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.


Establishing a Board of Visitors

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 – and even then, it was only because of the ongoing tensions between Flamsteed (the Astronomer Royal) and the rest of the scientific community, (in particular Newton), over the publication of his observations.

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 and. In the 1850s the Hydrographer of the Navy became an ex officio member too.


Appointment term

Originally appointments to the board were effectively for life. It was only in 1937, on the accession of King George VI that that the warrant was amended and fixed term appointments (of six years) introduced. Other things being equal, this involved one member from each of the Royal and Royal Astronomical societies leaving each year, and another being appointed.


A potential conflict of interest

When the Visitors were reconstituted in 1830, Airy, as Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge joined it. It was on his recommendation that various changes to the working practice of the Observatory were made. Some five years later he became Astronomer Royal. By the 1850s, there was a serious prospect of his First Assistant being elected as President of the Royal Astronomical Society and taking his place on the Board. This was considered extremely undesirable so in 1858, the Royal Warrant was amended to preclude not only this eventuality, but also any member of staff, including the Astronomer Royal from serving. (Click here to read it). Several staff did however join the Board following their retirement. When Airy became President of the Royal Society in 1871, he had to stand aside and his place as Chairman of the Board was taken instead by the President of the Royal Astronomical Society. During the life of the Board, Airy was the only Astronomer Royal to hold the Presidency of the Royal Society.


Annual reports to the Board of Visitors

It was Airy, who introduced annual reports to the Board of Visitors – these were read at the annual vistation, which normally took place in the first week of June. The first was produced in 1836. The report for the following year established a format that remained much the same until the demise of the Visitors in 1964. The reports were published both as separate documents and as an appendix to the Greenwich Observations.

Click here to view the reports


Records of the Board

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. 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. They are an important source of information on the early history of the Observatory.

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 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 1830 to 1964 were much better organised and are held at the National Archives in Kew in two volumes: 1830–1883 (ADM190/4) and 1884–1964 (ADM190/6). There are also rough minute books (ADM190/3 and ADM190/5) and various ‘letter books’. Accompanying papers do not in general appear to have been kept.

Normally the reformed board met just once a year at the visitation. Initially no expenses were paid, but in July 1837, the Admiralty authorised a total sum of £50 a year. The minutes show that the expenses paid to each member for attending the main meeting was £5 for the years 1838 to 1900 (equivalent to two months pay for one of the Temporary Computers) and £4 for the years 1901 to 1915. As documents, the minutes of the reformed Board tend to be extraordinarily uninformative: typically recording little more than who had attended, apologies received, who had passed away (of the visitors), an update to the inventory and the expenses paid to individual visitors for attending the meetings.



From time to time, inventories of the Observatory’s instruments were compiled by or for the Board of Visitors. Although this was sometimes done on an annual basis, often it was not. Sometimes a full list was written out; on other occasions only the changes from the previous list were noted.

Click here to read more about the inventories


Dereliction of duty

As the new Astronomer Royal in 1835, Airy was well aware of the difficulties that his predecessor Pond had run into to with the Visitors, and took it upon himself to cultivate a relationship with the Board that was as far as possible harmonious despite professional disagreements and jealousies that were to arise from time to time. By the 1880s, the Board were a pretty docile lot. At this point, not only had many members served for a considerable time, there was also considerable interest from them in the new astronomy of astrophysics. As the Observatory expanded under Christie, the Visitors failed to see the bigger picture and exercise their collective responsibilities to the long term detriment of the Observatory. They neither questioned the wisdom of accumulating a series of large telescopes at Greenwich, where viewing conditions were known to be poor and deteriorating. Nor seemingly were they aware of the London County Council plans to build a power station less than half a mile from the Observatory and on the line of the Meridian. Construction began in 1902 but its potential for disrupting the work of the Observatory was not taken on board until 1906, by which time, the best that could be achieved was some degree of modification to the yet to be completed structure to mitigate some of the worst effects.


Stifling and burying dissent

It is difficult to know just how the business of the Board of Visitors was conducted as neither the minutes nor the rough minutes of their meetings contain either an agenda or records of any discussions. The ‘letter books’ occasionally give more of an insight, the one covering the period 1900–1915 (ADM190/16) contains material relating to two otherwise undocumented incidents that occurred in the early 1910s.

The first involved the censoring of the contents of the Reports of the Astronomers Royal by the Admiralty prior to their publication. In 1908 Christie had raised with the Admiralty the subject of the job titles and pay scales of his established computers. The lack of progress on the matter clearly vexed Christie, who made mention of the subject in his final reports as Astronomer Royal in 1909 and 1910. When the Admiralty republished the reports as parliamentary papers (a practice that had recommenced in 1897 (ADM90/6), they removed all references to the matter, but without acknowledging the fact that they had done so. Christie took the matter of censorship up with the Admiralty, who subsequently wrote to Dyson, as the new Astronomer Royal, explaining that it was not their intention to ‘restrict the freedom of the Astronomer Royal in making recommendations to the Visitors…’, going on to say that ‘From the point of view of general administration, their lordships consider, however, that it is desirable that proposals as to staff and official organisations should not be included in the general report to the Visitors, but in a separate report which the Astronomer Royal would be equally at liberty to place before the Visitors for their consideration before submitting it to the Admiralty.’ The letter then went on to say ‘If for any particular reason it should be necessary for the Astronomer Royal to refer to a question of that nature in the general report, it must rest with their Lordships to decide whether or not it is suitable for presentation to Parliament with the rest of the report in the form of a Parliamentary paper.’

The second incident was a fundamental difference of views that developed between Dyson and Turner. Turner had been Chief Assistant at Greenwich from 1884–1894, after which he held the post of Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and with it, a position on the Royal Observatory’s Board of Visitors. The disagreement centred on the duties vested in the Visitors under the Warrant by which they were appointed, in which they were both authorised and required ‘from time to time to order and direct Our said Astronomer and Keeper of Our said Royal Observatory to make such Astronomical Observations and Calculations as you in your judgement shall think proper.’ At the 1912 visition, Turner proposed that the Visitors ask the Astronomer Royal to conduct a series of experiments on the possibility of adopting photographic methods in meridian work in place of visual methods. Needless to say, there is no record of this in the minutes.

Dyson was not happy with what Turner had said and wrote to him stating ‘I did not think it your province to say what should be done and what should not be done at Greenwich.’ When Turner replied quoting the terms of the Royal Warrant, Dyson declined to retract his statement. In light of this, Turner wrote a long letter to the Chairman of the Board explaining not only the difference in view on the role of the Visitors but also the reasons why, in his view, photographic methods should be trialled at Greenwich. With the permission of the Chairman, the letter (which ran to 17 printed pages) was circulated for discussion at the 1913 visitation. It ended with a proposed resolution for the Visitors to vote on. Exactly what happened at the meeting is anybody’s guess. The minutes contain no record of any discussion nor any mention of Turner’s proposed resolution being voted on.


The abolition of the Board and the establishment of the Royal Greenwich Observatory Advisory Committee

The 1964 visitation and associated meeting took place at Herstmonceux on 5 and 6 June.  At this point, although it seemed likely that control of the Observatory would pass to a new body – the proposed Science Research Council – the decision of the Minister for Science was by no means a certainty. Whatever the outcome, the Board were confident that they would continue to have a role to play and duly set the date for the 1965 meeting as the second Saturday in June. In the event, they never met again. The Science Research Council took control on 1 April 1965 and the Board of Visitors effectively abolished. As an act of appeasement the rather toothless ‘Royal Greenwich Observatory Advisory Committee’, was established. Like the Board it replaced it was made up of nominees from the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society. The Board of Visitors was formally dissolved by Royal Warrant on 27 August 1965.


Names of individuals who served on the Board of Visitors

List of those who served on the Board of Visitors 1831-1964
Chairmen of the Board of Visitors, 1710–1964


Further reading

The Greenwich Visitation Dinners. The Observatory, Vol. 27, pp. 247–248 (1904)

The Board of Visitors of the Royal Observatory – I: 1710-1830. Laurie, P. S.  Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 7, p.169

The Board of Visitors of the Royal Observatory – II: 1830-1965.  Laurie, P. S. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 8, p.334

The Royal Society, The Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Astronomer Royal,  Sir Bernard Lovell, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 48 (2) p283 (1994)