The Observatory was part funded through the beneficence of private individuals in two distinct ways. Firstly, it was subsidised by the earlier Astronomers Royal from their own pocket. Secondly, it received gifts of instruments or the money to buy them.
The failure of the founding Warrant to make provision for any instruments or provide for the day to day running costs of the Observatory meant that the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed had to supply his own instruments as well as the paper and ink with which to record his observations. In the early days, he was fortunate to have the patronage of Sir Jonas Moore who provided him with a number of instruments (see below).
In 1711, Flamsteed, whose gross salary was just £100 a year, estimated that he had spent £2000 of his own money on instruments and assistants. Unsurprisingly, when Flamsteed died, his widow stripped the observatory of all its contents, including the instruments supplied by Moore. This eventually led the government to fund the replacement of key instruments, but other costs continued to be picked up by the Astronomers Royal.
We know from Maskelyne for example, that in 1785, the cost of the tax for the 59 Observatory windows together with the ‘house-tax’ came to £14 and that he had to pay it from his own pocket. As Window Tax was first introduced in 1696, it was presumably also paid by his predecessors. Maskelyne appears also to have been responsible for paying for the heating and lighting bills for the whole Observatory from his personal income. Like Flamsteed, Maskelyne too subsidised the employment of an assistant, adding a further £34 each year to the Assistant’s salary of £26 between 1765 and 1771.
Maskelyne appears to have been the last Astronomer Royal to make up the shortcomings of government funding from his own pocket.
When Flamsteed was first appointed, Sir Jonas Moore, Surveyor General at the Board of Ordnance acted as his Patron. Moore provided Flamsteed with the following at his own expense.
Until Flamsteed received an inheritance enabling to construct his mural arc in 1689, the Equatorial Sextant was the most used telescope at the Observatory. Flamsteed came to regard Moore’s gift as being to him personally rather than to the institution.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seven benefactors, gave the Observatory a total of nine large telescopes, each designed for a fixed equatorial mounting. Each is named after its benefactor. In order of their acquisition (with dates) the instruments were:
Shuckburgh 4.1-inch Refractor (1811)
Sheepshanks 6.7-inch Refractor (1838) – lens only
Lassell 2-foot Reflector (1847)
Thompson 9-inch Photoheliograph (1891)
Thompson 26-inch Photographic Refractor (1896)
Thompson 30-inch Photographic Reflector (1896)
Yapp 36-inch Reflector (1932)
Newbegin 6¼-inch refractor (1947)
30-inch Steavenson Reflector (1956)
Of the nine telescopes, four were pre-existing. Of these, two were given by the heirs of their original owners (the Shuckburgh and Lassell) and two by their living owners (the Newbegin and Steavenson). Of the others, the three Thompson telescopes and Yapp reflector were specially commissioned for the Observatory and paid for by their benefactors. The gift from Sheepshanks consisted of the Object Glass only.
All nine instruments were equatorially mounted, and as such, were used for work which lay largely outside the Observatory’s original remit. Between the first and last donations, just three large equatorials were purchased for the Observatory at government expense – the 12.8-inch Merz, the 13-inch Astrographic and the 28-inch Refractors.
Although the Admiralty was relieved the expense of purchasing the greater portion of the Observatory’s large equatorials, it did, in most cases have to pay for their buildings, and in all cases have to fund the staffing and associated costs of using them.
The Shukburgh and Lassell telescopes both turned out to be useless, a fact that only became apparent after the considerable expenditure of time and effort.
In 1934/35, HR Fry offered the Observatory a free pendulum clock to supplement the Shortt clocks that it already owned. The new clock, which incorporated the free pendulum from his own clock Shortt 40, was completed in 1936.