Admiralty Funding (1811-1965)

Although the Admiralty had a direct interest in the work of the Royal Observatory from the moment it was founded in 1675, it had no direct part in administering its finances until 1811. It was the key funding agency from 1819 to 1965.



Originally funded though the Board of Ordnance, the Observatory began to receive a top-up from the Civil List in 1752. This joint funding continued until 1811 when the Board of Admiralty started to make a contribution as well. As a result, between 1811 and 1818, the Observatory was funded by no less than three different Government Departments.

In 1818 the Board of Ordnance’s responsibilities transferred to the Board of Admiralty with payments from the Civil List continuing as before. In 1830 payments from the Civil List were ended, with responsibility for making up the subsequent shortfall being transferred to the Admiralty which became the Observatory’s sole source of government funds. The cost of printing the volumes of Greenwich Observations was transferred from the Observatory to the Stationary Office (HMSO) in 1835.

From the 1830s until 1868, additional funding was received for the Lunar and Planetary reductions and for the running of the Magnetic and Meteorological Observatories. This came directly from the Treasury. From 1843, it was budgeted for under the newly created budget head ‘Scientific Works and Experiments’ in Class 4 (Education Science and Art) of the Estimates for Civil Services. In the twentieth century, the transmission of the wireless time signals from Rugby was jointly funded by the Admiralty and the Board of Trade.

In 1958, the Astronomer Royal sought to have the funding and administration of the Observatory switched from the Admiralty to another Government Department. This didn’t happen, but the Admiralty did agree to ‘consider what it could do to relax its procedures to assist the Astronomer Royal in exercising his control of the Observatory more expeditiously’, with the situation being reviewed after a trial period of about a year. The Board of Admiralty retained financial and managerial responsibility for the Observatory until 1 April 1964 when it was abolished, its functions being taken over by a unified Ministry of Defence under a newly established Admiralty Board. The Admiralty Board retained control until 1 April 1965, when all responsibility for the Observatory was transferred to the newly formed Science Research Council.


The Admiralty's initial involvement (1811-1830)

The Admiralty first became directly involved in the Observatory’s financial affairs when John Pond was appointed Astronomer Royal in February 1811. Pond’s predecessor Maskelyne had earlier asked for a rise in salary, but been declined in part because of his considerable personal wealth. With Pond’s appointment, the salary of the Astronomer Royal was raised from £350 to £600 a year. Maskelyne’s salary of £350 had been made up of £100 from the Board of Ordnance and £250 from the Civil List. These payments were continued for Pond, with the top-up coming from the Admiralty – the extra money being initially allocated via the 1812 Navy Vote with a backdated amount for the year 1811.

In 1811 an extra assistant was taken on (ADM/BP/40B/48 also referenced as ADM359/40B/48 and held at the National Maritime Museum). This was Pond’s ward John Henry Belville. His salary appears to have been paid by the Ordnance, until 19 March 1814 when he was put on the establishment list as Second Assistant with his salary being paid by the Admiralty (ADM181/24). Meanwhile the First Assistant continued to have his salary paid by the Board of Ordnance (£26) and the Civil List (£173. 16s.).

There was a great deal of confusion amongst those in authority in the early days of Pond’s tenure, as to how the salaries were being paid. Even the Board of Visitors who had oversight of the running of the Observatory and who scrutinised bills before they were sent to the Ordnance for payment didn’t have a proper picture of what amounts were being paid and by whom. It wasn’t until 1814 for example that Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society and chairman of the Board of Visitors since 1778, understood how things worked (and what he understood seems only an approximation to the truth) (RS MS372/157). An explanation of how Pond’s salary was made up (also incorrect) was later given to MPs in the House of Commons in April 1815.

The First Assistant was awarded a salary rise in 1816, the additional salary being paid by the Admiralty. Recognising the potential difficulties of the general management of the Observatory being shared between three government departments (the Treasury (who administered the Civil List), the Admiralty and the Board of Ordnance), the Observatory's Board of Visitors recommended in November 1816 that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty should become responsible for the management of the Observatory as in their opinion ‘it would save much trouble to the Public Offices … and at the same time be of essential advantage to the observatory and to the interest of Astronomical Science’ (RGO6/1/41).

On 27 June 1818, a letter was sent from Treasury the treasury to the Admiralty, saying that 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 to be transferred from the Board of Ordinance to the Admiralty as soon as was practicable. Steps to put this in place were completed by that December (RGO6/1/49&50).

On the accession of William IV in 1830, the link between the Sovereign and the cost of civil government was removed when the sum voted by parliament for the Civil List was restricted to the expenses of the Royal Household. The Navy Estimates show that the Civil List responsibility for paying part of the salaries of the AR and First Assistant was transferred to the Admiralty on 12 January 1831 (ADM181/40).


The Navy Vote

Each year, a detailed budget was drawn up for HM Navy and voted on by Parliament. It was (and still is) known as the Navy Vote. The proposed budget, was known as the Navy Estimates. It was divided into sections, each of which was voted on separately. From 1812 until 1830, money for the Observatory staff was allocated as part of the money for the Admiralty Office under Vote 1. The other costs associated with the running of the Observatory do not appear to be listed, but were presumably incorporated into other budgets elsewhere in the estimates.

In 1831, the way the navy’s budget was presented changed significantly. Amongst the changes was the creation of a new budget head of ‘Scientific Branch’. This was the sixth budget head in the list and therefore known as Vote 6.

In 1831, The Scientific Branch included: the Royal Naval College, the School for Naval Architecture, the Royal Observatory, the Observatory at the Cape, the Nautical Almanack [Office], and the Hydrographical Department, together with Chronometers and Rewards, Experiments and other expenses incurred for scientific purposes. The additional running costs for the Observatory were now included with the salaries. In 1831, they came to just over 53% of the Observatory’s total budget.

The list below summarises the key Navy Vote through which the Observatory was funded.

1811–1830         Vote  1 – Admiralty Office (salaries only)
1831–1834         Vote  6 – Scientific Branch
1834–1887         Vote  5 – Scientific Branch
1888–189X         Vote 12 – Scientific Services
189X–1962         Vote  6 – Scientific Services
1963–1965         Vote  4 – Research and Development and other Scientific Services


To help put this in context, the different votes under which the Navy’s budget was allocated in the year 1898/9 were:

VOTE  1.           Wages etc of Officers, Seamen and Boys, Coastguard, and Royal Marines.
           2.           Victualling and Clothing for the Navy.
           3.           Medical Establishments and Services.
           4.           Martial Law.
           5.           Educational Services.
           6.           Scientific Services.
           7.           Royal Naval Reserves.
           8.           Shipbuilding, Repairs, Maintenance, etc.
           9.           Naval Armaments.
          10.          Works, Buildings, and Repairs at Home and Abroad.
          11.          Miscellaneous Effective Services.
          12.          Admiralty Office.
          13.          Half-Pay, Reserved and Retired Pay.
          14.          Naval and Marine Pensions, Gratuities and Compassionate Allowances.
          15.          Civil Pensions and Gratuities.
          16.          Additional Naval Force for Service in Australian Waters

The major portion of the Observatory's 1898/9 costs were included under Vote 6 (£7,416). This covered staffing costs and contingencies (by which it was meant the cost of budgeted repairs and equipment together with a small amount for contingencies in the normal sense). Vote 10 covered the budget for new buildings – the New Physical Building in 1898/9, for which £1000 was allocated (the total cost being spread over a number of years). The Gate Porter was a former Marine and one of the two messengers a former Seaman. Their pensions of £78. 6s. were provided for under Vote 14, with £7. 12s. of this coming from Greenwich Hospital.


The financial Year

Up to and including the year 1831, the financial year was the same as the calendar year. It ran from 1 January to 31 December. The financial year changed in 1832. From that year onwards, it ran from 1 April to 31 March. The change necessitated an interim set of estimates to cover the three months from 1 January 1832 to 31 March 1832.


Caveat lector

The channelling of the Observatory’s funding via more than one Navy Vote and from time to time via other government departments too; makes it sometimes difficult to establish with absolute certainty, the overall size of the Observatory’s budget ... or to be sure that one is comparing like with like. Although there is cross referencing between the different Navy Votes in the 1898/9 estimates, such cross referencing was relatively new and items of expenditure can easily be overlooked. For example, the Gate Porter was by tradition a retired seaman from the nearby Greenwich Hospital and one had been in post since long before the Admiralty took over the Observatory’s funding; but the first time any salary for him can be traced in the Navy Votes is in the vote for 1868/9. Tracking the funding of the buildings is equally troublesome. Although in 1898/9 payments towards the New Physical Building were included under Vote 10, in earlier years, the budget for the construction of new buildings was included as part of the Scientific Branch Vote … or sometimes it appears not at all, as seems to be the case with the large extension to Flamsteed House that was made for Airy in 1835.


Different approaches to secure Admiralty funding

It was under George Airy, the seventh Astronomer Royal, that the Observatory rose to the height of its global eminence. Airy was utterly scrupulous in his requests for capital funding, and obsessive that no unnecessary expenditure should occur. Rightly or wrongly, he took a very clear view, about the areas of work that were appropriate for the Observatory to carry out, believing that certain work was best undertaken by well off amateurs or the universities. Whenever he requested funding for a new telescope, the request was preceded by a well-argued explanation of how and why it was needed to enable the Observatory to fulfil the work required of it by the Royal Warrants. (See for example the addresses made to the visitors in 1843 and 1855, regarding the acquisition of an altazimuth instrument, and a new large equatorial).

A contemporary member of the Board of Visitors wrote:

‘When Mr. Airy wants to carry anything into effect by Government assistance, he states, clearly and briefly, why he wants it; what advantages he expects from it; and what is the probable expense. He also engages to direct and superintend the execution, making himself personally responsible, and giving his labour gratis. When he has obtained permission (which is very seldom refused), he arranges everything with extraordinary promptitude and foresight, conquers his difficulties by storm, and presents his results and his accounts in perfect order, before men like … or myself would have made up our minds about the preliminaries. Now, men in office naturally like persons of this stamp. There is no trouble, no responsibility, no delay, no inquiries in the House; the matter is done, paid for, and published, before the seekers of a grievance can find an opportunity to be heard. This mode of proceeding is better relished by busy statesmen than recommendations from influential noblemen or fashionable ladies.’

The approach of Airy’s successor Christie however was entirely different. He was a man who seems to have been very much lead by events, new work being shaped though the gift of a number of large equatorial telescopes. Whilst the telescopes may have come at no cost to the public purse, commissioning them and putting them to use certainly did. Christie seems to have been timid in being completely upfront about the capital and revenue costs that might be involved for his new projects. Considerable money was wasted when poor planning led to both the Lassell Dome and the Magnetic Observatory having to be relocated. Having got his telescopes, Christie is often to be found complaining in his reports about not having enough staff or suitable accommodation in which to house them.


Navy Estimates

Navy Estimates for the Observatory, 1812–1881/2
Navy Estimates for the Observatory, 1881/2–1886/7 & 1898/9


Other sources of funding for the Observatory

Board of Ordnance funding (1675-1818)
Funding by the Research Councils (1965-1998)
Civil List funding (1752-1875)
Treasury funding via the budget for Civil Services and Stationary Office
Ministry of Works funding (Ministry of Public Buildings and Works from 1962)
Board of Trade funding
Private Patronage
Instruments on Loan