Thursday, 15 November 2012

An 1880s Observatory on The Strand

Yesterday’s solar eclipse and all the excitement that went with it, got me thinking about how a telescope used by the British to track the Transit of Venus from southern Queensland in 1882 ended up in a private observatory on the Strand, in Townsville.

Edwin Norris, town solicitor and amateur astronomer, purchased the astronomical telescope and then had an observatory built to house it, at his residence on the corner of King Street and The Strand (opposite the Criterion Hotel).  Norris went to great lengths to ensure that the telescope was housed correctly, studying the design of other observatories before commissioning his own.  He visited the government observatories in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, as well as a number of private ones.

This image shows damage to buildings on The Strand after Cyclone Sigma in 1896.  It shows the Criterion Hotel at the corner of The Strand and King Street, (roughly centre right). 
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
At the time, the telescope was more than twice the size of the telescope in the government observatory at Brisbane and was described as being ‘a very fine achromatic equatorial telescope’.  In 1884 the Brisbane Courier printed this information about the observatory:
“The observatory consists of a room 13ft. by 13ft., with walls 8ft. 6in. high from the floor. The wall plates of hardwood are continued 7ft. beyond the building north and south, and form a railway from end to end supported from below and well braced. There are eight small railway wheels 4in. in diameter, which were specially made at the Townsville foundry for the purpose, fitted into iron frames morticed into the     plates to which the roof is fixed. The roof is made of American pine boards 3 1/2 in. by 1in. tongued and grooved, upon a strong light frame of Oregon pine and covered with galvanised iron, and forms the segment of a circle from the east wall over to the west wall, and is divided in the middle east and west, one half running north, the other south, on the railway, so that the observer can separate the two parts of the roof a little and adjust a canvas, or other light shutter or screen, over the parts not in actual use, and thus well see the sun, planets, and many of the principal constellations, including Orion, which, in our latitude, always attain a good meridian altitude, or he can run the parts of the roof out to the full extent, north and south, leaving the whole of the room uncovered, and conduct his observations in the open air, and without otherwise interfering with the integrity of the room.”[1]

Norris died in April 1892 and his telescope and other astronomical instruments were listed for sale in January 1897, along with an extensive portfolio of real estate.  Norris owned valuable freehold land on the Strand, Palmer Street, Flinders Street and also in Bowen, and held shares in the Townsville Land and Investment Company.  Norris was also a keen yachtsman, and owned the yacht Maud. 

Another observatory existed in early north Queensland at Irvinebank, a tin mining town near Herberton.  Around 1910, Dr William Evan McFarlane built an observatory with a rotating dome behind his home, to house his 7 inch telescope. The John Oxley Library has an image of this observatory at

[1] Brisbane Courier, 16 October 1884.