In histories of the Royal Observatory, the term Royal Warrant is most familiar in the context of the Observatory’s founding. But many related warrants were issued over the years. The warrants can be broadly categorised into six groups:
1. The three founding warrants (those authorising the building of the Observatory, the payment of
Flamsteed’s salary and establishing a Board of Visitors for the first time)
2. The warrants constituting, reconstituting, empowering (and ultimately dissolving) the Board of Visitors
3. The warrants dealing with the enclosure of land from Greenwich Park together with the subsequent
transfer of those holdings after the astronomers departed to Herstmonceux.
4. The warrants dealing with the appointment and pay of the Astronomers Royal
5. The warrants dealing with the Regulation of the Observatory
6. The warrants dealing with increases in the Assistant’s pay.
Also listed here are instances where Royal consent was given, but without the use of a warrant.
Given their importance in setting a legal framework for the Observatory, the warrants as a whole suffer from a number of defects. This is particularly true of those concerning the land in Greenwich Park and the Board of Visitors. More about this later.
One of the downsides of issuing warrants was that some required renewing on the accession of each new monarch. A collective failure of the corporate memory meant that this was sometimes overlooked.
There has been no long-term systematic archiving of the warrants. Many of the original documents can’t be traced, nor in a few cases can any copies. Where copies do exist, these are often at variance because of altered spellings and punctuation, the occasional word reversal or even the omission of a whole sentence.
Where originals or copies have been identified in the Royal Greenwich Observatory archives at Cambridge (RGO), the National Archives at Kew (WORK, ADM & HO), the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre (WSHC) or the Royal Society archives (RS), a catalogue reference is given below. Other files categories at the National Archives to which reference is made are: SP, PREM, T and ED
The compilation of a complete list of warrants is complicated by inconsistencies in why and when they were issued, a considerable lack of detail in some archive catalogues and the sometimes erroneous use of the term Royal Warrant in the past. As such, the compilations below may or may not be exhaustive.
The Royal Observatory dates its foundation from two warrants issued under the name of Charles II. The first, issued on 4 March 1675 set out the arrangements for the payment of John Flamsteed who had been appointed as ‘astronomical observator’. The second issued a few months later on 22 June authorised the construction of ‘a small observatory within our royal park at Greenwich’. The Board of Visitors was set up by Royal Warrant to oversee the work of the Observatory on 12 December 1710.
The appointment of Visitors to the Observatory was instigated by the president of the Royal Society, Sir Isaac Newton, who had been arguing with Flamsteed about the publication of his observations.Although usually referred to as the Board of Visitors, the use of the term ‘Board’ only in fact came into use in the 1830s. The Board was set up by a Royal Warrant issued by Queen Anne on 12 December 1710. But for the Visitors to remain legally constituted, a new warrant was required on the accession of each new monarch. This was overlooked not only when Queen Anne died in 1714, but twice more on the subsequent deaths of King George I and King George II. The omission only came to light in 1764 as the result of a legal argument surrounding the ownership of Bradley’s observations. On 8 December 1764, the Visitors petitioned George III to both issue a new warrant and to establish a set of regulations for the Astronomical Observator at Greenwich. A new warrant reconstituting the Visitors was issued on 22 February 1765. Its wording was virtually identical to that of the earlier 1710 warrant. The warrant was subsequently renewed on the accession of each new monarch up to and including Elizabeth II. The main changes each time are noted below. If the issuing of the warrants of 1765 and 1953 are anything to go by though, it would seem that it fell to the Royal Society not only to get the Board set up to start with, but also to get the warrants renewed on a regular basis.
The warrants are listed in chronological order below. Until 1830, each was addressed to the President of the Royal Society, who was sent the original signed copy bearing the Royal seal. The originals are all preserved in MS/371 and MS372 at the Royal Society. From the 1830s onwards although the warrants were addressed collectively to the President of the Royal Society, the President of the Astronomical Society (RAS), and the other persons hereby appointed Visitors, they are believed still to have been sent to the President of the Royal Society as the chairman of the Board. Although a letter in RGO 7/13 confirms that this was certainly the case with the 1901 warrant, none of the original post 1830 warrants have been located. From 1858 onwards, copies of the warrants were available in printed form. The print run for the 1953 warrant was 125 copies (ADM 1/24760).
|1710 Dec 12||Warrant setting up the Board of Visitors. Original warrant & 2 manuscript copies in RS MS/372: manuscript copies also in RS DM/5/46, & RGO 60/21 and in the Newton Papers Collection at Cambridge MS ADD.4006/29 (reproduced above). Many of the transcripts that have since appeared in print are incomplete, the sentence ‘And for so doing this shall be your warrant.’ having been omitted. They appear all to derive from the version given in Baily’s Flamsteed pp.90–91 which was published in 1835. Here are Links to two other transcripts. A History of the Royal Society p.400–402 & an article by Laurie.|
|1765, Feb 22||Renewal on accession of George III. (Original warrant in RS MS/372: manuscript copies in RS MS/371, RGO6/21/75 & WSHC1390/3. Also reproduced in A History of the Royal Society pp.29–30.|
|1811 May 24||Renewal on accession of Prince Regent (on behalf of George III). This warrant starts with the same text as the earlier warrants, but goes on to include additional duties to be placed on the Visitors. Original warrant in RS MS/372.|
|1820 May 19||Renewal on accession of George IV. The text of this warrant reverts to more or less that of the 1710 warrant except that by this point in time, the Admiralty rather than the Ordnance was responsible for carrying our repairs etc. Original warrant in RS MS/371: reproduced in A History of the Royal Society pp.293–294.|
|1830 Sep 9||Reconstitution of the board of Visitors on accession of William IV to include fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society. Original warrant & manuscript copy in RS MS/371: manuscript copies in RGO6/8 & RGO55/5. Reproduced (minus date) in the January 1831 edition of the Philosophical Magazine pp.27–29.|
|1838 Jan 27||Renewal on accession of Queen Victoria (RGO 6/8). Although like the previous warrant, the visitors at the time the warrant was issued were identified by name; they were not identified with any particular society. As a result, when in 1841, one of their number died (Olinthus Gregory) it was not clear which of the two societies the new member should come from. Correspondence took place and it was considered for a while that a new warrant would be necessary. However by matching names with the earlier warrant of 1830, it was deemed that Gregory was an RAS nomination and that no further warrant would be required at that time (ADM190/4). Manuscript copies in RGO6/8 & ADM190/4/141–148.|
|1858 Jun 5||Amended warrant primarily to exclude existing members of Observatory staff from serving on the Board and to include the Hydrographer of the Navy as a member. It also no longer allowed former presidents of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical society from being automatic members of the Board. The text was drafted by Airy on 19 & 20 January 1857 (RGO6/25/140).Copies in: RGO7/13, RGO55/5 & ADM190/6.|
|1901 May 23||Renewal on accession of Edward VII. Copies in: RGO7/2, RGO7/13 & RGO55/5.|
|1910 Jun 11||Renewal on accession of George V. Copies in RGO7/13 & RGO55/5.|
|1936 Apr 1||Renewal on accession of Edward VIII. Copy in RGO55/5.|
|1937 May 1||Renewal on accession of George VI. Introduction of fixed terms. Copy in ADM1/24760.|
|1953 Nov 20||Renewal on accession of Elizabeth II. Includes, new name of ‘Royal Greenwich Observatory’, and substitution of the Professor of Astrophysics at Cambridge for the Plumian Professor. Copies in: RGO55/5, RGO9/10 & ADM1/24760.|
|1964 Mar 24||Warrant transferring functions of First Lord of the Admiralty (including responsibility for the Board of Visitors) to the Secretary of State for Defence (a political post which first came into being on 1 April 1964). Neither the Observatory nor the Board of Visitors is specifically mentioned by name in the main document, but they do appear in the attached schedule.(Photocopy of original with the Royal signature in RGO55/5.|
|1965 Aug 27||Dissolution of the Board. Reproduced in an article by Laurie in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society.|
Text of warrant setting up the Board of Visitors (1710)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1765)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1811)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1820)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1830)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1838)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1858)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1901)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1910)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1936)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1937)
Text of warrant reconstituting the Visitors (1953)
Text of warrant transferring responsibility for oversight of the Board of Visitors (1964)
Text of the warrant dissolving the Board (1965)
No new warrant reconsituting the Visitors was issued when the Observatory moved to Herstmonceux in 1948. But it probably should have been. The 1953 warrant revoked the 1937 warrant, which had appointed ‘Persons therein named and described, to be regular Visitors of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich’ and appointed instead ‘Visitors of Our Royal Greenwich Observatory’. The question therefore arises as to under what powers the Visitors were acting on the each of the three sites (Greenwich, Abinger and Herstmonceux) between 1948 and 1953. The phrase ‘Royal Observatory at Greenwich’, had also been used in all the earlier warrants, which again raises questions. The Abinger site which was acquired in the 1920s, was never specifically mentioned in any of the warrants, nor was the Time Ball at Deal for which the Observatory had responsiblity between 1864 and 1927. Nor come to that were the sites in Bristol, Bath and Bradford on Avon to which sections of the Observatory were evacuated at the outbreak of the Second World War. However, documents in RGO9/10 and ADM190/6 show that consideration was given to amending the 1953 warrant when the Astronomer Royal and Visitors assumed responsibility for the Cape Observatory in 1959. Interestingly though, the matter was not considered when the Magnetic Observatory moved from Abinger to Hartland just a few years earlier in 1957.
During the working Observatory’s time at Greenwich, additional land was enclosed from Greenwich Park on a total of 12 occasions. One or two of these were temporary, but most were permanent. The earlier enclosures were authorised through the offices of the King’s Surveyor of Woods until 1810, and then though those of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. After the passing of the Crowns Land Act 1851, the enclosures were authorised by Royal Warrant except in two instances. Following the working Observatory’s departure to Herstmonceux, two further warrants were issued: the first allocating part of the site to the National Maritime Museum and the second, adjusting and clarifying those boundaries.
The warrants are listed in chronological order below:
|1675 Jun 22||The founding warrant for the observatory, authorising its building and the enclosure of land from Greenwich Park. (A copy of the warrant (in Flamsteed’s hand) is preserved in the Royal Greenwich Observatory archives (RGO 1/40 f61). The text of the warrant was published in 1835 in Baily’s Account of the Revd John Flamsteed and also in 1848 in A History of The Royal Society.)|
|1868 Dec 8||Authorising enclosure and extension of the main site (the South Ground). Copy in WORK16/1823.|
|1897 Oct 23||Authorising Christie Enclosure. Copy in WORK16/139.|
|1907 Nov 2
||Authorising a further extension of the main site (for the building of the Lower Store adjacent to the South Building (now a public lavatory)). Copy in WORK16/139.|
|1953 Jul 13||Allocation of part of the Greenwich site to the National Maritime Museum, with the remainder reverting to the Park. Copies in TS59/190 & WORK17/782.|
|2004 Mar 23||Adjustment and clarification of the boundary of that part of the Observatory site in the care of the National Maritime Museum. Original Warrant held by the Estates Department of the National Maritime Museum.|
Click here for a list of all the enclosures (both permanent and temporary) from Greenwich Park.
Of the two post 1850 transfers made without the use of a Royal Warrant, the second was the 1911 enclosure where an agreement was reached for the strip of land immediately to the west of Flamsteed House to be fenced off, with ownership being retained by the Park.
The first occurred in 1897 and is rather more interesting as it throws into doubt the legal necessity for any of the post 1850 warrants. It involved a boundary alteration to accommodate small encroachments that were about to occur at the corners of the east and west wings of the New Physical Building (South Building) which was then under construction. The circumstances surrounding this enclosure (which was quite unrelated to the enclosure of the piece of ground for which a warrant was issued on 23 October of the same year), is detailed in WORK16/139.
Quite how or why the building came to be positioned so that it protruded marginally beyond the Observatory’s boundaries is unclear. But it was put to the Treasury Solicitors that ‘In a matter like this which affects two departments of the Government and involves only a slight encroachment’ that the contract for the building works should be allowed to proceed. The Treasury Solicitors subsequently wrote to the First Commissioner of Works (in whose jurisdiction the Park fell) on 17 December 1897, authorising him to settle a new line for the boundary with the Admiralty. And so began a curious state of affairs in which an alternate pattern of a transfer with a warrant followed by a transfer without a warrant seems to have become the norm. This pattern has been repeated on two occasions to date.
In the late 1940s, the astronomers began their move to Herstmonceux and on 13 July 1953, a Royal Warrant was issued detailing which parts of the Greenwich site would be occupied and operated by the National Maritime Museum, and which would be reabsorbed into the Park. The warrant revoked all four of the earlier warrants, but made no specific reference to the land that had been transferred via the King’s Surveyor of Woods or the Commissioner of Woods and Forests.
When in 1957, it was proposed to take the old stables into the Museum’s care as a home for its new boilers, a draft to amend the 1953 warrant was drawn up. In the end, the boiler scheme was dropped and no amended warrant was issued (WORK17/446).
However, major alterations to the boundaries of that part of the site in the care of the National Maritime Museum did occur in the succeeding years. The advice from the Treasury Solicitors was consistently that no further warrant was required to formalise the situation. One such instance when the question was raised was in 1978/9 when security issues relating to fencing and the possible erection of a security building for bag searches were under consideration (WORK17/782). When however plans were made in the early 2000s to build a new and expensive Planetarium on part of the site that was being occupied, but had not been formally transferred in the 1953 warrant, such were the concerns in some quarters as to the legality of the transfers that had occurred since 1953, that a new Royal Warrant dated 23 March 2004 was issued to bring clarity to the situation. It revoked the 1953 warrant and detailed (on an annexed map) the lands that were to be used by the National Maritime Museum. Several small adjustments to the boundary were made soon after to accommodate amongst other things a new transformer house for the Observatory and Park Café. Ironically, given the earlier angsting, these were made without resorting to the formality of yet another new Royal Warrant.
Although Flamsteed is regarded as the first Astronomer Royal, he was not appointed as such. He was appointed instead as ‘Our Astronomical Observator’. The popular conception is that Flamsteed was appointed by the Royal Warrant of 4 March 1675. He was not. By the time the warrant was issued, he had already been appointed and the warrant simply set out the terms under which his salary was to be paid. Each of the subsequent warrants differed in that they both appointed his successors and spelt out their salary arrangements. Flamsteed was paid £100 a year as were each of his successors up to and including Maskelyne. From 1752, Bradley was also paid a pension of £250 a year. A pension of the same amount was also paid to Bliss, Maskelyne and Pond, payments finally coming to an end in 1831.
Although the use of the title Astronomer Royal was commonplace by the mid eighteenth century, the wording used in the warrants appointing all the successive Astronomers Royal up to and including Airy remained ‘Our Astronomical Observator’. Likewise, their duties remained the application of themselves 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, so as to find out the so much-desired longitude of places for the perfecting the art of navigation. The last such warrant to be issued was to Airy in 1838 when his appointment was reaffirmed on the accession of Queen Victoria. By contrast, the duties of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, (a post created in 1834 and also appointed by Royal Warrant), were ‘… to apply himself with diligence and zeal … for the extension and improvement of Astronomy, Geography and Navigation and other branches of Science connected therewith’. These words were used in all the Warrants up to and including the appointment of Brück in 1957.
No warrant was issued on Christie’s appointment in 1881, apparently as a result of a decision to save on stamp duty (RGO 7/2). Despite the fact that the Observatory regulations of 1853 and 1874 both quite clearly state that: ‘The Astronomer Royal is appointed by the First Lord of the Treasury, and holds his warrant of office under the Royal Sign Manuel’, Christie failed to notice that a warrant had not been issued. The matter only came to light on the death of Queen Victoria when the warrant for the board of Visitors was being renewed. What appears to have happened is that the Admiralty received a Treasury Minute in August 1881 appointing Christie as Astronomer Royal and requesting that their lordships would cause the necessary steps to be taken for carrying out this arrangement. The Admiralty wrote to Christie on 13 August informing of his appointment, but failed to get a warrant drawn up for the reason stated above.
Although Flamsteed served under five successive monarchs and Halley and Bradley under two each, there is no indication that anything other than an initial warrant was issued confirming their appointment. Airy appears to be the only Astronomer Royal to have had his appointment reaffirmed on the accession of a new monarch. Given Airy’s character, he is likely to have been the driving force behind this as he would have wanted complete clarity regarding his own position (he would almost certainly have been aware at this point of earlier failures to renew the warrants for the Board of Visitors and the potential legal problems that resulted). Indeed, the text of the original warrant which has been signed by Victoria and bears the official seal appears to have been written out by Airy himself. No further amendments to the warrant appear to have been made on either of the two occasions that his salary was later increased.
The next three Astronomers Royal to be appointed after Christie (Dyson, Spencer Jones and Woolley) were all informed of their appointment by letter from the Admiralty, (but only after Royal approval and the issuing of a Treasury Minute) as Christie himself had been (HO342/203). Those who succeeded Woolley (i.e. those who no longer had any responsibility for the Observatory) were granted ‘the Office and Place of Astronomer Royal’ by Letters Patent (HO342/203). Click here for the announcement of the Office being granted to Ryle in 1972. Click here for the announcement of the Office being granted to Rees in 1995.
According to the PRO archives (PREM5/84), the process by which Spencer Jones was appointed was as follows. The secretary of the Admiralty consulted the retiring Astronomer Royal and Hydrographer obtaining from them, the names of Eddington and Spencer Jones. The First Lord wrote to the President of the Royal Society mentioning these two names, The President asked if he could consult with council which was agreed. After the President had consulted he informed the First Lord that it was generally agreed that the post should be first offered to Eddington and failing his acceptance to Spencer Jones. The First Lord then wrote to the Prime Minister to say that he thought the choice would naturally fall on Eddington and that the next best choice would be Spencer Jones. The first Lord added that in accordance with custom, the President of the Royal Society had been consulted and that his opinion together with that of his colleagues was in accordance with the views which he (the First Lord) had expressed. The Prime Minister replied expressing agreement with the First Lord’s proposals. The First Lord wrote to Eddington to offer him the post, and then when he declined, wrote to Spencer Jones who accepted. The first Lord informed the Prime Minister in a letter which concluded: ‘I presume you will now submit Dr. Spencer Jones’s name to the King’. The Prime Minister submitted to the King the name of Spencer Jones and obtained his approval. A Board letter of appointment was then sent to Spencer Jones and an announcement issued in the press.
With the exception of the warrant for the payment of Flamsteed’s salary which was sent to the Master of the Ordnance, the remaining warrants were all addressed to and either collected by or sent to the post holders who presumably regarded them as their personal property. As such, both originals and copies are scarce. The only originals to have been located are the two issued to Airy which are held at Cambridge, (though it is possible that the copy of the warrant appointing Maskelyne held in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre may also be the original). In the case of Bliss and Pond, there are no copies catalogued in the RGO archive and there does not appear to be any evidence that they exist in any other archive either.
|1675 Mar 4||Warrant for the payment of Flamsteed’s salary. A contemporary copy of this warrant (in Flamsteed’s hand) is preserved in the Royal Greenwich Observatory archives (RGO1/40/60). A second contemporary copy exists at the National Archives (SP44/44/10). A copy (of Flamsteed’s copy?) was made for Maskelyne and is filed in RGO4/302. The text of the warrant was published (for the first time?) in 1835 in Baily’s Account of the Revd John Flamsteed.
|1720 Feb 9||Appointment of Edmond Halley. A manuscript copy of the warrant was made for Maskelyne and is preserved in RGO4/302.|
|1742 Feb 4||Appointment of James Bradley. A manuscript copy of the warrant was made for Maskelyne and is preserved in RGO4/302.|
|1752 Feb 6||A warrant for the preparation of a bill for the Royal Signature for the payment of an annuity or yearly pension of £250 to Bradley. The Privy Seal bears the date of 15 Feb 1752. A copy of the warrant was made for Maskelyne and is preserved in RGO4/302.|
|1762 Aug 11?||Appointment of Nathanial Bliss. No copy of this Warrant has been located, so the exact date of Bliss’s appointment is uncertain. However, a document in RGO 4/302 refers to a warrant similar to the one dated 6 Feb 1752 (above), but dated 11 Aug 1752 relating to a pension being payable to Bliss from 13 July 1762 (the day Bradley died), suggesting that this may have been the date on which Bliss was appointed. Howse (Nevil Maskelyne, Cambridge, 1989 p.42) states (without references) that Bradley died on 17 July and that Bliss succeeded him on 12 August.|
|1765 Feb 8||Appointment of Nevil Maskelyne. Copies of this warrant are held in WSHC1390/3 at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre (the original?) and in RGO4/302. A transcript of this warrant was published in Howse’s Nevil Maskelyne, (Cambridge, 1989) p.58.|
|1811 Feb 18?||Appointment of John Pond by the Prince Regent. No copy of this warrant has been located. The Navy Estimates for 1812 imply the date of appointment was 18 February 1811 (nine days after Maskelyne had died).
|1835 Aug 11||Appointment of George Airy by William IV at a salary of £800. The original warrant is preserved in RGO 6/1 and a manuscript copy in RGO7/2.|
|1837 Nov 15
||Reaffirmation of Airy’s appointment and salary on accession of Queen Victoria. The original warrant is preserved in RGO6/1.|
On 8 December 1764, the Visitors petitioned George III to sign a warrant to establish a set of regulations for the Astronomical Observator at Greenwich. A warrant to this effect was signed on 16 March 1765. The warrant was renewed (with the regulations unchanged) by George IV on 19 May 1820. The original copies of the warrants were sent to the Astronomical Observator (Maskelyne and Pond respectively). It is not known if a warrant was issued to Pond when he took up the post in 1811. Airy received instructions on the Regulation of the Observatory in 1835 (RGO 6/1) and later updated them in 1852.
|1765 Mar 16||Warrant entitled Regulations for the Astronomical Observator at Greenwich. Copies in: RS MS/371, RS MS/372, RGO 6/21 p81 & WSHC 1390/3.|
|1820 May 19
||Warrant entitled Regulations for the Astronomical Observator at Greenwich. Copy in RS MS/371|
|1771 Jul 5||Warrant increasing salary of Assistant (Referred to by Howse, in Nevil Maskelyne, (Cambridge, 1989) p.118 & foot note 10, but Howse does not state where any copies are located.
|1810 May 1
||Royal Warrant increasing salary of Assistant. Copy in WSHC1390/3.|
There is an indication that Royal Warrants may have been used in the earlier part of the eighteenth century to order payments to be made for various purposes. This is difficult to confirm as no actual copies of any such warrants have been located. These possible warrants are listed in chronological order below.
|1749||£1000 for new instruments. There is a reference to a warrant having been issued in the 1812 edition of the General Biographical Dictionary.|
|1767 Jun 18||Warrant authorising printing and Instructing the Board of Ordnance to meet the cost provided it did not exceed £60 a year. Some confusion here as to the exact date. Although Laurie claims a Royal Warrant was issued, Nevil Maskelyne, (Cambridge, 1989) makes no such claim. A contemporary letter relating to their printing was published in A History of The Royal Society in 1848.|
Note: The list is unlikely to be exhaustive.
It is not known if Royal consent was either sought or obtained for: