People – a guide to grading and staffing structures

The Royal Observatory was established in Greenwich in 1675. It moved to Herstmonceux in 1948 where it greatly expanded and was renamed the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Herstmonceux. In 1990 it downsized and moved to Cambridge, becoming known as the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Cambridge. It was closed down in 1998.


Head of the Observatory

Until 1972, the head of the Observatory was the Astronomer Royal, a post that was appointed by the Crown. The newly formed Science Research Council, which took over the Observatory’s funding in 1965, decided that when the then Astronomer Royal, Woolley retired, the Observatory would be run by a Director, who might or might not also be awarded the title of Astronomer Royal. Since 1972, the position of Astronomer Royal has been largely honorary, appointments still being made by the Sovereign upon the advice of the Prime Minister. 


Staffing 1675-1835

From 1675 until 1811, the Astronomer Royal normally had the help of a single paid assistant. By 1835, the number of assistants had increased to six, the various postholders being referred to as the First Assistant, the Second Assistant and ‘extra assistants’.

Until Maskelyne’s arrival as Astronomer Royal in the 1760s, the majority of calculations were carried out by either the Astronomer Royal or his assistant. But the production of the Nautical Almanac (first published in 1766) required so many calculations to be done and independently checked, that a team of Computers and Comparers were employed specifically for the task. These particular individuals were funded by the Board of Longitude and until 1818 and from 1829 to 1831 were supervised by the Astronomer Royal. They worked from home and although many lived in the vicinity of London, others came from far flung corners of England.

By 1835, a labourer, a night watchman and probabally a gate porter were also employed.


Staffing 1836-1870

After Airy became astronomer Royal in 1835, the six assistants were no longer referred to as First, Second and Extra Assistants, but as First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Assistant, the ranking of all but the First Assistant being determined by length of service. A seventh assistant was taken on in 1847.

It was in 1836, that the first team of Computers began to work at the Observatory itself. Funded by the Treasury, their task was to reduce the Greenwich Planetary and Lunar Observations made between 1750 and 1830 – a project that had originally been proposed by Airy in 1833 while Director of the Cambridge Observatory. The work, on the Planetary reductions which had commenced under Airy’s supervision at Cambridge on 27 February 1834 was transfered with Airy to Greenwich where it was carried out by a small team of computers under the superintendance initially of John William Thomas and after his death in 1840 by Hugh Breen senior. The financial go-ahead for the Lunar reductions was obtained on 31 May 1838 and work started soon after with an expanded team of computers. The Planetary reductions were completed in 1841 and the Lunar reductions by 1846. In 1841, the number of Computers employed on the reductions was 12. The following year it was 14. It then increased to 16 before gradually being diminished.

Later, in 1855, work began on reducing the Lunar Observations made between 1831 and1851. This work was published in 1859 and carried out under the supervision of John Lucas. Airy was also responsible for supervising a new reduction of Groombridge’s observations, this particular project being completed by early January 1837.

Meanwhile, back in 1842, Airy had sought permission to employ an additional assistant. Before this could be granted, he amended the request and asked instead to be authorised to employ ‘occasional computers’ to the same pecuniary value. The request was granted, and so began the regular employment of computers on a temporary and short term basis under such regulations as Airy might think fit. To start with, Airy seems to have simply redeployed some of the computers from the Lunar reductions team on a somewhat ad hoc basis. As well as their computing work, some of the computers were also trained as stand in observers. In 1845, Airy had £120 to spend on their salaries. He was given a one off extra £120 in 1846 and the higher amount of £180 in 1847. Temporary or Supernumerary Computers continued to be employed on more or less the same basis for the best part of the next hundred years until 1936. The actual numbers varied from year to year. From 1848 to1859 they fluctuated between three and eight. They then increased slightly to between seven and twelve until Airy’s retirement in 1881. Meanwhile, by 1853, the working day had been shortened to eight hours including a lunch break 8.00 to12.00 and 13.00 to 16.00. These hours were later changed by Christie.

An employment pattern soon emerged with the posts of Computer being filled by competitive examination amongst 13 and 14 year olds from the local schools. Although there was no upper age limit to those who might be employed, the poor wages, temporary nature of the posts and a general lack of vacant posts at the assistant level, meant that most moved on relatively quickly.  Examination for promotion to and within the Assistant Grade (for trial of competency) began for the first time after the Fourth Assistant Breen handed in his resignation in November 1858.

The building of the magnetic and meteorological observatory was sanctioned by the Treasury in 1838, with the Treasury (via the budget for Civil Services and Stationary Office) also meeting the staffing costs. And so began a dual system of funding, with the running costs of the Astronomical establishment (with the exception of the computers) falling on the Admiralty books and those of the Magnetic and Meteorological establishment, together with those of the astronomical computers on the Treasury. Unlike the Astronomical Assistants whose posts were established (permanent), the Treasury funded posts were all supernumerary (temporary). The Treasury's funding obligations were eventually transfered to the Admiralty in 1868/9. Inevitably there is a degree of blurring around the edges with the two different budgets. As an example, the Magnetic Superintendent James Glaisher was being paid as an Astronomical Assistant when he was appointed to the post of Superintendent on 1 November 1840. He retained his Astronomical Assistant’s salary, and paid an additional sum from the Treasury money until 1852, when the full amount of his salary was once again paid by the Admiralty. In 1840, the Magnetic and Meteoroligical Observatory was staffed by a Superintendent, and three assistants, the number of assistants reducing to one in 1849, with one of the Assistants (Downs) being redeployed (presumably on a lower salary) as the first computer in the department. The Magnetical and Meteorological  Assistant eventually became established in 1871, but on a a scale that was slightly lower than that of his equivalent colleagues in the Astronomical establishment. This iniqity was finally removed in 1883. 

During this period, a labourer, gate porter and watchman were also employed.


The regradings of the 1870s

At the start of the 1870s, the First Assistant became known as the Chief Assistant. Airy was also actively seeking to establish a new (and improved) pay scale for the assistants. This resulted in the introduction of the new grades of first class assistant and second class assistant in 1871. The restructuring coincided with the introduction of open competitive examinations administered by the Civil Service Commissioners and these were used to fill vacant posts at the lower grade. Entry to the examination was restricted to people of age 18 to 25. Therefore if a computer hadn’t obtained promotion by the age of 26, he would have no prospect of ever being taken on as a permanent member of staff at the Observatory. With vacancies at the Junior Assistant grade being rare and normally only arising when an assistant retired, some computers would have had virtually no chance of ever gaining promotion, no matter how good they were.


Changes introduced in 1880s and 1890s

By 1889, Christie had been in office for eight years and overseen a considerable expansion in the number of telescopes both deployed and planned. But the number of staff both permanent and temporary had remained essentially unchanged. Unable to secure funding for additional assistants, Christie did secure an increase in the budget for temporary computers in 1889, allowing their number to rise from 14 to 22 within two years.

Extra computers were all very well, but what Christie really wanted was more assistants. To this end, he therefore made the decision to experiment with employing ‘Lady Computers’. Only women who had graduated at a University Ladies’ College were considered.  Three such individuals were taken on in 1890: two from Newnham College Cambridge (Rix and Furniss) and one from Girton College Cambridge (Everett). Furniss resigned in 1891 and was replaced by Annie Russell, a contemporary of Everett’s at Girton. Although older and considerably better educated than the Boy Computers, their pay and conditions were the same. But unlike the boys who were generally still living with their parents, the Lady computers had to find (and presumably pay for) their own accommodation. Rix resigned in 1892 on health grounds, Everett secured a position at the Observatory in Potsdam in 1895 and Russell resigned a few weeks later on 31 October to marry her colleague E Walter Maunder. Many modern commentators speak of Christie’s social innovation. But in truth, the employment of the Lady Computers was exploitative and little more than a stop-gap measure. By the time Russell resigned, the problem of insufficient numbers of established staff was about to be resolved and no more ladies were appointed. Indeed, those making enquiries were told ‘ladies are no longer employed at the Royal Observatory’. The next time women were employed at the Observatory was again as Computers and again out of necessity. But this time it was because of the staffing shortages caused by the First World War.

In 1891, Christie was authorised to employ two additional assistants. But he remained unsatisfied. The increasing reliance on the Temporary Computers to do work that in the past would have been done by assistants was stating to compromise the continuity of the Greenwich series of observations. By the time they had gained enough experience to become really useful, they hit the age bar and would leave. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that since 1873, all new second class assistants had been appointed by the civil service commissioners through open competition – a system that failed to ensure that candidates were qualified as observers.

Eventually in late 1896, after two years of waiting on a decision from the government, a reform of sorts took place. Christie was granted a second Chief Assistant and the grade of Second Class Assistant (of which three of the five posts were vacant) was replaced by the two grades of established computer (6 posts) and higher grade established computer (2 posts). This increased his established staff from 11 to 15. The higher grade posts were filled by the existing second class assistants, who continued to be referred to as Second Class Assistants in the Board of Visitor Reports but not in the Navy Estimates. The vacancies on the permanent staff were filled by competitive examination from the Temporary Computers – a process that continued until 1936 when the post of temporary computer was abolished following the removal or the Royal Hospital School from Greenwich to Holbrook.

In 1912, the posts of Higher Grade Established Computer and Established Computer were renamed Junior Assistant Higher Grade and Junior Assistant.

One consequence of Christie’s methods of recruitment was that between 1923 and 1937 all the Heads of Department were ex-computers. This was in complete contrast to the period 1904 to 1917, when all the Heads of Department had had no experience of being a Computer, having been originally appointed directly to the post of Second Class Assistant (mainly as graduates) after competing in the Civil Service exams between 1872 and 1896. It was also in complete contrast to the First/Chief Assistants, who from 1835 until the 1950s (with the exception of Dunkin) were exceptional maths graduates and tended to be recruited into post more or less straight from university. All except Atkinson (who graduated from Oxford), were wranglers i.e. had first class degrees in mathematics from Cambridge. Main was sixth wrangler (sixth in his class), Stone was fifth wrangler, Christie was fourth wrangler, Turner and Dyson were both second wranglers and their successors Cowell and Eddington both senior wranglers (top of their class). In 1910, rankings ceased to be made public, so the rankings of the remainder are unknown. This manner of selecting Chief Assistants was criticised by David Gill the Astronomer Royal at the Cape of Good Hope (1879–1907), who said ‘They enter into chief positions where they have to superintend men who know much more about practical work than they do, and they have to pick up what they can of a hard and fast hide-bound system – which they are taught to regard as unquestionably superior to all others’.

In 1901, a third of all the temporary computers left in a period of just five months putting great stress on the Observatory’s regimes. By contrast, amongst the established staff, the only member to leave between 1896 and 1908 was Dyson, who resigned to take up the post of Astronomer Royal for Scotland.

Dyson came back to Greenwich as Astronomer Royal in 1910. When he left office in 1933, as well as his two chief assistants, he had nine other senior members of staff. Of these, eight (Bowyer, Cullen, Davidson, Edney, Furner, Melotte, Stevens and Witchell) were already established members of staff when he arrived as Astronomer Royal in 1910. And of those eight, four (Bowyer, Davidson, Edney and Furner) were already working at the Observatory as Boy Computers when he first arrived as Chief Assistant in 1894, with two, (Melotte and Witchell) being taken on soon after.

Although there are sporadic references to departments in the nineteenth century, (for example the Time Department (earliest reference 1861?) or the Photographic and Spectroscopic Department (established 1874)), it was only in 1909 that a Department / Branch structure began to be formally reported.


The Spencer Jones reforms of the 1930s

It took until the 1930s and the arrival of Spencer Jones as Astronomer Royal, not only for the outmoded staffing structure to begin to be reformed, but for proper consideration to be given to the removal of the Observatory to a new site away from the smoke and light pollution of London.

In 1936, two key reforms took place – assistants began to be recruited from outside, and the post of Temporary Computer disappeared. The first of the new assistants were Humphry Smith (BSc) appointed in 1936 and Alan Hunter (PhD) appointed in 1937. They were the first new entrants at assistant level (either senior or junior) to be appointed since the appointment of Bryant and Hudson some 44 or so years earlier in 1892. The temporary computers (of which there were 16 in 1935/6) were gradually replaced by permanent posts: One Junior Assistant (Higher Grade), bringing the total up to five, five Junior Assistant posts (bringing the total to fifteen) and twelve Writing or Clerical Assistants and a typist. Although six of the sixteen temporary computers were women, all the Junior Assistant posts (at both levels) were filled by men.

The following year, in 1937, fixed term periods of office were introduced for the first time for the Visitors. Also in 1937, Spencer Jones took over responsibility for the Nautical Almanac, becoming the first Astronomer Royal to be responsible for its production since John Pond in the early nineteenth century. This added not only a significant number of staff to his already burgeoning empire, it also brought the first woman junior assistant (Marion Rodgers) onto his staff. At this point however (and for many years to come), the Nautical Almanac Office continued to be run as a separate entity. Like the Observatory that it was joining, the Nautical Almanac Office had relied heavily on temporary staff, and these posts too were replaced by permanent ones. The new staffing levels approved for 1937 were: Superintendent (at the level of Chief Assistant), two Assistants (up from one), three Junior Assistants (Higher Grade), seven Junior Assistants (up from three), six clerical assistants (up from four), one Clerical Officer and one shorthand typist.

Later in 1937, established staff numbers underwent a further expansion when at the suggestion of Humphry Smith a workshop was set up for the repair and adjustment of Chronometers. This was a strategic move designed to both ensure a high standard of work (at that time the work was being done by commercial workshops whose number and standards were in decline) and a continuity of service should hostilities develop within Europe.

With the outbreak of War, the Nautical Almanac office was evacuated to Bath under Sadler, the Time department to Abinger and the Chronometers first to Bristol and then Bradford on Avon under the charge of Rickett who was given temporary promotion to Higher Grade Junior Assistant,. Both Chief Assistants (Atkinson and Hulme) were lent to another department in the Admiralty with Hulme never to return. The Astronomer Royal based himself at Abinger leaving Newton (a Higher Grade Junior Assistant) as Officer in Charge at Greenwich. Of the four Assistants, Hunter too went on loan elsewhere in the Admiralty, Smith went to Abinger with the Time Department, and Witchell and Melotte continued beyond normal retirement age.


The Scientific Civil Service and the regradings of the late 1940s

By the end of 1945, the war was over, but the observatory staff remained depleted and scattered. Several of the domes at Greenwich had been damaged and were permanently out of action and the site of the Observatory’s new permanent home had been more or less settled. But Greenwich was not alone with its problems, and in September that year, the Government published a white paper: The Scientific Civil Service, Reorganisation and Recruitment during the Reconstruction Period. It built on the work of the Carpenter Committee and the later Barlow Committee. One of its aims was to unify the different ad hoc arrangements and conditions of service that existed across different Government Departments.

To this end, three classes of worker were created. In order of seniority they were:

Scientific Officer Class:

Scientific Officer (SO), Senior Scientific Officer (SSO), Principal Scientific Officer (PSO), Senior Principal Scientific Officer (SPSO) , Deputy Chief Scientific Officer (DCSO) , and Chief Scientific Officer (CSO).

Experimental Officer Class:

Assistant Experimental Officer (AEO), Experimental Officer (EO), Senior Experimental Officer (SEO) and Chief Experimental Officer (CEO).

Scientific Assistant Class:

Assistant (Scientific) (AS), Senior Assistant (Scientific) (SAS)


Experimental officer posts were intended for university graduates and to provide support staff for Scientific Officers. The Scientific Assistant posts were intended to undertake the bulk of the routine work and required a qualification at General Schools Certificate level (later O-level). Under the new regime, the pay scales were to be between five and nine percent higher in London than the provinces and women were to be paid a lower rate ‘in accordance with civil service practice’.

But although the Observatory was the country’s oldest government funded scientific institution, it was not included amongst the establishments to which the Carpenter Committee’s recommendations were applied. Both Junior Assistant grades at the Observatory had been linked to clerical grades in the Civil Service, reflecting the fact that they were recruited from people with no basic training in science. Disastrously, this was reflected in the new staffing structure about to be imposed, and if implemented, would have meant some of the Heads of Department – those who had risen up from the ranks of Boy Computer – were technically unqualified to do the job! Spencer Jones asked for the Observatory posts to be regraded so that the basic posts could be recruited at a higher and more appropriate level. This was important not only for the future of the Observatory, as it ventured into new areas of research, but also the future of Astronomy in Britain since the Observatory was likely to be one of the few potential employers for future research graduates from the Universities. In the meantime, the uncertainty over job gradings created recruitment difficulties, the existing salaries being inferior to those in other establishments.

It took until 1949 for the proper reorganization of the Royal Observatory staff to be authorized, although even then, matters of detail had still to be settled in a number of cases. The grades were assimilated as follows:  


Observatory Staff

Old Grade                                             New Grade

Astronomer Royal                                 Chief Scientific Officer
Chief Assistant                                     Senior Principal Scientific Officer
Assistant (all Heads of Department)        Principal Scientific Officer
Junior Assistants (Higher Grade)            Senior Experimental Officer
Junior Assistants                                  Most as Experimental Officers*

*One was regraded Assistant (Scientific) and another as Clerical Assistant    


Nautical Almanac Staff 

Old Grade                                             New Grade

Superintendent (Chief Assistant)             Senior Principal Scientific Officer
Assistant                                              Principal Scientific Officer
Junior Assistants (Higher Grade)             Senior Experimental Officer
Junior Assistants                                   Experimental Officers


Following the resignation of Gold (one of the two Chief Assistants) in 1956, Atkinson (the other Chief Assistnat and his senior), was recommended for promotion on individual merit to the level of Deputy Chief Scientific Officer (DCSO). This was awarded in 1957, making Atkinson the first individual at the Observatory to hold a post at this level. After this, the use of the term Chief Assistant ceased to be used in staff lists published as part of the annual reports. It would appear that anyone at the grade of SPSO or above would in certain situations be referred to as a Chief Assistant – at least until 1967 when the formal post of Deputy Director was created. This included Gold’s successor Eggen. The only person to hold the post of Deputy Director during this period of the Observatory’s history was Hunter. When he was appointed Director in 1973, the post disappeared. Other staff however deputised when required until 1981 when Boksenberg was appointed Director and a full-time scientific administrator appointed. The post of Deputy Director seems to have reappeared with the move to Cambridge, when Paul Murdin held the post. It was held by Neil Parker at the time of the Observatory’s closure in 1998.


Shifting perspectives under Woolley in the 1950s and 60s

The move to Herstmonceux commenced in 1948, but by the time Spencer Jones retired at the end of 1955, had still to be completed. It took until 1957 for this to happen. In the same year, the Magnetic Observatory completed its relocation from Abinger to Hartland in Devon.

Under the new Astronomer Royal, Woolley, the emphasis shifted towards astrophysics. At the same time, the need for electronics experts that had begun with the introduction of the first Quartz Crystal clocks in the late 1930s became every more important: as did computing and instrumental design. The staffing evolved to reflect these changes. On arrival, Woolley restructured the staff into ten departments: The Astronomer Royals’, Astrometry, Astrophysics, Meridian, Time, Chronometer, Solar, Electronics & Cosmic Ray, Magnetic & Meteorological and the Nautical Almanac Office. Meteorological observations ceased in 1956, and the solar programme run down. In 1959, Woolley was given responsibility for the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope – a responsibility that was to continue until the Combined South African Observatories assumed control at the end of 1971. Staff however continued to be sent to South Africa on secondment until 1974.

With the shift in funding about to be transferred from the Admiralty to the Science Research Council the Chronometer Department was transferred to the Hydrographic Department of the Ministry of Defence in 1964. The Department did not however physically move. Three years later in 1967, the geomagnetic programme at Hartland was also transferred, this time to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). As with the Chronometer Department, the staff who had been based at Herstmonceux remained there.

In 1968, the Fulton Report was published. It advocated the elimination of the various classes within the Civil Service because they imposed a rigid structure which made it unnecessarily difficult for staff to move between roles to gain a breadth of experience. The key impact on the Observatory was the amalgamation of the three scientific classes into a single series of grades: ASO, SO, HSO, SSO, PSO, SPSO, DCSO and CSO. There was a similar change for engineering and technical staff.


The 1970s and the loss of autonomy

The status of the Observatory together with its internal organisation changed dramatically under the Science Research Council in the 1970s. The replacement in 1972 of the Astronomer Royal as Head of the Observatory with a mere Director was the start. This was followed in 1974 (on the eve of its tercentenary) by the imposition of a fundamentally different remit – the first ever formalised change in its function. It was allowed to continue to carry out research programmes of its own and in collaboration with university astronomers. It continued too to be responsible for national and international services such as the provision of navigational almanacs and astronomical ephemerides and the maintenance of the national time service. But its main role became the support of university research, particularly by the procurement and operation of large central facilities for ground-based optical astronomy, including the Northern Hemisphere Observatory (NHO), (later known as La Palma).

To cope with its new responsibilities a restructuring into five new divisions took place. The new divisions were Astrophysics, Astrometry & Galactic Astronomy, Almanacs & Time, Instrumentation & Engineering, and Administration. In addition, an NHO Project Team was assembled under the leadership of the Director Designate. During that tumultuous year, staff numbers were slashed from 256 at the start of the year to 237 at the end with part of the reduction being accounted for by the Observatory’s withdrawal from South Africa. Over the next few years, numbers fell to 230 before rising again to 237 in 1979. The appointment of Boksenberg as Director in 1981 coincided with a shake up at the SRC, which was given a wider remit and a new name – the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). Staff numbers remained fairly stable until 1983 when the Observatory was subjected to the first of what turned out to be a series of three reviews and Boksenberg was instructed to commence a rapid reduction in staff numbers with the aim of reducing them from the 1980 level of 237 to just 128 by 1990 – a reduction of 46%. This lead to a redeployment exercise with some staff being asked to take premature retirement and others being compulsory transferred to either other SERC establishments or to posts falling vacant elsewhere in the Observatory.


The 1990s – The Cambridge Years

Further upheaval took place when the SERC decided to close the Herstmonceux site and move the Observatory to Cambridge. Staff in around a third of the 70 posts that were to be transferred, decided not to move. Of those who did, some moved in the autumn of 1989, with the rest transferring in April 1990. The time service closed down during February 1990, the BBC taking over the generation of the six pips. The Satellite Laser Ranger however remained operational at Herstmonceux.

Once it had arrived in Cambridge, the Observatory was subjected to further reorganisations and reviews. Then in 1997, PPARC – a new Quango formed when the SERC itself was reorganised in 1994 – announced that the Observatory would be shut down. The 323-year-old Observatory closed its doors for the last time at the end of October 1998. Five staff transferred to a new astronomy technology centre at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, the Nautical Almanac Office transferred to the

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire and control of the Satellite Laser Ranging facility transferred to NERC (Natural Environment Research Council).


Comparative numbers

The intention here is to give an overview of how staff numbers changed over the lifetime of the Observatory. Definitive comparisons are difficult for a variety of reasons. These include inconsistencies in the details of the way in which data was collected and reported.  Much of the data below has been extracted from the annual reports, but be warned, each dataset is a just a snapshot on a particular day – a day typically in May or June for the 1835 to 1964 data.

From 1675 until Pond’s arrival as Astronomer Royal in 1811, there was generally only ever one assistant employed at the Observatory. The key exception was during Halley’s period (1720 – 1742) when there were none. Pond started with two assistants, the number increasing to four in 1822 and six in 1825.

When Airy came into office in 1835 the staffing complement rapidly increased to deal with a backlog of calculations before settling back to a more sustained level in 1849. The year 1852 is the first for which a full headcount was published. In that year between 16 and 17 people were employed. They were: Airy, 1 Chief Assistant, 7 Assistants, 3 or 4 Temporary Computers, a Labourer, a Gate-porter, a Watchman and a Carpenter.

By 1881, (the year Airy retired), the headcount was about 29. The 29 posts were: Astronomer Royal, 1 Chief Assistant, 8 First and Second Class Assistants, 12 Temporary Computers,  a Labourer, a Gate-porter, a Watchman, a Clerk of Works and several Carpenters.

Christie took over from Airy in 1881. By 1910, (the year that he retired), the headcount had more than doubled from about 29 to 61. The 61 post in 1910 were: Astronomer Royal, 2 Chief Assistants, 6 Assistants, 11 established Computers of various grades, 25 Temporary Computers (of whom 16 were qualified as observers), 1 clerical assistant, A foreman of works, 2 carpenters, 3 labourers, a foreman mechanic with 2 assistants, a gate-porter, 2 messengers, a watchman, a gardener and a charwoman.

Dyson took over as Astronomer Royal in 1910. During his period in office, the staffing levels remained remarkably static. In 1933, the year he retired, the headcount had dropped to 57 – a reduction almost entirely accounted for by a decrease in the number of Temporary Computers. In 1933, the posts were: Astronomer Royal, 2 Chief Assistants, 18 Assistants at three different grades, 20 Temporary Computers (including 6 women), 1 clerical assistant, a foreman of works, two joiners, a mechanic, a boy assistant mechanic, a gate-porter, two messengers, a night watchman, a gardener, three labours a charwoman and a mechanic/caretaker.

It was under Dyson’s successor Spencer Jones, that the numbers (both in percentage and absolute terms) increased by their greatest amount. By 1955, the year he retired, they had more than tripled, with the headcount standing at 195. By this time of course, the Observatory was at Herstmonceux and the grading system had been completely overhauled. The 195 (which may or may not have included the Astronomer Royal was made up of 113 ‘non-industrial’ and 82 industrial staff. The industrial staff consisted of 14 watchmakers, 1 watchmaker apprentice, 6 laboratory mechanics, 1 mechanic, 1 fitter, 2 storehouse assistants, 1 head gardener, 5 gardeners, 1 forester, 5 messengers, 2 packers, 3 boiler attendants, 3 drivers, 5 skilled labourers, 4 night-watchmen, 1 caretaker, 6 labourers, 2 switchboard attendants, 10 part-time cleaners and 9 Hostel domestic staff.

Rather less information is available about Woolley’s period in Office. In 1964, the last year of Woolley’s tenure for which any data was published, the names of 152 non-industrial staff are listed in his report to the Board of Visitors. The next date for which any data is available is 31 December 1973, when the total staff complement was 256, Of these, 19 staff were in South Africa, 100 were members of the Science Group and, 26 were members of the Professional and Technology Category. There were also 100 industrial and non-industrial support staff and 11 vacancies.

By the end of 1974, numbers had been cut to 237. Over the next few years, numbers fell to 230 before rising again to 237 in 1979. Boksenberg was appointed as Director in 1981 and in 1983 was instructed to commence a rapid reduction in staff numbers with the aim of reducing them from the 1980 level of 237 to just 128 by 1990 – a reduction of 46%.



Between 1710 and 1964, the work of the Observatory was overseen by a Board of Visitors. Initially, the Board consisted of the President of the Royal Society (originally Newton), along with a number of selected fellows. In 1830, the composition was changed to incorporate members of the recently formed Royal Astronomical Society. In 1937, fixed term periods of office were introduced for the first time. Click here to read more about the Board of Visitors.