When considering Australias first permanent Observatory one of the first things to be asked is why there was an Observatory at all in a new convict settlement. The whole thing seems to be out of keeping with the situation. Here was a new colony severely handicapped by shortages of labour, materials and food. In fact the only things which Governor Phillip never seemed to be short of were mouths to feed and complaints from everybody. Yet he was giving the building of an observatory a high priority. We need to look at the astronomical scene at the time to answer this.

During the 17th and 18th centuries Maritime countries like Britain were extending their exploration and trading operations further into the unknown parts of the globe and sea routes were getting longer. Unfortunately navigational methods were not keeping pace with these extensions. Navigators were able to get their latitude accurately enough by observations of the Sun or the brighter stars when they were on the Meridian but longitude was much more difficult because a method had to be devised of comparing the ships local time derived by astronomical observations with the time at a standard place such as Greenwich. This problem was not solved until the middle of the 18th Century. One solution was the invention of the Marine Chronometer by John Harrison who after much delay was awarded the prize of £20,000 offered by the Board of Longitude. The award was not made until a copy of Harrisons timekeeper No. 4. was made by Larcom Kendall. Larcom Kendalls No.1. Marine Timekeeper. (K1.) was taken by Captain James Cook on his second voyage of discovery. Cook was so impressed by its performance he referred to it as;

our trusty friend and our never failing guide.

While the Chronometer was being developed another way of finding longitude was being perfected. This was the method of lunar distances which had been thought of in the early 16th century but was useless until the orbit of the Moon was sufficiently well known. Tables of the Moon constructed by Tobias Mayer were used by Nevil Maskelyne the Astronomer Royal to compile the necessary tables which were published in the first Nautical Almanac for the year 1767. The angular distance of the Moon from nearby stars was published for every three hours in Greenwich time, and by measuring these distances with a sextant the navigator could find the Greenwich time. The method was extremely complicated and we have to admire both Maskelyne for perfecting the method and the navigators for being able to use it.

This then was the situation in 1786 when the First Fleet under the command of Captain Phillip was preparing to sail to Botany Bay. Chronometers were few in number and expensive. The lunar distance method was the most commonly used but there was still a lot of observational work to be done. Much was being done at Greenwich and other important observatories but there was a great need for observing to be done in other parts of the World. It was the general practice to have professional astronomers aboard expeditions of discovery such as Cooks voyages. When on land they used portable observatories covered by tents. Writing in the Nautical Almanac of 1788 Maskelyne said;

It is indeed to be lamented that persons who visit distant countries are not more diligent to multiply observations of this kind, for want of which the Observations made by astronomers in established observatories lose half their use and the improvement of geography is retarded.

So when Lieutenant William Dawes of the Royal Marines who was a proficient Astronomical Observer volunteered for service in the First Fleet and expressed a wish to set up an observatory in the new colony, Maskelyne jumped at the chance of having the young astronomer at Botany Bay.

The Board of Longitude agreed that Dawes undertake this task and that the instruments and books chosen by Maskelyne for the observatory should be sent in the Sirius under the care of Captain Phillip. These included an astronomical clock by John Shelton and a journeyman or assistant clock. It had a gong which sounded every minute and the seconds could be counted from the clocks ticking. There was also an astronomical quadrant by John Bird of 12-inch radius which was much used on voyages of discovery. It was not for use on board ship but for determining accurately the latitude and longitude of places on land. There were two telescopes belonging to Maskelyne. This was presumably a Comet sweeper so that Dawes could look for a Comet which was predicted to return soon after the founding of the colony. Dawes did not find the Comet but then it was not found in Europe either so most likely the prediction was astray. There was also a Hadleys sextant by Ramsden two thermometers and a barometer. Possibly Dawes had some of his own equipment as well as some given him on the way by Colonel Gordon in South Africa but none of this was listed. One instrument aboard the Sirius deserves special mention namely Larcom Kendals No.1. timekeeper (K1) the one used by Cook. Special instructions were given by Captain Phillip that the chronometer was to be wound every day at noon. Nevertheless it was forgotten once when Phillip transferred to the Supply after the fleet left Capetown and ran down, so that Dawes had the job of resetting it to Greenwich time by the lunar distance method.

Dawes was at first happy that the books and instruments should be in Phillips charge but later he wrote to Maskelyne expressing doubts that he might require the Nautical Almanac at the same time as Phillip. Markelyne solved this by sending Dawes another set of the books. However Dawes and Phillip never did get on well together and their disagreement eventually led to Dawes not being able to stay in the colony as long as he would have wished.

Of Dawess early life we know practically nothing; except for his letters to Maskelyne which are preserved in the Board of Longitude papers most of his papers have been destroyed, some on the death of one of his descendants and the rest during a hurricane in Antigua where he spent the last years of his life. From what other people have to say of him it is clear that he was a man of strong Christian beliefs and convictions. He was unbending when it came to matters of conscience but at the same time was liked and respected by all who knew him. Lt. Southwell of the Sirius in a letter to his mother said of Dawes;

He has a great share of genuine knowledge, studious yet ever cheerful and the goodness of his disposition renders him esteemed and respected by all who know him

Of his physical appearance we have no record and so far as I know there are no pictures of him.

The First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth on 17th May 1787. Dawes was keen to make observations at every port of call but when they reached Teneriffe Phillip would not let the instruments be taken off the ship because the clock and quadrant were stowed underneath the bread. At Rio de Janiero Phillip did allow the instruments to be taken ashore so Dawes was able to erect an observatory tent, install the instruments and make the kind of observations required by the Board of Longitude. About a month was spent at Rio. Again at the Cape of Good Hope Phillip would not allow Dawes to take the instruments ashore. However Dawes met Colonel Robert Gordon commander of the Dutch troops who was interested in astronomy and had some instruments. Dawes apparently did some observing with Gordon who gave him some instruments to help with the work at Botany Bay.

When the fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, Dawes was anxious to get on with the building of the observatory but his duties as a Marine Officer had to come first. He was appointed engineer and Officer of Artillery and was also required to undertake duties as a surveyor, a man who was incapable of performing his duties; but by the end of April 1788 he was able to make a start on the Observatory. The Observatory had two buildings, one an octagonal building nine feet in diameter built on a rock very large and firm. This building housed the quadrant and had a revolving conical roof with a shutter. The apex of the cone was about a foot from the centre so that observations could be made in the zenith. A second building was rectangular 16 feet by 12 feet also with shutters in the roof. This also served as a home for Dawes. One end of it butted against a rock on which the octagonal building stood and the two were joined by a stairway. So far as we can ascertain both buildings were of timber with the octagonal building having a roof of canvas. The whole project was delayed by the lack of suitable tradesmen in the colony but it was completed by July 1788. The Observatory was situated on the Western point of Sydney Cove which is now known as Dawes Point. At that time at the suggestion of Dawes it was named Point Maske!yne by Captain Hunter.

Dawes now tried to get on with his Astronomy but the Governor continued to load other jobs on to him and judging by his letters the astronomical observing went rather slowly. Yet he seems to have kept a close lookout for the non-appearing comet, discovered some new nebulae, observed an eclipse of the Sun and made observations on the Moons parallax and Jupiters satellites. From all the available letters to Maskelyne it is possible to obtain a picture of the work Dawes did in his little observatory. He clearly was following the instructions which were fairly standard at the time for astronomers who accompanied sea-faring expeditions. These set out the observations to be made at sea including those needed to determine latitude and longitude, magnetic and meteorological observations and general navigation calculations. On land the tent observatory was to be set up and similar observations made together with gravity and tidal recordings. Because of his other duties Dawes was not able to devote as much time to the observatory as he wanted to. His work as surveyor took him on several expeditions into the interior of the country. On these he was accompanied by Watkin Tench who has left a very full account. On one trip they penetrated fifty-three miles westward into the Blue Mountains to a point beyond the present town of Linden. But for a shortage of supplies Dawes might well have been the first white man to cross the Blue Mountains within two years of the foundation of the colony. Dawes was planning to stay in New South Wales after his term of service with the Marines expired but his quarrel with the Governor made this impossible.

Firstly Phillips game-keeper was murdered by the Aborigines towards the end of 1790. Dawes and Tench were put in charge of a party of Marines to round up the offenders and made drastic punishment including some executions and transportation of others to Norfolk Island. Dawes at first refused this duty and later accepted it very reluctantly because he had made friends among the Aborigines and was trying to convert them to Christianity. The expedition did not result in any executions or transportations but Dawes informed the Governor in the presence of his adjutant Lieutenant Long that he was sorry he had been persuaded to comply with the order and that he would not obey similar orders in future. Secondly Dawes brought some flour from a convict which was against an order by Governor Phillip intended to prevent rackets in food and rum due to the extreme shortage of food in the colony. Dawes maintained that he had bought the flour from the convict, who was the baker for the garrison, believing that it was an extra allowance and not part of the mans ration. Phillip did not accept this, but agreed that Dawes could remain in the colony if he apologised for his misdemeanours and undertook not to offend again. This Dawes refused to do and left for England in December 1791 taking with him the observatory equipment.

So the young nation lost the services of a remarkable man who would have contributed much had he been given the chance. The last we hear of the little observatory is from John Crossley the astronomer with H.M.S. Providence which came to Sydney on 28th August 1795. He wrote,

I went on shore and examined the place where Mr. Dawes observatory was built but found nothing standing but the uprights which supported the roof and the pillar on which he placed his quadrants.

So passed Australias first observatory.


Last Update : 14th November 2012

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