odd wording, particularly the use of the word elected. Note too, the uneven lettering, especially in the top line (particularly the two Ns) and the extra D at the end of Pondís name. Photo: April 2007

Airy appears to have recorded nothing of the funeral arrangements at the time, but when applying to the Admiralty for funding to restore the tomb in 1854, he wrote: ‘I may mention that my immediate predecessor Mr Pond was (at his own desire) interred under the same tomb.’ (RGO6/74/64)

If Airy is correct, then Pond could be regarded as some kind of Halley groupie who wanted to be as close to his hero as possible. If The Standard is correct, then perhaps he should be considered simply as a cuckoo in the nest. Either way, it seems inconceivable an individual would be buried in this way today. The press reports were incorrect in one important detail. Halley's grave was constructed to hold six coffins, Although the report above states that the tomb only held three bodies, there were in fact already five bodies in the grave, Halley and his wife, his eldest daughter Margaret and his youngest daughter Catherine and her husband. One thing was for sure, after Pond's internment, the grave was full and there was no way that Anne Pond was ever going to be buried alongside him. So what if anything does this tell us about the relationship between Pond and his wife.

The shared grave of Halley and Pond. The inscription commemorating Halley is inscribed on the horizontal slab on the top of the tomb. Photo: April 2007

The old churchyard as seen from Lee Terrace on 5 October 2017. The arrow (right) shows the location of the tomb. An information board with a plan of the graveyard can be seen bottom right

The original church of St Margaret was of medieval origin. By the start of the nineteenth century, it was in a poor state of repair. Apart from part of the tower, it was pulled down in 1813 to make way for a new building on the same site. This was designed by Joseph Gwilt and incorporated the original tower in modified form. Gwilt’s church was built on the old foundations and like its predecessor suffered from structural problems. The population of Lee grew rapidly after the church was build and it was soon apparent that a much larger church was needed. Most of Gwilt’s church was demolished on 31 May 1841 having been replaced by the present larger church which was built on the opposite side of the road and constructed between 1839–41 to the designs of John Brown.

The second Lee Church. This is how the church would have appeared at the time of Pondís funeral. The building to the left is the vicarage. From Drakeís 1886 revision of Hastedís History of Kent ... the hundred of Blackheath

Click here to read more about the churchyard and the family grave of Edmond Halley.


Last will and testament

The text below is a transcript of the last will and testament of John Pond. Apparently drawn up at the Observatory by Pond himself, the will seems to have been written in a hurry and was not technically valid on account of Henry Warbuton being both a witness and a beneficary. At probate, Henry Taylor was asked to examine the document and swear an oath that it appeared to be genuine. Although Anne Pond is not mentioned in the will, it is possible that she may have been able to claim a third of the estate under widows ‘thirds’ or ‘dower’. It is not known if this was done, nor is it known how large the estate was. When Warburton died in 1858 his estate was large, the entry in the probate register being ‘Effects under £45,000’. By contast, the probate record for Anne Pond (who died in 1871) was ‘Effects under £300’.

Royal Observatory Greenwich Park the eighth of December 1834.

This is the last will of J. Pond Astronomer Royal I give and bequeath the whole of my Property of every description whatsoever to my dearest and excellent friend Henry Warburton Esqr. member of parliament for Bridport in Dorsetshire and moreover appoint him sole Executor and administrator of this my last will. — Signed — John Pond — witness to the above signature William Rogerson (superscribed) Henry Warburton Esq M.P. Cadogan Place Sloane Street.

Appeared ~ personally the Reverend Henry Taylor of Elm Tree Road Saint John’s Wood in the County of Middlesex clerk and made oath that he knew and was well acquainted with John Pond late of Greenwich in the County of Kent Esquire deceased for several years before and down to the time of his death and with his manner and character of handwriting and subscription having frequently seen him write and also write and subscribe his name and having now with care and attention viewed and perused paper writing hereto annexed purporting to be and contain? the last Will and Testament of the said deceased the same beginning thus Royal Observatory Greenwich Pak the eighth of December 1834 This is the last will of J. Pond Astronomer Royal” ending thus “and moreover appoint him sole Executor and administrator of this my last will and thus subscribed “signed John Pond” he the appearer saith he does verily and in his conscience believe the whole body series and contents of the said will beginning ending and subscribed as aforesaid to be all the own proper handwriting and subscription of the said John Pond deceased and of no other person whatsoever — Henry Taylor — On the first day of October 1836 the said Reverend Henry Taylor Clerk was duly sworn to the truth of this affidavit Before me J Haggard sur pres Chas Tebbs Noty Pub

Proved at London 4th October 1836 before the worshipful John Haggard letter of laws and surrogate by the oath of Henry Warburton Esquire the sole executor to whom administration was granted having been first sworn duly to administer.’

Source: Will of John Pond, Astronomer Royal of Greenwich , Kent (PROB 11/1868/180)


A penison for Mrs Pond – the intervention of Henry Warburton

When John Pond died, his pension died with him. Given the provisions in his will, it would seem that Anne Pond was unprovided for and according to Airy’s autobiography ‘left in great distress’. Henry Warburton therefore wrote to a number of influental individuals to secure testimonials from them in support of an application for a pension for her. The application

‘was accompanied by testimonials from Professor Airey, Professor Peacock, Professor Challis, Professor Rigaud, the Reverend Richard Sheepshanks, and the Reverend George Fisher, Messrs. Davies Gilbert, Francis Baily, Lubbock, Barlow, Riddle, Captain Smith, Professor Bessel,  Professor Schamacher; and further documents were laid before the Treasury from Messieurs Biot and Arago.’ (Parliamentary Papers Vol 23, 1838).

The text of the letter written in support by Airy was published in his Autobiography and is reproduced below. It would have made the basis of an excellent obituary and deserves to be more widely known.

‘To Henry Warburton, Esq

The points upon which in my opinion Mr Pond’s claims to the gratitude of Astronomers are founded, are principally the following. First and chief, the accuracy which he introduced into all the principal observations. This is a thing which from its nature it is extremely difficult to estimate now, so long after the change has been made, and I can only say that so far as I can ascertain from books the change is one of very great extent: for certainty and accuracy, Astronomy is quite a different thing from what it was, and this is mainly due to Mr Pond. The most striking exemplification of this is in his laborious working out of every conceivable cause or indication of error in the Circle and the two Circles: but very great praise is also due for the new system which he introduced in working the Transit. In comparing Mr Pond’s systems of observation with Dr Maskelyne’s, no one can avoid being impressed with the inferiority of Dr Maskelyne’s. It is very important to notice that the continental observatories which have since attracted so much attention did not at that time exist or did not exist in vigour. Secondly, the attention bestowed by Mr Pond on those points (chiefly of sidereal astronomy) which he regarded as fundamental: to which such masses of observations were directed as entirely to remove the doubts from probable error of individual observations or chance circumstances which have injured many other determinations. Thirdly, the regularity of observation. The effect of all these has been that, since the commencement of Mr Pond’s residence at Greenwich, Astronomy considered as an accurate representation of the state of the heavens in the most material points has acquired a certainty and an extent which it never had before. There is no period in the history of the science so clean. On some matters (in regard to the choice of observations) I might say that my own judgment would have differed in some degree from Mr Pond’s, but one thing could have been gained only by giving up another, and upon the general accuracy no improvement could have been made. Mr Pond understood nothing of physical astronomy; but neither did anybody else, in England.

The supposed decrease of general efficiency in the last few years is to be ascribed to the following causes:

1. Mr Pond’s ill health.
2. The inefficiency of his first assistant.
3. The oppression of business connected with chronometers.

The last of these, as I have reason to think, operated very far. Business of this nature which (necessarily) is daily and peremptory will always prevail over that which is general and confidential. I will not trouble you with an account of the various ways in which the chronometer business teazed the Astronomer Royal (several alterations having been made at my representation), but shall merely remark that much of the business had no connection whatever with astronomy.

I beg to submit these remarks to your perusal, requesting you to point out to me what part of them should be laid before any of the King’s Ministers, at what time, in what shape, and to whom addressed. I am quite sure that Mrs Pond’s claims require nothing to ensure favourable consideration but the impression of such a feeling of Mr Pond’s astronomical merits as must be entertained by any reasonable astronomer; and I am most anxious to assist in conveying this impression.’

A pension of £100 a year awarded to Anne Pond on 25 February 1837. But in yet another strange twist in the saga of the Ponds, an additional £100 a year was awarded on 16 June 1837 (Parliamentary Papers Vol 39, 1837). The reason for two separate awards being given is unknown. One can only imagine that Anne Pond’s supporters felt the original settlement inadequate and perhaps intervened on her behalf for a second time. Given that only two years earlier a civil pension of £300 a year had been settled on Airy’s wife, Airy himself would have been well aware of the meanness of the original award.

See also: Corbett autograph collection (Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham) MS21/2/2/52 Henry Warburton, undated letter to Mrs Pond arranging a time for a meeting.


The unfortunate mythmaking of E walter Maunder

In 1900, E Walter Maunder (who joined the Observatory staff as an assistant in 1873) wrote what was probably the first comprehensive history of the Observatory. Published in 1900, his book The Royal Observatory Greenwich ... contains two serious errors about Pond. Prior to the book being published, no likeness of Pond had ever been published. Maunder’s mistake was to use an image of the wrong John Pond. An unfortunate consequence was that same image was then published elsewhere for the next hundred years, until the National Maritime Museum (who had been a key user of the image) realised that the the image was in all probability an image of John Pond the livery-stable keeper of Newmarket and compiler of the Racing Calendar. So as not to detract from this page, the image is not reproduced here, but it can be seen as published by Maunder here. and as originally published in 1787 here. To add insult to injury, the Maunder image appears to be a mirror image copy of the earlier one. When the book was published, one of Maunder’s former colleagues who had probably met Pond while he was a child was still alive and living locally. That individual was William Ellis, son of Pond's Assistant, Thomas Ellis, who had been born in 1828 and retired at the end of 1893.

Maunder’s second mistake was to publish the following quote out of context:

‘I want indefatigable hard-working and above all obedient drudges (for so I must call them, though they are drudges of a superior order) men who will be contented to pass half their day in using their hands and eyes in the mechanical act of observing, and the remainder of it in the dull process of calculation.’

The quote as mentioned above, came not from a ‘minute on the subject’ as stated by Maunder but was part of the text of a long letter written by Pond (RS MS371/49). ...



Some unsubstantiated statements about Pond and has Assistants

‘Thomas Taylor became an incurable alcoholic’ (1975)

‘Under Airy’s predecessor, the hard-drinking John Pond, the organization and discipline of Greenwich had seemingly sunk into disar­ray’ (1998)

‘When John Pond became Astronomer Royal one of his first acts was to appoint Thomas Taylor as First Assistant. Of course, this was a non-resident appointment. … Unfortunately, Pond had serious deficiencies as a disciplinarian and his control over the activities of his staff was lax. … Pond made a partial recovery [from his illness in 1831] and returned to work, but he was absent from the RO on more days than he was present and was harassed into retirement in 1835.’ (1999)

‘John Pond was appointed Astronomer Royal on the 13th of April 1811’ (2011?)



The first two obituaries below are indetical. The formatting of the second, makes it an easier read than the first.

Obituary of John Pond by unknown author Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 4, pp.31-37 (1837)

Obituary of John Pond by unknown author Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 10, pp.357-364

Obituary. The annual biography and Obituary (1837)


Further Reading

John Pond C. Andrew Murray. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

John Who? the sixth Astronomer Royal. Rebekah Higgitt. Royal Museums Greenwich Blog (2011)

The Royal Society of London 1800-1835: a Study in the Cultural Politics of Scientific Organisation (David Philip Miller. (PhD thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1981)

The library and archives of the Royal Society (1660-1900). Marie Boas Hall (1992)

A Place for Managing Government Chronometers’: Early Chronometer Service at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Yuto Ishibashi. The Mariner's Mirror (2013)

An Age of Expansion. Chapter 8, Greenwich Observatory, Vol 1. Eric Forbes (1975)


Image licensing information

The image of the Kitchen Garden is reproduced courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library. It has been reduced in size and are more compressed than the original and have been reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. View the original image here.