The Observatory Garden (formerly the Lower Garden)

Originally known as the Lower Garden, this part of the Observatory grounds was reintegrated into the Park and formally opened to the public by the Queen during her visit to open Flamsteed House in 1960. At this point, it was renamed the Queen’s Garden. Although now generally referred to as the Observatory Garden, it has also been known as the Kitchen Garden, the Royal Observatory Garden, and the Astronomers’ Garden.

By the 1940s, the Observatory’s main site at Greenwich occupied an area of 2.46 acres. This section deals only with the Lower Garden. Other parts of the Observatory grounds are covered in the following sections:

The Courtyard
The Astronomers’ Garden
The Meridian Garden
The Garden to the west of Flamsteed House
The Magnetic and South Grounds
The Christie Enclosure (now part of the Royal Park)


Enclosure of the garden

The Lower Garden was enclosed from Greenwich Park in four stages: two small enclosures in 1675/6 and c.1749 and two much larger ones – one in 1814, the other in 1837. The garden sits in a south-west facing semicircular hollow and until the final enclosure of 1837 was overlooked from the public areas of the Park along Blackheath Avenue.


The Lower Garden in Flamsteed's time

The part of the garden which dates back to Flamsteed’s time is in the north-west corner and bounded by the retaining wall of the Upper Garden to the north, and the west wall of Flamsteed’s Garden House (the site of the later stables (now a plant room)) to the east. Today this section is neither enclosed within the garden, nor within the curtilage of the Observatory. It forms instead a buffer zone between them and a path in the park. In Flamsteed’s time the only means of accessing this part of his garden was via the park.

The plot was marginally deepened, seemingly in 1749, when the grounds were extended to enable Bradley to build his new Observatory (now part of the Meridian Building). This enabled the garden to be accessed from within the Observatory Grounds via an opening next to the newly built stables. The garden is shown in John Evelegh’s plan of the Observatory which was drawn between 1750 and 1773, but not in that drawn by Roy which was published in 1788.

The Royal Observatory in Flamsteed's Time (detail). The doorway (bottom left) was the entrance to Flamsteed's garden room / potting shed. The small fenced area of garden to its left was extended slightly southwards in about 1749. It became part of the Lower Garden when the ground where the figures are standing was enclosed in 1814. Redrawn for Dunkin from an engraving by Francis Place after Robert Thacker c.1676 and published in the 1862 volume of The Leisure Hour and in the 1891 edition of The Midnight Sky


A new Kitchen Garden for the Astronomers Royal

The plot was considerably extended in 1814 when about half the present garden was enclosed for use as a Kitchen Garden. It was extended southwards to its present size in 1837 at the time the Magnetic Ground was enclosed.

The Lower Garden from Greenwich Park before the southern part of the garden was enclosed. Pencil drawing by Airy's sister-in-law, Caroline Smith, 1836. Reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 3.0) courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library (see below)

The same view drawn the year after the southern part of the garden was enclosed. Pencil drawing dated 28 May 1838 by Airy's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Smith. Reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 3.0) courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library (see below)


Pond's well and Magnetic Observatory

In 1815, a well was dug close to the then southern boundary. Said to be 120 feet deep, the water proved bad and the well was covered in and a summerhouse built over the site after the garden was extended in 1837. The summerhouse was orientated to look back towards Flamsteed House, and in front of it, there was a small pond, which was probably created at the same time. At the extreme south end of the 1837 extension, Airy erected a second summerhouse. This survived until the 1890s when it was removed to allow the west wing of the South Building to be constructed, the summerhouse having occupyied a spot near the wing’s north-western corner.

Meanwhile, in 1817, John Pond had built his Magnetic Observatory near the well on the steep slope of the hill. The foundations gave way, causing the building to become dangerous. It was demolished in 1824.

The view across the garden from the opposite direction. The building at the top is Airy's Magnetic Pavilion which was completed in the newly enclosed Magnetic Ground in 1838. The child (left) is playing beside the fenced off pond. The site of Pond's Magnetic Observatory was on the slopes at the top of the steps that can be seen above it, whilst the summerhouse sits on top of the well that was sunk in 1815. The oak tree with the seat around it was sometimes referred to as the Great Oak. The hole in the ground beneath it was caused by the past extraction of sand and gravel. Pencil drawing dated 1839 by Elizabeth Smith. Reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 3.0) courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library (see below)

The Lower Garden from the south in about 184143. Watercolour painting by Henrietta Smythe. The Scout Association Heritage Collection (see below)

The key difference between this picture and the one above is the appearance of the South Dome housing Airy's Altazimuth Telescope. It was raised on the walls of Maskelyne's Advanced Building, which itself had been built on the external walls of Flamsteed's Quadrant and Sextant Houses) in 1844. Undated pencil drawing probably by Elizabeth Smith. Reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 3.0) courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library (see below)

The Lower Garden in about 189397. From a postcard published by Edmund Dsdau

The same view in May 2010

And in November 2017

The garden was concealed from public view by a high fence. This photo dating from around 1930 shows the path in the park on the west side of the garden with the fence behind it and the Great Equatorial Building in the background. From a postcard published by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich


Access to the gardens

Access to the lower garden was always rather tricky. In Pond’s time, the only way to get to it was from the Drying Ground via a gap in the wall that had been created close to where the Great Equatorial Building was later built.

Airy’s arrival at the Observatory in 1835 saw the creation of two more points of access – both from the lawn immediately to the south of Flamsteed House. The first was a flight of steps that ran down the side of the retaining wall on the western side of the lawn from a point close to the French windows of the new extension. The second was via two sets of steps accessed from the southern end of the lawn and can be clearly seen in Elizabeth Smith’s 1838 drawing (above). The first descended to the to the lower part of the Middle Garden and ran down the eastern side of the stable wall. The second descended from there down to the Lower Garden.

Between 1847 and 1863, Airy relocated the two toilets in the south east corner of the lawn outside Flamsteed House to the slip of land to the west of its retaining wall where they now blocked the access to the Lower Garden from the steps near the French windows. One of the new toilets was accessible from the Lower Garden. The other was accessed not via the steps of 1835, which were removed, but from the basement area of Flamsteed House via a newly created subterranean passage. At the same time, a new access point was created from the south end of the lawn, but this time via a new set of steps that ran down the south side of the retaining wall from a point immediately to the west of the stables.

Both the toilets and this latest set of steps were removed in Christie’s time when the part of the garden they both lead to was planted over with shrubs as part of a landscaping scheme orchestrated as part of a general improvement of the Park in this vicinity. The toilets appear to have been removed in 1894/5 and the steps at some point after 1896 (they are not shown on the plan updated to 1911). As a result, the only way that the garden could then be approached was via the Meridian Garden or the Drying Ground.

When the gardens were returned to the Royal Park the two surviving entry points were blocked off and a new entry point created from the path that runs along its western edge. This was brought into use in about 1960.

The steps removed in Christie's time were accessed though an opening (now closed) at the top of the sunlit wall. They ran from top right to bottom left. The opening was originally blocked up with railings, but these were unfortunately removed in the second half of 2009 when the whole of the wall above the string line was rebuilt. Photo January 2012

Looking south-eastwards across the garden from near to where visitors enter it today. Pond's Magnetic Observatory was on the sloping area now covered in trees to the left of the Altazimuth Pavilion. The Pavilion, along with the other buildings on the east side of the garden, can only be seen in the winter months when the leaves are off the trees. Photo: March 2009


The network of pathways

The pathways along the eastern slopes date back to the time of Airy. From time to time, they have required rebuilding, as they are prone to slippage and erosion. On one such occasion, the damaged terracotta from the bombing of the Altazimuth Pavilion in WW2 was used as edging support. They were visible until the paths were reconstructed during a major refurbishment of the gardens in 2008/9.

The garden in about 1944. To the right of the steps, a row of espaliered fruit trees can be seen on the south facing retaining wall. Although the photographer is not recorded, it is likely to have been Cecil Beaton who, at the request of the Ministry of Information, made a photographic survey of the Observatory and its departments in the reporting year 1944/5. Detail from Ministry of Information photograph D.24699, courtesy of Hillary Buckle

Some of the dumped terracotta from the Altazimuth Pavilion supporting one of the upper pathways in April 2006


The exotic fruit trees

The retaining wall between the middle and lower gardens is south facing and of sufficient height to support the growth of exotic fruit trees. In the 1940s, there were three varieties of peach growing there: Rivers Early York, Noblesse and Royal George, along with the nectarine Elruge. During WW2 when much of the Park was turned over to allotments the garden continued to be cultivated, the produce being sent to the Astronomer Royal’s evacuation residence in Abinger. Although the trees have long since gone, the lead name tags are still fastened to the wall.

The top of the south facing wall was rebuilt in 2009, which is when these particular railings were added. Although the four espaliered trees had long since been removed, their lead name plates were still present on the wall in 2017. One can be seen a few course above the ground on the right side of the wall. The others are out of sight to the right. In order from right to left, the four trees were: Peach (Rivers Early York), Peach (Noblesse), Nectarine (Elruge), Peach (Royal George). The four labels can be seen below. Photo: March 2011

Photo: March 2011

Photo: March 2011

Photo: March 2011

Photo: March 2011


A problem with security

In 1960, there was no fence separating the south ground where the Altazimuth and South Buildings were located from the garden. Security issues forced the garden’s closure in the 1970s, pending the erection of a suitable fence. They reopened in 1978.


Image licensing information

The images reproduced courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library have been reduced in size and are more compressed than the originals and have been reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Links to the individual images are as follows: image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4.

The painting by Henrietta Smythe are reproduced by kind permission of The Scout Association Heritage Collection. Henrietta Grace Smythe (1824–1914) was the sixth of eleven children born to Captain (later Admiral) William Henry Smythe (1788–1865), a distinguished astronomer, fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Observatory’s Board of Visitors from 1836 until his death. One of Henrietta’s two older brothers, Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), became Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1846. The other, Warrington Wilkinson Smythe (1817–90), married Anna Storey Maskelyne, granddaughter of the fifth Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne. In 1846, Henrietta married Baden Powell, the Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford who was 28 years her senior and previously twice married. Widowed in 1860 shortly after the birth of her tenth child, she changed the family name to Baden-Powell. Her son Robert was the founder of the Scout Movement.