Government funding of science in Britain began on 4 March 1675 when Charles II authorised the payment of a yearly salary of £100 to John Flamsteed his newly appointed Astronomical Observator (Astronomer Royal). The Royal Warrant authorising his payment was sent to Sir Thomas Chichley, Master of the Ordnance instructing him to pay it. A second Warrant was sent to Chichley on 22 June 1675 authorising the construction of the Observatory. As a result, the Observatory started life with the costs of building and maintaining it, together with the cost of the salaries being picked up by the Board of Ordnance rather then by the Admiralty.
Although the Board of Ordnance was the government body through which funding of the Observatory was channelled, it had little control over either its spending or administration. Initially, Flamsteed liaised with Sir Jonas Moore, Surveyor General at the Board, but after Moore's death in 1679 Flamsteed was accountable directly to the Monarch who until 1710 took little or no interest in the Observatory and its work. In that year, control was passed by the Crown to a Board of Visitors selected from the elite of the Royal Society. The Royal Warrant by which they were established listed amongst their duties a requirement: to ‘survey and inspect our Instruments in our said Observatory; and as often as you shall find any of them defective, that you do inform the principal officers of our Ordnance thereof; that so the said instrument may be either exchanged or repaired.’ The Visitors did not however have the power to increase salaries or to authorise the employment of additional staff. As a result, the only increases in salary prior to 1811, where those authorised by the Crown, which channelled the additional payments through the Civil List.
Initially, the Visitors’ requests to the Ordnance in respect of the instruments fell on deaf ears. This remained the largely the case until October 1765, when they finally accepted proper responsibility on condition that the bills were signed by the President and Council of the Royal Society.
The building of the original Observatory was funded in line with the Royal Warrant of 22 June 1675 which stated that the money was to be obtained through the sale of old and decayed gunpowder, and stipulated that the total amount spent should not exceed £500. In the event, the total cost came to £520. 9s. 1d.
Although there was a Royal Warrant dated 24 March 1674/5 stipulating Flamsteed's salary and how it should be paid, there were no instructions for the payment of an assistant. The intention that one should be employed however is clear, since the founding Warrant mentions ‘lodging-rooms for our astronomical observator and assistant’. An assistant was therefore seconded to the Observatory from the Ordnance (Flamsteed Correspondence, vol 1, p909.):
Whereas His Majesty hath Verbally Comanded me to send one of the Labourers belonging to the Office of the Ordnance to Greenwich Hill to be employed in the Observatory there and Elsewhere as Sir Jonas Moore Knight Surveyor Generall of the Ordinance should appoint, These are to pray and require you forthwith to send Cuthbert Denton one of the said Labourers to Greenwich Hill aforesaid to be employed as aforesaid, and to Obey all such Orders and Directions as shall be given him by the said Sir Jonas Moore, Either to repare to Labour at Woolwich, Deptford or Elsewhere as he shall think fit, and for soe doeing this shall be your Warrant
Tho. Chicheley [Master General of the Ordnance]
28th January 1675[/76].
Writing on 9/10 October 1700, Flamsteed records that in 1694 ‘The Officers allowed me to Name my own laborer since which time I have named one of my own servants and receaved his pay for his maintenance which is a favour I must ever acknowledg.’
In the appendices to volumes 2 and 3 of Flamsteed’s Correspondence, there are records of a number of documents sent by Flamsteed to the Ordnance certifying the amount paid to his servant as an ‘extraordinary labourer’ The first dates from 1694 and the last from 1714. In each, the pay is stated as 18d a day, which equates to a salary of £27 4s 6d a year. The last of these documents was auctioned by Bonhams on 15 March 2005, and can be viewed by clicking here.
There were no instructions in the initial Warrants concerning the provision of instruments or paying for such essentials as pen and paper – an oversight (or perhaps a parsimonious decision) that was to have disastrous consequences in the years to come, when ownership of instruments and more importantly of the observations, became the subject of a series of legal disputes.
Sir Jonas Moore sought to equip Flamsteed as economically as possible at his own personal expense, whilst Flamsteed himself provided the pens and Ink. Moore provided two excellent clocks by Thomas Tompion, a sextant and a large mural quadrant. The quadrant proved unworkable and it was only when Flamsteed came into money following the death of his father in 1688, that he was able to complete his own mural instrument and start in earnest, the work for which he was being paid. Following Flamsteed’s death, his widow Margaret removed all the instruments.
The Warrants appointing Halley and his sucessors Bradley, Bliss, Maskelyne (and most probably Pond as well), stipulated that as well as receiving a salary of £100, they were also to be paid the salary of an assistant:
‘for your assistance in the Execution of the laborious part of your said Office, you likewise be allowed and paid, in the same manner, the yearly salary of twenty six pounds for such Servant of Labourer, whom you shall make use of for that Purpose, in like manner as was allowed & paid to, or for, the Servant of the said John Flamsteed’. (RGO4/302/5)
Arriving in 1721 and finding the Observatory empty, Halley set about re-equipping it. A law case against Margaret Flamsteed was eventually dropped and the Treasury (rather than the Ordnance) agreed to stump up the sum of £500 – an amount sufficient to procure a small transit instrument and just one, rather than the desired two, mural quadrants. The total cost of the quadrant, including a new building to house it and clocks to use with it, came to just under £335. In the same year, Queen Caroline increased the pay of the second Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley by awarding him half a naval captain’s salary for his former services on the Paramour. This was paid via the Navy vote.
Halley’s successor Bradley was able to secure a further £1,000 for instruments in 1749. Once again, the money did not come from the Ordnance, coming instead through the intervention of the Admiralty which lead to the issuing of a Warrant by George II, ordering the full £1,000 to be raised from the sale of old Navy stores. Bradley gave an order to John Bird for a second quadrant and a new transit instrument. £45 was used to purchase the 12½-foot zenith sector by Graham, with which Bradley had discovered the phenomenon of aberration in the 1720s. In 1752, Bradley had his salary enhanced by the award of a pension from the Civil list in 1752. Salary enhancements from this source continued to be made to his successors until the start of 1831, when responsibility for making the payment was transferred to the Admiralty. The Ordnance was to fund just two more major instruments before its responsibilities for the Observatory were also taken over by the Admiralty. These were the Troughton 6-foot Mural Circle, ordered in 1807 and costing £735, the optical parts being an extra £53. 6s and the mason’s work £28. 8s. 6d, along with the Troughton 10-foot transit instrument that was ordered in 1813 at a cost of £315.
There were two important changes that came with Maskelyne’s arrival as Astronomer Royal following the death of Bradley. The Royal Warrant of 1767 put the printing of the Greenwich Observations onto a proper footing for the first time. It authorised their future printing at the Ordnance’s expense, provided that is, that the cost did not exceed £60 p.a. The second was the need to pay the additional staff required to compile the Nautical Almanac (first published in 1766). The (human) computers employed in its production were paid not by the Ordnance, but by the Board of Longitude. By the time Pond came into office, a computer was receiving £205 on completion of one year’s almanac, and a comparer £250. This was vastly more than the Ordnance was paying the Astronomer Royal’s assistant. For the first hundred years the rate for this post remained at just £26, though Maskelyne increased this from his own pocket to £60. In 1774, the official rate was raised to £96 though the granting of a pension from the Civil List. In 1810, it was raised to £126 – an amount still significantly less than the Nautical Almanac computers were paid. As Forbes  remarks, ‘it is small wonder, then, that Maskelyne should have had no fewer than 25 different assistants’.
When John Pond was appointed Astronomer Royal in 1811, the Admiralty made a contribution to his salary. In 1814 it began to fund a second assistant. Then in 1818, following a suggestion from the Board of Visitors, the whole of the expenses of the establishment with the exception of the sum of £420 paid from the Civil List (towards the salaries of the Astronomer Royal and First Assistant), were transferred from the Board of Ordinance to the Admiralty.
In 1835, the powers of the Visitors were considerably diminished when a memorial from the Admiralty to the King led to an Order in Council which gave its Commissioners full authority to issue instructions to the Astronomer Royal as it deemed fit.