Flamsteed Astronomy Society

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The ROG’s Graham Dolan conducted around 30 members of the Flamsteed Society on a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the South & Altazimuth Buildings which were built on the Observatory’s ‘south ground’ between 1891 and 1899.

The ROG’s South Building (R) is at the heart of the Museum’s Time & Space Project.  It is scheduled to close for major refurbishment at the end of October 2004 and reopen in 2007.  Four new galleries will occupy the main floor, with a fully serviced education centre on the floors above.  The planetarium will be relocated to a new building on the site of the long demolished nineteenth century Magnet House.  A small display about the Time & Space Project is located in the Observatory’s Meridian Building.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the advent of two new observing techniques (photography and spectroscopy) made possible the study of astrophysics—a new branch of astronomy concerned with the composition of the heavenly bodies rather than their position.  One of the most prolific expansions at Greenwich took place as the Observatory embraced them.  Only two buildings however survive from this period: the South Building (originally called the Physical Observatory) and the Altazimuth Pavilion.  Both were designed by William Crisp.  The South Building was constructed in phases over a period of eight years.  It was completed in 1899.  The Altazimuth was started in 1894 and completed two years later in 1896.

The Physical Observatory is cruciform in shape, with four wings built around a central octagon, surmounted by a dome.  The architectural style is difficult to define.  On one hand, it continues the style of Germano-Italianate brickwork (the ground floor with Gibbsian surrounds and keystones to wooden casement windows, the first floors over heavy sill bands with de Vriesian pilasters, mullions, and transoms) associated with Prince Albert and areas around South Kensington, which had been fashionable during the preceding decades but was generally defunct.  On the other hand it is a lively, innovative, and ornamental building that extends and amplifies the tradition of observatory domes on the site.  The original terracotta tiles and decorative sculpture are the work of Doulton & Co., of Lambeth.   The names of twenty-four astronomers, clock-makers, instrument makers, and scientists are displayed in prominent decorative tiles around the building.  An art nouveau-inspired figure of Astronomia on the northwest side is signed ‘W J Neatby 1895’.  The building was grade II listed in 1994.

The dome originally housed two large telescopes donated by Sir Henry Thompson.  They were moved to the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s site at Herstmonceux in Sussex after the Second World War.  The building was handed over to the National Maritime Museum in the 1960s.  The present planetarium was installed in the old telescope dome in 1965, the rest of the building being used to house some of its conservation studios and offices.  The Discovery Room where school programmes take place, was established in the early 1990s.


—Graham Dolan  ROG/NMM

ROG South Building

The ‘New Physical Observatory’

photos Mike Dryland


by W J Neatby


Behind the Scenes tour of the ROG South &

Altazimuth Buildings — October 9, 2004