Pay – Background Information

The subject of pay at the Observatory becomes increasingly complex from the nineteenth century onwards. Although there is information in the various archives about the amounts individuals were paid on certain specific dates, information about the overarching pay structures, pay ranges and dates when they were introduced are less well documented – particularly in the twentieth century. When it has been possible to work out the date ranges over which the various pay scales apply, they have been given, when not, spot values are given instead. Restructuring of the pay scales took place in 1871, 1896, 1912, the mid 1930s and 1946.  References to relevant archive files are given in brackets: RGO (Royal Greenwich Observatory Archive at Cambridge); ADM, WORK and T (former Admiralty and Treasury files at the Public Record Office Kew), MS (Royal Society).

This page should be read in conjunction with the pages pages listed below:

Pay of the Astronomers Royal & Directors, 1675-1998
Pay 1675-1811
Pay 1811-1835
Pay 1836-1871
Pay 1871-1945
Pay 1946-1998


Superannuation and pensions

It was not until the nineteenth century that retirement pensions in the modern sense were provided for civil servants. Prior to 1800, pensions were usually granted to civil servants by the monarch under a form of Royal Patronage. They were often given well before the onset of old age and probably in recognition of some particular service rendered by the individual as in the case of Bradley, Bliss and Maskelyne. Most public servants continued in office until they died. Pensions for widows and children were known but very rare. At the Royal Observatory, the first Astronomer Royal to retire rather than die in post was John Pond. He retired in 1835 and died the following year. Following the intervention of Airy, his widow was paid a pension of £100 a year.

The first Act of Parliament to be concerned with the general provision of public service pensions was passed in 1810. This was followed by the Superannuation Act of 1834. Over the years, there have been further superannuation acts, each of which has made adjustments to the rules of the scheme.

The superannuation acts only applied to established members of staff. This included the Astronomer Royal and the Assistants, but excluded the temporary computers. Also excluded until 1920 were the so called industrial staff (the foreman of works, mechanic, boy mechanic, joiners and labourers). In that year, two established posts were created – one for the foreman of works, and the other for the leading joiner.  On establishment, previous unestablished years of service was allowed to be counted, but at only half the rate. When the scheme started in 1834, those who had been employed since 4 August 1829 were required to pay a levy of 5% of their salary. From 1857 until 1949 when the first widows pensions were introduced, the scheme remained non contributory.  A levy of 1.5% of salary was payable for a spouse’s or partner’s pension at the time of the Observatory’s closure in 1998. (RGO6/72 f8).

For a pension to be payable, a period of service of ten years or more in the civil service was required – a requirement that was still  in place in the 1960s and only later reduced. The amount paid depended on the individual’s total length of countable service and salary, for which emoluments that were not of a permanent character were excluded.

Following the transfer of the Observatory from the Admiralty to the Science Research Council in 1965, new employees were eligible to join either the Council’s own scheme (which had the same conditions as the civil service scheme) or The Federated Superannuation System for Universities (FSSU) originally set up in 1913.


State pensions

The first state pensions were introduced in 1908, under the Old Age Pensions Act. They were payable at a rate of one to five shillings a week (seven shillings and six pence for married couples) to those aged 70 and over, and were subject to a means test and a ‘moral character’ test. The contribution principle started in 1925 and from 1928 pensions were payable from aged 65 for men. The 1946 National Insurance Act introduced contributory State pensions for all. Initially pensions were £1.30 a week for a single person and £2.10 for a married couple. Paid from age 65 for men and 60 for women, the act became effective from 1948.


Income tax

Income tax was first introduced in 1799, as a means of paying for the war against the French forces under Napoleon. Click here to read more about its history from the HMRC website. In 1842, no income tax was payable on salaries of less than £150.


Window and other taxes 

Window tax was introduced in 1696 and repealed in 1851. Who paid it over the years on behalf of the Observatory has not been properly investigated, but an undated memorandum in the Royal Society archives (MS/371/13) written from Maskelyne to the Visitors implies that the charge originally fell on the Astronomer Royal. Maskelyne states that the tax on the Observatory’s 59 windows together with the ‘house-tax’ came to £14 and asks if he might be eased of the payment by the Board of Ordnance. The matter was considered by the Board of Visitors at their visitation in July 1785. They agreed that the request was reasonable and recommended to the Ordnance that he should be relieved of the payment (RGO6/22/11). In later years, the tax appears to have been paid by the authorities rather than the Astronomer Royal. The navy estimates for 1831 for example include an amount of £1,772.1s.6d for ‘Taxes, Parochial Rates, House rent [for the assistants], Repairs and other contingencies’.

The Astronomers Royal: Bradley, Bliss, Maskelyne and Pond were paid partly in the form of a crown pension or annuity. This was subject to taxation at source. At the time of Maskelyne’s death in 1811, the sum withheld from his pension of £250 amounted to £42.10s. a year. When Pond was appointed as Maskelyne’s successor, he was paid an additional £42.10s. a year amount to compensate. His salary before other deductions was £600 a year.

Flamsteed had the sum of £10 deducted from his salary £100 which he tried without success to get the Board of Ordinance to remove. Writing in the preface to the first volume of Bradley’s Observations, Hornsby implies  the same amount was also deducted from Bradley.


Unrecoverable expenses

Until the nineteenth century, some of the running costs of the observatory fell not to the state, but to the Astronomer Royal who funded them from his own pocket. The most well known examples are in the early years of the Observatory when John Flamsteed had to provide his own pens, paper and ink as well as many of the Observatory’s instruments, and later when Maskelyne topped up the Assistant’s salary from his own pocket.



Rather than increase base salary, bonuses became payable to compensate for inflation during and after the First World War. Most individuals at the Observatory were paid the Civil Service War Bonus, but some were paid the Industrial bonus. The bonus rate depended on salary, and was restricted to those on lower incomes. By 1919, the war bonus had more than doubled the pay of the lowest paid staff. Bonuses were also paid during and after the Second World War.


Board of Longitude payments (1760s –1828)

From the 1760s until at least the time of Maskelyne’s death in 1811, the assistants received small payments from the Board of Longitude for winding up, comparing and computing the rates of chronometers under test at the Observatory. Some individuals such as Thomas Taylor also received money for other computations. As well as payments to the assistants, allowances were also payable to the Astronomer Royal by virtue of his position (see below).


Housing allowances (1822–1871)

The most valuable allowance available to the assistants was that paid for housing. Payments began in 1822 and continued until 1871 when the allowance was subsumed into new pay scales. They were paid to the astronomical assistants, but not the magnetic ones. Prior to 1822, the assistants had lived in at the Observatory. Records for 1852, show that in that year the first Assistant (Main) was living at what is now 9 Park Vista. The second assistant (Belville) was living at what is now at 19 Hyde Vale. The seventh assistant, Hugh Breen (junior) lived in Upper George Street (now the west end of King George Street). The houses of the other four assistants receiving the allowance no longer survive. The Fourth Assistant Rogerson lived at 19 George Street (now the eastern end of King George Street). The fifth (Glaisher), was paid extra as Superintendent of the Magnetic and Meteorological Department and lived the furthest from the Observatory at 13 Dartmouth Terrace at the Bottom of Lewisham Hill. The third and sixth (Ellis and Dunkin) lived within a few yards of each other and the computer John William Breen (who was Hugh’s brother and received no allowance) in Cottage Place – a road now known as Dutton Street. Ellis lived at number 6 (and died that May).  Dunkin live on the same side of the road at number 14, and Breen on the opposite side at number 19.


Fuel allowances (early nineteenth century)

A separate allowance for coals and candles was paid during Pond’s time in office. In 1835, Pond’s own allowance was £200, but from this, he was also expected to service the working part of the Observatory as well as his living quarters. From 1835, the Astronomer Royal’s allowance was subsumed into his salary and that of the assistants (which had been payable from 1822) into their housing allowance.


Observing allowances for Computers (1842 onwards)

The (unestablished) Computers who took part in observing, were able to increase their salaries by obtaining certificates of competence for the various instruments. An additional allowance was paid for observing duties. The first time a computer is recorded is recorded in Greenwich Observations as taking part in occasional observing duties is in 1842.


Night Observing Allowances (1920 onwards)

A night observing allowance was introduced for the more junior of the established staff in 1920. The range of staff eligible for this allowance was later widened to include the more senior staff up to and including the Astronomer Royal.


Travel and lodging allowances (1948 onwards)

At Herstmonceux, two other allowances were payable to the lower paid staff, by virtue of its isolated position. These were a travel allowance for those who lived more than 3 miles from the castle and a special lodging allowance to those ‘living away from home’.


Allowances payable to the Astronomer Royal by virtue of his position

A variety of allowances were payable. Amongst the most valuable was the attendance allowance paid to the Astronomer Royal as a commissioner of the Board of Longitude. The allowance was first granted to Maskelyne in 1775 at the rate of £15 for each meeting of the Board attended, with payments being backdated to December 1774 (PC1/10/89). The 1818 Longitude Act increased this allowance to £100 a year. When the Board was dissolved in 1828 these payments ceased.

The 1818 Act also created the post of Superintendent of Chronometers with an annual allowance of £100 a year. The first Superintendent was Thomas Hurd who was appointed in 1819. On 23 July 1821 (RGO5/229), the post was assigned to John Pond who was paid the £100 allowance in addition to his salary as Astronomer Royal. Following Pond’s retirement in 1835, the post of Superintendent was held by his successor George Airy, but with the separate allowance being incorporated into his salary as Astronomer Royal.

From 1829 until 1831, the Astronomer Royal (Pond) also held the post of Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac. Although his predecessor and successor were paid a salary of £300 a year in this post, nothing was paid to Pond.

As the de facto Government scientist of his day, Airy was consulted about numerous scientific matters, some of which brought their own unsolicited rewards. In 1845 for example he was awarded £500 for his work in connection with the Railway Gauge Commission, and in 1881, he was paid the sum of £50 after appearing as an expert witness for the crown in a legal case brought by the Atorney General against the Edison Telephone Company of London, Limited.


Income from writing

From Ponds time onwards, the Astronomer Royal and many of the assistants received additional income from writing. Amongst those who published during Airy’s time in office were Airy himself, Main, Rogerson, Christie, Dunkin, Maunder, Belville, Lynn & Glaisher. Whilst many of the books were on astronomy related themes, by no means all were.


Equal pay for women

After the First World War, the issue of equal pay for women in the civil service became a topic of debate in Parliament. A resolution was passed on 19th May, 1920, that called for women employed in the common classes of the Civil Service to be paid on the same scales as applied to men in those same classes. The matter was debated again in 1936. A royal commission on equal pay was set up in 1944. It reported in 1946. The Equal Pay Act was eventually passed in 1970.

The Admiralty began its move to equalize pay in the mid 1950s, with the aim of equalizing it by I January 1961 through a series of seven equal instalments.



During periods of inflation, there was upward pressure on wages, especially in the twentieth century when collective bargaining had become the norm.

Major periods of high UK inflation (post 1750):

The 1790s into the early 1800s
During and immediately after the two world wars
The 1970s into the 1980s

Major periods of UK deflation:

The early 1820s
The 1920s

Relative Values:

£100 in 1752 = £120 in 1765
£100 in 1765 = £220 in 1811 – Maskelyne’s period in office
£100 in 1811 =   £63 in 1835 – Pond’s period in office
£100 in 1835 = £100 in 1881 – Airy’s period in office
£100 in 1881 = £100 in 1910 – Christie’s period in office
£100 in 1910 = £170 in 1933 – Dyson’s period in office
£100 in 1933 = £270 in 1955 – Spencer Jones’s period in office
£100 in 1935 = £130 in 1964
£100 in 1964 = £190 in 1974
£100 in 1974 = £270 in 1981
£100 in 1981 = £220 in 1998

Wartime and post war inflation

£100 in 1913 = £260 in 1920
£100 in 1938 = £160 in 1945
£100 in 1945 = £160 in 1955

Although the spending power of the pound was about the same when Airy entered office in 1835 and Christie resigned in 1910, there were periods on significant inflation and deflation in between.

Data derived from House of Commons Research Paper 99/20.