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The Royal Observatory dates its foundation from two warrants issued under the name of Charles II. On 4 March 1674/5 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'. Contemporary copies of both documents are preserved in the Royal Greenwich Observatory archives. The first warrant stated that Flamsteed was ' apply as to find out the so much desired longitude of places...' and the second gave the purpose of the construction of the observatory to be ' order to find out the longitude of places...'.

The Astronomer Royal continued to work on the King's chosen site at Greenwich for nearly 250 years, the buildings and staff expanding and altering to accommodate the developing remit of the Royal Observatory's work. However, process of dispersal (initially in response to such problems as London's increasing light, magnetic and atmospheric pollution and later to the potential for Second World War enemy action) began with the removal of the Magnetic and Meteorological Department to Abinger, Surrey in 1924. By 1957 the institution had reconsolidated at Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex. More information about the Herstmonceux period may be found in George Wilkin's A Personal History of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux Castle, 1948-1990. From 1988-90 the Observatory completed its final move to a site next to the university's Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. Once it left London the institution was referred to as the Royal Greenwich Observatory to distinguish it from its earlier incarnation and from the site itself in Greenwich Park, now a museum and properly referred to as the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. In 1998 October the Royal Greenwich Observatory was closed by its parent organisation, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and its functions dispersed or discontinued.

The RGO archives collection is now deposited in the University Library and consists of all the surviving historical paper records of the Royal Observatory from 1675 until circa 1980, though many later records are held and the collection accrues as material is deposited. The records are public records under the 1958 Public Records Act and are subject to the provisions of the 1958 and 1967 Acts, including the 'thirty-year rule'. The records are also covered by the 2000 Freedom of Information Act and the General Data Protection Regulation 2016. The Royal Observatory papers are available to read in the Manuscripts Reading Room in the University Library. A selection has also been digitised on Cambridge Digital Library.

For more than two centuries the Royal Observatory functioned on an established staff of ten or fewer and the official record of the Observatory's work is contained in the papers of the Astronomers Royal. It is these papers which constitute the first classes of the collection:

  • RGO 1 Papers of John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal 1675-1719
  • RGO 2 Papers of Edmond Halley, Astronomer Royal 1720-1742
  • RGO 3 Papers of James Bradley, Astronomer Royal 1742-1762 and Papers of Nathaniel Bliss, Astronomer Royal 1762-1764
  • RGO 4 Papers of Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal 1765-1811, a selection of which have been digitised; see also RGO 218 (Nevil Maskelyne: Personal and Family Papers)
  • RGO 5 Papers of John Pond, Astronomer Royal 1811-1835; a selection of which have been digitised
  • RGO 6 Papers of George Airy, Astronomer Royal 1835-1881
  • RGO 7 Papers of William Christie, Astronomer Royal 1881-1910

It should be noted that there are classes of RGO Archives which 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 these importantly include:

Two influences expanded the role of the Royal Observatory towards the end of the nineteenth century. Historically the Observatory's founding warrants, and all those succeeding, directed that the work of the Observatory should be to perfect astronomical navigation and up until the end of Airy's tenure it was essentially observational work towards this end which was carried out at Greenwich. However, during Christie's period in office much more powerful instruments were installed at Greenwich, reflecting the Astronomer Royal's interest in physical astronomy. The greater number of instruments of higher power required a larger staff.

At the same time the organisation of the Observatory became more structured, affected by the greater influence of wider civil service procedures, and this departmentalisation also led to a higher number of staff. In terms of the archival record, this has resulted in a greater fragmentation leading to a higher number of the classes, the papers of the Astronomers Royal no longer embodying the entire record of the work of the Observatory. This should be borne in mind when reading the twentieth century papers of the Royal Observatory. The Astronomers Royal during this period were:

  • RGO 8 Frank Watson Dyson, Astronomer Royal 1910-1933
  • RGO 9 Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal 1933-1955
  • RGO 10 Richard van der Reit Woolley, Astronomer Royal 1956-1971

Before Woolley's retirement in 1971 it was announced that the title of Astronomer Royal would not in future necessarily be awarded to the current Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and, in fact, no Astronomer Royal after 1971 was also concurrently Director. Nonetheless, the classes of the papers of the Directors of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (this title for the Observatory only came into use in 1948 after the move of the Observatory from Greenwich to Herstmonceux in Sussex had begun) are significant:

  • RGO 11 Papers of Eleanor Margaret Burbidge, Director 1972-1973
  • RGO 12 Papers of Alan Hunter, Director 1973-1975
  • RGO 13 Papers of Francis Graham Smith, Director 1976-1981
  • RGO 176 Papers of Alexander Boksenberg, Director 1981-1995
  • RGO 203 Papers of Jasper Vivian Wall, Director 1995-1998

Readers should note, however, that the thirty year rule currently applies to the last two of the above classes and that these papers are not available for inspection.

With the increase in the importance of the departmental structure already referred to, so the departments created their own records, the head of the department frequently imposing his personal stamp to such an extent that they also reflect the professional papers of that individual.

  • RGO 16 HM Nautical Almanac Office papers (including Donald Sadler papers)
  • RGO 43 Time Department papers (including Humphry Smith papers)
  • RGO 53 RGO Meridian Department papers
  • RGO 64 RGO Solar Department papers
  • RGO 71 Chronometer Department papers
  • RGO 91 RGO Engineering Department papers
  • RGO 92 RGO Instrumentation Science Department papers

As the above are twentieth century records, please note that the thirty-year rule will apply to all or parts of these classes, and that modern records of this sort will not be available for inspection.

Other important classes are those containing the official sets of Royal Observatory and HM Nautical Almanac Office publications, some publications of the Cape Observatory, and those relating to the Carlsberg Automatic Meridian Circle, La Palma. The most important are:

  • RGO 17 Royal Observatory reports of the Astronomers Royal, etc.1836-1998
  • RGO 20 Royal Observatory Annals
  • RGO 21 Royal Observatory Bulletins
  • RGO 28 Nautical Almanac 1767-1959
  • RGO 29 Astronomical Ephemeris 1960-1980
  • RGO 30 Star Almanac for Land Surveyors 1951-present
  • RGO 31 Air Almanac 1937-present
  • RGO 52 Astronomical Almanac 1981-present
  • RGO 104 Nautical Almanac part 1 and Abridged Nautical Almanac 1896-1959
  • RGO 180 Nautical Almanac 1960-present
  • RGO 182 Astronomical Phenomena 1981-present
  • RGO 189 Carlsberg Automatic Meridian Circle, La Palma: publications, 1984-2005

Published material is not, of course, subject to the thirty-year rule. Over the years significant deposits of the private papers of astronomers, some of whom have never been members of staff of the RGO, have been received, notably:

  • RGO 37 Papers of Roderick Oliver Redman (1905-1975)
  • RGO 45 Papers of John Guy Porter (1900-1981)
  • RGO 46 Papers of Leslie John Comrie (1893-1950)
  • RGO 54 Papers of William Ellis (1828-1916)
  • RGO 59 Papers of George Lyon Tupman (1838-1922); digitised in part on Cambridge Digital Library
  • RGO 60 Papers of Francis Baily (1774-1844)
  • RGO 69 Papers of Richard Sheepshanks (1794-1855)
  • RGO 73 Papers of Warren de la Rue (1815-1889)
  • RGO 74 Papers of Philbert Jacques Melotte (1880-1961)
  • RGO 75 Papers of John Franklin Adams (1843-1912)
  • RGO 77 Papers of Robert d'Escourt Atkinson (1898-1992)
  • RGO 206 David Kinnebrook correspondence (ca. 1773-1802)

Readers should note that due to the personal nature of such papers parts or all of the material within the individual classes above may not be open to inspection. Where the person is still living, the class may be accruing and cataloguing will not be complete. It should not be inferred that the assignment of a class number and title necessarily indicates that there is a comprehensive collection of personal papers in the class.

The Archive also includes visual and audio visual collections: 

  • RGO 86 Audio-visual records (including a set of oral histories with former RGO staff members) 
  • RGO 96 Portraits of astronomers
  • RGO 97 Astronomical postage stamps: first day covers
  • RGO 101 Plans and technical drawings
  • RGO 116 Astronomical paintings, drawings and other representations; digitised in part on Cambridge Digital Library.

Important papers from other observatories (in addition to the RGO 15 Cape papers, above) have accrued to the RGO collection over time, as have both internal and external telescope construction, management and observational papers:

  • RGO 44 Isaac Newton Telescope papers
  • RGO 47 Anglo-Australian Telescope papers
  • RGO 48 Radcliffe Observatory papers
  • RGO 49 Northern Hemisphere Observatory papers
  • RGO 66 Kew Observatory papers
  • RGO 87 RGO Danjon Astrolabe papers
  • RGO 93 Satellite Laser Ranger project papers
  • RGO 100 RGO Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory papers
  • RGO 103 RGO Photographic Zenith Tube records
  • RGO 106 William Herschel Telescope records

Prospective readers should note that several of the above classes are accruing papers and are as yet not catalogued.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory archives collection is rich in all manner of related papers which it is impossible to list here. A catalogue of the collection can be found on the ArchiveSearch database, but as the Archive is still in the process of being catalogued a full listing of the holdings is not as yet available on the site. A full list of RGO classes is, however, available from staff in the Department of Manuscripts Reading Room. Please note that all the observational records of the RGO 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 University Library.

On its closure in 1998, large series of modern records were taken into the collection in the University Library as potential public records for retention, and further accruals of modern records will continue for some years. The collection will, as it has historically, continue to receive deposits of relevant personal papers.



E. Walter Maunder, The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: A Glance at its History and Work, London, The Religious Tract Society, 1900. [Misc.6.90.57]

Harold Spencer Jones, The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London, The British Council/Longmans, 1943. [1944.7.1619]

William Hunter McCrea, Royal Greenwich Observatory: An Historical Review issued on the occasion of its Tercentenary, London, HMSO, 1975. [OP.3100.101.1]

E. G. Forbes, A. J. Meadows, H. D. Howse, Greenwich Observatory: the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and Herstmonceux 1675-1975, volumes 1-3, London, Taylor and Francis, 1975. [342:4.b.95.1-3]

D.H. Sadler, A Personal History of H.M. Nautical Almanac Office 30 October 1930 – 18 February 1972, HMNAO 2008-2011

G. A. Wilkins, A Personal History of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux Castle, 1948-1990, published online, 2009. 

Contact: Dr Emma Saunders, RGO archivist (