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Joseph Barclay's Observatory At Leyton, East London

Mention Leyton in East London nowadays and one's mind is immediately drawn to a vision of a concrete jungle dissected by busy road and railway links together with airborne pollution that one can almost taste. Now, consider that in the middle of the 19th Century, Leyton was a tranquil Essex village set on the very edge of Epping Forest and bounded to the northwest by the wild Hackney Marshes - an ideal location for a country home in which a monied gentleman could indulge his passion for astronomy [1].

J G Barclay J G Barclay, FRAS. (Courtesy of and copyright of Mr David Barclay.)

The Leyton of the mid-19th Century was home to Joseph Gurney Barclay, FRAS (1816-98) and the name may ring a bell as he was, for many years, the head of Barclay's Bank. The Barclay family, including Joseph, were Quakers. The image to the right is the only known photogrph of him; it is reproduced courtesy of Mr David Barclay (his great-great-grandson).

Some time around 1854, Barclay became interested in astronomy and, in the autumn of the year, set up an observatory at his home, Knotts Green House. The observatory boasted a 7.5" (19 cm) equatorially mounted Cooke Refractor and a Troughton & Simms transit instrument. In 1855, Barclay noted a letter in The Times from John Russell Hind (1823-95), the professional observer/superintendent at George Bishop's (1785-1861) observatory at South Villa, Regents Park, London (later removed to a site in Twickenham). Hind's letter stated that he strongly suspected the existence of a star in close proximity to Procyon (Alpha Canis Minoris). Barclay immediately began observing Procyon using the 7.5" telescope and soon after reported to the RAS thus:

on 10th January, 1856 I discovered a small star within the blaze of the light of the larger one, and which I roughly estimated at from 3 to 4 seconds of time by the sound of the clock preceding Procyon in RA, and but little removed to the north in declination. [2]

Barclay was one of several observers looking for a companion to Procyon. In 1896, John Schaeberle, using the 36" refractor at Lick Observatory [3], discovered a 13th magnitude companion, nowadays thought to be a Uranus-sized white dwarf.

In 1860, Barclay exchanged the 7.5" refractor for a 10" Cooke model and soon realised that such a large instrument (for its day) should be utilised by a more skilled observer. He therefore employed Hermann Romberg (a protégé of Encke), who was to stay at Leyton until some time after 1863, going on to the Berlin Observatory to fill the vacancy created by Encke's retirement. His routine observations included double stars, minor planets and comets. Although I have yet to find any illustrations of Barclay's observatory, we are fortunate that he described it in some detail:

My Observatory is erected in the midst of the pleasure-grounds which surround my residence at Leyton, in Essex, about six miles NE from the City of London; its position being 51° 34' 34" N latitude and 0h 0.87m W longitude, and about ninety feet above the level of the sea. The building consists of a quadrangular room, sixteen feet square, surmounted by a wooden dome, covered with copper and lined with American cloth, [Hessian?] which I found prevented the internal condensation of vapour; it revolves on gun-metal wheels connected by a ring (in mechanical phraseology a "live-ring").

The shutter, which covers an aperture of two feet, is opened by means of a cord passed through a hole to the interior, and runs on two iron rods fixed as tangents to the dome, by which arrangement it can be opened and shut with the greatest ease and rapidity, the dome being moved by a lever fixed to the wall, and working against iron pins screwed into the rim of the dome. Light falls into this room through four windows in the horizontal angles projecting beyond the circular base of the dome.

The Refractor stands on a massive pier of brickwork, being 15ft 6in square at the base, 6ft 6in high, and set back in six ramps, on which is placed a circular slab of stone; the foundations being concrete, four feet thick, and drained below on solid gravel, the whole being covered with asphalt.

On the west side is a second room, 12ft 6in square, which contains the Transit-Circle, the roof being flat, so as not to impede the view from the dome.

The Telescope is a powerful and handsome instrument, made by T Cooke & Sons of York, with an object-glass having a clear aperture of 10 inches and a focal length of 12 feet. It is mounted equatorially in the German fashion. The strong cast-iron pillar on which it is supported is in two parts. The lower part is 3 feet in height, with a diameter at the base of 3ft 3in, and at the top 1ft 6in; the upper part is 4 feet in height, the diameter at the top is 1ft 1in. The two parts are bolted together with flanges and eight screw bolts and nuts. At this place there is a limited motion in azimuth, by which the Telescope is put truly into the meridian. The polar axis is 4ft 2in long; the pressure on the upper bearing is relieved by two friction-wheels and on the lower pivot is also relieved by two friction-wheels. At the lower end of the polar axis is carried the hour-circle, 13 inches in diameter, with two sets of divisions and verniers, graduated to 1m of time, and read off to 2s. The declination-axis, 3ft 2in in length, carries at one end the Telescope, at the other the counterpoise and the declination-circle, of 24 inches in diameter, which is graduated to 10' of space, and reads by the two verniers to 10" of arc.

The Clock is driven by a heavy weight descending under the floor of the Observatory, and regulated by a double conical pendulum. The motion is communicated to the Telescope by a brass rod and wheels, and tangent-screw working into a strong ratched driving-wheel at the upper end of the polar axis. The Instrument is provided with eye-pieces, magnifying from 50 to 1600 times. The view of the horizon is almost uninterrupted.

The Telescope is furnished with a finder of 3 feet focal length and 3 inches aperture, which shows to the ninth magnitude. [4]

Knotts Green House Knotts Green House. (Illustrated London News, 15 July 1865.)

The image to the right, from the Illustrated London News of 15 July 1865, shows Knotts Green House, Barclay's residence in Leyton. The caption reads Entertainment given by Mr Gurney Barclay, at Leytonstone, to the agents of the London City Mission. The house eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished in the 1960s to make way for Livingstone College. Barclay's observatory is not shown.

In 1865, Barclay secured (head hunted!) the services of Charles George Talmage (1840-86) as professional observer. Talmage had begun his career in 1856 at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. In 1860, he was appointed assistant to J R Hind at Bishop's observatory in Regents Park (mentioned above). However, he seems to have been dogged by ill health and was compelled to take a four-year sojourn to the warmer climate in southern France; he stayed at Nice, where he undertook double star work and devoted himself to a re-examination of Admiral Smyth's Cycle of Celestial Objects. (Smith was a prominent Victorian amateur astronomer. The work was better known as the Bedford Catalogue.) When Talmage's health recovered, he returned to Bishop's Observatory, by then situated at Twickenham, before leaving for Leyton. He was to remain in Barclay's employ for the remainder of his life and became a much-respected member of the local community, remembered for his genial and kind disposition [5].

Talmage regularly reported his work at Leyton via the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) and Barclay was eventually to publish the results of double star work undertaken at his observatory in four volumes entitled The Leyton Observations. Other observations included occultations, comets, eclipses, the transit of Mercury in 1868, and the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. Metrological observations were also part of Talmage's routine. In December 1870, Barclay released Talmage to join a government expedition to observe a total solar eclipse from Gibraltar. Talmage's specific task was to obtain angular measurements of Saturn during totality. Unfortunately (and where have we all heard this before…?) totality was completely clouded out. In 1882, Barclay again released Talmage on government service to take charge of the transit of Venus observing station at Barbados. His luck was better on this occasion and he achieved an excellent observation of all contacts. (This was the expedition for which Colonel Tomline released J I Plummer from Orwell Park to take charge of the observing station at Bermuda where, again, all contacts were successfully observed. [6])

Sadly, Talmage's frailty of health eventually got the better of him early in 1886 and his death heralded an end to observational work at Leyton. He bequeathed the 10" Cooke refractor to the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford and, in the 1930s, when that facility removed to a new site in South Africa, the instrument passed to the Blackett Observatory at Marlborough College, Wiltshire. Readers of Astronomy Now magazine may recall an article in February 2003 that details the restoration of the telescope back to full working order, and its installation in a smart-looking dome at the observatory. The old adage that it's a small world certainly has a resonance here: a descendant of the Barclay family, Charles Barclay, FRAS (great-great-grandson of Joseph Barclay's uncle) is the Head of Physics at Marlborough College and has charge of the observatory! The following images, reproduced courtesy of Charles Barclay, show the instrument shortly after restoration.

Cooke Refractor, 1

Cooke Refractor, 2

Cooke Refractor, 3

So, in what ways are Leyton and Orwell Park Observatories linked? Well, the links are mostly through the individuals concerned, and perhaps suggest that aspects of the design of Leyton Observatory later fed into the construction of Orwell Park:

The arrangement of Mr Airy, with regard to the wheels is, I consider, very admirable. The dome to which I refer (Leyton) moves upon a live ring; the wheels get clogged, and then it is necessary to take down the boarding and revolve the dome round several times, before we can get the wheels to come under the operator's hand. Mr Airy's arrangement, with regard to the instruments, is one of considerable beauty and utility, for it will often happen, and it is by no means an extraordinary occurrence, that when you are observing circum-polar stars, you may not think for the moment on which side your telescope is, and it will soon jamb, and you have to go right away round to get into position again. I think the arrangements of Mr Airy are, for all purposes, most admirable. [7]

One clear difference between the two observatories relates to the lining of the interiors of the observaory domes. Although the head of Barclay's bank could afford to line his dome with a Hessian-like material, Tomline's resources allowed for top quality tongue-and-groove mahogany!

Research into Leyton and its possible links to Orwell Park is ongoing.



A sobering thought – with the current enthusiasm to develop the south east – what will Orwell Park look like 160 years from now?


J G Barclay, "Note on a Small Companion of Procyon, &c", MNRAS, 1863, p. 196.


Sir Patrick Moore, Brilliant Stars, p. 88.


Joseph Barclay, introduction to The Leyton Observations, Vol. II.


Obituary of Charles George Talmage, MNRAS 1887, pp. 142-143.


"The Transit of Venus, 1882", MNRAS, 1883, pp. 211-212.


RIBA paper read by J Macvicar Anderson, 16 November 1874.


"Mr. Barclay's Observatory, Leyton, Essex", MNRAS, 1876, pp. 170-171.

Ken Goward, FRAS