Derby and District Astronomical Society

John Flamsteed (1646-1719) The Flamsteed Observatory

A History
The Flamsteed Observatory

The Society first thought about constructing its own observatory as far back as 1982. The search for a suitable site did not, however, go entirely without incident. The first site to be considered was an old pumping station that belonged to the Severn Trent Water Authority. The site was out in the country under a dark sky. Indeed, there was already a building on the site that could be converted into an Observatory, but the planning authorities turned down planning permission on the grounds of access.

The second candidate site was not all that far from where the observatory now stands. The choice in this case was a narrow piece of land that had access already available. But, unfortunately, planning permission was once again turned down, this time mainly due to objections from local people. During this time the Society was approached by a local farmer, who had heard about the Societyís search for a piece of land. The farmer had a small piece of land lying fallow, and was more than happy to lease it to the Society. This time around the authorities were kind to us, and gave us planning permission.

Once the matter of a site had been settled, the Society had to deal with the tricky problem of raising the necessary funds to begin the first stages of construction. The Society staged a number of fund-raising events including sponsored bike rides, walks, raffles and so on. It was during this period that the Society approached various companies and organisations that may have been in a position to help in the construction of the Observatory. The response to this appeal was quite overwhelming. Derby City Council Grants Sub-Committee was also approached and awarded the Society a substantial sum.

The 12-inch telescope built by Ed Spooner on display in Derby Museum before being installed at the observatoryIn the meantime the construction of the Observatoryís original 12-inch Newtonian reflecting telescope was proceeding apace. The telescope was built entirely by Society member Dr Ed Spooner, who was later honoured at the opening ceremony by having the telescope named after him, in recognition of his contribution to the Society as a whole. In fact the telescope was completed long before the Observatory building was!

The pit for the observatory foundationsThe development of the site began on St. Patrick's Day, 17th March 1985. The first job was to clear away top soil for a car park, the first turf being cut by the Chairman at the time, Arthur Tristram. Over the next few weeks the ground was prepared for limestone aggregate to be put down for the car park. By mid-May 1985 an Observatory Sub-Committee had arranged for regular working parties to be held at the site. On 6th July 1985 the Society held its first summer barbecue at the site, a tradition that continues to this day. The foundations for the observatory itself were pegged out on 31st July 1985 and subsequently dug out by JCB.

The then Secretary of the Society and founder member, Jane Kirk, sent out letters to various large companies and interested parties to drum up support for the project. This bore fruit with a kind donation by Tarmac Ltd of 30 tonnes of limestone for the observatory foundations and car park, delivered on 25th September 1985. On 13th October nine Society members shifted around 15 tonnes of this limestone in the process of laying the foundations and car park. December 1st 1985 saw the shuttering put in place for the cement base of the observatory building.

A kind donation by Tarmac of concrete for the observatory foundationsIn the spring of 1986 a path was laid between the car park and the observatory building. An attempt at getting the foundations completed had to be aborted when heavy rains meant the cement mixer was unable to drive past the boggy entrance to the site! A second attempt on 23rd August 1986 was successful when six members helped to lay the foundations. Two concrete hard pads were also placed at the site a few yards from the observatory itself for members telescopes.

A work party inspects the observatory frame in winter


On the 8th March 1987 the main frame of the observatory was transported to the site and erected. Eight members put the 5m x 5m structure together in 4 hours and another significant part of the site was complete. The frame was then painted by a couple of members over 3 evenings in September 1987. By December 1987 Ed Spooner had started work on the sections that would make up the dome.

Sam Baker (left) and John Holmes position the first section of the pillar

The next major step was not until the summer of 1989 when the telescope pillar was built. The pillar was designed and constructed by Sam Baker and is comprised of a stack of square concrete sections, the whole filled with steel reinforced concrete. This provides a very stable platform for the telescope, and is isolated from the from the first floor level of the building to prevent vibration being transmitted to the instrument. Following assembly of the pillar came the construction of the dome ring, which forms base of the dome and the track upon which it runs. Credit is again due to Ed Spooner for the design and construction of this component.

The completed stairs, pillar and wallsThe summer of 1989 also saw the completion of the first floor, together with a flight of stairs to allow access to it, all this work being done by Society members. By the end of that summer the panels which would form the walls of the building were delivered to the site. The dome was assembled at the site from separate aluminium segments in September 1990. As it was now some time since the 12 inch telescope had been completed, the surface of the primary mirror had degraded to such an extent, that it was decided that it would have to be re-aluminised. This was done in early 1992 by Orion Optics of Crewe, Cheshire.

Heather Couper opens the observatory by unveiling the name plaque on October 2, 1992The Flamsteed Observatory was officially opened on October 2, 1992, by well known astronomer and TV presenter, Heather Couper, who was in turn accompanied by Nigel Henbest, science writer and presenter of Radio 4ís The Litmus Test. The then Deputy Mayor of Derby, Robin Wood, also took part in the ceremony.

The observatory currently houses a 10-inch Newtonian relector built by Rod TippettThe original 12 inch telescope was of open frame design and sat in a massive concrete horseshoe mount. Due to problems which developed with this mount the Ed Spooner Telescope was replaced in the summer of 1996 by a 10 inch Newtonian reflector built by Rod Tippett. Originally constructed by Rod in 1986 this telescope was also of an open frame design. This instrument also has a 3 inch refracting telescope with a CCD camera attached to it. The re-furbished Observatory was officially re-opened on Monday August 19, 1996 on the 350th Anniversary of the birth of John Flamsteed (Britain's first Astronomer Royal who was born at Denby in Derbyshire and attended Derby School). Mr Alan Heath, local astronomer and former Director of the British Astronomical Associationís Saturn Section, conducted the re-opening ceremony.