Royal Greenwich Observatory: Records and Papers

Scope and Content

The collection consists of all the surviving historical paper records of the Royal Observatory. The official record of the Observatory's work until 1971 is contained in the papers of the Astronomers Royal: John Flamsteed, 1675-1719 (RGO 1); Edmond Halley, 1720-1742 (RGO 2); James Bradley, 1742-1762, and Nathaniel Bliss, 1762-1764 (RGO 3); Nevil Maskelyne, 1765-1811 (RGO 4); John Pond, 1811-1835 (RGO 5); George Airy, 1835-1881, (RGO 6); William Christie, 1881-1910 (RGO 7); Frank Watson Dyson, 1910-1933 (RGO 8); Harold Spencer Jones, 1933-1955 (RGO 9); and Richard van der Reit Woolley, 1956-1971 (RGO 10). There are classes within the collection that contain significant amounts of eighteenth and nineteenth-century papers that do not fall under the classes of Astronomers Royal papers. In the context of the Royal Observatory's work the important examples are Papers of the Board of Longitude, 1737-1828 (RGO 14), and Papers of the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, 1820-1978 (RGO 15).

After 1971 the Observatory's work can be followed in the papers of the Directors: Eleanor Margaret Burbidge, 1972-1973 (RGO 11); Alan Hunter, 1973-1975 (RGO 12); Francis Graham Smith, 1976-1981 (RGO 13); Alexander Boksenberg, 1981-1995 (RGO 176); and Jasper Vivian Wall, 1995-1998 (RGO 203).

The twentieth-century papers reflect the growth of the departmental structure, with departments creating their own records. These records often reflected the professional papers of the head of the department. Important classes include the papers of H.M. Nautical Almanac Office, including the Donald Sadler papers (RGO 16); Time Department, including the Humphry Smith papers (RGO 43); R.G.O. Meridian Department (RGO 53); R.G.O. Solar Department (RGO 64); Chronometer Department (RGO 71); R.G.O. Engineering Department (RGO 91); and R.G.O. Instrumentation Science Department (RGO 92).

Other important classes are those containing the official sets of Royal Observatory and H.M. Nautical Almanac Office publications, and some publications of the Cape Observatory. The most important among these records are the Royal Observatory reports of the Astronomers Royal, etc., 1836-1998 (RGO 17); Royal Observatory Annals (RGO 20); Royal Observatory Bulletins (RGO 21); Nautical Almanac, 1767-1959 (RGO 28); Astronomical Ephemeris, 1960-1980 (RGO 29); Star Almanac for Land Surveyors, 1951-1998 (RGO 30); Air Almanac, 1937-1998 (RGO 31); Astronomical Almanac, 1981-1998 (RGO 52); Nautical Almanac, part 1, and Abridged Nautical Almanac, 1896-1959 (RGO 104); Nautical Almanac, 1960-1998 (RGO 180); and Astronomical Phenomena, 1981-1998 (RGO 182).

The collection also includes significant deposits of the private papers of astronomers, some of whom were never members of staff of the R.G.O., notably papers of Roderick Oliver Redman (RGO 37); John Guy Porter (RGO 45); Leslie John Comrie (RGO 46); William Ellis (RGO 54); George Lyon Tupman (RGO 59); Francis Baily (RGO 60); Richard Sheepshanks (RGO 69); Warren de la Rue (RGO 73); Philbert Jacques Melotte (RGO 74); John Franklin Adams (RGO 75); Robert d'Escourt Atkinson (RGO 77); and David Kinnebrook (RGO 206).

Over time significant collections relating to internal and external telescope construction projects, management and observations have accrued: Isaac Newton Telescope (RGO 44); Anglo-Australian Telescope (RGO 47); Northern Hemisphere Observatory (RGO 49); R.G.O. Danjon Astrolabe (RGO 87); Satellite Laser Ranger Project (RGO 93); R.G.O. Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (RGO 100); R.G.O. Photographic Zenith Tube (RGO 103); and William Herschel Telescope (RGO 106); as well as important papers from other observatories (in addition to the RGO 15 Cape papers): Radcliffe Observatory (RGO 48); Kew Observatory (RGO 66); and Kew Observatory sunsport observations and solar photographs (RGO 57 and RGO 67).

Administrative / Biographical History

The Royal Observatory dates its foundation from two warrants issued under the name of Charles II. On 4 March 1675 John Flamsteed was appointed 'royal observator' to the King, and on the following 22 June another warrant authorised the construction of 'a small observatory within our royal park at Greenwich'. The first warrant stated that Flamsteed was 'to apply as to find out the so much desired longitude of places'. The second warrant gave the purpose of the construction of the observatory to be 'in order to find out the longitude of places'.

For more than two centuries the Royal Observatory functioned on an established staff of ten or less, under the Astronomers Royal. Two influences expanded the role of the Observatory towards the end of the nineteenth century. As the Observatory's founding warrants, and all those succeeding, directed that its work should be to perfect astronomical navigation, it concentrated initially on observational work. However, during William Christie's period as Astronomer Royal (1881-1910), the installation of more powerful instruments of a higher power at Greenwich, reflecting the Astronomer Royal's interest in physical astronomy, made it necessary to increase the number of staff. At the same time the organisation of the Observatory became more structured as it became affected by the greater influence of wider civil service procedures, and this departmentalisation also led to a higher number of staff. The title the Royal Greenwich Observatory first came into use in 1948. The role of the Astronomer Royals in the R.G.O. ended in 1971, following the retirement of Richard van der Reit Woolley.

Conditions Governing Access

The public records in the collection are subject to the 1958 Public Records Act and the provisions of the 1958 and 1967 Acts, including the 'thirty-year rule'. The private papers of astronomers include material of a personal nature which may not be open to inspection. Several of the classes in the collection are accruing papers and as such are not yet catalogued. Available papers are open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Acquisition Information

Deposited by the R.G.O., 1989-1998. Further, smaller deposits have been received from other sources.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives.

Other Finding Aids

A full list of R.G.O. classes and handlists to the principle collections are available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. There are name indexes to the Flamsteed (RGO 1), Bradley (RGO 3), Maskelyne (RGO 4), Airy (RGO 6) and Cape (RGO 15) papers, and a number of subject indexes to Maskelyne's papers.


Although the R.G.O. closed in October 1998, small deposits continue to be made from other sources, and are made regularly by H.M. Nautical Almanac Office.

Related Material

The observational records of the R.G.O. not created on paper, such as those in the form of glass photographic plates and those created on machine readable media, are not held in the Library. Researchers wishing to consult such material should refer to the R.G.O. Archivist, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, University Library, Cambridge, CB3 9DR.


E. Walter Maunder, The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: a glance at its history and work (London, 1900).

Harold Spencer Jones, The Royal Observatory, Greenwich (London, 1943).

William Hunter McCrea, Royal Greenwich Observatory: an historical review issued on the occasion of its tercentenary (London, 1975).

E.G. Forbes, A.J. Meadows and H.D. Howse, Greenwich Observatory: the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and Herstmonceux, 1675-1975, Vols 1-3 (London, 1975).