The First / Chief Assistants and the Deputy Directors

The most senior people at the Observatory after the Astronomers Royal and Directors were the First / Chief Assistants and the Deputy Directors. The powers and responsibilities assigned to them were normally quite limited.


The origins of the terms First Assistant and Chief Assistant

From 1675 until Pond’s arrival in 1811, the Astronomer Royal normally had the help of a single paid assistant – the main exception being the period 1720–1742 while Halley was in office, when there are thought to have been none. Under Pond, the number of assistants was gradually increased to six, with the most senior becoming known as the First Assistant. In about 1870, the term Chief Assistant began to be used instead, probably to avoid confusion with the new grade of First Class Assistant that was about to be created.

From 1896 onwards, the Observatory had two Chief Assistant posts. The title of Chief Assistant seems to have gradually faded away following Woolley’s arrival as Astronomer Royal in 1956. The last time that the post is referred to in the Annual Reports to the Board of Visitors is in 1957.


La Crème de la Crème

The first First Assistant (Taylor) acquired the position by default as the longest serving member of staff. With the exception of Dunkin, all subsequent First and Chief Assistants until Atkinson’s appointment in the 1930s were exceptional maths graduates from Cambridge who tended to be recruited into post more or less straight from university. All were wranglers i.e. had first class degrees. Main was sixth wrangler (sixth in his class), Stone was fifth wrangler, Christie was fourth wrangler, Turner and Dyson were both second wranglers and their successors Cowell and Eddington both senior wranglers (top of their class). In 1910, rankings ceased to be made public, so the rankings of the remainder are unknown. This manner of selecting Chief Assistants was criticised by David Gill, Her Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope (1879–1907), who said ‘They enter into chief positions where they have to superintend men who know much more about practical work than they do, and they have to pick up what they can of a hard and fast hide-bound system – which they are taught to regard as unquestionably superior to all others’.

Those who held the post of First or Chief Assistant typically went on to run an observatory of their own. They posts they went on to hold include those of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland (Dyson), His/Her Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape (Stone, Spencer Jones and Jackson), Radcliffe Observer (Main and Stone), Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford (Turner), Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge (Eddington) and Astronomer Royal at Greenwich (Christie, Dyson, Spenser Jones and Woolley).

The First / Chief Assistants were not the only wranglers to be employed at the Observatory. Between 1873 and 1892, three of the eight Second Class Assistants recruited were wranglers. These were: Crommelin who was 27th wrangler, Bryant (21st) and Hudson (17th). Their starting salaries were just 40% of that of the First Assistants.


Ambiguity in the 1930s and 1950s

When the Astronomer Royal resumed responsibility for the Nautical Almanac in 1936, its new Superintendent, Donald Sadler, was appointed on the same lower salary scale as the two Chief Assistants. In the staff lists in the annual reports to the Board of Visitors he is listed until 1949 as ‘Chief Assistant as Superintendent’ [of the Nautical Almanac Office]. In 1949, during a major regrading exercise, the three Chief Assistant level posts were graded at Senior Principal Scientific Officer level. The annual reports from that time onwards no longer refer to Sadler as a Chief Assistant, but the title of Chief Assistant remained in use in the reports for the other Chief Assistant posts until 1957. Its use there ceased when, following the resignation of Gold in 1956, Atkinson was promoted on individual merit to the Deputy Chief Scientific Officer grade. He was the first of several individuals at the Observatory to hold a post at this level.

Olin Eggen came to the Observatory from America in 1956 to fill a vacancy left by Gold. Appointed like Gold at the SPSO grade, he is often referred to as Woolley’s Chief Assistant. However although Atkinson was specifically listed as Chief Assistant in the 1957 Report to the Board of Visitors, Eggen was not. It is not clear therefore if he was appointed simply to a vacany at SPSO level, or to the post of Chief Assistant at SPSO level. There appears to be an absence of papers that might resolve the matter in the archives at Cambridge. Eggen left the Observatory in 1961, returning briefly at the DCSO(?) grade in the mid 1960s.


Chief Assistants acquired with the Cape Observatory

When The Greenwich Observatory took over Her Majesty’s Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope in 1959, it acquired another officer at the Chief Assist Grade in the form of David Evans. When Evans resigned to take up the Chair of Astronomy at the University of Texas in September 1968, he was not replaced


The post of Deputy Director … and more ambiguity

If Alan Hunter’s obituary is to be believed, the formal post of Deputy Director first appeared in 1967. According to Wilkins, the title merely recognised the job Hunter had been doing since 1961. Exactly who else held the post of Deputy Director and the extent of their duties is difficult to ascertain due the absence / unavailability of any official reports or personnel details. Wilkins reports that he was the last person to hold the post at Herstmonceux.


First Assistants

1811–1835        Thomas Taylor
1835–1860        Robert Main
1860–1870        Edward Stone


Chief Assistants

1870                 Edward Stone*
1870–1881        William Christie  (AR 1881–1910)
1881–1884        Edwin Dunkin
1884–1894        Herbert Turner
1894–1905        Frank Dyson (AR 1910–1933)
1896–1910        Philip Cowell
1906–1913        Arthur Eddington
1910–1914        Sydney Chapman (re-appointed in an honorary capacity May 1916 to Dec 1918)
1913–1923        Harold Spencer Jones (AR 1933–1955)
1914–1933        John Jackson
1924–1937        William Greaves
1934–1937        Richard Woolley (AR 1956–1971)
1937–1949        (Donald Harry Sadler (Superintendent of the NAO. Retired 1971))**
1937–1957        Robert d'Escourt Atkinson (Promoted to DCSO 1957, Retired 1964)**
1938–1945        Henry Rainsford Hulme
1945–1952        One post vacant
1952–1956        Thomas Gold
1956–1961        Olin Eggen**

*Originally appointed as First Assistant, Stone is referred to as Chief Assistant in the 1871 Report of the Astronomer Royal to the Board of Visitors.

** See notes above


Chief Assistant at the Cape of Good Hope

1959–1968        David Evans to Sept 1968 Chief Assistant at the Cape*

Evans was originally appointed to this position in 1953 when the Cape Observatory was being run as a separate institution


Deputy Directors

1967–1973        Alan Hunter
1980–1981        George Wilkins
1990–1991        Paul Murdin
199?–1998        Neil Parker

This list should be read in conjunction with the notes above.