Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)

Home Events

Short History of Orwell Park Observatory

On the banks of the picturesque River Orwell at Nacton in Suffolk stands Orwell Park Observatory, one of the finest surviving Victorian observatories in regular use. This article provides a short history of the observatory and links to sources of more information.

Admiral Edward Vernon and his Descendants

First to build a mansion at Orwell Park was Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757), who lived there between 1725 and 1757. Vernon was famous for sea campaigns against the French and Spanish in the mid-18th century. His most audacious exploit occurred in 1739, when, with a force of only six ships, he captured from the Spanish the heavily fortified port city of Porto Bello in Panama. (At Porto Bello, remnants of the battle, including cannon and broken down fortifications, are still visible nowadays.) When news of the victory reached England, there were huge celebrations: Vernon was granted the Freedom of the City of London, medals were struck in his honour, and public houses and first-born sons named after him! Vernon Street, close to Ipswich Docks, was named after the Admiral.

Life at sea in Vernon's era was very hard. Drunkenness aboard ship was endemic, fuelled by the rum ration. Vernon was concerned about the treatment of his men and, in 1740, in order to curtail drunkenness, issued an order to water down the rum ration aboard the fleet to one part rum to three parts water. Vernon's nickname was Old Grog after his cloaks which were spun of a cheap fabric called grogram (a very hard-wearing mix of silk, wool and mohair). The sailors coined the term grog to describe the watered-down rum: this is the origin of the words grog and groggy.

Vernon was MP for several constituencies, including Ipswich. His main contribution to parliamentary debate was in regard of naval matters.

George Washington's half-brother, Lawrence Washington, served aboard Vernon's flagship as Captain of the Marines in 1741. He later named Mount Vernon in Virginia, USA, after the Admiral. (The town is the location of George Washington's estate.)

Vernon died on 30 October 1757 in his mansion, just several metres west of the location of Orwell Park Observatory. His cousin, Francis Vernon (1715-1783), was his heir. Francis rebuilt the mansion and added an extensive deer park to the surrounding lands. He bought the title of Viscount Orwell, as a result of which the lands became known as Orwell Deer Park, and later simply Orwell Park. He died in 1783, leaving the mansion to his nephew, John Vernon (1776-1818).

On John Vernon's death the mansion passed to his sister, Arethusa (1777-1860), and her husband, Sir Robert Harland (1765-1848).

Vernon Admiral Vernon by Sir Thomas Gainsborough.

Porto_Bello Ruined fort at Porto Bello. (Tina Hammond, 2007.)

Mansion Orwell Park Mansion, rebuilt by Francis vernon.

More about Admiral Vernon and his descendants.

Colonel George Tomline

George Tomline (1813-89) was born in Riby Grove, Lincolnshire. He was educated at Eton, where his classmates included William Gladstone (four times Prime Minister during 1868-1894). He inherited enormous wealth from both parents. In his 20s, on the death of his father, Tomline inherited his London home, at the highly fashionable and expensive address of 1 Carlton House Terrace, just off The Mall. (His father had used the residence while attending parliament.) Tomline entered London Society, and went on the Grand Tour of Europe. Gossip of the day suggested that he was let down in love; whatever the truth of the matter, despite being a highly eligible bachelor, he never married and instead expended his energies on civil and governmental affairs and on science:

Despite his title, he was not a military man: Colonel was an honorary title of the North Lincolnshire Fusiliers.

Although enjoying wide-ranging interests in many affairs, Tomline appears to have been camera-shy. A well-known silhouette was known to exist, and for many years was thought to be the only image of him. However, in 2003, the editor of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph provided a head and shoulders photograph from the paper's archives; it is Tomline's only known photograph.

In 1848, on Sir Robert Harland's death, Tomline purchased Orwell Park. He subsequently added many acres of surrounding land so that his estates finally amounted to circa 30,000 acres in Suffolk and a further 20,000 in Norfolk. Deeds for several members of OASI living in Ipswich show their houses to be built upon land originally owned by Tomline. He had Orwell Park Mansion extensively remodelled and re-orientated so that main entrance was to the north (the configuration that we see today).

Tomline had an interest in astronomy, a very fashionable science at the time. Being of enormous wealth, he indulged his interest by commissioning Orwell Park Observatory in the early 1870s, during a major extension to the mansion involving the addition of many guest bedrooms. Undoubtedly, construction of the observatory provided much badly-needed labour for his estate workers, which would have been very welcome during the agricultural depression of the 1870s.

The architect of the observatory was John Macvicar Anderson, later president of RIBA (the Royal Institution of British Architects). Responsible for specification of scientific instruments in the observatory was Wilfrid Airy, civil engineer and second son of the 7th Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddell Airy. (The latter owned a country retreat at Playford, near Ipswich, and it is probable that Airy and Tomline knew one another socially.) Construction of the observatory was undoubtedly challenging. Airy specified that the telescope be mounted 16 m above ground, giving a clear horizon over surrounding roofs and minimising the loss of observing opportunities caused by mist rising above the nearby River Orwell. (Mist rising from the River Thames was a particular problem noted by Airy's father during his time at Greenwich.) This gave Macvicar Anderson scope to design the observatory tower on five floors, incorporating many features not normally associated with an observatory:

The observatory tower stands on a massive concrete base 15 m in diameter and 1.2 m thick. The Tomline Refractor is mounted on top of a circular brick pier which extends 18 m above the foundations but is otherwise independent of the building. The pier is encased in a circular brick wall, also rising from the foundations, 36 cm thick, with an all round clearance of 15 cm. At the top of the pier is mounted a 2 m diameter, 30 cm thick York stone to provide an anchor point for the telescope mount. This arrangement isolates the telescope from vibrations associated with the accommodation areas of the mansion. At the top of the observatory, the dome is constructed from a wrought iron framework covered in deal, copper clad on the outside and lined on the inside with polished mahogany planking, rotating on thirteen removable wheel sets inset into the circular wall of the equatorial room. The equatorial room and dome are 6 m in diameter. Some time after the observatory was built, Tomline had a hydraulic lift installed to all levels of the observatory tower.

The Tomline Refractor was constructed in 1874 by Troughton & Simms, leading telescope makers of the time. The instrument is an equatorially mounted refractor of clear aperture 258 mm and focal length 3,890 mm (focal ratio f15.1). The leading German optical company Merz ground the object lens. Although there is no makers' plaque on the mount, the late Fred Dyer, historian of the Ransomes company, visited the observatory in May 1998 and identified the mount as almost certainly a product of the Orwell Foundry of the company, during the period when it was constituted as Ransomes, Sims & Head. The mount is of an innovative design, in the form of a bent cone, which eliminates a common problem with some mounts of the telescope fouling its northernmost support column when tracking circumpolar stars. The telescope was fitted with large setting circles, and periscopes were provided for the observer to read the declination setting circle from the eyepiece end of the instrument. The instrument was driven by a weight-driven clockwork mechanism, the counterweights hung on chains in the cavity between the brick pier supporting the telescope and the circular wall encasing it.

There is a small transit chamber off the equatorial room. It is equipped with a 75 mm aperture Troughton and Simms transit instrument constructed in 1874. Positioned for ease of reading against the wall of the transit chamber and in line with the two piers of the transit instrument, Airy installed a sidereal clock manufactured by Dent & Co.

The observatory was completed in early 1874. At the time, it was one of the finest in private ownership in the land, and the Tomline Refractor was one of the 25 largest instruments in the world. No record survives of the cost of construction of the observatory, but it was clearly enormous! Surviving documentation shows that the Tomline Refractor cost £1345 12s 8d and the objective lens an additional £333 6s 8d.

Tomline George Tomline.

1 Carlton House Terrace Tomline's London residence, 1 Carlton House terrace. (James Appleton, 2011.

Mansion Orwell Park Mansion, remodelled by Tomline. (Ken Stacey, 2010.)

More about Colonel Tomline.

John Isaac Plummer, MA, FRAS

John Isaac Plummer (1845-1925) was born in Deptford, London. At this time, the domes of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) were visible from Deptford, and this may have stimulated an interest in astronomy. Whether or not this speculation is true, he began an astronomical career at Cambridge Observatory in 1863, moved to the RGO in 1864, Glasgow Observatory in 1866, and Durham Observatory in 1867. At the RGO, he was reputed to have a good eye for detecting faint objects. During his time at the four observatories, he learnt the profession of an astronomer and published a total of three papers on meteorology, 22 on astronomy and a school textbook on astronomy.

In early 1874, Tomline began searching for a professional astronomer to operate Orwell Park Observatory. He approached George Airy, who recommended Plummer. Tomline accepted the recommendation and recruited Plummer; he left Durham and began work at Orwell Park in June 1874. His salary was £300 pa (a handsome salary at the time!) plus a tied house, Orwell Dene, across the valley from the observatory on Levington Road.

Plummer pursued a wide range of astronomical observations at Orwell Park: Venus, meteors, lunar occultations, lunar photography, zodiacal light, the transit of Mercury on 06 May 1878 and, more than anything else, comets. During his time at Orwell Park, he published observations of 48 of the bodies. Tomline allowed him to volunteer for duty with the RGO to observe the transit of Venus in December 1882; he was put in charge of the expedition which observed from Bermuda, and the trip took him away from Orwell Park for four months. Unfortunately, his observations of the transit were spoiled by cloud. Worse, on the return journey to the UK, he suffered a shipwreck at the mouth of the River Mersey.

He published a total of 57 papers while at Orwell Park; they reveal a not entirely happy change of circumstances during his time there. He began work for Tomline with high expectations associated with working at such a fine observatory. However, despite spending a huge amount of money on the observatory, it appears that Tomline took no interest in its functioning and was, rather, content to maintain Plummer as a "tame astronomer" produced to impress the many scientists and dignitaries visiting Orwell Park Mansion. In East Anglia, Plummer found himself somewhat isolated from the mainstream of scientific work in the UK, a difficulty which Tomline compounded through a lack of spending to keep the observatory up to date with the latest astronomical publications and facilities; some of Plummer's later papers complain of his work being hampered by these problems.

Plummer John Isaac Plummer, circa 1900.

More about John Isaac Plummer.

From Tomline's Death to the Second World War

Tomline died at his London home on 23 August 1889 following a stroke earlier in the year which left him hemiplegic. His heir was Captain Ernest Pretyman (1860-1931). (Pretyman Road in Ipswich is named after him.) Pretyman was not at all interested in astronomy and made Plummer redundant. Plummer had to leave his tied house and lived for a while in Constitution Hill, Ipswich then, in May 1891, took up the post of Chief Assistant at Hong Kong Observatory (HKO). At HKO, his duties involved some astronomy but were mainly meteorological. (At the time, because of the importance of meteorology to maritime trade with the Colony, HKO was increasingly dedicating its efforts to meteorology.) He contributed to the Hong Kong Star Catalogue 1900 and published a pamphlet on the origin of typhoons.

After Tomline's death, Orwell Park Observatory lay little used for many years. Pretyman investigated selling the telescope and even offered it free to Eton College! Fortunately the Astronomer Royal at the time advised that the telescope mount would need some modification to be suitable for the latitude of Eton and this, together with the enormous difficulty and expense of the move, appears to have persuaded the college to decline the offer.

In 1930, an amateur astronomer living in Ipswich, Edward Collinson, asked permission from Pretyman to use the telescope. Permission was granted and, during the six years until 1935, he used the instrument to observe principally Mars and Jupiter. His observing notes indicate that, at the time, the observatory was still in a good state of repair. In 1935, he purchased his own large telescope, and ceased using Orwell Park. (Collinson was an accomplished observer and went on to become President of the BAA 1952-1954 and Mars Section Director 1956-1979. He joined OASI in the late 1970s and remained a member until his death in 1990.)

In 1936, Aldeburgh Lodge School purchased the mansion, relocating there in 1937 and changing its name to Orwell Park School. The headmaster at the time was Mr N H Wilkinson. He was lucky to find, living in retirement in Nacton, a Mr Hancock who had looked after and worked the telescope while it was in Captain Pretyman's ownership. Hancock taught Wilkinson how to use the telescope, and the latter used the instrument until 1939 to instruct the schoolboys in astronomy. They observed the Moon, planets, star clusters, nebulae and double stars.

In 1939, on the outbreak of the Second World War, the School moved out of Orwell Park, and the Seventh Armoured Division, the Desert Rats, moved in. They were responsible for a lot of damage to the building and its fittings. In correspondence much later, Wilkinson blamed the army for appalling damage (including considerable theft), including damage to the observatory clock and the loss of most of the eyepieces. In 1946, the School returned to Orwell Park, and Wilkinson resumed using the telescope. He purchased new eyepieces and had the object lens taken out and cleaned by a firm in London. The lift was deemed unsafe at this time and was no longer used.

Ipswich and District Astronomy Society (IDAS)

In 1948, 25 members of Ipswich & District Natural History Society (IDNHS), led by Roland Clarkson1, a prominent amateur astronomer living in Felixstowe, visited Orwell Park Observatory. The visitors were so impressed with the facility that they formed an Astronomy Section of IDNHS. The Astronomy Section thrived and, in 1950, separated from IDNHS and re-formed as a separate entity, Ipswich and District Astronomy Society (IDAS). Clarkson was elected first president of IDAS. The Society occasionally used Orwell Park Observatory, but its main interest was in lectures and constructing telescopes rather than observing. Members of IDAS undertook some limited repairs to the observatory, but during this time the fabric of the building further deteriorated. Unfortunately, in 1957, IDAS folded after its Honorary Secretary left the district and the Society was unable to attract a replacement. Thereafter, again the observatory was unused.

More about IDAS.

Orwell Astronomical Society, Ipswich (OASI)

The precise details of the formation of OASI are lost in the mists of history! However, correspondence between M J Allen (first secretary of OASI) and Roy Gooding (current secretary) in the early 1980s shed some light on the matter. Allen indicated that formation of the Society dates from 1966-67, when he, together with some school friends, approached Orwell Park School with a view to using the telescope and restoring the facility. Efforts were given a boost by an article in the Evening Star on 22 June 1971 which attracted much interest. Later records, from 1972, show that the initial group of founders numbered 13.

By the time of the formation of OASI, the observatory had fallen into serious disrepair. An episode of the Anglia TV Bygones series, broadcast in 1971, shows clearly the state of the Observatory. Therefore, the early years of OASI were associated primarily with maintenance! Members of OASI repaired the floor of the equatorial room, re-pointed exterior walls, re-plastered interior walls, repaired the guttering and rewired the building. OASI raised funds for the repairs by hosting open days and astronomy exhibitions in the school gymnasium - due to the huge interest at the time in NASA's Apollo space programme, these events were very popular and many attracted hundreds of visitors.

A subsequent article in the Evening Star, on 28 September 1972, marked the completion of initial renovations. Little work was then undertaken for many years. In 1986, Orwell Park School undertook a programme of re-roofing, including the observatory tower. This work rectified some dampness problems which had affected the observatory for several years, and catalysed a further major programme of renovation by members of OASI. Several broken windows were repaired, more walls were replastered and the transit chamber was comprehensively renovated. A floor was created in the disused lift shaft off the equatorial room. The additional storage space thus created was very welcome and, in the early 1990s, to create even more space, the disused lift shaft was floored over again, this time off the belvedere.

In 2001, members of OASI began two major construction projects: the creation of yet more storage space by flooring over the lift shaft at the base of the observatory tower, and conversion of the space in the lift shaft off the belvedere into a library. Construction of the library turned into a major project; after some three years work the task was complete and, on 15 May 2004, the facility was declared open by Peter Hingley, RAS Librarian, at a formal opening ceremony.

The Future of Orwell Park Observatory

Orwell Park Observatory is unique in the UK in terms of its facilities and heritage. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of OASI to prevent further deterioration in the fabric of the building, the ravages of history are inexorably taking a toll. Decades of neglect of the infrastructure means that it is now in such bad condition in some areas that professional intervention is urgently required. A survey in early 2010 estimated the cost of arresting the decline as £500,000 and of a full restoration as several £million. OASI and Orwell Park School are working together to agree an approach to raise funds for this essential project.

History has a habit of repeating itself and of course, it may be that a philanthropist like Tomline comes once more to the rescue of the observatory, thus closing the circle of history of the facility!



Clarkson was a prolific lunar observer in his own right. In 1954, a 33 km diameter crater was named in his honour - easily visible in a small telescope. Unfortunately for Clarkson, in 1972, when the IAU rationalised lunar nomenclature, the crater reverted to its former name, Gassendi A. (More on Clarkson.)

Roy Gooding, James Appleton