John Tebbutt – southern stargazer

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NOTING TEBBUTT John Tebbutt (1834-1916) on Australia’s first one-hundred-dollar note.

A Writer’s encounter with a scientist’s story.

I’D already seen the mysterious Tebbutt’s Observatory from a horse-drawn carriage tour of Windsor, in NSW’s Hawkesbury region. The combination of the rhythm of my ride, and the mist rising off local fields on a warm spring morning, gave this encounter a magical feel, as the low-set, Grecian-style string of buildings that comprise Tebbutt’s workplace appeared, dominating the Colonial landscape of this part of the Hawkesbury without needing to try at all.

As soon as I had the opportunity, I went to have a look for myself, and encountered the descendants of astronomer John Tebbutt (1834-1916) in their ongoing custodianship of his life’s work. This article was published in Blue Mountains Life (Aug-Sept 2010).

TEBBUTT'S TELESCOPE John Tebbutt (1834-1916) and the telescope which he used to chart the return of Halley's Comet in 1986.
TEBBUTT’S TELESCOPE John Tebbutt (1834-1916) and the telescope used to chart the return of Halley’s Comet in 1986.

Southern stargazer

Inside the Hawkesbury observatory of John Tebbutt.

As a Windsor school boy who showed a flair for astronomy, John Tebbutt also had the good fortune to grow up in a home with excellent views of the southern sky at night – Peninsula House.

Completed c.1845 and set on a low hill overlooking the major bend in the Hawkesbury, to the present day the property (and the three observatories Tebbutt designed and built) have commanding views towards all points of the compass.

For the lad who went on to discover two comets and create a critical mass of astronomy in the southern hemisphere, early stargazing took place on the verandah of Peninsula House, which is still in the Tebbutt family today.

“It’s well known my great-grandfather set up his first marine telescope on the verandah of the main house,” current owner John Tebbutt outlines, “but the only remaining verandah faces due north, whereas the southern sky was his domain. When you come to think of it, he must have set-up on the southern side of the house which has long since changed.”

Peninsula House and the two remaining observatories emerge from the mist of a typical Hawkesbury winter morning, as John Tebbutt and daughter Angela lead the way into the workplace in which their ancestor spent thousands of hours making accurate celestial observations and recordings.

COMET COMING The Great Comet of 1861, on Tebbutt's radar in Windsor.
COMET COMING The ‘Great Comet’ of 1861, on Tebbutt’s radar in Windsor.

Tebbutt’s achievements in astronomy are well-documented.

Just shy of his twenty-seventh birthday, before acquiring complex telescopic equipment or building a designated observatory, Tebbutt discovered the ‘Great Comet’ of 1861 and accurately predicted that the Earth would pass through the visible tail, news which created a wave of mild hysteria in June of the same year.

The discovery led to the building of his first weatherboard observatory in 1864 (demolished in the 1930s), and, by 1879, the beautiful brick observatory which still stands.

Although Tebbutt never left Australia, “he would have read about designs from overseas,” the current John Tebbutt outlines as we stand before the two neo-classical porticos of his grandfather’s 1879 observatory.

Reminiscent of the Royal Observatory in London (hotbed of all things astronomical and timekeeper of the western world), Tebbutt’s Observatory served a similar purpose.

“For many years he provided a time service for Windsor,” John says, “and many believe he wanted to create the equivalent of Greenwich for the southern hemisphere.”

That’s easy to believe looking through the beautifully designed brick buildings, appearing like Greek temples in the distance as you approach the property.

“There were many more statues,” Angela Tebbutt explains, “but this one of Atlas is the last one we have.”

Accessed through two heavy iron doors is Tebbutt’s library.

“We found the doors below inches of dirt in a shed,” John explains, “and for a while we weren’t sure what they were, then we realised they fit these door frames exactly. They were for security, because he housed quite a collection of books and instruments here, spending hours making his observations, and would often have to leave the instruments for a period of time. For the accuracy of recordings, things needed some protection.”

“He also had seven children,” Angela laughs, “and we think he liked to keep things safe from them.”

Heavy iron doors seem like overkill when protecting recordings from little fingers, and when I inquire as to whether any significant event might have made Tebbutt wary, both John and Angela immediately talk of the fire which destroyed the property’s granary, thought to have started in an outdoor oven. The full-brick walls and iron doors of Tebbutt’s library speak of someone who knew the consequences of losing irreplaceable work.

GRECIAN-STYLE Tebbutt's Osvervatory (Photo: http://convictstock.wordpress.com/
GRECIAN-STYLE Neo-classical facades of Tebbutt’s Observatory (Photo: convictstock).

Between the two main structures of the 1879 observatory is Tebbutt’s transit room, aligned like everything else on a true north-south axis.

This leads through to a room in which a large pier is the central feature.

“We rebuilt that,” John remembers, “because it had been removed for the tenants. It sits below where the large telescope was on the top floor, but it’s not particularly weight-bearing. It’s more for preventing too much vibration in the building when taking readings through the telescope.”

The current John Tebbutt inherited the property from an uncle in the 1960s, and set about restoring the observatories during the astronomical renaissance prior to the return of Halley’s Comet.

“He came out of retirement for Halley’s in 1910” John explains, “and worked on predicting the path for its return in 1986. By then he’d appeared on Australia’s first one hundred dollar note, and there was interest from the local council in restoring his place in our history before the Bicentenary.”

John regales the story of finding his grandfather’s Irish ‘Grubb’ equatorial telescope, which was sold after Tebbutt’s death in 1916 and ended up at an observatory in New Zealand.

“Councillor Rex Stubbs had a lot to do with getting it back here,” John remembers, “they organised to have it flown back by the RAAF in a training exercise, then trucked from Richmond Air Base out here. Exactly a century since my grandfather set the telescope up here in Windsor, it was returned.”

Tebbutt’s 8-inch equatorial refractor is now housed in his third observatory, a more primitive structure now half hidden by greenery, speaking less of Greenwich-like aspirations and more about the sheer hard work observing and recording Tebbutt completed once he was able to see further into the universe (in all directions) than he had before.

“I think we came pretty close,” John says when I ask if he achieved what he set out to do with restoring the setting of his great grandfather’s life’s work.

“People who used to live here have come back for weddings or other events, and they can’t believe what it now looks like,” Angela adds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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