Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Under the Southern Skies - A Rich History of Astronomy in the Colony of New South Wales

Under our clear southern skies, there is a rich history of observing the stars in the Colony of New South Wales: 

Dawes Point Observatory - 1788

At the time of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove in 1788, astronomical observations were vital to navigation and meteorology. 

No time was lost in giving Lieutenant William Dawes the task of setting up the Colony's first observatory. He did this In April 1788, on the site of what is today Dawes Point, under the southern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The point was named Point Maskelyne after the Astronomer Royal who had supplied Dawes with books and instruments to carry out his work.

Site of William Dawes' Observatory at Dawes Point, Sydney
[photo taken September 2012]
Extract from signage at Dawes Point
showing Dawes' correspondence during the
establishment of the Observatory.
[photo taken September 2012]
Dawes lived on site at the observatory, and it was here that he befriended the Cadigal woman, Patyegarang, and recorded the local aboriginal language.

 After Dawes left Australia in 1791 the Observatory fell into disuse.

Parramatta Observatory - 1822

It was not until the appointment of Thomas Makdougall Brisbane as Governor New South Wales in November 1821, that Sydney was to get its next observatory.

Brisbane was a keen astronomer and privately built an observatory in Parramatta Park, next to Government House.*  It was completed in March 1822. He employed two astronomers, Carl Rumker and James Dunlop who did some very active work.

Obelisk in Parramatta Park marking the founding
  of Governor Brisbane's Observatory on 2 May 1822.
[photo taken February 2013]

Wording on obelisk
[photo taken February 2013]

Signage giving information on the Observatory
[photo taken February 2013]

Signage showing plan and elevation of the Observatory c 1822
[photo taken February 2013]

When Governor Brisbane left the Colony in December 1825, he sold his instruments and books to the Government which then took over the control of the Observatory.

Carl Rumker was appointed as New South Wales' first Government Astronomer (1827-1830). James Dunlop succeeded him in 1831, holding the position until 1846. By this time activity had declined and the Observatory was in a state of disrepair.

The building was demolished in 1847 except for two stones which still stand in Parramatta Park. The instruments were put into storage for use in a future facility.

Remains of the original transit circle telescope stones used inside the observatory domes.
.Parramatta Park - February 2013
[ Conservation in progress]
Sydney Observatory 1858

Plans were then made for a time ball observatory in Sydney. However, Governor General Sir William Denison who arrived in New South Wales in January 1855, saw an observatory as an important addition to the Colony. He commissioned  the Colonial Architect, Alexander Dawson to draw up plans for a completely new observatory at 'Observatory Hill' at Millers Point.

Completed in 1858, the Sydney Observatory is an impressive sandstone building in Italianate style. At that time, it comprised a four-storey tower for the time ball, a dome to house an equatorial telescope, a room with long narrow windows for a transit telescope, an office and a residence for the astronomer. A western wing was added in 1877 with office and library space and a second dome for another telescope**.

Facade of Sydney Observatory
[Photo taken June 2011]

View of Observatory looking south, showing time ball tower.
[Photo taken June 2011]
Telescopic dome, Sydney Observatory
[Photo taken June 2011]

Initially the main function of the  Sydney Observatory was time-keeping with the installation of the time ball. This is still raised today to the top of its post and dropped exactly at 1.00pm.

With the appointment of Henry Chamberlain Russell as Government Astronomer (1870-1905), the Sydney Observatory gained international recognition. Russell was a competent administrator and scientist. Initially he made use of some of the instruments from Parramatta but was successful in gaining funding for further instrumentation including a new Schroeder telescope to be housed in an enlarged Muntz metal dome. He introduced weather maps in daily newspapers in 1877.

His most significant project was the commitment of the Observatory to theAstrographic Catalogue, a project of the 1887 Congress of International Astronomers  to photomap the night skies of the Southern Hemisphere. 

With the brief to map the stars of the Sydney sky, this project would take up the  resources of the Observatory for some eighty years till the 1960's and subsequent publication in 1971.

Pennant Hills Observatory - 1898

Site of Observatory Park, Pennant Hills
[Photo taken February 2013]
One requirement for the Astrographic Catalogue was a clear sky away from the interference city lights. Henry Russell was successful in moving the astrographic telescope for the project to a site, known as Red Hill on the corner of Pennant Hills and Beecroft Roads at Pennant Hills. 

Construction of an Observatory on the site was completed in 1898. It was operated for 32 years by James Short, an astronomical photographer.

Photo showing Pennant hills Observatory circa 1890
[Source: TROVE - Powehouse Museum Collection]
In 1931, the impending retirement of James Short and lack of funding during the Depression years saw the closing of the facility and relocation of the telescope back to the Sydney Observatory.

Much good work had been accomplished at Red Hill.  A memorial has been erected indicating where the telescope stood.

Memorial at Observatory Park, Pennant Hills
[Photo taken February 2013]

Wording on memorial plaque
[Photo taken February 2013]

The Sydney Observatory isheritage listed on the NSW State Heritage Register.

It remained in continuous use as an Observatory until 1982, when it was was passed to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, now the Powerhouse  Museum. 

Today the Observatory is maintained as a museum and public observatory with an important role in astronomy education and public telescope viewing.

Some of the more interesting exhibits include the Parramatta Observatory's original collection of instruments which is largely intact.

*History Services NSW in its Convict Database as a record of one, Daniel Jackson ( per 
Somersetshire, arriving at Port Jackson on 16 October 1814) as having been employed in 1824 as a "Stonemason at the Observatory at Government House and when that work was completed he had the Governor's permission to be exempt from Government duty and to work for himself."

If you would like further information on Daniel Jackson, or if you are researching a convict ancestor go to our website at :

**Historyy Services NSW in its Government Contract and Contractors Database has seventeen records of government contracts being awarded for work on the Sydney Observatory during the period 1862 to 1900 including:

  • 1868 to David Jones & Company - for carpets and blinds for Sydney Observatory;
  • 1874 to T.R.Robinson - for supply and erection of Muntz Metal Dome for Equatorial  Tower, Sydney Observatory;
  • 1877 to Goddard & Pitman - for additions to Sydney Observatory;
  • 1880 to Stewart & Smith - for additions to residence at Sydney Observatory;
  • 1896 to Shuker & Males - for building fireplaces, repairs,  Messenger Quarters, Sydney Observatory;
If you would like further information, go to our website at:

Blog prepared by Mary McGuinness - January 2014

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Convict Relics - Where are they now?

Using the resources of TROVE (online information service of the National Library of Australia) it is interesting to find newspaper articles relating to relics from the convict days of our history. In particular:

Copper Coins At Emu Plains
"There has come into my possession this week half a dozen copper coins which were ploughed up by the gardner in the orchard of Mr L Chapman, of Emu Plains, near the spot where the whipping-post once stood in the old penal station established by Governor Macquarie, west of the Nepean River............." 

Coin at Epping
"During excavations on the site of the new Catholic church-school at Epping, a relic of the old days was found in the shape of a coin dated 1799. In the early days a convict sawpit at this spot supplied timber to Sydney".

Stone at Curzon Hall, Marsfield

Curzon Hall as it stands today - January 2014
"Reminiscent of old medieval castles, it was entirely built from second-hand material, and such was the skill of the workmen that its turreted towers and wonderful carvings are the relics of bygone days. The main portion of stone is taken from old convict-built cottages.........."

Waverley House
"One of the most notable of the old landmarks of Sydney that are fast disappearing in order to make way for modern buildings, is Waverley House. For over three quarters of a century this relic of early days, which was erected as a mansion for Mr Barnet Levy in 1827 has occupied a commanding site on the Old South Head Road near the Bondi Junction. The house was constructed at a period when building was brisk, and when convict labour was largely availed of by the early residents  of Sydney........

The land having been recently sold in building allotments, the old landmark has been demolished. In the pulling down process several interesting relics of "convict" days were unearthed. These included portion of a prisoner's leg-irons and chain, a convict's chisel (with name stamped on), old coins, a gold brooch and other articles...."
Leg Irons at Lithgow

Example of Convict Leg-irons
"A pair of leg-irons, a relic of the convict days, has been found by the postmaster at Tarana. They had been lying so long in the roots of a tree that they had been worn with rust and exposure. They had evidently been discarded by a convict as they were filed through. The irons now weigh four pounds. It is suggested that the convict escaped from Glenroy, on Cox's River, where a stockade was built in the twenties of last century." 

"A relic of the convict days, portion of a leg-iron, has been found in the bush near Hassan Walls look-out. A stockade was maintained on the Great Western-road below Hassan Walls, and it is suggested that the leg-iron was cast off by an escapee. The discovery was made by Mr J Griffiths  who came upon the relic half-buried in the earth." 

"A leg-iron, rusted and broken, has been found on the ridge east of Hassan Walls Lookout. It is assumed that it was cast off by a runaway convict,one of a gang which constructed the road to Bathurst in 1832. One link is broken, and the ring round the ankle has been altered in shape to allow the convict to slip his foot through.

A pair of leg-irons, excellently preserved, is in the possession of Mr Charles Mathers, of Lithgow, whose son found them on the mountain-side near Hartley Vale. They were bound with calico, which crumbled at a touch."  
[Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 28 March 1938 page 6]

Convict Relics on the road over the Blue Mountains

"A relict of the days when convicts were constructing the road over the Blue Mountains - a round ball of iron attached to an iron bar, such as were used to fasten the legs of convicts to prevent them running away - was unearthed yesterday by the Blackheath postmaster (Mr. E.Kleist) in the yard of the Blackheath post office. The ball weighs 12 lb.

Another convict relic is a pair if leg-irons whihc are embedded in teh fork of a gum tree in Blackheath Municipal Gardens...."

"Councillor W. J. Lees of Mt. Victoria, makes a hobby of collecting relics of convict days. He has obtained a number of implements used in the construction of the Great Western Highway, including a rake employed to level the surface. He has a private museum, and adds to it as opportunity offers."
[Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 22 June 1936 page 7]

Convict Chains at West Maitland 
"Relief workers leveling the old banks at West Maitland have found several interesting relics of the early days. About a month ago a man dug up a set of old chains which were thought to be those of the convict days, This was followed by the discovery of a lock 15 feet below the surface, which West Maitland's Deputy Sheriff (Mr O.S. Morisset) identified as a lock of the type used to chain convicts to ring bolts. He said it might have been dropped when the man was released. It was at least 100 years old."

Convict Handcuffs
Example of convict handcuffs
"A workman's pick unearthed an old, rusty, pair of handcuffs on Wednesday, at the corner of Liverpool and Sussex streets, where the City Council excavation work is in progress. It is surmised that the handcuffs were part of the old military barracks and convict prison which occupied  an adjacent site in the early days of Sydney."

Leg Irons At Goulburn
"A few days ago a relic of the convict days, in the shape of a pair of leg-irons weighing 8lb., was unearthed near the soil by a man who was digging near Old Sydney road near the city.
There are the remains of an old stockade [Towrang] a short distance away."

Convict Stones at Parramatta
"Mr. W.Hulks, vice-president of the Parramatta sub-branch of the Returned Soldiers' League, said the building in Macquarie-street,Parramatta which is being remodelled for a soldiers' hall, was erected nearly 120 years ago. It was used as officers quarters for the regiments stationed at Parramatta. Subsequently it became a private school, known as Linden, and still later a laboratory for Meggitt's Ltd.

Beneath the building is a deep dungeon-like cellar, the walls of which are sandstone blocks two feet thick. This was evidently used as a prison, for the walls contain several scarcely legible markings............ 

Some of the stones bear the broad arrow marks of the convicts, denoting it was built  by prisoners, and the nails used throughout the building are of the old hand-made square variety........"

Leg Irons at West Dapto
"A relic of the days of old has been unearthed at West Dapto by Mr Percy Harvey. It consisted of rust-eaten leg-irons apparently 80 years old. ..............They were unearthed among the debris of the old West Dapto quarry. It was here in 1838-39 that the quarry near Mr Harris's was in operation, and it was here the stone was hewn by convicts for the foundation of the bridge ar Brownsville. In 1840 or 1842 Governor Gipps caused the prisoners to be removed, when the stockades at Brownsville, Unanderra then called Charcoal, Figtree and the Cross-roads were demolished."

Dripstone at Windsor
" The Fitzroy Hotel, at Windsor, has a quaint relic of the early days of New South Wales. It is a huge earthen bowl known as a dripstone. Encased in a cedar cabinet, a product of convict labour, as is the stone itself, the bowl is an object of curiosity to the many tourists who visit the hotel................... 
The stone was presented to Governor Macquarie, by a convict, 120 years ago."
Cooking Pot at Glenhaven
Convict Cooking Pot
SMH article 28 December 1940 {source TROVE}
"Tilling the land on his orchard and poultry farm at Glenhaven News South Wales, Mr S. Yarrow, a retired Boer War Veteran, unearthed a relic of Australia's early convict days-an iron cooking pot. Attached to the handle of the pot was an old rusted handcuff.

Apparently the hapless convict cook had been attached to the pot whilst performing his duties.....
[Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28 December 1940, page 5] 

Underground Cells At Gosford
"Until a few years ago, the quaint building depicted below, standing on an old estate [Wyoming[ about half a mile from Gosford, was an object of great interest to visitors. It was originally owned by Francis Hely [Frederick Augustus Hely], a superintendent of convicts, who employed large numbers of prisoners on his estate.

Nearby an old building used for their accommodation is still standing, strongly built of stone quarried in the locality. What the real object of the former was remains uncertain, but an inspection by the writer some years ago revealed a number of cells below the ground which could have been used for only one purpose..............

The old building has vanished, the site being marked by a lofty Norfolk Island pine. "
[Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 20 January 1940].

Carlton Hotel Foundations
"The Old Carlton hotel, at the corner of Short-street and Carlton-parade, Carlton, is at present being converted into modern flats and shops. In the rebuilding operations it was found necessary to remove part of the foundations, and two stones were found with convict markings on them........

These newspaper articles are so interesting to read because:
  • they illustrate the geographic spread of convicts in the first decades of the Colony of New South Wales and how important their contribution actually was to the establishment of our settlements and infrastructure.  
  • having been written only one hundred or so years after the peak of convict activity in NSW, they reflect attitudes to the then convict heritage. The convict finds were obviously significant. 
The emphasis on the convicts as being "prisoners" with the descriptions of the leg-irons,  handcuffs and cells is interesting. It should be noted that at the turn of the twentieth century,  there were still some living convicts in Australia.

History Services NSW has extensive convict records for research purposes.
    If you are researching a convict ancestor, you should go to our website at: http://www.historyservices.com.au/convicts.htm

    Blog prepared by Mary McGuinness

    I refer you to Trove's newspaper collection which includes digitised historic and modern newspapers which are accessible on line, as well as newspapers in microform and paper formats. Go to the website: