Minchenden School

The Observatory

by Geoff Ross (Minchenden 1950-1957), ex-Secretary of the school astronomical society and current member of the Société Astronomique de France. Paris, November 23 2019.

Prologue and Introduction
Though many public schools have acquired a school observatory (for example, schools such as Stonyhurst, where, in 1948, the school took over what had formerly been an independent organization and the Temple Observatory at Rugby, opened in 1878), it is far less common to find a state school that has such a facility, still less one that was built by members of the school with little outside help.
Such is, nonetheless, the case of the Minchenden Observatory (opened in June 1936), an all-wooden structural masterpiece fitted with a rotating dome, complete with shuttered aperture, perched on top of an old brick wall which had formerly enclosed the fruit and vegetable garden of Southgate House
The Minchenden Observatory owes its existence to the brilliant vision and firm determination of one man, Dr. William Cameron Walker (1896-1978), a chemistry graduate who was subsequently elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (FRIC) and who came to Minchenden as its science master in the early days after its transfer from Tottenhall Road to Southgate House.

But even Cameron Walker’s vision and determination, alone, were not enough. At around the time of his arrival, there occurred (on April 29 1927) an historic event : the  first total eclipse of the Sun visible from the British mainland soil in 203 years ! This naturally caused great interest both amongst the general public and the pupils at Minchenden, some of whom were lucky enough to join a school trip to view the eclipse at Southport on Merseyside.

Then, two years later in 1929, Dr. Edwin Hubble working at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California made a groundbreaking discovery  that finally confirmed previous unproven and theoretical predictions derived from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: the universe, far from being static and unchanging, was actually in constant expansion.

This discovery, coming, as it did, close on the heels of the historic 1927 total solar eclipse, generated considerable excitement and led to a growing interest in astronomy amongst Minchenden pupils in the early 1930s leading in turn, very naturally, to visits to various astronomical observatories and then to Minchenden’s affiliation to the British Astronomical Association (the BAA)
That affiliation also turned out to be a very important factor in the building of the school observatory. Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had had a lively interest in the Arts and Sciences and possessed a 5¼ inch refracting telescope which he used at Osborne House, the royal couple’s palatial summer residence on the Isle of Wight.  After Queen Victoria’ death in 1901 Osborne became surplus to royal requirements and was given to the State by King Edward VII, with a few rooms being retained as a private museum to Queen Victoria. Then, finally, in the reign of his successor King George V, Prince Albert’s 5¼ inch refractor was given by the King to the British Astronomical Society, who in turn voted to give it to Minchenden on a permanent loan basis
Such was the unique and favourable conjunction of factors, (together with the simultaneous presence, at that time, of Cameron Walker and an extremely talented Handicrafts master) that led to the construction of the Minchenden School Observatory.

A brief history of the Observatory
The history of the Minchenden’s  Observatory dates back 86 years to 1934 when pupils began to build the all-wooden structural masterpiece fitted with a rotating dome, complete with shuttered aperture, perched solidly but somewhat precariously on top of its brick wall
As we have said, the brick enclosing wall was a vestige of the old fruit and vegetable garden of Southgate House which had been converted ten years earlier into an asphalted playground (todays tennis hard courts) one or two years after the school began using the grounds for sports and the year before Minchenden formally moved, in the summer term of 1925, from Tottenhall Road to Southgate House

Throughout the early 1930s, (following an earlier school trip to Southport in April 29 1927 to view a total eclipse of the Sun    -   the first visible from British mainland soil for 203 years !), there had been an interest in astronomy amongst school pupils, encouraged by Dr. Cameron Walker and  which further increased with the brilliant experimental discovery of the expansion of the universe, in 1929 by Dr. Edwin Hubble working at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California
This growing interest led very naturally to visits to various astronomical observatories and then to Minchenden’s affiliation to the British Astronomical Association (the BAA)
Finally,  in 1934, an important decision was taken to build a school astronomical observatory . The brick enclosing wall of the asphalted former fruit and vegetable garden was chosen as a suitably elevated and isolated site by the then science master Dr. William Cameron Walker and it was he who supervised its construction by a group of boys working together with the school’s handicrafts master

The immediate motivation for the construction of this observatory was, probably, the decision by the British Astronomical Association  to place at the school’s disposal Prince Albert’s magnificent 5¼ inch refracting telescope, which, of course required that it be housed in a suitable building.

So the school observatory saw the light of day.  It was a rare example of one built with considerable skill and labour by members of the school with little outside help.

The observatory having been successfully constructed, the British Astronomical Society duly placed  the historic refracting telescope at Minchenden School’s disposal and it was soon
installed in the new observatory under the name of the “Prince Albert Refractor”

Scientifically speaking, the “Prince Albert Refractor” was a classic refracting telescope with a double-lensed achromatic object glass designed and manufactured by the Steinheil company in Munich. It had an elegant 8 foot-long polished mahogany housing and was mounted on a Cooke equatorial head with engraved silver right ascension and declination circles and a spring driven clock that enabled the telescope to compensate for the movement of stars across the night sky due to the Earth’s rotation. It came with a series of objectives that allowed for magnifications of from 50x to 400x (largely sufficient to view stars of magnitudes of magnitudes as faint as 12)

In order to accommodate the equatorial mounting and to prevent any unwanted movement due to vibration originating from the observatory itself, the telescope was skillfully orientated in line with the site’s precise latitude and had to be mounted on a cast iron pillar (donated by an old boy), itself bolted to a vertical concrete block (donated by a local builder) rooted firmly in the ground below the observatory and isolated from the latter by means of an entry port that had specially been opened up in the floor for that purpose. Thus expertly equipped, the new observatory was officially opened in June 1936 by the then Astronomer Royal, Dr. Harold Spencer Jones, President of the BAA (a story that made the Times Newspaper at the time)
Only two months after the opening, (in August 1936), Cameron Walker was already describing, to a meeting of the BAA an active solar prominence that had been observed by   E. A. Cossey, one of the boys of Minchenden School, with the telescope lent by the B.A.A.

In the years that followed the observatory was constantly used by members of the school Astronomical Association (Minchenden’s oldest)  Notably, it served, at lunch times to observe sunspots and planetary transits and at night to make observations of the moon, planets and nebulae. Lunar eclipses of the Sun were also observed and data duly reported to the British Astronomical Association which could be used, amongst other things, to calculate  the Moon’s orbit and refine measures of its distance from the Earth
Selected senior boys were accorded the privilege of a key enabling them to access the observatory day and night, seven days a week

From time to time members of the astronomical society were even able to interest the local newspaper (“The Palmers Green and Southgate Gazette”) in the Observatory and obtain the occasional article or two. Indeed, on one memorable occasion on July 7 1954, at the height of the UFO scare fuelled by fantasy driven Science Fiction addicts, a bright light was spotted moving silently high up in the sky over Southgate, reflecting light from the sun.
Many people naively leapt to the conclusion that it must be a flying saucer but, on observation with the Prince Albert Refractor by Minchenden boys, it turned out to be a meteorological balloon which we duly reported to the Gazette who published the article shown below, of which we were all very proud:

In addition to the Prince Albert Refractor housed in the Observatory, the school Astronomical Society was also given the use of a room in the sports pavilion which was used as a lecture room. It contained a movable 6 inch Newtonian Reflector; a turn of the century Epidiascope (complete with a wonderful set of early 20th Century 3¾ inch square glass slides of astronomical object) and a splendid 19th century mechanical Orrery housed in its original box ) that could be used to demonstrate the movement of the planets around the sun.

The  6 inch reflecting telescope was used as a complement to the Prince Albert Refractor notably to observe sunspots during the day and the moon at night. It was mounted on a wooden frame which had to be manhandled from the room in the sports pavilion where it was kept, out onto the playing field whenever it was used.
When the end finally came, the agony of the Observatory was long and gradual.
In school year 1957-1958, the Observatory still sat, proudly, on its venerable brick wall, dominating the tennis hardcourts and sports pavilion below.  It was in good shape and was being used regularly for observations by members of the Astronomical Society.
But less than ten years later, one night in 1966 there was a disastrous fire which destroyed a large part of the wooden sports pavilion below the observatory. The fire may have also have damaged, (but did not destroy!), the observatory, which,  as can be seen in the photo below, taken just after the fire, was still intact, but showing definite signs of wear and tear (note the boarded up window on the sports pavilion side and the glistening tarpaulin cover on the dome)
The final blow came when burglars broke into the observatory itself, despite its padlocked gate and locked door and made off with the more than 100 year old Steinheil achromatic object glass which, by then, was very valuable both because of its antiquity and its status as a very fine example of XIXth Century   lens-grinding technique. It is uncertain what happened to the astronomical society’s lecture room after the fire in the sports pavilion.  However, it is likely that it miraculously survived because, subsequently, with the merger of Minchenden and Arnos School in 1984 (to form a new establishment, Broomfield School), the portable 6 inch Newtonian Reflector (which was kept there) may have ended up in care of Broomfield School
But what may have  happened to the venerable Epidiascope with its 3¾ inch antique glass slide collection, the 19th Century mechanical Orrery in its wooden box and the Astronomical Society’s well-furnished library sadly remains a mystery to this day !

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