Housing, 1822–1910

This page provides the historical background to the provision of housing for the Observatory Staff. It goes on to take a brief look at the evolution of the area around Greenwich Park and the influence this had on where individuals chose to live. Finally, it looks at the mix of records from which a list of addresses has been compiled. It has been written to be read in conjunction with:

List of streets and the assistants who lived in them (1822–1910)
List of individuals who worked at the Observatory
Historic maps of Greenwich


The situation prior to 1822

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.  It consisted of an attached single story building. 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.


Plans for houses at the Observatory

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)


Eligibility for free housing

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. This was payable to all the astronomical assistants and continued to be paid until 1870 when new pay scales were introduced. In 1836, the allowances ranged from £20 to £60. Those who got the most were those who had previously had housing provided (Belville and Richardson). The lower amount was increased to £30 in 1838 and the upper amount to £70 for the first assistant in 1847. For a long period of time, the allowances represented nearly 25% of the total pay of many of the assistants. 


The growth of housing around the Park and the coming of the railways

During the period 1822 to 1910, the centre of Greenwich and the area around the park underwent considerable development. Writing in 1834, local publisher Henry Richardson (no relation to William), described the recent changes that had occurred up to that point in time:

‘The Town is well paved; lighted with gas (for which an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1823); and supplied with water by the Kent Water-works at Deptford. Numerous improvements have been made in the Town during the last few years, which have greatly altered its appearance: to show the rural character of the place to a very recent period, it may be mentioned that within the last twenty years there were posts and rails to divide the footpath from the road on Croom's Hill, and that till the year 1813 there were trees standing in the very centre of the Town, nearly opposite the Church. London Street, the leading thoroughfare on entering the Town from the Metropolis, has also, within the last thirty years, assumed a much altered appearance in its change of character from a street of private residences to one of commerce, almost every house within it now presenting a shop frontage; whereas, at the period alluded to, the shops were very few in number, and almost wholly confined to that end of the street nearest the centre of the Town.

Among the most prominent improvements may he noticed the following. The erection of the Creek Bridge and Bridge Street, the passage over the Ravensbourne at that place having previously been by a ferry, the approach to which was through Lamb Lane. The erection of Vansittart Terrace and Bexley Place. The re-building of Queen Elizabeth's College. The widening of Maize Hill. The erection of Park Street, Park Terrace, and Maize Hill Chapel on a piece of ground on which stood a mansion formerly in the occupation of Sir Gregory Page, Sir Walter James, and more recently of Dr. Crombie, and which was pulled down in 1822. The new cut called Hyde Vale, leading from Royal Hill to Conduit Vale. The alteration at the foot of Blackheath Hill where the roads to Blackheath, Lewisham, Deptford, and Greenwich meet, the previous abrupt turning of the road having occasioned numerous accidents. The improvement of Limekiln Lane now called South Street. The formation of Nelson Street, leading direct from Church Street to the Royal Hospital and Woolwich; and the continuation of this improvement in the formation of Trafalgar Road, by which the former circuitous route to Woolwich is avoided. The lower Woolwich Road has also been materially improved since it was made a turnpike road, as previous to that the trees on each side of the road nearly met, and in some places the footpath was considerably above the road.’

Click here to read the rest of Richardson’s book.

In 1829, the Metropolitan Police Service was set up. A decade later, in 1840, Greenwich was connected to the centre of London by one of the Capital’s earliest railways. Greenwich was originally the terminus but the line was extended eastwards in 1878, swallowing up part of the gardens of two of the assistants (William Ellis and Arthur Downing). The line from London to Lewisham and Blackheath opened in 1849 and the Greenwich Park line with a terminus close to the town centre in 1888. Greenwich Park station was closed in 1917 as a result of wartime economies and never reopened. The route of this line, which cuts across Circus Street, where several of the assistants had lived, can be identified today from the infill housing and open spaces along its route.

In was only in the 1820s that many of the roads so familiar in Greenwich and Blackheath today began to be laid out. The location of the assistants’ homes to some extent mirrors the development of new housing in the area. To start with, those assistants who lived out, resided to the north of the Observatory. Until the 1850s, most of the assistants lived to the west. Then in the 1860s, a move to the east began as historic estates on that side of the Park began to be developed. There was certainly an allure of the new, and several individuals flitted from one newly built house to another as the years went by. But this approach must have had its drawbacks since the piecemeal nature of many of the late Victorian developments, could mean spending several years or more surrounded by houses that were still under construction.


The backgrounds of the established staff

In the hundred years from 1836 to 1936, the majority of the established scientific staff had previously been employed either as a temporary boy computer or as an assistant on a temporary basis in the magnetic department as in the case of Henderson and Nash.

There were two important groups of exceptions. One was the chief (formerly first) assistants, who with the exception of Dunkin, were all external appointments. The other group were those who had sat the Civil Service exams and been appointed by open competition to the newly created position of second class assistant between 1871 and 1896. Eight such appointments were made in total (Downing, Maunder, Thackeray, Hollis, Lewis, Crommelin, Bryant and Hudson). With the exception of the Chief Assistants, they were better educated than the rest of the established staff. Most had a degree. They were typically in their early 20s when they first arrived at the Observatory.

But while most of those originally appointed as second class assistants stayed at the observatory until retirement, most of the chief assistants were employed for less than 10 years or so before moving on to greater and better things – many to run observatories of their own. Of the second class assistants: seven of the eight were promoted to the better paid ‘first class’ assistant grade (assistant grade from 1896). By 1885 they occupied half these senior posts. From 1904 through to 1917 they occupied them all.


The social divide in the Edwardian Observatory

During the Edwardian period, the established scientific staff divide into three clearly defined groups, distinguished not only by their rank, but also their age and housing situation.

The first group contains the chief assistants of whom there were two at any one time. They were in their 20s or 30s, and if married living in houses on the eastern side of the park. If unmarried they lived either in lodgings or a shared house. Their salaries were between £500 and £600 a year.

The second group contains the next most senior staff. These were the assistants and higher grade established computers (a grade first introduced in 1896 but to which only one member of staff was ever appointed). They were typically married, in their 40s, and most with salaries in excess of £300 and rising. They lived in their own good size houses – typically on the eastern side of the park.

The third group consists solely of the established computers.  Like the Chief Assistants, they were also in their 20s or 30s. But unlike the Chief Assistants, their starting salaries were just £80 a year, rising to just £190 after 17 years in post. These individuals typically still lived at home with mum and dad – the same as they had done when first appointed as a boy computer. This often remained the case even when married. Unlike their superiors who tended to live on the east side of the park, these individuals mostly lived on the west side … and as far away as Brockley.


A question of proximity

In 1894, the six members of staff appointed since 1872 via the Civil Service exams, sent a formal letter to the Admiralty arguing that their pay should be increased. Amongst the arguments put forward was that the value of their salaries was ‘diminished by the necessary regulation’ that they should live within a mile of the Observatory (RGO8/31).

Whilst it clearly made sense in a pre-car era for the staff to live within a reasonable walking distance; it is unclear if a formal regulation ever existed. There is no such requirement listed in the regulations of 1852, nor in the revised regulations of 1874 which were published only after the new appointment regime had been introduced. Whilst it is true that those appointed via the Civil Service exams had up to that time, all lived within a mile of the Observatory, the same cannot be said of others. In 1871, for example, Edwin Dunkin moved to Kidbrooke Park Road about 1.15 miles away. He was still there in 1898 at the time of his retirement. Likewise William Lynn was living in 1872 on the Old Dover road at a distance of 1.2 miles. William Witchell who was appointed as a computer in 1894 and rose to the rank of Junior Assistant in 1912, lived throughout that time with his parents in Brockley 1.75 miles away.

Interestingly, one of the members of staff who ended up living furthest from the Observatory was one of the six signatories to the 1894 correspondence. This was Maunder, who moved to Brockley at a distance of 1.4 miles in 1900.


Colleagues as neighbours

The eight entrants of 1870 to 1896 stand apart not only in terms of their academic backgrounds but also because of where and how they chose to live. Between 1885 and 1888, three of them, Maunder, Hollis and Lewis moved into newly built houses in Ulundi Road, staying until 1895, 1896 and 1917 respectively. They were joined in 1893 by Crommelin who moved away in 1894, only to return in 1899.  One can only imagine the personal and professional impact on these colleagues and their families when tragedy struck the Maunders family with the death of Mrs Maunder following the birth of their sixth child in 1888.

A striking clustering of staff also occurred many years earlier in the early 1850s when two of the seven assistants (Thomas Ellis and Edwin Dunkin) together with one of the temporary computers (the brother of yet another assistant) all had houses within a few yards of each other in Cottage Place off Maidenstone Hill.


Seeking anonymity

Whilst some individuals were presumably happy to have their work colleagues as neighbours, others most definitely were not. James Glaisher is an example. He had at times an awkward relationship with his boss George Airy who described him in 1841 as a man of uncultivated manners. More importantly, he had also made himself unpopular by marrying the underage daughter of his colleague John Belville (in 1843). By choosing to live in Dartmouth Terrace at the bottom of Lewisham Hill, the chance of accidental encounters with his father-in-law was much reduced as he was served by both different shops, and in time, a different railway line into London.

A second example is Maunder who remarried in 1895. It comes as no surprise that he should have chosen to move from his former marital home in Ulundi Road, surrounded as it was, not only by memories of his first wife, but also the homes of two of his most important colleagues. His remarriage to Annie Russell, one of the Lady Computers at the Observatory, not only forced her resignation, but would undoubtedly have had the potential to create awkward encounters round and about. More importantly, the new family unit would need time to get used to each other, a process that could be eased by moving to a new location where they wouldn’t feel under constant scrutiny. The move to Walerand Road on the Lewisham side of Blackheath would have brought the family the same advantages that it had previously brought to Glaisher. After further moves to houses in the more distant district of Brockley, Maunder did eventually return to the more immediate vicinity of the Observatory when he moved into lodgings in Crooms Hill, in 1911 prior to moving into a house of his own in Maze Hill a year or so later. But by then, his children had grown up, he had retired, and the circumstances of his remarrying had become blurred by the passing of time.


The houses today

Of the individual houses identified, most still survive and many are listed. The notable exceptions are those in Cottage Place along with Rogerson’s house in (King) George Street which were demolished in the wholesale clearances of the 1960s. Outhwaite’s house at the end of St John’s Park was also demolished in the 1960s, but in this case to make way for the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road (an urban motorway). A few houses such as those on Lewisham Hill once occupied by Glaisher and Downing were destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War.





Sources of information relating to staff addresses


The official archives relating to the Observatory

As a general rule, lists of staff address have not preserved in the Observatory or Admiralty archives. However,

  • Lists for the years 1872 and 1906 survive among other miscellaneous documents in RGO7/28. That from 1872 has pin holes in its corners suggesting it once sat on the office walls of the Chief Assistant William Christie who compiled it.
  • A list of candidates for the post of temporary computer together with their addresses survives for the late 1880s and early 1890s. The list probably owes its survival to the fact that it was compiled on the blank pages at the end of the Chief Assistant’s journal (RGO7/29). Several of those individuals on the list went on to become established computers. 
  • A list of addresses of a diverse range of the great and the good who were to be invited to the 1872 visitation also survives. It contains the addresses of a handful of the Observatory staff and is preserved with the minutes of the Board of Visitor (ADM190/4). 
  • One or two staff addresses have been obtained via their personal correspondence with the Astronomer Royal. But this source often disappoints. Although a home address is sometimes used, more often than not, such letters were sent from the Observatory and carry its address instead.


Street Directories

Prior to the mid 1880s, there was no regular publication of comprehensive street directories. Nor was there much organisation to the numbering of streets. In 1852 when publishing his directory, Mason felt compelled to write: ‘It will be observed, that in many of the chief Streets, I have been unable to give numbers to the houses – for the simple reason that none exist: where they are occasionally to be found, the affixing [of] a number to a particular house seems to be the result of some mere whim of the present of former occupant. I could point to certain Streets – where it appears there is a perfect mania for a particular number; thus in George-street, there are at least half-a-dozen No.4’s and so in other instances. To have placed numbers [in the Directory] in such cases would only have mystified and misled the stranger.’

Many roads developed in a piecemeal way and different sections were named and numbered accordingly. Hyde Vale for example, had Hyde Cottages and Glen Mohr Terrace on its eastern side, each independently numbered, and with the numbering running in opposite directions. In roads where the numbering was more rational, the numbers ran consecutively down one side of the road before crossing over and returning down the other. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that streets began to be numbered in the way with which we are now familiar with odd numbers being assigned to one side and even numbers to the other. With pre-existing roads, if the road had been built as a piece and numbered consecutively the old numbering pattern was sometimes retained; otherwise, the entire street was renumbered.

Street Directories typically give only the name of the main tenant or owner. This is a particular problem when trying to trace the homes of the established computers. When this position was created in 1896, the new appointments (for what was eventually ten separate posts), all came from the pool of temporary computers, many of whom had started working at the Observatory in their mid teens and were still living with their parents. Despite their increase in prospects, their pay to begin with was still poor, starting at £80 a year and rising by £7 a year until the upper limit of £190 was reached. As a result, many either chose to continue to stay in the parental home, or had no choice but to do so.  Those established computers who fell into this category, but were also elected fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society can sometimes be tracked as their address as well as their names were printed in the society’s publications (MNRAS) at the time of their election. The Royal Astronomical Society publications have also been useful for those elected prior to the 1880s as have the similar publications of the Royal Meteorological Society.

Greenwich Heritage Centre and the Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre. both have extensive collections of Street Directories.The most long lived series of directories were Kelly’s. Their third edition was published in 1885, after which date an updated edition was published annually (apart from 1918) until 1925 when it was published biennially until 1937/8. Other publishers directories also exist and amongst those available for consultation have been those of 1852 (Mason), and others of 1869 & 1870. No street directories are available in the above collections for the years 1889, 1891 & 1897


Royal Astronomical Society records

Street Directories typically give only the name of the main tenant or owner. This is a particular problem when trying to trace the homes of the established computers. When this position was created in 1896, the new appointments (for what was eventually ten separate posts), all came from the pool of temporary computers, many of whom had started working at the Observatory in their mid teens and were still living with their parents. Despite their increase in prospects, their pay to begin with was still poor, starting at £80 a year and rising by £7 a year until the upper limit of £190 was reached. As a result, many either chose to continue to stay in the parental home, or had no choice but to do so.  Those established computers who fell into this category, but were also elected fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society can sometimes be tracked as their address as well as their names were printed in the society’s publications (MNRAS) at the time of their election. The Royal Astronomical Society publications have also been useful for those elected prior to the 1880s as have the similar publications of the Royal Meteorological Society.


Census Data

In England, a census of the whole population has taken place every 10 years since 1841. As records, they remain closed until 100 years have passed. To date, just those for the years 1841 to 1921 have been released. Whilst they contain data about where people were staying on the date of the census, they do not necessarily indicate if the individuals concerned lived there permanently of were an overnight guest. The 1921 census results are the last that will be released until 2051 as no census was taken in 1941 because of the war and the records for the 1931 census were destroyed in a fire. The data collected as a result of the 1939 National Registration Act has already been released in a partially redacted form, and provides a useful supplement to the census data.


Local authority rate books

The majority of rate books survive for Greenwich, but sadly not for Lewisham. Those studied have covered the years 1826 to 1850 and were compiled quarterly. By 1835, as well as giving the occupier of each dwelling, they also list the owner. They are particularly useful for the period before regular street directories were published.


Electoral Registers

The 1918 Representation of the People Act extended the vote to all men over 21 and most women over 30. Prior to this date, women could not vote and men could only do so if they met certain propery owning criteria, the precise requirements for which were changed in 1832 and again in 1867. The registers published from 1918 onwards are the most useful, as they cover a time period not well covered by the available census data and street directories. Post 1939, they are one of the very few sources available.