The Story of an Absurdity

By Vernon W.E. Goodin, M.A.

Royal Australian Historical Society, 33, pg.173-182, (1947)

In Parramatta Park stand two piers of masonry, some six feet high, erected upon a single massive flat stone, the whole enclosed by a make-shift iron railing roughly held together at the corners by wire. Weather-beaten and old and of unusual design, these stones infuse a reverence which steals in at the eye and softens the mind with the feeling of shadowy accomplishments in a venerable past.

It would be difficult to find in Australian stones which had older and grander historical associations. They once carried the five and a half feet transit instrument which made the name Parramatta known throughout the the cultured world. At the time when the mention of Botany Bay brought forth only derisive laughter and ribald remarks, reports of astronomical observation began to flow from Parramatta Observatory which startled the scientists and made educated people began to realize, perhaps for the first time, that there must be some fallacy in the assertion that the inhabitants of New South Wales kept themselves alive by picking each others pockets.

The Observatory and Its Work

The occasion and the man cause the Observatory to take spotlight of publicity in one stride. The occasion was the disappointment felt by the astronomers that they were unable to observe an astronomical event of greatest interest. the man was Sir Thomas Brisbane, newly appointed Governor of a colony in the southern hemisphere, an enthusiastic astronomer and wealthy enough to purchase the best instruments available and to found his own private observatory.

Fig.1 Goodin

Old Government House, Parramatta Park

A — Transit Piers and Memorial Obelisk
B – Brisbanes Bath-house
C – Site of old stables.
D – Governors garden.
EE – Approximate lines of old stone walls.

( Photo ; W.H. Stuckey. )

The spectacular entrance of Parramatta Observatory, upon the stage of astronomy is apparent in Fouriers Report on the Progress of the Mathematical Sciences published in 1823. The eagerly awaited re-appearence of Enckes comet in May, 1822; but

its faint splendour and corpuscular light did not allow it to be observed in Europe. Nor were they more fortunate at the Observatory of the Cape of Good Hope; but it was described in the region on the most remote from Europe – New Holland. [p.175] The Astronomer of the Observatory of Parramatta, the most recent establishment of such a kind, observed the comet throughout the month of June, 1822.1

Brisbane did not arrive in New South Wales until November, 1821, but within one month the instruments were mounted upon their piers, and all was in readiness to observe the solstice on December 21, 1821 — the first scientifically accurate astronomical observations made in Australia.

Fig.2 Goodin


( Photo. W. Allen. )

The observatory building was completed by the time Enckes comet appeared; and so great was the surprise and jubilation when Rumkers report of his observations was published that he was promptly granted £100 by the Royal Society in recognition of his work. 2

Three months later came reports of observations of an eclipse of the sun. 3 But the greatest work achieved at Parramatta was the monumental labour of cataloguing the stars. This was assiduously pursued over a number of years, and the result, A Catalogue of 7385 Stars, was given to the world by the Admiralty in 1835.

The Observatory and the First Survey of the Colony.

Nor is the historically importance of the grey and ageing stones confined to astronomy. When, in 1828, Thomas Mitchell began the first trigonometrical survey in this country in the face of strong opposition and, indeed, the express orders of his superior officer, John Oxley, not to proceed, he went to the transit instrument at Parramatta Observatory for his initial meridian; and all positions were calculated and measured east and west of that line. A full and detailed account, which makes very interesting reading, is given in Minutes of Evidence, Commission of Enquiry into Surveyor-Generals Department";-

Q. 146, p.35 : It was from Parramatta your longitude started ?

A. Yes. Mr. Dunlop gave me the longitude and with the best attention to accuracy…

Q. 149, p. 36 : Do you consider your longitude to be accurate with reference to Sydney ?

A. : Certainly I do, with reference to Sydney, which is connected by five different measurements with the point I have just referred to 4

That Survey Earned Mitchell His Knighthood.

So closely associated with the survey of this colony were those piers that Surveyor Edward Ebsworth, when engaged upon his permanent survey of Parramatta Park in 1887, went to great trouble to fix their positions of accurately, and placed a copper plug in the basal stone so that their exact location would be known even if the piers were destroyed. It was during this survey that Ebsworth brought to light the data which caused him to report that the Memorial Obelisk had been placed in the wrong position.

Again, in 1928, when the late James Nangle wrote to the Surveyor-General, Max Allen, asking for the latitude and longitude of Paramatta Observatory, Staff Surveyor [p.177] Fred. C. Carr was detailed for the task. And the wording of his Instruction 5 directs him unhesitatingly to those stones from which Mitchell began his work : Subject : Fixation of positions of Transit Supports used by Governor Brisbane, in Parramatta Park. The measurements and observations made by Surveyor Carr are given in Field Book No. 397, colios 13a to 21a, Lands Department, Sydney, and in his report he states 5:-

The positions of the old Transit instrument is fixed from the large basal stone, and from the two stone supports on which the axis rested. The fixation is definitely within very small limits — well under an inch — and the point used has been by a copper plug inserted in the basal stone. This station is referred to by me as Supports, and may be described as marked by a plug inserted in basal stone of old transit supports about 9 inches above ground level above ground level, and bearing 85’ 20′ (Trig. Azim.) for 40.44 links from the centre of the memorial obelisk erected to mark the position of the old transit observatory in Parramatta Park.

The Memorial Obelisk and Russells Mistake

This bring us to a situation which surely must be unique in its absurdity. Except for a possible modelling in 1835, the massive stone piers on the massive stone case stand today where Sir Thomas Brisbane placed them in 1821; yet twenty odd feet away an obelisk flaunts its inscription : This obelisk was erected in 1880 to mark the position of the transit instrument ! It seems unbelievable that with such solid stone evidence confronting them, and with such characteristically shaped piers challenging their reasoning powers, rational human beings could make such a ridiculous error. Yet the error was made. There can be no shuffling that the words of the inscription mean something different to what they state.

John Tebbutt, of Windsor, threw out the first suggestion that led to the erection of the obelisk. In 1870 he published On the Progress and Present State of Astronomical Science in new South Wales, and in it he refers copiously to Parramatta Observatory. On page 4 he says :-

It would also be not inappropriate if an obelisk were erected on the spot, commemorative of the institution and its founder.

J.S. Farnall, M.L.A., took up the suggestion [p.178] enthusiastically, and succeeded in 1875 in having the sum of £150 place on the Estimates for that purpose.6 There was delay, but eventually H.C. Russell, Government Astronomy, James Barnet, Colonial Architect, and J.S. Farnell were appointed trustees, and the work was completed in 1880.

Fig.3 Goodin


( Photo. W. Allen. )

On Monday, March 15, at the invitation of Mr. Farnell, the trustees, accompanied by Mr. Richards (Government Printer), proceeded to Parramatta to inspect the work, and see that the contractor had placed the obelisk in the proper position. Mr. Russell furnished a plan of the old observatory, drawn to scale by the late Rev. W. B. Clarke. By means of this distance of the old transit instrument from the walls was found. Although the walls are gone the foundations were still there, and the measures from these showed that the obelisk is correctly placed. A photograph of it was taken, copies of which will be distributed to all astronomical observatories… A great number of valuable astronomical observations were made from Parramatta, and it is important to mark the exact site of the transit with which these observations [p.179] were taken; so that at any time at any future time when it may be necessary to use the observations, the geographical position in which they were made may be determined with all precision which the existing state of astronomical science may render possible. 7

So they sent them false information so that they could make exact and precise calculations !

If there is still a lingering doubt, it must be completely dispelled by Russells reply to the Under-Secretary of Lands, John Deering, when he informed Russell of Ebsworths report that the obelisk had been placed in the wrong position. Russell wrote on May 17, 1888 (the letter was not posted till July 6) :-

The piers which he supposes were those of the transit, were those of another instrument, and the Obelisk stands on the foundations of the Transit Instrument.

The Transit Instruments.

What was the another instrument which Russell had in mind? If we refer to Clarkes plan which is printed as the frontispiece to A Catalogue of 7285 Stars, we find that the Mural Circle approximately occupies the position upon which the transit piers stand; but the piers could not have carried such an instrument. Further, as Mr. H. Wood, the present Government Astronomer, says :

If we refer to Clarkes plan and assume that the position of the Obelisk is correct, this other instrument must have been very close to the wall of the Observatory and far closer than any practised astronomer would deem convenient.

But there was another instrument, A second transit instrument was erected at Brisbanes Observatory. Russell uncritically and unjustifiably assumed that it had been erected on different piers on a different site. This is denied in the facts.

Dunlop, who was associated with the observatory from the date of its commencement in 1821 to the date upon which it was dismantled in 1847, completely disposes of any idea that different piers were erected for it in his evidence before the Board of Visitors, reported by Fitzroy to Grey on August, 30, 1847. He stated that he began his observations with the five and a half feet transit and two feet mural circle, and continued until the transit [p.180] was replaced by Jones three-and-a-half (3½) feet transit circle in the middle of the year 1835.8

That it was erected on the same site is definitely stressed in the report of the Board :-

A five and a half feet Transit, by Troughton, complete with Ys and hanging level. This Instrument was taken from its place to make room for the Meridian Circle; it is in good order and ready for use. A Meridian Circle; forty-two inches diameter, by Jones,.... This instrument is set up where the five and a half Transit was fixed 9

Later, both these instruments were erected at Sydney Observatory. The story is told by the first Astronomer, Rev. William Scott, M.A., in the Introduction to his first report, published in 1860.

Scott landed in Sydney on November 1, 1856, and immediately busied himself with the plans and construction of the Observatory. Money was made available for the purchase on new instruments, and for the repair and improvement of a Transit Circle formerly belonging to the observatory at Parramatta. By June, 1858, he was ready to make meridian observations. The Transit Circle, which has been sent to England for repairs, had not yet arrived, so The old Transit Instrument, long since condemned at Parramatta,… was mounted and made use of the observations. Scott goes on to say that it was only a makeshift, as its defects were great and its axes worn out. This is not surprising, as it weighed in the vicinity of 200 lbs.

The instrument which Brisbane had brought out with him in 1821 was finally discarded when the Transit Circle arrived from England about the end of December 1858. Scotts description of the Transit Circle leaves no doubt that it was identical with the instrument erected at Parramatta in 1835 :-

The transit circle was made by Jones for the Parramatta Observatory, and repaired, improved, and re-divided by Troughton and Sims. The graduated limb of the circle is 42 inches in diameter....

This instrument still stood on its piers when Russell [p.181] entered upon his duties at Sydney Observatory, and the piers themselves stand there to the present day.

Mr. Wood has made comparable measurements, and has given me permission to quote him as saying :-

There is no shadow of doubt that the instrument which was on the piers still remaining in Parramatta Park was the one later used at Sydney Observatory. This is clearly shown by comparison of the shape of the piers and positions of the bolt-holes by which the instrument was attached with the features of the stone piers which still remains in the present Observatory. The contemporary statements quoted by you show that the original Parramatta transit telescope has been in the same position.

And so we have a most ludicrous situation. Here stands an imposing marble obelisk on a solid granite pedestal, in the centre of a large flag-stone circle, the whole surrounded by a substantial and ornate iron railing, an the obelisk carries the inscription, Erected in 1880 to mark the position of the transit instrument : and there stand the weather-beaten old piers that carried the transit instrument, naked and neglected, dishonoured and disowned, the sport of the mischievous, the shrine of name-scratching vandals.

The Observatory Building

How was it possible that such a gross error could be made ? The trouble was that there were two buildings. The first was the observatory proper, an the second was the dwelling attached to it.

Brisbane, an astronomer, received no encouragement whatsoever from the British Government. Everything that was done was done at his own expense. 10 So we would not expect that he would erect a very substantial building, particularly as lie only intended to remain in Australia a few years. This supposition in support by Dunlop, who stated :-

The building was originally of a very inferior description, being only intended as a private establishment and not calculated to last beyond a few years.11

Completed in 1822, it had lived its life by 1847. The Board in its report (vide supra) described starkly a building in the last stages of decay :- [p.182]

The floor and partitions of the building seem to be entirely destroyed by white ant, and the building itself is dilapidated as to require to be rebuilt.

Fitzroy, who had his residence less than a hundred yards away, strongly corroborated the Board, and added some more details :-

The Building is in a very dilapidated state, the partitioned walls having settle; the floor and partitions perfectly rotten from the effect of the white ant; and the roof admitting rain in most parts; the canvas coverings of the domes are quite rotten and torn, and afford no protection to the Instruments; in fact, they are till all but entirely exposed in the weather, and will soon be destroyed unless steps are taken to protect them, until another building is erected. 12

Later, the Board agreed that :-

Instead of incurring the expense of covering in any portion of the Observatory for the preservation of the Instruments it would be better to have put up in boxes and placed in Ordinance Stores.

On July 11, 1847, Fitzroy reported to Grey that that has been done.

Mitchell, however, provides the critical information, on account of his long and close association with the transit piers, from 1828 to 1855, his statement or facts must be accepted without reserve :-

There is Sir Thomas Brisbanes Observatory which was a small wooden house, at the back of the old Government House, and now pulled down. 13

That was said on July 10, 1855. Collateral evidence supports him and leaves no doubt that the demolition of the white-ant riddled eyesore followed immediately upon the removal of file instruments in 1847.

An so passed Brisbanes Observatory building.

The Observatory Dwelling

On January 5, 1828, Darling reported reported to Goderich :-

I have been under the necessity of authorizing the additional of two small Rooms to the Observatory for the personal accommodation of Mr. Rumker. 14

On August 29 of the same year, Darling wrote to Huskisson :- [pg.183]

I beg leave Sir, further to transmit a Plan and Estimate of a proposed addition to the Observatory at Parramatta, intended for he accommodation of the Government Astronomer. Mr. Rumker who is a Man of simple habits, has since the departure of Sir Thomas Brisbane resided in the Apartment where the Astronomical Instruments are kept and made use of. It appears on every account desirable as well as for the better preservation of the Instruments, as for his personal Comfort, that he should have a Separated Apartment, and I hope Sir you will Authorise the Expense necessary to be incurred on this account, which according to the Estimate, will probably not exceed £ 337. 15

Nothing is done then, because Twiss wrote to Darling on December 21, 1829, that Rumker had informed Sir George Murray that, up at to the time of his leaving the colony, no accommodation has been provided for him. Twiss reminded Darling and Murray had already sanctioned the work, and then instructed him, if not already done,

that you will give orders as such additions to be made to that Building, as shall appear necessary to render his residence there as convenient to him as possible. 16

For various reasons, there was further delay. In a despatch dated March 31, 1835, from Aberdeen to Bourke, an explanation is demanded concerning a contract in connexion with the Government Observatory, 17 Bourke replied :-

Expense of repairs required at Government Observatory, Parramatta agreeably to Contract entered into on 17th May 1832 with Messrs. Bynes and Gooch for £469/17/6. Authorized by the despatch of Mr. Under Secretary Twiss dated 21st Decr. 1829. See copy herewith.

The despatch copied is that quoted above. 18 So, presumably, the dwelling was erected in 1832, ten years or so later than the observatory building itself; and, as it was built at Government expense, there can be no reason to doubt it would be, at least, a fairly substantial structure.

Writing in 1870, Tebbutt stated :-

The observatory was dismantled in 1847. Its roofless brick walls are still to be seen, but nothing remains to testify to the [pg.184] character of the ruins, except the stone piers which once formed the support for the meridian instruments. 19

Again, in an interview reported in the Sydney Mail of May 8, 1880, Tebbutt is reported to have said :-

Ten years ago a portion of the roofless walls of the Parramatta was still standing; the semi-circular portions forming the chambers for the equatorial and the repeating circle had, however totally disappeared, and nothing but the piers of the transit instrument remained to testify to the astronomical character of the ruins.

Mrs. Margaret Swann, an old resident of Parramatta, in a paper read to the Parramatta Historical Society on October 5, 1920, stated :-

At that time [1847] the Observatory building was in a very dilapidated condition, but although still a very bad state of repair, it was used ten years later as a residence for one of the Parramatta constabulary: and it was not until some years later that the old building was pulled down. 20

And what appears to be conclusive evidence that the observatory was not demolished in 1847 is given by Edward Ebsworth on December 7, 1887 :-

George James Giles, park Ranger in charge of Parramatta Park from year 1864 to the present date (December 1887) states :- That the observatory was pulled down by him by direction of the Park Trustees about the year 1876. The building was then empty and disused as an observatory, and was removed to prevent depredations to the windows, lead of roof, and other injury, gradually taking place by mischievous persons visiting the Park.
It was a rectangular brick building on stone foundations and contained 4 rooms. The brickwork was removed and also the stone foundations to about 6 inches under the ground surface. The remains of the foundation were exhumed, under the direction of the Ranger....
The stone foundations and superstructure supporting the transit instruments stood outside the observatory, and were never removed, being intact at the present time. The obelisk — the inscription upon which states that it stands on the spot formerly occupied by the transit instrument does not actually do so; it being erected by the workmen in 1880, in error, in the middle of the former Kitchen of the Observatory. 21

Fig.4 Goodin


( Photo. W. Allen. )

Ebsworth Discovers the Error

Ebsworth very carefully surveyed the foundations, which included the hearth bricks of former Observatory [pg.185] [Two Figures of the Observatory Plan.] [pg.186] Kitchen and drew a very accurate and detailed plan of them on page 37 of his Field Book. A copy of this was forwarded to Russell, which drew from him in reply :-

I do not know what foundations he, but found, but they, cannot be the foundations of the observatory, for when I put up the Obelisk, I found the foundations agree with the original plan of the building which I have, and those shown by Mr. Surveyor Ebsworth do not in any way.... I regret that Mr. Ebsworth did nor consult me for a copy of the original plan of the Observatory before placing on record as an official document a plan so misleading. [Letter quoted above.]

Fig.5 Goodin


( Photo. W. Allen. )

Ebsworths plan was never published, and there the matter rested, until the eve of the Centenary Celebrations of the Foundation of the Observatory, when, on December 19, 1921, the Sydney Morning Herald published a drawing of Brisbanes Observatory based on Clarkes plan. Immediately, the late William Freame, the local historian, wrote a letter, published in the Evening News of the next day, in which he stated that he had been requested to send

the, following information, partly from my own collected data, and partly from the references of old residents, who were well acquainted with the building.... the first observatory was a small cottage of four rooms and Kitchen, nothing like the published plan.

Freame goes on to say that the roof was covered with lead one-eighth of an inch thick, which was sold for £40 when the building was demolished by Park Ranger Giles. The interior fittings were all of cedar, excellently wrought, but all, except one door, were destroyed by a fire at the rangers house.

And he was correct. The Observatory was nothing like the published plan. Brisbanes observatory was a building 28 feet square, with two domes of 11½ feet diameter, with corresponding semi-circular bays in the north and south walls. (Detailed description given in Preface to A Catalogue of 7385 Stars.) Ebsworths plan is of a building 36 feet 3 inches square, with no departure from the straight line in any wall.

But neither Ebsworth nor Freame seems to have had the slightest inkling that there had been two buildings. Ebsworth says unequivocally that the transit piers stood outside the observatory. If that were so the expensive an delicate instruments necessarily would have been exposed [pg.187.] to the elements, and what a very hard life Mr Rumker must have had when he lived amongst them !

The Explanation

The fact is that Brisbanes Observatory had dropped out of human ken, did what was known as the dwelling ancillary to it.

This is not so surprising as it may appear, to be. For the whole of its life the Observatory stood on private ground.

As astronomy was a spare-time hobby, Brisbane erected the building its close to his home as he could. Nearby was the very substantial Bath-house that he built, which still stands, and farther along the ridge where the Governors stables, which, together with their site, disappeared when the railway cutting was excavated. The town was shut off by high stone walls, avid the gates guarded by sentries. As late as 1855, a man was fined for trespass on the Government Domain. So the only persons who saw the old building were those associated with Government House itself and even the soldiers were birds of passage. 22 When the trustees were gazetted on Friday, August 6, 1858, and the Government Domain was thrown open to the Public as Parramatta Park, no vestige of Observatory remained except the transit piers.


I desire to express many thanks to Mr. B. T. Bowd, Research Officer of the Lands Department, for his valuable assistance; to my son, Mr. W. E. Goodin, for the preparation of the plans; to Mr. W. Allen, for photographs; to the staff of the Mitchell. Public and State Parliamentary Libraries, for their unfailing courtesy; and, above all, to Mr. H. W. Wood, Government Astronomer, for his help and encouragement, and for saving me from blunders concentrating things about which I know nothing.


  1. Sydney Gazette, January 22, 1824.
  2. Ibid; Preface to a Catalogue of 7385 Stars; Sydney Morning Herald, December 17, 1921.
  3. Sydney Gazette, August 23, 1822.
  4. New South Wales Legislative Council Votes and Proceedings, 1855, Vol 2, p. 23 et seq.
  5. No. 28/13, dated June 20, 1928.
  6. Cumberland Mercury, May 1, 1875.
  7. Sydney Mail, Saturday, May 8, 1880.
  8. Historical Records of Australia, Series 1., Vol. XXV., p. 732.
  9. Ibid, p. 659.
10. Historical Records of Australia, Series 1., Vol.XI., note 137: & Vol.XXV., note 50, p.786.
11. Ibid, p. 732.
12. Ibid p.662.
13.Votes and Procceedings, vide supra p. 35.
14. Historical Records of Australia, Series I., Vol. X111., pg. 679.
15. Ibid, Vol. XIV., p. 355.
16. Ibid, Vol. XV., p. 298.
17. Ibid, Vol. XVIII., p. 704.
18. Dispatches from Governor of New South Wales, P.R.O. Copies 1832-34 p. 1553.
      See also John Service, Thir Notandum, pg. 141 and 206.
19. Op. cit. p. 4.
20. Parramatta Historical Societys Journal, Vol II, p. 64.
21. Edward Ebsworth : Field Book 3667, Lands Department.


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