Until their posts were abolished in a regradinging exercise in the late 1940s, the Assistants were the most senior people at the Observatory after the Astronomer Royal and the First / Chief Assistants. There were no grades beneath them until the late 1830s, when Supernumerary Computers started to be employed as well. From 1675 until 1811, the Astronomer Royal was funded for a single paid assistant. Having said that, none appear to have been employed between 1720–1742 while Halley was in office.
Flamsteed’s assistants fall into three groups defined partly by who paid them and partly by what they did:
2. Servants, who served as amanuenses and assistants
3. Calculators, who were both paid and unpaid
In January 1675/6, Flamsteed was supplied with a labourer seconded from the Tower of London whose salary was paid by the Board of Ordnance. Some three months later, being desperately in need of a skilled individual as well, but having little prospect of having one supplied, Flamsteed also took on a servant at his own expense to assist him. Flamsteed appears to have generally only employed one servant at a time until 1694 when the Officers of the Board of Ordnance allowed him to name his own labourer, at which point he named his own servant and soon after took on a second one as well. In order to increase his income Flamsteed took in pupils who were sometimes roped in to assist with the reductions. Although Flamsteed left a list of the names of his pupils (RGO1/15/165–6), it is not know which assisted him in his work. In addition to his own pupils, Flamsteed also made use of those of his former assistant Thomas Weston.
Flamsteed left no lists of his assistants nor much by way of systematically compiled data relating to them. The list below has been compiled largely from snippets gleaned from: An account of the Revd. John Flamsteed, Francis Baily, (London, 1835) and The correspondence of John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, ed. E. G. Forbes and others, 3 vols. (1995–2001). It may or may not be complete.
|1676–1680(+?)||Cuthbert Denton||labourer from the Tower of London
||... or possibly no one for part of the period
|1676–1684||Thomas Smith||first servant|
|1684–1685||Abraham Sharp||second servant|
|1685–1688||John Stafford||third servant|
|1691–1695||Samuel Clowes||paid in lieu of labourer from 1694|
|1695–1702||James Hodgson||also known as Hodson or Hudson; paid in lieu of labourer
|1696–1706||Thomas Weston||paid in lieu of labourer from 1702
|1708–1719||Joseph Crosthwait||paid in lieu of labourer
||Luke Leigh||worked from home in Derbyshire
||William Bossley||worked from home in Derbyshire|
|1705–1719||Abraham Sharp||worked form home in Yorkshire|
|1705–1706||John Witty||lived in at the Observatory
|1708–1719||Abraham Ryley||lived in Greenwich, but not at the Observatory
The Warrant appointing Halley stipulated that as well as receiving a salary of £100, he was 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)
Although there appear to be no records of any assistants being employed by Halley, it seems unlikely that he could have run the Observatory without at least some occasional help. He may have relied on occasional visits from the instrument maker George Graham, who we know was there with James Bradley on 1 September 1726 helping with the adjustment of the Transit Instrument. We also know that John Bevis was there in 1737 as there is a record of him having observed the occultation of Mercury by Venus.
Although Bliss died on 2 September 1764, Maskelyne was not appointed as his successor until 8 February 1765. Meanwhile, Charles Green continued as Assistant, apparently making his last observation on 15 March 1765, the day before Maskelyne took up residence.
Maskelyne generally only ever employed one assistant at any one time, and by and large, there was always an assistant in post. Over his 46 years as Astronomer Royal, 26 different individuals held the post of assistant, with three being re-employed on a second occasion. Their length of service varied enormously, with many only staying for a few weeks or months. On 19 May 1787, when turnover had been particularly high, Maskelyne compiled a list of over 40 individuals who might be able to recommend suitable candidates. At the same time, he recorded the ‘Qualities to be required for an Assistant’:
‘To understand Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Plane & spherical trigonometry, & Logarithms; to have a good eye and good ears, be well grown, & have a good constitution to enable him to apply several hours in the day to calculation, & to get up to the observations that happen at late hours in the night. To write a good hand, and be a ready & steady arithmetical computer. If he know something of Astronomy & had a mechanical turn so much the better. To be sober & diligent, & able to bear confinement. Age from 20 to 40.’ (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre,1390/2D).
There is no evidence that six of the assistants ever observered. They are marked ‡ in the list. Those marked * were also employed at some point by Maskleyne as a Computer on the Nautical Almanac.
Malachy Hitchins was brought in as cover for William Bayly when he was sent to observe the Transit of Venus in Norway. He was already employed by Maskelyne as a Computer on the Nautical Almanac, and never thought of by him as one of his assistants. It is not known on what basis he was paid during his 16 weeks at the Observatory.
Click here for details of how the list was compiled and for more exact dates.
|1787||George Plowman‡ (or Flowman)|
|1787||William Malachy Hitchins|
|1788||John Brinkley (returned)|
|1798||William Garrard (returned)|
|1798||*||John Crosley (returned)|
*Also employed at some point as a Computer on the Nautical Almanac
‡ Did not observe
Click here for details of how the list was compiled and for more exact dates.
John Pond arrived at Greenwich in 1811 with his 15 year old ward John Henry Belville who at once began to help out, being paid as a supernumerary either by Pond himself or possibly 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). This brought the number of established assistants to two, the two post holders being referred to respectively as the First and the Second Assistants.
After the Admiralty took over responsibility for the Observatory from the Board of Ordnance in 1818, the extra work associated with a new requirement to test and rate chronometers, the introduction of a second mural circle (which was used simultaneously with the first), together with pressure for observing to take place during more hours of the day, lead to an increase in the number of assistants to six – two additional second assistants being appointed in 1822, and two supernumerary computers in 1825. The later were referred to as ‘extra assistants’ and became established in about 1830. Three of Pond’s assistants came from Yorkshire: William Richardson, Thomas Ellis and William Rogerson, (the last two having been recommended by the first), with both Rogerson and Richardson, coming from the town of Pocklington.
As well as the number of assistants increasing under Pond from one to six, there was another important change. In the past, just a handful of assistants had served for five or more years. Under Pond, a new pattern emerged with many remaining at the Observatory for their entire working life.
Pond’s assistants were:
1807–1835 Thomas Taylor (Father of Thomas Glanville Taylor & later First Assistant)
1811–1856 John (Thomas) Henry Belville, also known as John Henry (Junior Assistant)
1822–1830 Thomas Glanville Taylor (Son of Thomas Taylor & appointed as a supernumerary in 1820)
1822–1845 William Richardson
1825–1852 Thomas Ellis (appointed 10 Aug, Father of William Ellis)
1825–1853 William Rogerson (appointed 10 Aug)
1830–1835 Frederick Walter Simms
As well as those mentioned above, the following also spent a few months at the Observatory in 1825 prior to the appointment of Ellis and Rogerson.
1825 (Feb-Jun) Captain William Ronald* (RGO6/1f52v & RGO6/1/56). Dates approximate
1825 (Feb-Jun) Mr Walker (RGO6/1/56)). Dates approximate
1825 (Jun-Aug) Mr G Bradley (RGO6/1/56). Dates approximate
*Went on to the Cape Observatory as Assistant Astronomer.
It was during the negotions to increase the number of assistants from four to six, that Pond suffered a blow to his reputation as a result of a difference in view between himself and the Admiralty as to what sort of person should be appointed. The Admiralty had proposed in 1823 that the new assistants should be of a superior class with a university education and paid accordingly. Pond however thought otherwise, making the now famous comment that damned him in the eyes of the Visitors:
‘I want indefatigable hard-working and above all obedient drudges (for so I must call them, though they are drudges of a superior order) men who will be contented to pass half their day in using their hands and eyes in the mechanical act of observing, and the remainder of it in the dull process of calculation.’ (RS MS371/49)
Pond’s contemporaries differed in their view of the Observatory that Pond left when he was forced out of office in 1834. Whilst his anonymous obituarist wrote:
‘He also effectually resisted a well meant, but injudicious attempt, to give him for assistants persons who, from the mode of their appointment and pretensions, were little likely to submit to the rigid subordination required in a well-ordered establishment. His firmness on this occasion probably saved the Greenwich Observatory from being a board of co-ordinate rivals, instead of the best disciplined, most effective, and most economical institution in the country’,
the Admiralty and the incoming Astronomer Royal thought otherwise.
As part of the conditions of accepting the post as the new Astronomer Royal, Airy had the First Assistant Thomas Taylor removed and appointed Robert Main to replace him. Of the five remaining assistants, Simms resigned shortly after his arrival.
Under Airy, the pay system was restructured to the detriment of the staff. (Click here to read more on this). In addition, the six assistants were no longer referred to as First, Second and Extra Assistants, but as First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Assistant, the ranking (but not the pay) of all but his new First Assistant being determined by length of service. When the Altazimuth Telescope was erected in 1847, a Seventh Assistant was employed. Examination for promotion to and within the Assistant Grade (for trial of competency) began for the first time after the Fourth Assistant Breen handed in his resignation in November 1858.
When the building of the magnetic observatory was sanctioned in 1838, it was at first proposed that the observations should continue for three years. Although the Astronomical work was funded by the Admiralty via the Navy Vote, the additional magnetic and meteorological work was funded directly from the Treasury via the Civil Services Vote. In 1842, it was determined that a further three years should be given. This period expired in December 1845, and upon urgent representation of the Geographical Society, the Treasury again consented to extend the time, eventually becoming permanent.
In 1840, a new Magnetical and Meteorological branch was created headed by the Sixth Assistant James Glaisher as Superintendent. Initially, three assistants were funded, including one to cover Glaisher’s work in the Circle Department but these numbers were later reduced. The two different funding sources gave rise to two different classes of assistants – the Astronomical ones who were on the establishment and the Magnetical ones who were not. Initially, the Magnetical Assistants were paid £120 a year compared to the £100 plus £30 housing allowance of the more junior astronomical assistants. Glaisher however was paid as an astronomical assistant until the financial year 1868/9, with his pay initially topped up from the Civil Services Vote. When the pay of most of the astronomical assistants began to increase in the 1860s, that of the Magnetical Assistant remained frozen at the 1840 rate.
Astronomical Assistants inherited from Pond:
1811–1856 John (Thomas) Henry Belville, also known as John Henry (2nd assistant)
1822–1845 William Richardson (3rd Assitant)
1825–1852 Thomas Ellis (4th Assistant)
1825–1853 William Rogerson (5th Assistant)
1830–1835 Frederick Walter Simms (6th Assistant)
First / Chief Assistants recruited by Airy between 1835 and 1871
1835–1860 Robert Main (1st Assistant), appointed 28 September
1860–1870 Edward James Stone
1870–1881 William Henry Mahony Christie (promoted to Astronomer Royal)
Individuals appointed as vacancies became available at the bottom of the assistants’ grade between 1835 and 1871 and year of appoinment:
1836 James Glaisher*
1845 Edwin Dunkin**
1847 Hugh Breen (Jnr)**
1852 John Charles Henderson**
1853 William Ellis
1854 Charles Todd
1855 George Stickland Criswick
1856 William Thynne Lynn
1859 James Carpenter
* Superintendent of Magnetical & Meterological Department from 1840, but still technically employed as
an Astronomical Assistant until 1871
**Promoted from post of Magnetic Assistant
Magnetic Assistants recruited by Airy between 1840 and 1871 and year of appoinment:
1840 Edwin Dunkin*
1840 John Russell Hind
1840 James Paul**
1844 Hugh Breen (Jnr)*
1844 Charles Dilkes Lovelace
1845 Thomas Downs***
1846 George Humphreys
1848 John Charles Henderson*
1852 Thomas Downs***
1856 Willliam Carpenter Nash
* Later promoted to the established post of sixth / seventh astromomical assistant
** Deployed until 1842 as a replacement for Glaisher in the Circle Department and from then
until his resignation in 1844 as a Magnetic Assistant
***Demoted to the role of Computer in 1848 following a downsizing of the department. Re-employed as a Magnetic Assistant in 1852
Click here for a year by year breakdown of the staffing and pay during this period (1835-1871).
At the start of the 1870s, Airy was actively seeking to establish a new (and improved) pay scale for the assistants. This resulted in 1871 in the introduction of the new grades of First Class Assistant and Second Class Assistant on the astronomical side, the posts on the magnetic side remaining unchanged (Superintendent and Assistant). A new system of pay scales with annual increments was introduced instead of the ad hoc pay rises that had occasionally been given on merit. Under the new scheme, the Superintendent was paid on the same scale as a First Class Assistant, the Magnetical and Meteorological Assistant however was paid on a scale that was slightly lower than that of a Second Class Assistant. This iniqity was finally removed in 1883, when the Magnetical and Meteorological Assistant (Nash) was regraded as a Second Class Assistant.
The introduction of the new grades coincided with a change in recruitment policy, with vacancies at the second class grade being filled by open competitive examination organised by the Civil Service. Of the eight members of staff recruited by this means between 1872 and 1896 (when the system was changed), most had degrees and several were high flying mathematicians. The recruitment of such a well qualified group of staff hadn’t happened before, and wouldn’t happen again until the 1930s.
When Glaisher resigned at the end of 1874, he was replaced as Superintendent of the Magnetic & Meterological Department by William Ellis. Ellis is incorrectly described by Christie in his reports from 1882 onwards as a First Class Assistant (perhaps because the salary scales were the same). The same was subsequently the case for Ellis’s successors. The post continued however to be correctly described by the Astronomer Royal in the Navy Estimates as Superintendent.
Assistants assimilated to the First Class grade in 1871
Assistants assimilated to the Second Class grade in 1871
Second Class Assistants appointed between 1871 and 1896 and year of appoinment:
1873 Arthur Matthew Weld Downing
1873 Edward Walter Maunder
1875 William Grasett Thackeray
1881 Thomas Lewis
1881 Henry Park Hollis
1891 Andrew Claude de la Cherois Crommelin
1892 Walter William Bryant
1892 Thomas Charlton Hudson
Second Class Assistants promoted to First Class between 1871 and 1896 and year of promotion (during this period, the number of posts was increased from two to five):
A second Chief Assistant post was created in 1896 and the First Class Assistant grade changed to that of Assistant. The grade of Second Class Assistant was abolished, the five posts (of which three were vacant), being replaced by eight established computers, of which two, initially, were to be at a higher grade. The higher grade posts were filled by the existing second class assistants. Confusingly, although the three grades (Assistant, Established Computer (Higher Grade) and Established Computer) were correctly refered to in these terms in the Navy Estimates, Christie continued to refer to the Higher Grade Computers as Second Assistants in his anual reports to the Board of Visitors. He also continued to use the terms First and Second Class Assistants in the introductions of Greenwich Observations. He only ceased both practices in 1904 when the two former Second Class Assistants were promoted to the Assistant Grade.
A more subtle but significant change, was that entry to the new grade of Established Computer (later renamed Junior Assistant) was restricted to those already in employment as supernumeraries. One consequence of this was that between 1927 and 1936 all the Assistants and Heads of Department were ex-boy computers. This was in complete contrast to the period 1904 to 1917, when all six of the Assistants in post had started work at the Observatory as Second Class Assistants.
First Class Assistants regraded as Assistants in 1896:
Staff promoted to the Assistant grade between 1896 and 1912 and year of promotion:
At the end of May 1912, two new Assistant grades were created by renaming the posts of Higher Grade Established Computer and Established Computer as Junior Assistant (Higher Grade) and Junior Assistant (T1/11416). From then until the 1940s, the Asssitant Gradings in order of ranking were: Chief Assistant, Assistant, Junior Assistant (Higher Grade), Junior Assistant. A similar staffing structure applied to staff in HM Nautical Almanac Office which was absorbed into the Observatory in 1936.
In 1936, two key reforms took place – assistants began to be recruited from outside, and the post of Temporary Computer disappeared. The first of the new assistants were Humphry Smith (BSc) appointed in 1936 and Alan Hunter (PhD) appointed in 1937. They were the first outside entrants at assistant level (either senior or junior) to be appointed since Bryant and Hudson some 44 years earlier in 1892. The Temporary Computer posts were replaced with one extra Junior Assistant (Higher Grade), five extra Junior Assistants, twelve Writing Assistants (women) and a typist.
In 1945 as a major regrading exercise was about to begin, some new staff (who would otherwise probabally been appointed at a Junior or sub Junior Assistant level) were assigned an interim grade of Temporary Assistant.
Individuals at the Assistant grade continuing in post when the new Junior grades were introduced:
* originally retired in 1913, but returned as an Assistant from 1916 until 1919 as wartime cover
Individuals promoted to Assistant between 1912 and 1936 and date of promotion (all origninally taken on as Computers between 1889 and 1895):
1917 William Bowyer (initially acting, permanent from 1921)
1919 Charles Rundle Davidson
1923 William Moody Witchell (acting from 1921)
1928 Herbert Henry Furner
1934 Philibert Melotte
Individuals appointed as Assistants between 1936 and 1948 (except where indicated (*), all were new appointments from outside)
1936 Humphry Smith
1937 Alan Hunter
1941 Richard Thomas Cullen* (initially in an acting capacity)
Junior Assistants (Higher Grade), assimilated from Established Computers (Higher Grade)
Junior Assistants promoted to Junior Assistant (Higher Grade) and date of promotion:
1914 William Bowyer* (1913?)
1917 David James Reginald Edney*
1919 Herbert Henry Furner*
1920 William Moody Witchell*
1921 Philibert Melotte*
1923 William Stevens*
1925 Richard Thomas Cullen*
1928 HW Acton (1927?)
1934 HW Newton
1937 F Jefferies (1936?)
1939 EA Chamberlain
1939 George W Rickett (initially in an acting capacity)
1941 EG Martin (initially in an acting capacity)
1942 LST Symms
1944 HHJ Barton
1945 HF Finch
* Originally appointed as a Supernumeray Computer in the 1890s
Junior Assistants assimilated from the Established Computers in 1912
William Wood Burkett
David James Reginald Edney
Herbert Henry Furner
William Moody Witchell
Richard Thomas Cullen
Junior Assistants appointed between 1912 and 1947
1912 HW Acton
1913 Frank Jefferies
1914 HW Newton
1920 EA Chamberlain
1920 EG Martin
1920 HHJ Barton
1921 LS Symms
1923 George W Rickett
1923 GF Wells
1924 HF Finch
1929 PL Rickerby
1934 KC Blackwell
1937 CC Harris
1937 HC Howes
1937 A Shortland
1938 BR Leaton
1938 JE Terry
1939 PS Laurie (originally appointed as Temporary Junior Assistant in 1938)
1939 JL Rudd
1939 JG Wickham
1940 FE Potter*
1940 TWW Hodgson (died in action 1943/4)
1940 Miss CM Lark
1940 RH Tucker
1943 Miss J Aukland
1944 Mrs J Bennett
1944 Mrs CM Bolus
1944 Miss BM Simm
1945 Miss J Mounteney
1946 Miss CJA Penny
1947 Miss CE Chapman
1947 Miss EM Moore
*On loan from the Hydrographic Department at Bristol
Temporary (Observing) Assistants
1943 GB Wohlgemuth (appointed 15 March)
1945 John D Pope
1945 RMJ Withers
1945 Vinicio Barocas
1947 AE Cordwell
1947 O Nourse
1948 Miss CJA Penny
Junior Assistants (Higher Grade)
AE Carter (appointed as Temporary Assistant 20 Sep 1937–1938/9)
Miss MR Rodgers
1937 HWP Richards (demoted to Junior Assistant (higher grade) 1942/3)
1937 Miss FM McBain (appointed 20 Sep)
1937 AE Carter (appointed 20 Sep)
1943/4 Miss AM Hathaway
1943/4 HH Robertson
1943/4 Miss J Staton
1943/4 RG Taylor
1943/4 EM Wilson
Temporary Assistants (Special)
1941/2 RH Corkan
1942 PH Haines (appointed 28 Dec)
1946/7 JB Parker
Junior Assistants (Higher Grade)
1943 AE Carter (promoted: 23 Feb)
1937/8 WG Grimwood
1937/8 GA Harding
1937/8 Miss MC Scadeng (resigned on marriage 24 Oct 1945)
1937/8 Miss WD White
1938/9 AE Carter
1941/2 Miss VH Hitches
1941/2 Miss JE Pullen
1942/3 Miss CE Jackson (promotion)
1942/3 Miss J Mounteney (promotion)
1943/4 Mrs GE Leach
1944/5 Mrs VH Rogers
Junior Assistant as Secretary
1945/6 Miss DJ Ifield
By the end of 1945, the war was over, but the observatory staff remained depleted and scattered. Several of the domes at Greenwich had been damaged and were permanently out of action and the site of the Observatory’s new permanent home had been more or less settled. But Greenwich was not alone with its problems, and in September that year, the Government published a white paper:
The Scientific Civil Service, Reorganisation and Recruitment during the Reconstruction Period. It built on the work of the Carpenter Committee and the later Barlow Committee. One of its aims was to unify the different ad hoc arrangements and conditions of service that existed across different Government Departments.
To this end, three classes of worker were created. In order of seniority they were:
Scientific Officer Class:
Scientific Officer (SO), Senior Scientific Officer (SSO), Principal Scientific Officer (PSO), Senior Principal Scientific Officer (SPSO) , Deputy Chief Scientific Officer (DCSO) , and Chief Scientific Officer (CSO).
Experimental Officer Class:
Assistant Experimental Officer (AEO), Experimental Officer (EO), Senior Experimental Officer (SEO) and Chief Experimental Officer (CEO).
Scientific Assistant Class:
Assistant (Scientific) (AS), Senior Assistant (Scientific) (SAS)
Experimental officer posts were intended for university graduates and to provide support staff for Scientific Officers. The Scientific Assistant posts were intended to undertake the bulk of the routine work and required a qualification at General Schools Certificate level (later O-level). Under the new regime, the pay scales were to be between five and nine percent higher in London than the provinces and women were to be paid a lower rate ‘in accordance with civil service practice’.
But although the Observatory was the country’s oldest government funded scientific institution, it was not included amongst the establishments to which the Carpenter Committee’s recommendations were applied. Both Junior Assistant grades at the Observatory had been linked to clerical grades in the Civil Service, reflecting the fact that they were recruited from people with no basic training in science. Disastrously, this was reflected in the new staffing structure about to be imposed, and if implemented, would have meant some of the Head’s of Department – those who had risen up from the ranks of Boy Computer – were technically unqualified to do the job! Spencer Jones asked for the Observatory posts to be regraded so that the basic posts could be recruited at a higher and more appropriate level. This was important not only for the future of the Observatory, as it ventured into new areas of research, but also the future of Astronomy in Britain since the Observatory was likely to be one of the few potential employers for future research graduates from the Universities. In the meantime, the uncertainty over job gradings created recruitment difficulties, the existing salaries being inferior to those in other establishments.
It took until 1949 for the proper reorganization of the Royal Observatory staff to be authorized, although even then, matters of detail had still to be settled in a number of cases. The grades were assimilated as follows:
Old Grade New Grade
Astronomer Royal Chief Scientific Officer
Chief Assistant Senior Principal Scientific Officer
Assistant (all Heads of Department) Principal Scientific Officer
Junior Assistants (Higher Grade) Senior Experimental Officer
Junior Assistants Most as Experimental Officers*
*One was regraded Assistant (Scientific) and another as Clerical Assistant
Nautical Almanac Staff
Old Grade New Grade
Superintendent (Chief Assistant) Senior Principal Scientific Officer
Assistant Principal Scientific Officer
Junior Assistants (Higher Grade) Senior Experimental Officer
Junior Assistants Experimental Officers