Herstmonceux – people, politics and changing priorities

After years of deteriorating conditions at Greenwich, the Observatory moved to Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex. The move began in 1948, but was only completed in 1957. The Observatory remained at Herstmonceux until the end of the 1980s when it was moved to Cambridge. This page should be read in conjunction with:

Deteriorating conditions at Greenwich and the selection of the new location for the Observatory
The buildings and grounds at Herstmonceux

Staffing Problems after the war

The logistics of relocating to Herstmonceux were formidable, for although the castle buildings and accompanying war time huts were a good start in terms of accommodation; money for the project was tight and likely to come in dribs and drabs; there was a shortage of local housing for the staff and there were serious issues as a result of the war on the staffing front. Spencer Jones spelt out the position in his 1946 report:

Philip Laurie at Greenwich in about 1948. The photo was probably taken shortly before his grading was changed from Junior Assistant to the new grade of Experimental Officer and shows him posing for the press at the microscopes of the Airy Transit Circle. He worked for the solar department and is thought to have moved to Herstmonceux in 1949. Humphry Smith Photographic Archive

‘The staffing position at the present time is a source of much concern. Some of the senior staff have passed the normal age for retirement. Some of the departments are seriously understaffed. The recruitment of new staff is made difficult because of present uncertainties about future grading. Although the Royal Observatory is the oldest scientific institution in Great Britain, it was not included amongst the establishments to which the recommendation, of the Carpenter Committee on the grading and terms of service of scientific staffs were applied. The terms of service of the Junior Assistants (Higher Grade and Lower Grade) in the Royal Observatory, including the Nautical Almanac Office, have been related to clerical grades in the Civil Service. In consequence, these grades have been recruited from persons with no basic training in science. As the work of the Observatory has widened in scope, the need for staff with specialized training and experience has increased. If the Royal Observatory is to be able to continue to make important contributions to the development of astronomical science, it is of vital importance that the basic grades should be recruited at a higher level. This matter is the concern not merely of the Royal Observatory; upon it depends in large measure the future of astronomical research in Great Britain. The great national observatory should provide one of the main outlets for research graduates in astronomy from the Universities. Proposals have been submitted for regrading the staff of the Royal Observatory, including the Nautical Almanac Office, on the basis of the reorganised Scientific Civil Service. Until there is a favourable decision on these proposals, the recruitment of staff to fill these vacancies will present special difficulties, because the salaries and prospects of promotion at the Observatory under in other present system of grading are markedly inferior to those of other scientific establishments.’

Completion of the regrading finally took place during the reporting year 1948/1949.


The Isaac Newton Telescope – a telescope for the use of all British Astronomers

For most people, the name of Isaac Newton conjures up visions of a great scientist. For the Royal Observatory, the name has often been associated with trouble. So it was when Flamsteed fell foul of Newton in the early days of the Observatory, and so it was again, when the tercentenary of his birth came to be celebrated in the 1940s. The legacy of those celebrations was the 98-inch Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) … and with it, the eventual closure of the Royal Observatory.

The Isaac Newton Telescope, November 1967. Ministry of Works photo G12042/1, Humphry Smith Photographic Archive

Other things being equal, the tercentenary celebrations should have taken place in 1942. The war caused their postponement and they eventually commenced on 15 July 1946. At the end of the war, a proposal emerged via both the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society for a large reflecting telescope for the use of all British Astronomers. A suggestion that the proposal should be linked with the forthcoming tercentenary celebrations of Newton – the man who had built the first reflecting telescope – fell on receptive ears. On the first day of the celebrations, it was announced that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had agreed to ask Parliament to vote funds for an observatory with a 100-inch telescope to be known as the Isaac Newton Telescope.

An independent Management Board was set up. Chaired by the Astronomer Royal, it met for the first time in July 1947. The site chosen for the telescope was the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux – it had after all only recently been chosen as the best available site in England for the Royal Observatory itself, and half the funding was in any case to come from the Admiralty. In 1949, a gift of a 98-inch mirror blank that had been cast in 1936 was received from the Trustees of the McGregor Fund in America.

Progress on the project was slow, and faltering – partly because the promised funding was only released in tiny dribs and drabs, and partly because the telescope was being designed by committee without a properly designated project leader.

When Spencer Jones retired at the end of 1955, little real progress had been made. One of the first acts of his successor Woolley was to simplify the design.  By the summer of 1966 – a further ten years having passed – the fabrication of the telescope in Newcastle was virtually complete, the hemispherical framework for the dome was in place and the drum partially clad. The telescope was inaugurated by HM The Queen on 1 December 1967.

In all, the telescope had taken over 20 years to build – and during those years, the number of universities in Britain had doubled and travelling to overseas destinations had become both cheaper and subject to fewer bureaucratic restrictions. From the start there had been ongoing criticism of the project, many believing that the telescope should never have been sited at Herstmonceux, but at a better location overseas. In the end, these critics got their way. The observing programme with the INT at Herstmonceux ceased in 1979 and the telescope was re-located (in modified form) to La Palma in the Canary Islands.


Woolley takes control

When Woolley arrived from Australia to take up his post as the new Astronomer Royal, the Equatorial Group and the West Block, although now well advanced, still remained to be completed. Woolley came with an agenda to transform the Observatory into a national centre for astrophysics centred on the as yet to be completed Isaac Newton Telescope. His views on the role of the Observatory diverged sharply from those of his predecessors, who had placed great emphasis on systematic long term observing programmes – programmes that were ill fitted to university observatories. Full-scale meteorological observations were discontinued at the end of his first month in office and stopped completely on 11 June 1956. The nautical almanac work continued, but was undervalued. The solar programme was run down. Responsibility for the Chronometer Department was transferred from the Astronomer Royal to the direct control of the Hydrographic Department of the Ministry of Defence in 1965 and the geomagnetic programme transferred to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in 1967.

The staff were initially restructured into ten departments: The Astronomer Royals’, Astrometry, Astrophysics, Meridian, Time, Chronometer, Solar, Electronics and Cosmic Ray, Magnetic & Meteorological and the Nautical Almanac Office. In 1959, the Astronomer Royal also assumed overall responsibility for the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope – a responsibility that was to continue until the Combined South African Observatories took over the site at the start of 1972. Click here for details of earlier and later departmental arrangements.

The main building of the Cape Observatory in 1967. Photo courtesy of Robin Catchpole


The social scene

In the early days at Herstmonceux, people were not only working together, but in many cases, they lacked their own transport and were living alongside each other – either in the hostels or as neighbours in the specially provided council houses. This was in marked contrast to how things had been at Greenwich. Being in a rural area, it fell upon people to make their own entertainment. A Social and Sports Club was set up in October 1948. It had the use of a sports field, a tennis court and two large rooms in the huts (until they were demolished). From 1960, it also had its own purpose built clubhouse. Perhaps not surprisingly, a large number of liaisons developed. A list compiled by George Wilkins shows that by the end of the 1950s, 26 marriages had taken place between members of staff, with another 15 taking place in the 1960s. Woolley, the Astronomer Royal, was not immune. In retirement and following the death of his first wife, he married the former Canteen Manager and war widow, Emily Marples.

Students at the University of Sussex in the 1960s. From The Royal Greenwich Observatory Herstmonceux (c.1969)


The growth of the universities

Woolley’s arrival at Herstmonceux coincided with the start of a major expansion in higher education in Britain. During the 1960’s, the number of universities was to double in number, creating not only more academic posts for astronomers, but also a challenge to the way astronomy in the United Kingdom had been traditionally organised and funded. With an eye to developing talent, summer schools were inaugurated at Herstmonceux in 1956. They ran each year until 1988 and were attended by 454 students, the bulk of whom were undergraduates. Click here for a list of names. When the University of Sussex was founded in 1961, Woolley was a key figure in getting astronomy established there. The first astronomers in post were the top staff from the Observatory: Woolley himself (as visiting professor), along with his protégés Donald Lynden-Bell and Bernard Pagel as visiting readers. Courses commenced in 1965. The collaboration with the University continued until the move of the Observatory to Cambridge in the late 1980s. Click here (pdf) and here to read more about the history of astronomy at Sussex.


Overseas observing & the Herstmonceux Conferences

Although Spencer Jones, had arranged staff exchanges with the Cape Observatory, apart from eclipse expeditions, that was about the extent of any overseas observing enjoyed by his staff. Woolley on the other hand, often sent his staff on observational visits to foreign observatories. National and international links were strengthened via the annual Herstmonceux Conferences. Starting in 1957, these conferences ran throughout the Herstmonceux years, and continued under the same title at Cambridge. The 39th and final conference was held in July 1998.


Dissatisfaction with the Admiralty funding model

Unhappy with the way the Observatory was funded, in 1958, Woolley 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. In the event, 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 Trend Report – the promise of a bright future?

Between them, these three Government Reports were to shape the scientific and technological efforts of the country for a generation. All were published within a few months of each other during the second half of 1963. From left to right, they were known as the Fielden Report, the Robbins Report and the Trend Report after the names of their respective chairmen. In February 1964, the Department for Education and Science (DES) was formed though a merger of the Department of Education and the Office of the Minister of Science. Its first secretary of state was Quintin Hogg

The Committee of Enquiry into the Organisation of Civil Science was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Burke Trend in March 1962. Its report (Cmnd.2171), was published in October 1963. It made a total of 15 detailed recommendations which included the following.

‘The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (D.S.I.R)  should be dissolved and its functions distributed amongst three new research agencies’ (para.120(i)).

‘A new Science Research Council (SRC) should be established’ (para.120(iv)) that ‘would assume from D.S.I.R the responsibility for supporting the relevant research in universities and similar institutions; and that this would be its primary responsibility’ (para.66). The Council should also assume direct control over the Royal Observatories’ (the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE) which at that time was funded by grant-in-aid direct from the Treasury (para.120(iv)).’

Before acting on the Report, the Government sought the views of those parties that would be directly affected. The initial response of the Head of the Admiralty’s Civil Establishments (CE) Branch II was one of caution, as by his estimate, over half of the work carried out by the RGO was of direct benefit to the Admiralty (ADM1/28372). This included the work of both the Nautical Almanac Office and the Chronometer Department. On 29 November, Woolley met with the Hydrographer and other senior Admiralty officials (ADM1/28555, ADM1/28999 & ADM190/6). Woolley was keen on the transfer of the RGO and Cape Observatory to the SRC. He also thought that the Observatory’s Board of Visitors should be preserved. Consideration was given as to whether the responsibility for the Observatory should be split between the SRC and the Admiralty, with the Astronomer Royal being responsible to the Admiralty of the work of the Nautical Almanac Office and Chronometer Department. Given the complexities of such an arrangement, it was decided that the most desirable solution was for the RGO to be transferred to the SRC with the Admiralty buying such services as it required on a repayment basis in much the same way as the R.A.F. did for work that was done on its behalf at the Observatory. The Admiralty also thought it desirable that they should still have a say in the general running of the Observatories via an Admiralty representative on the Board of Visitors.

On 9 December, the RGO’s Board of Visitors held an extraordinary General Meeting at the Royal Society in Burlington House (ADM 1/28999 & ADM 190/6). Howard Florey (President of the Royal Society) was in the Chair. Others in attendance were: Irving (the Hydrographer of the Navy), Redman, Blackwell, McCrea, Ryle, Waterfield, Allen, Hoyle, and Stibbs with Woolley and Gordon Sutherland (Director of the National Physical Laboratory) in attendance.

Item 6 on the agenda was: The place of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in the future structure for British Optical Astronomy in the light of the Trend Recommendations. The Chairman started the discussion by saying

‘that they had now come to the real business of their meeting which was to indicate whether they saw value in their Board’s continuation as an effective instrument after the changes brought about by Trend had been put into effect and whether they should use the present opportunity to act as a forum of informed opinion to comment generally on the Trend proposal and, if so, how and to whom, the comments should be addressed.’

Woolley then said:

‘that he had been very satisfied with the administration of the Royal Greenwich Observatory by the Admiralty under which he had absolute discretion to decide the research programmes, except in one respect; there has been difficulty over capital projects. The existing arrangements did not allow the Royal Greenwich Observatory to receive grants from D.S.I.R. For this reason, he welcomed the Trend Recommendations’.

Following further discussions it was agreed:

a) that generally the Board of Visitors agreed in the Proposal of the basic Trend Proposal that the Royal Observatories should transfer to the Science Research Council providing there were safeguards on the administrative structure and that at the appropriate time closer examination and consultation be granted on the precise allocation of Astronomy in the proposed Divisions under the S.R.C.

b) that an independent body, such as the Board of Visitors which monitored the research work being done but had no administrative responsibilities, was a useful adjunct highly valued by the Astronomer Royal, to the effective running of the Royal Greenwich Observatory which included the Cape of Good Hope Observatory,

c) that under the changes likely to be brought into effect by Trend, the continuation of the Board of Visitors was recommended provided that the responsibility for its composition remained with the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society thus preserving its independence,  

d) that the Astronomer Royal should continue to enjoy the right, as now under the Admiralty organization, of being solely responsible for determining the programmes of researches in optical astronomy researches, subject only, in this respect, to monitoring by the Board of Visitors,

e) that under the change of organization the Astronomer Royal should assume responsibility for day to day administration of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and Cape of Good Hope Observatory, in a manner similar to that presently exercised by the Director in relation to the National Physical Laboratory,

f) that the Hydrographer of the Navy, representing Service interests in the work of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, should continue to be ex officio a member of the Board of Visitors, under any new arrangements.

g) that the title of Astronomer Royal be retained in any reorganization,

h) that the President of the Royal Society should be invited to write to the Minister for Science conveying the views of the meeting under (a) to (g) above.

As well as writing to the Minister on behalf of the Board of Visitors, Florey also wrote to him separately on behalf of the Royal Society. According to Peter Collins (A role in running UK science), Florey was keen to both maintain and extend the influence of the Royal Society and it certainly would have suited him for the Board of Visitors to continue. Indeed by the time the Board met, he had already stated this to the Minister in a response to the Report on behalf or the Society.

The next meeting of the Board was held on 5 June 1964. There, it was announced that the Minister had replied to Florey’s letter on 19 December and had stated that he noted that the Board agreed that the Observatories should be transferred to the Science Research Council and ‘thought that the further points made were matters which would have to be considered at a later stage when the main framework had been decided and decisions were being taken on the structure and organisation of any new bodies’.

What seems striking is just how inward looking Woolley and his Board of Visitors appear to have been. There is no evidence that they discussed or considered the wider implications of the Trend Report, for example:

  • the likely impact on the amount of time that would need to be spent on administration

  • how the future demands of the universities in the field of astronomical research might impact on the running, organisation or even the future existence of the Observatory.

Whilst it might be argued that such discussions at this time would have been premature as there were no detailed proposals being put forward by Government, there was no guarantee of any further consultation taking place prior to the Observatory’s transfer to the SRC if it were to be set up.

As things turned out, there was to be no further consultation with the Board. Although they didn’t know it at the time, the June 1964 meeting of the Board was the last one ever to be held. At this point, although it seemed likely that control of the Observatory would pass to a new body – the proposed Science Research Council – the decision of the Minister for Science was by no means a certainty. Whatever the outcome, the Board were confident that they would continue to have a role to play and duly set the date for the 1965 meeting as the second Saturday in June. In the event, they never met again.


The creation of the Science Research Council (SRC)

The organisation of civil science wasn’t the only thing that to be reorganised in the early 1960s, so too was the Admiralty. 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.

On 23 March 1965, the Science and Technology Act 1965, received Royal assent. A week later, on 1 April, the new Science Research Council was incorporated under Royal Charter and took control of the Observatory apart from the Chronometer Department which, although it remained at Herstmonceux, was put in the direct control of the Hydrographic Department of the Ministry of Defence.

The Chronometer Section staff on the roof of the West Building in 1964. Back row (left to right): Bill Roseman, George Wilkins, Keith Jarrett, George Misson, Roy Shergold, Bert West, Chris Young, Roger Maber, John Beck, Robin Thatcher, Ron Miles, Danny Spellman, Ashley Adams, Ken Ulrick, Colin Driscol, Robin Bowie. Front row (left to right): John Barker, Alan Philcox, Cyril Taylor, Eric Mitchell, Ron Butler, John Strevett, Frank Child, Cliff Woods, Frank Heaton. Photo by Robin Bowie courtesy of Robin Thatcher

Richard Woolley by Bassano Ltd. Half-plate film negative, 2 June 1965. National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) licence (see below)

At this point, the Observatory’s Board of Visitors was effectively abolished. As an act of appeasement a smaller Royal Greenwich Observatory (Advisory) Committee was established as one of the Council’s many Committees. Since it was no longer independent or chaired by the President of the Royal Society, it was rather toothless. Whilst the original Board had had 17 members; the new Committee had just 10. Of the original 17, just 4 joined the Committee. Other members of the Committee included Woolley and as requested by the Admiralty, the Hydrographer of the Navy. It held its first meeting on 12 February 1966, under the chairmanship of William McCrea, of the University of Sussex. Meanwhle, the Board of Visitors was formally dissolved by Royal Warrant on 27 August 1965.

Writing to Stoy (HM Astronomer at the Cape) on 25 May 1965, Woolley enthused: ‘I think that the change to SRC is a wholly good thing for both our observatories, not only from the point of view of finance but also from the point of view of conditions of service of staff and promotion.’ (RGO10/735). How wrong he turned out to be. The plus side for the Observatory was the loosening of the shackles by which it had been partly bound as a utilitarian naval observatory. The downside was that it lost a loyal champion and stable source of funding and now had to compete for funding both with other astronomers and other scientific disciplines. In short, it had to fend for itself in a dog eat dog environment where feuds, personal animosity,  personal agendas, Government dogma or a funding crisis could carry as much or more sway than any logical argument. Apart from an increase in bureaucracy there was little impact on the day-to-day running of the astronomy programme at Herstmonceux during the remainder of Woolley’s period in office. The changes put in place following his departure not only came as a shock, they fundamentally changed the nature of the Observatory and the roles of those employed there.


The Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) and the Northern Hemisphere Observatory (NHO)

From the first, Woolley was active in promoting the concept of building for the UK, a large telescope in Australia, resisting pressure for the UK to join the European Southern Observatory (ESO) instead. For ten years, UK discussions on optical astronomy were dominated by this single topic. Eventually, in 1967, the UK and Australian Governments entered into a formal agreement to construct a 150-inch telescope at Siding Spring – the Anglo-Australian Telescope. First Light took place on 27 April 1974. A major consequence of this decision was the withdrawal in 1971 of financial support for the Cape Observatory.

Having made their decision to proceed with the Anglo-Austrailian Telescope, the SRC embarked on a review of the facilities available in the Northern Hemisphere. To this end, a Northern Hemisphere Review Committee (NHRC) was established. Woolley was one of its seven members. Another was Brück (the Astronomer Royal for Scotland), whilst Lovell and Hoyle (who took the chair), were former members of the Board of Visitors. Also in attendance, were two expatriate astronomers, Wallace Sargent (who had been Senior Research Fellow at Herstmonceux from 1962–4) and the often outspoken Geoffrey Burbidge.

The committee met on a number of occasions in 1969. Whilst there was agreement on the need for a major new telescope on a suitable overseas site, there was a major disagreement over how the building and operation of the telescope should be organised. On the agenda for the meeting on 31 July, was a paper signed by Burbidge,  Burbidge’s astronomer wife (Eleanor) Margaret and Sargent, which attacked the INT and the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO). They considered that

‘it would be folly on the part of the S.R.C to go ahead with a Northern Hemisphere large telescope if any part of its development or organisation is to be put in the hands of the present R.G.O’. (St John’s College Library, Papers of Sir Fred Hoyle, 9/4/1).

Such were the disagreements on the committee, that the final report submitted in 1970, was never published.


The SRC bungles Woolley’s Succession

Much of the material in this section has been drawn from the following sources:

At the time of writing, the following file (which under normal circumstances would have been available for access after 30 years), was still a closed source because its contents are presumably deemed likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress to an individual (assumed to be Margaret Burbidge). While Burbidge remains alive, the file seems unlikely to be opened. She celebrated her 100th birthday in August 2019.

  • Records of the Prime Minister’s Office: PREM15/1887 (Prime Minister concerned over press reports that Professor Margaret Burbidge, Director of Royal Observatory, might resign because of her dissatisfaction with state of optical astronomy in UK)

In early 1970, Brian Flowers, chairman of the SRC, began the process of recruiting a replacement for Woolley who was due to retire at the end of 1971. According to Lovell, there were concerns held by many ‘in the wider scientific community that the privileges and power exercised by the successive Astronomers Royal were unjustified in the contemporary context of scientific research in the UK’. This coupled with the expanding radio astronomy and space research programmes (in which the Royal Observatory had no involvement), together with the difficulties that had been exposed in the report of the NHRC, led Flowers to a personal view that the title of Astronomer Royal should no longer go automatically to the Director of the Observatory.

Brian Flowers by Bassano Ltd. Half-plate film negative, 14 October 1970. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Soundings about possible candidates for the post of Director were initiated in August. The 31 potential candidates, who emerged, were whittled down to ten at the first meeting of the Electoral board in October. The board consisted of eight members, including the radio astronomer Bernard Lovell. At its second meeting in December 1970, there was unanimous agreement that Maarten Schmidt was the strongest candidate. An informal approach was made and Schmidt indicated his interest, having assumed that the post being talked about was that of Astronomer Royal.

Meanwhile, the Board had been seeking constitutional advice from the Government’s Law Officers as to whether or not there was any a statutory impediment to the title of Astronomer Royal being held by anyone not of British birth. The reply when it eventually came was that there was. This was a result of the Act of Settlement of 1700. It appears that it was only at this point that the Queen was consulted by the Prime Minister about the separation of the two posts. At first she expressed doubts as to the wisdom of divorcing the two appointments and suggested that the title of Astronomer Royal might be put into abeyance during Schmidt’s Directorship of Herstmonceux. In the end however she was persuaded and agreed ‘that the title of Astronomer Royal should go to the most important person in the whole field of British astronomy’, and that under the arrangements that were then in place, that this might well be someone other than the Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory’. By the time this matter was resolved, it was early April 1971.

A few days later, a formal offer of the post of Director, but not of Astronomer Royal was made to Schmidt. He turned it down, believing the post to have been diminished. Of the remaining nine candidates under consideration, the Board wheedled out those it felt would be very unlikely to accept. There were soon just two names left. On 21 July, the post was offered to a former Chief Assistant, Thomas Gold. He also declined. On the same day, Hunter circulated a note to the senior staff at Herstmonceux to inform them that the SRC was about to announce that after Woolley’s retirement the title of Astronomer Royal would no longer go automatically to the Director of the RGO. The formal announcement was made from 10 Downing Street the following day.

After Gold had turned down the post, Flowers, along with the Board’s secretary began talks with Margaret Burbidge. By her own account, she did ‘not have the temperament to direct a major scientific establishment’ and explained this to Flowers, suggesting to him that her husband Geoffrey did, and that the post should be offered to him.

According to Burbidge, the press came to hear that she was a possible candidate and, she was informed in a telephone call that things would be bad for the future of UK astronomy and the Northern Hemisphere Observatory’ if she were to refuse the job. She was also told that a senior SRC appointment would be offered to her husband so that she could continue her work with him at Herstmonceux.

On 16 September, Flowers informed the Department of Education and Science (DES) – from whom the Science Research Council received its funding – that Burbidge had provisionally accepted their offer, her main proviso being that ‘suitable arrangements should be made for her to have the full collaboration and support of her husband in the running of the Observatory and in the development of her plans for the future of astronomy in the UK’. The board had to wait until 20 September to hear of these developments. Finally, on 1 October, Flowers was able to inform the Board that Burbidge had been appointed as Director and would take up her appointment during the summer of 1972.

Meanwhile, civil servants had been tossing around various names as to who might be appointed Astronomer Royal. There were three people under consideration, Fred Hoyle, and the radio astronomers Bernard Lovell and Martin Ryle. Carl Sagan had been suggested, but was never in serious contention.

Then on 7 October a briefing note (ED273/20) was prepared for the Secretary of State who at that time was no less a person than the future Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The note outlined the position as it then stood with regards to Burbidge and went on to spell out an unwelcome intervention that Flowers had made in the process of appointing the new Astronomer Royal.

Thatcher was appalled by what she read, and began to mark up the document in her own characteristic way. She took particular offence at the paragraph that read:

‘Dr Burbidge has always insisted that her husband, with whom she has worked in close professional partnership, should be found a job that would associate him with her work. I have asked Mr Carswell to clear with CSD a proposal that a new DCSO post should be found at Herstmonceux; this will be acceptable to Dr Burbidge and Sir Brian Flowers.’

She underlined the phrase ‘should be found a job’, wrote a large ‘No’ in the margin, circled it, and added the comment:

‘If any consent from me is required for this it will not be forthcoming. When I came here [to the Department of Education and Science] I did not set a condition that my husband should be a Permanent Secretary in Chief – and I should have got a pretty straight answer if I had.’  

As regards the appointment of the Astronomer Royal, it seems that Flowers had come to the view that Burbidge would be the best person for the job and had canvassed her name with the other three candidates (who may or may not of known that they were in the running) ‘and got them to agree that she would fill the post with distinction’. Thatcher’s permanent secretary, Sir William Pile, who had written the briefing note included the comment: ‘It strikes me as wrong of Sir Brian Flowers to have approached the other candidates in this way […] and to be seeking to express a presumptive view in what is essentially a Royal prerogative’. Thatcher heartily agreed.

The note went on to ask Thatcher if she might talk to the Observatory staff about the separation of the two roles. She wrote in the margin ‘Quite prepared to see the staff side – but on later events I shall tell them they are not the only people who can complain about lack of consultation’.

Thatcher’s officials sensed that she favoured appointing one of the radio astronomers to the post of Astronomer Royal. However, she also floated the idea of appointing not one, but two Astronomers Royal – one for optical astronomy and one for radio astronomy. This was not to be. But there was a further difficulty. The announcement of the splitting of the two posts and the appointment of Burbidge while Woolley was still in office, had left open the possibility of Woolley continuing to lay claim to the title – something that he was to subsequently make a joke of in an interview in The Guardian on 13 November 1971.

Communications continued between Thatcher’s department, number 10 and Flowers. The Royal Society was consulted through their President. Ryle was their number one choice, and Hoyle their number two. Hoyle then made his selection impossible by resigning his position at Cambridge in a huff, a possible (though probably unlikely) consequence of which was that he might end up a future employee of the RGO under Burbidge – a situation that would have been completely untenable. Thatcher and her Department were never in favour of Burbidge, as Astronomer Royal but were conscious of the political difficulties that not appointing her might have with both the SRC and the staff of the RGO. The decision to reject her was made easier by an assurance given by Flowers that the SRC would accept the appointment of Burbidge, Ryle or Lovell. Of the two radio astronomers, Ryle because of his support from the Royal Society and was considered the front runner.

Meanwhile, there was still the somewhat fudged issue as to whether or not Woolley still held the title. To resolve this once and for all, on 16 May 1972, a letter was sent to him from Downing Street to let him know that it was the intention of the Queen to shortly appoint a new Astronomer Royal and to convey her gratitude for his distinguished service during the years in which he held this office. In effect, he was being put on notice that his tenure as Astronomer Royal was about to be terminated. This done, the Prime Minister wrote to Ryle on 25 May, asking if he would be happy for his name to be put to the Queen as Woolley’s successor. Ryle agreed and the matter was put to the Queen who approved the appointment. An announcement to this effect was made from Downing Street on 27 June.

Woolley retired as planned at the end of 1971 and Hunter, who had been passed over for promotion, became Acting Director. He held this post for a little over six months until the arrival of Burbidge on 12 July 1972. But such were her misgivings about the post, that neither she nor her husband resigned from their posts in California. Within two months of her arrival, she was contemplating resignation. She was later to recount in her paper Watcher of the Skies:

‘It quickly became apparent that the RGO Herstmonceux staff was divided into two halves. There were our good friends the Pagels and the younger astronomers, largely recruited by Woolley, whose overriding interest was in astronomical research, together with the astronomy department at Sussex University. And there were what I came to label “the old guard” – the sunspot and solar astronomers, the Nautical Almanac group, the Time Service group and two groups who wielded much power – “staff side,” and the union. Almost immediately after my arrival, the research astronomers were asking me how soon I would manage to engineer the moving of the Isaac Newton 100-inch telescope (INT) to a good site, out of England […] The first staff meeting of the senior staff was attended by myself and, by my invitation, Geoff [Burbidge]. The kindest of “the old guard” was clearly deputed to come to my office sometime afterwards, and to tell me as gently as he could, that Geoff would not be welcome at any future meetings. This caused me much distress, and was clearly out of the spirit of the implied – but only implied, promises of the SRC. We endured the situation for a few weeks, then Geoff and our daughter left Herstmonceux and returned to La Jolla [in California]. […]

Efforts to initiate plans for moving the INT, when a good NHO site had been found, met bitter opposition form the old guard staff, and the local Hailsham dignitaries […] Never one to suffer fools gladly, Geoff wrote what became a famous letter to Nature (Burbidge 1972) exposing the situation at Herstmonceux. Brian Flowers summoned us both to his office in London, and a bitter confrontation ensued.’

Geoffrey Burbidge’s letter to Nature was published on 8 September 1972. In it, he described British Optical Astronomy as third rate, and went on to list what he regarded as eight key mistakes that had been made in British Optical Astronomy since the war and how they could be fixed. This washing of astronomy's dirty linen in public, produced shock waves across the establishment that eventually reached the very top of the British Government.

The letter was picked up by the Science Correspondent of The Times, who published it in a rehashed form on 11 September under the headline: ‘Leading astronomer may go to US’. This was read by the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who asked his Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Allan Cottrell, to fill him in on the background. By then, Cottrell was already on the case, as was Lord Jellicoe, Minister in charge for the Civil Service Department (CSD), Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal in which capacity he had special responsibility at Ministerial level for co-ordination of policy on research and development issues.

In an update to Robert Armstrong, Heath’s Principle Private Secretary, Cottrell wrote:

‘There are many distinguished astronomers who disagree vehemently with what he [Burbidge] said. And there are others, just as distinguished, who agree strongly with him. It is that kind of subject.’

Earlier, on 20 October, Thatcher had informed Jellicoe that Brian Flowers was ‘satisfied that Margaret Burbidge was not a party to her husband’s letter and did not support his action’. She went on to say that his ‘position in this country is now uncertain. His denigrating attitude towards other leading astronomers has made him unacceptable to many, and he has been rejected for professorships by Cambridge, London and the Royal Society.’ Adding: ‘This may have much to do with his recent outburst.’ Burbage had however been offered a Chair at the University of Sussex which he had declined and had belatedly been offered a special merit DCSO post by the SRC (equivalent to a professorship), to which he has not yet responded. This was eventually rejected as well.

The important question to those in government was whether or not Margaret Burbidge would resign. In a briefing note to the Prime Minister, Cottrell stated that:

‘if she does, it will not be because of the state of British Optical Astronomy, because she knows she is there to put it right, but because of personal reasons. Regrettably, it will I believe depend on a struggle between husband and wife. I think in the end, she will put her marriage first and hence will be forced to resign unless her husband gets an appointment in this country to his satisfaction.’

In the event, Burbidge stayed on for almost ‘one and a half unhappy years’ resigning with effect from 30 November 1973. During this time, she spent much time away in Australia and America and was relieved by others of the majority of her administrative tasks.

Alan Hunter was appointed as her replacement – but being close to retirement he was little more than a stopgap. His appointment was announced together with Burbidge's resignation on 19 October 1973. Unlike Burbidge who seems to have been appointed because she was ‘arguably the World’s best optical astronomer’, Hunter was appointed because ‘though not an astronomer of world rank scientifically’ he was highly respected in the astronomy community, and had acted as Director during the interregnum between Woolley and Burbidge, during which time, he ‘began to change the organisation and tone of the establishment in the way desired by the Council’ so that the RGO could support the whole university astronomy programme more effectively than in the past.

The process of appointing Hunter’s successor was handled by Sam Edwards, Flowers’s successor at the SRC. The post was formally advertised in May 1974 and Francis Graham Smith’s appointment announced in August 1974. Smith, a radio astronomer now more generally styled as Graham-Smith, joined the Observatory as Director Designate on 1 October 1974, before taking up his appointment as Director on 1 January 1976.


Fundamental Change

Back in 1965, when the SRC was created, three boards were established to enable it to carry out its work effectively – these were the Astronomy Space and Radio Board (ASRB) which became responsible for the RGO and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh establishments, the Nuclear Physics Board (NPB) and the University Science and Technology Board. Each board was supported by a number of committees.

By the time Edwards succeeded Flowers as Chairman of the Council in October 1973, the three boards had been expanded to four and the organisation had been buffeted by economic and political change, including the devaluation of the pound in 1967. Edward’s arrival coincided with both budget cuts by the Government and the start of a recession which brought with it double-digit inflation which for a while exceeded 25%.

The Royal charter by which the SRC was established listed its objects (paragraph 2.(1)) as follows (PC15/1374):

  1. To carry out research and development in science and technology.
  2. To encourage and support by any means research and development in science and technology by any other person or body.
  3. Without predudice to the foregoing paragraph [not reproduced here], to provide and operate equipment of other facilities for common use in research and development in science and technology by universities, technical colleges or other institutions or persons engaged in research.
  4. To make grants for post graduate instruction in science and technology.
  5. To disseminate knowledge concerning science and technology.

Implicit in these aims (and explicitly stated in the Trend Report) was that the SRC’s main role was to support university science and engineering. In 1972, the Government published a White Paper, Framework for Government Research and Development (Cmnd.5046), which reiterated that the primary purpose of the SRC was to sustain standards of education and research in universities (para.59). It also stated that it was responsisble for contributions to international scientific organisations such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and the European Space Research Organisation. It did not specifically mention the Royal Obervatories.

Meanwhile, plans for the NHO had been moving forward, an NHO Planning Committee had been set up to work on technical and site issues, but the organisation for running it – a National Centre, the Royal Observatories, or some kind of hybrid solution such as splitting the RGO into two separate establishments, (one dealing with the Time Service and Nautical Almanac Office and the other becoming part of a National Centre for the running of the NHO), remained unresolved.

This was one of a number of thorny problems that Edwards had to deal with during his first weeks in office. Taking a lead from the Government White Paper, Edwards took a pragmatic decision to resolve the issue that would take neither the time nor the money that would be required to either start a National Centre or to close the Royal Observatories. To this end, the committee structure of the ASRB was completely overhauled and the three establishments under its control (the two Royal Observatories and the Appleton Laboratory) given a new three-fold role. This was the first formal change in the Observatory’s function since its founding some 299 years earlier.

The primary objective of the RGO became the support of university research, particularly by the procurement and operation of large central facilities for ground-based optical astronomy, including the NHO. To this end, the telescopes in the Equatorial Group, and the major measuring machines of the Observatory joined the Isaac Newton Telescope as national facilities operated for the benefit of all UK astronomers. The second role assigned in the agreement, was to continue 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. The third role was to continue to carry out research programmes of its own and in collaboration with university astronomers, A similar structure was imposed on the ROE and the Appleton Laboratory. The impending changes to the ASRB and its establishments were explained to the astronomical community at a joint meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Science Research Council in March 1974. A verbatim report of that meeting taken together with Bernard Lovell’s paper The Genesis of the Northern Hemisphere Observatory, give a degree of insight into the thinking and preoccupations of the SRC and British astronomers at that time.

During Hunter’s brief tenure as Director, these changes which were agreed in January 1974, transformed the Observatory forever. To cope with its new responsibilities, a restructuring into five new divisions took place. The new divisions were Astrophysics, Astrometry and Galactic Astronomy, Almanacs & Time, Instrumentation & Engineering, and Administration. In addition, an NHO Project Team was assembled under the leadership of the Director Designate.

In November 1974, an important milestone in the history of the NHO was reached, when the SRC agreed the concept of an observatory comprising a 4.5m telescope (the future, though slightly smaller William Herschel (WHT)), the Isaac Newton telescope (transferred from Herstmonceux) and a 1.0m telescope (the future Jacobus Kapteyn (JKT)). The total cost was estimated at £13 million at January 1974 prices, with running costs expected to be  £1 million per year. Click here for the chronology of the Northern Hemisphere Observatory (now known as the Isaac Newton Group).

When Smith eventually took up the reigns as Director, it was the NHO, that took up most of his time. The programme of solar observations that had begun under Airy in 1874 ceased at the end at the end of 1976 when it was formally transferred to the Heliophysical Observatory, Debrecen, Hungary. The Isaac Newton Telescope was closed down on 4 March 1979, prior to being dismantled and remodelled for its new site overseas. On 26 May 1979, almost ten years after the first committee met, an agreement was signed with the Spanish for the NHO to be located on the island of La Palma. At this point, the name Northern Hemisphere Observatory and was dropped, the name La Palma being used in connection with the RGO activities on the island, until the name Isaac Newton Group was adopted. In May 1980, with the UK in deep recession, financial approval was given for the construction of the William Hershel Telescope. Smith did not see the project though to completion. He resigned in 1981 to become the new Director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory.


Downsizing and the closure of Herstmonceux

When Alec Boksenberg arrived as Smith’s successor in 1981, he came with a remit to get La Palma up and running and to reduce the headcount at Herstmonceux. The INT and JKT began scheduled use by the astronomical community in May 1984 and the WHT in August 1987.

Boksenberg’s appointment coincided with the name of the Science Research Council being changed to the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). It also came not long after Thatcher had become Prime Minister and appointed Derek Rayner to spearhead the new Conservative Government’s drive against waste and inefficiency. The 1980’s saw a series of financial crises hit the SERC, some of which were beyond its control. In 1985, it considered axing funding for the Anglo Australian Telescope which was costing it £1 million a year (the axe didn’t fall then, but the link was eventually severed in 2010). With 20% of its budget committed to international activities and contributions needing to be paid in foreign currencies, the Council was particularly vulnerable to changes in the exchange rate. In just one week, between 7 and 14 July 1986, currency fluctuations wiped £7 million from its budget. The council’s ability to plan ahead was limited because Treasury rules on public expenditure prevented it from holding large reserves in case there was a run on the pound. It was against this unfavourable background that the Observatory was required to operate.

In 1983, the Observatory was subjected to the first of what turned out to be a series of three reviews. It was also instructed to commence a rapid reduction in its staff numbers, which were expected to fall by 46% between 1980 and 1990, from 237 to 128.

The first of the reviews was a Rayner Review which was conducted by the SERC with the help of Rayner’s staff at the Management and Personnel Office in Whitehall. Although it was completed in July 1983, no mention of it was made in the Report of the Science and Engineering Research Council for the year 1983–4 which was laid before Parliament pursuant to the Science and Technology Act, 1965 on 7 November 1984. Amongst other things, it recommended the sale of Herstmonceux Castle. The Rayner Review was quickly followed up with a review conducted under Peter Willmore, chairman of the SERC’s ‘Manpower and Site Review Panel’. It reviewed the future rôles of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and suggested that savings could be made by consolidating the activities onto two sites instead of thee. The third review was conducted by the SERC Secretary’s Panel. Convened in 1985, the Panel did not come to any firm conclusions but did suggest as an option, a move of the Observatory to a university site. To cut a long story short, the SERC determined that Royal Greenwich Observatory would be moved, and in March 1986, issued a press release to this effect, stating that three options were under consideration – either the Observatory would be merged with the Royal Observatory Edinburgh on the Edinburgh site, or it would be moved to either Cambridge University or to Manchester University. The decision was seen by many as unwarranted and politically motivated, and lead to a special meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. Its convenor was the TV astronomer and writer Patrick Moore, who, because he was neither an employee of SERC nor a receipient of its funding, was not vunerable to any disciplinary action by them over his role in calling the meeting.

The meeting, took place on 6 June 1986 (Click here for a report). The view that emerged was overwhelmingly in favour of the Observatory remaining at Herstmonceux. But this counted for nothing. On 18 June 1986, the SERC decided that the Observatory would be moved 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 various reviews were widely reported. Click here for links to the articles and letters that appeared in New Scientist. They make informative reading and are highly critical of the SERC.

The Time Department at Herstmonceux began winding down in 1985 and the time desk was closed down during February 1990, the BBC taking over the generation of the six pip time signals. Part of the time desk was transferred to the Science Museum in London. The Satellite Laser Ranger was the one thing that didn’t move. On a scientific front, continuity of observation from an established site was of international importance and it was this argument won the day.

The Observatory Director, Alec Boksenberg (left), with Duncan Thomas, the BBC's Director of Resources, Radio, at the special ceremony held on 5 February 1990 to mark the hand-over of the Time Service. Photo courtesy of Patrick Moore

The Castle was placed on the market in May 1988 and sold to James Developments in May 1989. Following a report by the Audit Commission into the sale, the conduct of the SERC was questioned in the House of Commons by Charles Wardle the local MP. He argued that a significantly higher price might have been achieved if Treasury guidance had been followed and the site sold with outline planning permission. As things turned out, the outline schemes put forward by James Developments were unacceptable not only to the local planning authority, but also to English Heritage. The end result of all the delays was that the company ended up in administration. In early 1993, the Castle was purchased by Drs. Alfred and Isabel Bader and given to the Queen’s University of Ontario, Canada for use as an international study centre. Renamed the Bader International Study Centre in 2009, it was renamed as Bader College Queen's University in 2022.

Interstingly, although the Satellite Laser Ranger was retained by SERC and is now run by NERC, the freehold of the land on which it stands is owned by Queen’s University. Ownership of the building was transferred by Statutory Instrument from SERC to NERC on 1 April 1994, when SERC was split into three new research councils.

Click here to read the National Audit Office Report into the sale of the Castle



The following images are © National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) licence.

Portrait of Richard Woolley by Bassano Ltd. Half-plate film negative, 2 June 1965. National Portrait Gallery Object ID: NPG x172076.

Portraint of Brian Flowers by Bassano Ltd. Half-plate film negative, 14 October 1970. National Portrait Gallery Object ID: NPG x172718.