Philip C Tomlinson
Footnote 1

Version 5.2

For some time I have been intrigued by Observatory Path down by the Seddon Memorial in the Bolton Street Memorial Park. Why this name, when it does not appear to be an obvious place for any type of observatory. Accepting that this name meant what it said, it then raised the question “how many observatories have there been in the Garden?” You may be quite surprised with the answer. 2 3


A Transit Room from Colonial Observatory. Opened 1869, although possibly the original 1863 building from Customhouse Quay, moved from the 'Seddon' site 1906, demolished 1961
B Hector/Dominion Observatory Opened 1907
King Edward VII Memorial Observatory / Thomas King Observatory Opened 1912
D The Wellington City Observatory was located approximately here Opened 1924 Closed 1941
E Carter Observatory Opened 1941

1 Outline of gun pit from 1896 battery
2 Site of battery range finder, dome housed astrolabe used in 1927 International Longitude Campaign and 1957/58 Geophysical year. As a result centre of dome location is more accurately known with respect to other parts of the world than any other point in NZ
3 Line approximate boundary of the car park proposed in 1952. Included the scout den and significant contouring of the land, approximately one third of the reserve , plus some garden land.
4 Meteorological enclosure, established 1925, still in use

Observatory reserve

In answering the above question, another issue arises which needs to be answered first, what is the status of the land where observatories have been constructed, and how does it relate to the rest of the Garden?

Light shading 1930 proposed Observatory Reserve.
Proposed road highlighted, w
hich fortunately was not constructed

The proclaimed observatory reserve, and the additional separate Carter Observatory land.
Shaded area 1896 Defence (battery) Reserve

Maps from Winsome Shepherd and Walter Cook; The Botanic Garden, Wellington A New Zealand History 1840 - 1987
Highly recommended for the story of the Garden

The Wellington City Council took over the management of the Wellington Botanic Garden in 1891 under the authority of the Botanic Garden Vesting Act. 6 acres4 (2.4 ha.) of land part of the original Garden area was designated as an observatory reserve5 with the boundaries determined by Sir James Hector, the first director of the Garden. The Garden retained the use and upkeep of the land, as until then it was an integral part of the Garden. In 1886 4 ½ acres (1.8 ha) of the identified reserve area was taken for the battery reserve as part of the defence preparation for a possible Russian invasion, under the authority of the Public Works Act, and this area has remained Crown Land ever since.

The battery6 was designed to contain a 7 inch, 7 ton disappearing gun7. Stairs leading to the underground bunkers remain, and the range finder position now houses the astrolabe dome. Unfortunately the land was never formally proclaimed for observatory purposes, and when the Defence Department took over the battery area, the Garden lost control of this area. Complications arose when the battery closed in 1904, and with the building of the Hector Observatory in 1906/07, primarily involving the management of the area, an issue which continued to raise difficulties for many years. In 1930 an attempt was made to tidy up the legal position of the reserve. At this time there was also a proposal by the Wellington City Council to create a road between Upland and Salamanca Roads, but fortunately as it involved some of the Crown land, they did not agree, and it was not completed. (For proposal see map above). The observatory also objected to this proposal, as the planned road could have affected the operation of the observatory. The objections, fortunately, prevented what would have been the virtual destruction of this important part of the Garden.

In 1952, the Government when discussing the reserve area, stated “the Reserve 'to' remain accessible to the pubic for recreation and in terms of landscaping to be developed as part of the Garden”. The Garden continues to be responsible for management and visitor services of this area, and for practical purposes can be considered as part of the Garden. It was not until 1962 that an amended Observatory Reserve of 5 ½ acres (2.2 ha) was finally proclaimed.

Before leaving the issue of the land, it is interesting to note that in late 1952 the Council proposed that a car park be established on the observatory reserve. This would have involved the removal of the Seismological Observatory (presumably only the underground battery areas), the King Observatory and the Scout house (originally built for the battery commander of the Garden battery, but occupied by the scouts from 1913), and the levelling of around one third of the ridge area, mostly reserve, but some Garden areas. This could only be completed with the co-operation of the Government, which fortunately consent was not given, thus preventing the destruction of an important area of the Garden, and ensuring the continuance of an effective Cable Car entrance for the Garden which we enjoy today.

The Meteorological enclosure was established in 1925 and continues to record Wellington's weather today. For 1945 photo see notes on the first garden observatory following..

The Battery Reserve

In the 1870's New Zealand was a young self-governing colony of Britain. It had developed no coastal defences of any consequence and was becoming increasingly sensitive to how vulnerable its harbours were to attack by a hostile power or opportunistic raider. In the aftermath of the Crimean war, Tsarist Russia seemed particularly suspicious. While concern was widely expressed, the
Government took little action.

7 inch 7 ton RML disappearing gun of the type obtained for the battery.

Shaded area showing underground rooms in relation   to Dominion Observatory (on  left)
Acknowledgement: Department of Conservation

Gun of the type purchased
for the Garden Battery
(Illustration Palmerston Forts UK)

Battery underground rooms
Acknowledgement: Department of Conservation

In 1873 an Auckland editor 8 9 10perpetrated what has been hailed the greatest spoof in the country's history. The Monday, 17 February 1873 issue of the Southern Cross reported the sudden declaration of war between England and Russia. As a result, the Russian warship Kaskowiski – whose very name should have made sober readers suspicious ('case of whiskey!!') – had allegedly entered Auckland Harbour on the previous Saturday night and proceeded to capture a British ship, along with the city's arms and ammunition supply, and hold a number of leading citizens for ransom. The 954-man Russian vessel obviously meant business, with a dozen 30-ton guns as well as a remarkably new advance in warfare, a paralysing and deadly "water-gas" that could be injected into enemy ships from a great distance.

The Southern Cross article created panic and the Government commissioned its first reports on the colony's defences. It was now clearly understood that Britain would protect its territories and vital shipping routes, but the defence of individual ports was the responsibility of each self-governing colony. Then Russia declared war on Turkey in 1877 producing another "scare". The hoax was intended to try and force the Government to take action on the nation's defence and a decision was quickly taken to construct fortifications and purchase naval boats which would protect the harbours

at Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers. The coastal artillery fortifications or land batteries were to be based on British designs. Heavy artillery pieces and ammunition were ordered from Britain. By 1885 work started in earnest on the

Design of 7 inch disappearing gun in firing and loading position
construction of what eventually became seventeen forts, further encouraged by yet another Russian scare.11

The garden battery was commenced in 1896. (Some reports say 1892 or 1894, but contemporary newspaper reports appear to confirm the later date.) A 7 inch RML12 gun (British 7-inch rifled muzzle-loading naval and coast defence gun introduced in 1865 and produced to the 1890s ) was obtained, but was considered obsolete shortly after. The fortifications were constructed, but the gun was never installed or fired although was stored in the magazine. It was feared firing would blow out all the windows within a half mile radius given the close proximity of dwellings. The drawings show the underground structures of the battery.13 The gun emplacement was filled in shortly after the battery was dismantled in 1904. Concreted over, the outline of the pit can be seen today, and the trophy First World War Krupp Gun is placed in the centre of the pit outline.

The gunners collage  erected by the battery became the Lawson Scout Hall,  and is the oldest continually occupied scout hall in New Zealand.  See end of page for image.

Why Observatories?

To consider the observatories, it is appropriate to ask “why where they considered necessary?

The first two observatories in Wellington, including the first in the Garden, where established for time keeping purposes. In colonial times there was no need for accurate time keeping, and each district observed their local solar time, with the result the clocks throughout the colony varied by some 50 minutes. However the development of coastal and international shipping, and in particular the railway and the telegraph system showed the necessity of a standard time throughout the country. In 1868, on the recommendation of Sir James Hector, a standard time 11.5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time was set, altered to 12 hours ahead in 1941.14 15 16 17

Original transit telescope now in the Dominion Observatory

Time Ball Station on Customs Building, Queens Wharf.
The  observatory was a short distance away on Customhouse Quay
Photo Carter Observatory archives

Before modern technological developments, the only way a mariner could establish his longitude was to utilise accurate clocks and observations and appropriate tables. The chronometers required accurate recalibration and this was achieved by special observatories using astronomical observation to set the correct local time. This required the location (longitude) of the observatory to be accurately known, which is a story in itself, but beyond the scope of this article.18 The first two observatories in Wellington were for time keeping, in addition to meteorological and climatological purposes.

Wellington's first observatory was established in 1863 on the waterfront, on Customhouse Quay, south of the 'new' Chief Post Office, around the site of the present Intercontinental Hotel. The time was indicated by a ball located on the Customs House on Queens Wharf, being raised at 5 minutes to 12, then released at 12 midday.

Observatory no 1 the Colonial Time-service Observatory

The construction of a 'new' telegraph office blocked the view from the waterfront observatory of the essential meridian mark on Tinakori Hill, requiring a new site to be found. Dr James Hector, in his role as Government Advisor, and first director of the Botanic Garden, quickly found a site where the Seddon Memorial now stands in the Garden for the construction of the new observatory in 1869, on what became known as Observatory Knob. It was the access to this observatory that provided the name 'Observatory Path' which now runs through the Bolton Street Memorial Park.

Original pendulum clock,
one of four.
Two were used
in the first
Colonial Observatory
Colonial Observatory Buillding. 
May be the original 1863 Stock building from Customhouse Quay, moved to the Seddon site, and later by the Meterological  Enclosure. The Reverend Arthur Stock vicar of St Peters Church, was the first astronomer in charge.  

Clearly shows the telescope opening

Carter Observatory photo

Colonial Time Service observatory on the Seddon site.
Photo Carter Observatory

Colonial Time Service Observatory
Meteorological Enclosure 1945.
The first observatory building was moved from the “Seddon”
site to here in 1906.
On the far side of the fence, telescope opening visible.

It was demolished in 1961.

Photo: National Digital History archive

Central government was established in Wellington in 1865, and in 1868 standard time was introduced throughout the colony and a colonial time service established. A small wooden building was constructed. It housed 4 clocks and a transit telescope, with the time ball on the waterfront activated automatically at midday. One clock was equipped with an electro magnetic apparatus which signalled the time every hour to the Museum, telegraph office and some leading watchmakers. The 9 am signal to the operational room of the Telegraph Office was forwarded by Morse code to all telegraph offices in the country with sufficient accuracy for normal use allowing the telegraph office and railway clocks to be synchronised.

Problems occurred with this observatory as tree growth quickly obscured views, and there was city encroachment. When Richard John Seddon, Prime Minister suddenly died, a national memorial was suggested. As no burials where possible in the Bolton Street cemetery at the time, and a site close to Parliament was considered appropriate, the block of land in the Garden occupied by this observatory was selected, and the building was removed in 1906. The observatory was subsequently transferred to a higher, more suitable location, although for a short time was by the wooden Government building.

Observatory no 2 Hector Observatory 1907-1925

                     aka Dominion Observatory 1925-1941

                            Seismological Observatory 1941-1995

Dominion Observatory; Krupp Gun and battery area in front.
Astrolabe dome on right – originally housing the range finder for disappearing gun.

Underground battery facilities Acknowledgement: Department of Conservation

The main purpose of this instrument is to accurately determine the geographic position of the observing site. At the time of the International Geophysical Year (1958) this was known to within a
few hundred metres only. The astrolabe was able to refine this to within about 50 metres.
A number of these instruments were located in various sites around the world, so that the positions of the continents became more precisely known. These days we can locate ourselves using the
GPS system to a much greater accuracy, so the Danjon Astrolabe is no longer needed.
The astrolabe is in effect a horizontal telescope, with an equilateral (60 degree) prism in front of the lens. It sees the image of a star reflected in the prism, and another image of the same star reflected in the prism and also in a pool of mercury below the prism. When the two images coincide, the star is almost exactly 30 degrees from the zenith. This instant is recorded (automatically by the astrolabe, not the observer - hence the word "impersonal" in the name). When a large number of observations are made and averaged, the location of the site can be determined accurately.
Carter Observatory archives.

Built in 1907, it was first called the Hector Observatory, after Dr (later Sir) James Hector19, who was closely associated with the Garden. It was renamed the Dominion Observatory in 1925 (recognising the changed status of the country in the Commonwealth) and was renamed the Seismological Observatory from 1941. The main part of the structure is built over the magazine of the 1896 battery. A new wing was added to the west side of the building to house 4 offices in 1926. Like its predecessor, it was for time-keeping, meteorology and climatology, not astronomical observation, although amateur astronomers were able to use its telescopes.

Dominion Observatory in cross section, showing underground battery areas
Acknowledgement Department of Conservation

.Krupp Gun
This gun was manufactured by Fried.Krupp AG, Essen, Germany in 1907 and remained in service in the German Army during the First World War 1914-1918. The crest of the Prussian Foot Guards Artillery Regiment can be seen on the top surface of the barrel.
The gun was captured near La Vacquerie, northeast France, on 29th Sept.1914 by the New Zealand Division. Two battalions of the Wellington Regiment were engaged in this action which was part of an allied attack on the Hindenburg line of defences.
At the end of the First World War this gun and many other captured arms were sent to New Zealand as war trophies. In 1920 this piece was gifted to the City of Wellington in honour of the soldiers from the Wellington District.
For almost 80 years the gun was displayed at Newtown Park. It is thought to be the only one of its kind remaining from about 190 manufactured.
The Krupp Gun was part of a restoration project in 1999-2001.
The outline of the original 1896 gun emplacement can be clearly seen

G A Eiby Time Service Equipment at Dominion Observatory NZ Journal of Science and Technology May 1948
Carter Observatory archive

Dominion Observatory original plans, ground and first floor

Dominion Observatory around 1920

The new observatory was built at the top of Wellington’s Botanic Garden, partly so that the lights of the growing city wouldn’t interfere with the work of the astronomers who, at that time, depended on sun and planet sightings to make their time observations. Telescopes allowed the time to be determined to an accuracy of a quarter of a second20 and was disseminated from 1911 by coloured lights on a mast on the Observatory, visible to ships in the harbour. In 1916 the use of time signals by radio was adopted which eventually led to the introduction in 1937 to the familiar 6 pips played on the hour over National Radio. Astronomical determination of time continued until the 1950's, when more accurate methods became available. In 1962 quartz-crystal clocks formally replaced the astronomical regulator pendulums which had been used since New Zealand first started keeping standard time. Through the 1970's and early 1980's the quartz clocks continued to be maintained at the observatory, and radio signals were still relayed from there, but the clocks were now calibrated to three caesium clocks monitored by the Industrial Research Limited Measurement Standards Laboratory in Lower Hutt. The responsibility for maintaining New Zealand’s standard time was officially transferred to that company in 1992.

In 1916, the observatory also began to house the government’s fledgling Seismological Service. There are still measuring instruments near the building, utilising the underground bunkers of the earlier battery. It continued being used for seismological studies until 1995 when the Institute of Geological and Nuclear studies was established. Unfortunately the underground areas are not open for public viewing.

The building was designed by government architect John Campbell in the Edwardian Baroque style. The architectural style was used in the design of many public buildings built in the British Empire during the reign of Edward VII (1901–1910). When completed in 1907, New Zealand’s new observatory had a number of similarities to England’s Royal Observatory which had been designed by Wren in 1675. Restored in 2003, the Dominion Observatory building is maintained by the Department of Conservation. It houses several private companies but is not open to the public.

Professional astronomers where not employed for many years, but there were many enthusiastic amateurs able to use the telescopes. Of those involved with the Garden, Dr (later Sir) James  Hector was one such individual. Another was George Vernon Hudson21, who is not so well known. A Post Office clerk he is better known for his comprehensive insect collection, which later became the founding collection of the Dominion Museum, subsequently Te Papa. Only a teenager when he came to Wellington he was the first to work out the life cycle of the glow worm. The entomological establishment did not like this 'youngster' barely out of his teens, telling them things different to what they believed, and it took some time for the truth to be generally accepted. In 1890 the insect was named by an entomologist from the Australian Museum in Sydney who accepted Hudson's conclusions and observations. He was Frederick Skuse, who used specimens provided from this Garden. 22
Purchasing a home on Messines Road in Karori, Hudson used his own telescope to observe the total eclipse of the sun in 1885. On 9th June 1918 he discovered a new star, subsequently known as Nova Aquilae, which attracted world-wide attention. Perhaps his greatest contribution to astronomy arose from his being the original advocate of what has come popularly to be known as “Daylight Saving.” His initial paper in 1895 was not well received but he followed it up with another paper 3 years later. It was not until 1927 that daylight saving was first introduced into New Zealand. Not popular, there were several changes, but in 1941, as a war time measure, half an hour daylight saving was introduced for the year, which remains in force. An additional hours summer daylight saving time also applies. He made continuous studies of sun spots, recording with notes and diagrams what he observed from day to day. His notes on these solar phenomena in the Wellington daily papers were familiar items.

Observatory no 3 King Edward VII Memorial Observatory

                           aka King Observatory

                                   Thomas King Observatory

Modern view of Thomas King Observatory

The Thomas King  12.5 cm (5-inch) telescope, made in 1882 by Grubb in Dublin

As the Hector Observatory was only a time keeping station the members of the Wellington Philosophical Society Astronomy Section felt there was need for a public observatory. The society hosted many fund-raising nights and secured 100 from the NZ Government. The observatory was built during September – October 1912.

The observatory was initially known as the King Edward Observatory as the King had died in 1912; later this was shortened to the King Observatory.

The first public observatory in Wellington, during the 1920’s and 30’s public viewing nights were held. During the 1940’s the observatory was unofficially renamed the Thomas King Observatory after Thomas King who in 1887 took up a full time position as Transit Observer at the Colonial and later Hector Observatory. On his death his estate donated his telescope

The observatory was used for research into variable stars, comets, planetary work and sunspots. After WW2 the use declined and the telescope was removed in 1992 after the observatory had been vandalised. The Observatory and telescope was repaired and restored.
The  Grubb refractor

The 5-inch Grubb refractor was made in Dublin in 1882. It was owned by Thomas King, the observer at the Colonial Observatory in Wellington. After King's death in 1916, it was acquired by the Wellington City Council and erected as the King Edward VII Memorial Observatory in 1918. Later this became known as the Thomas King Observatory

The Grubb telescope company was founded by Thomas Grubb, born in 1800, an Irish engineer from Waterford who made a living producing printers and other machinery. He always had a personal interest in astronomy and optics, and built a private observatory, which included a small reflector. But he was more interested in larger instruments, and, as he became familiar with the processes involved, his observatory and workshop grew, along with his reputation.

Then, in 1833, Thomas received his first order when Edward Cooper presented him with a 13.3 inch objective lens with a focal length of 25 feet. He had purchased the optics in Paris two years before, and commissioned Thomas Grubb to build what would at the time be the world's largest refractor, to be installed, equatorially mounted, in his observtory in Markree Castle. Next, a 15 inch reflector was ordered for the Armagh Observatory. In building this reflector Grubb introduced new features that would become standard, such as clock-driven equatorial mounts and eyepieces situated at the rear of a telescope, the light coming to focus after traveling through a hole in the center of the primary mirror.

Observatory no 4 Wellington City Observatory – “The Tin Shed”

The Wellington City Council 'Tin Shed', the Thomas King Observatory visible to rear on hill.
Cooke telescope ready for viewing,with the  roof rolled away

Cater Overvatory photos

The 'Tin Shed' with  foundations for the new Carter Observatory in foreground  (1940).
The roof of the Tin Shed is in its closed position and needs to be rolled away to allow the use of the telescope
Cater Overvatory photo

Established in 1924 by the Wellington City Corporation it was located to the side of the current Carter Observatory. Made of galvanised iron and with a roll-off roof it gained its nickname as “the tin shed”. It hosted public observation sessions, and was used for some research. It housed a 23 cm (9 ¾ inch) telescope built by Thomas Cooke in 1867 which it acquired from the Marist Seminary in Meeanee, Napier at a princely sum of £2,000, (in current money approximately $178,000) and restored  in 2001  by Gordon Hudson. Now in Carter, it is the largest telescope they have.

The observatory was used until the Carter Observatory opened in 1941.

Observatory no 5 Carter Observatory23 24

The fifth, last and newest observatory is the Carter. Its name immortalises Charles Rooking Carter (1822-1896), a Wellington businessman, politician and Wairarapa farmer who also gave his name to Carterton. He had expressed deep concern about the scarcity of scientists in New Zealand – particularly for the lack of seismologists in an earthquake-prone country. In his 1896 will he left £2,240 for the establishment of an astronomical observatory in Wellington for public use and benefit. After many delays, the Carter Observatory project finally bore fruit when it was adopted as a New Zealand 1940 centennial project through the enthusiasm of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Wellington City Council.

The Thomas Cooke Telescope

Thomas Cooke was born in Allerthorpe, East Riding of Yorkshire. His formal education consisted of two years at an elementary school , but he continued learning after this and he taught himself navigation and astronomy with the intention of becoming a sailor. His mother dissuaded him from that career and in 1829 he moved to York and worked as a mathematics schoolmaster at the Rev. Schackley’s School in Ogleforth,near York Minster. He also taught in various ladies' schools to increase his income.

His marriage to Hannah was to produce seven children, five of whom were boys. Two of these Charles Frederick (1836 - 98) and Thomas (1839 - 1919) subsequently joined him in the business he founded in 1836 at number 50 (now renumbered to 18) Stonegate, close to York Minster with the assistance of a loan of £100 from his wife’s uncle.

Cooke studied optics and became interested in making telescopes, the first of which was a refracting telescope with the base of a tumbler shaped to form its lens. This led to his friends including John Phillips encouraging him to make telescopes and other optical devices commercially.

In 1837 he established his first optical business in a small shop at 50 Stonegate, York, and later moved to larger premises in Coney Street. He built his first telescope for William Gray. At that time, the excise tax on glass discouraged the making of refracting telescopes, which were usually imported from abroad. Cooke was thus one of the pioneers of making such telescopes in Britain.

He made more instruments and built his reputation. He was not only an optician but had mechanical abilities as well, and among other things, manufactured turret clocks for church towers. He founded the firm T. Cooke & Sons. In 1855 he moved to bigger premises, the Buckingham Works at Bishophill in York, where factory methods of production were first applied to optical instruments.

One of his finest achievements was the construction of the 25 inch 'Newall' refractor for Robert Stirling Newall; sadly, Thomas died before seeing it completed. For some years the Newall was the largest refracting telescope in the world. On Newall's death it was donated to the Cambridge Observatory and finally moved in 1959 to Mount Penteli observatory in Greece. He made a telescope for the Royal Observatory, also Greenwich and another for Prince Albert. The firm amalgamated with Troughton & Simms (London) to become Cooke, Troughton & Simms in 1922 and this later became part of Vickers, but still run by his sons Thomas & Frederick. He is buried in York Cemetery.

The Cooke 9 3/4-inch telescope in Carter was built in York in 1866-67 for the well-known English amateur, Edward Crossley. This telescope came to New Zealand in 1907 for the Meanee Observatory, near Napier, of the Rev. David Kennedy (1864-1936). In 1924 the Wellington City Council purchased it from Kennedy's estate and installed it in “The Tin Shed' and by 1942 the telescope was moved to the then newly opened Carter Observatory

The Ruth Crisp Telescope

The Ruth Crisp Telescope is a research-grade 41-cm (16-inch) Cassegrain reflector  made by Boller and Chivens of the USA came to the observatory in the 1960s thanks to a donation by the New Zealand writer and philanthropist Ruth Crisp. Once used for research at the Carter Observatory's outstation at Black Birch, in the South Island of New Zealand, it later moved to the main premises in Wellington.

A grant from Pub Charity allowed improvements to the installation in December 2005: the Observatory had the dome motorised and the primary and secondary mirrors re-aluminised. Efforts have commenced to start a research programme based around the facility, possibly involving deep-sky imaging, microlensing capability and photometry.

The Thomas Cooke telescope obtained for the 'Tin Shed'  in use at the Carter Observatory around  1980
Carter Overvatory photo

Gordon Hudson recently restored the Thomas Cooke telescope shown here with the restored instrument in the Carter Observatory dome
Carter Overvatory photo

Modern view of Carter  Observatory

The Carter site was not in the defined observatory reserve, and land was made available from the Garden for the building. After delays caused by World War II, the Carter Observatory was finally opened on 20 December 1941.

The Carter Observatory has undergone several major innovations since its establishment. The first was in the 1960's when the Ruth Crisp Bequest allowed construction of a two-storey building and office wing and also provided a third telescope. In 1977 it became the official national observatory

Thomas Cooke telescope at Carter Observatory
Part of Pipehenge in foreground

Photo:  New Zealand Almanac

Components during restoration
Illiustration: Kotipu Place Observator

 of New Zealand. In 1991 the Golden Bay Planetarium was incorporated to become its visitor centre, foyer area and theatre. Carter Observatory’s priorities shifted from primarily scientific research to public education. In February 2005 a review concluded that the Mt John Observatory was more suited for the title 'national observatory' because it was widely accepted as the major NZ observatory in terms of national and international research. The Wellington City Council has maintained the observatory since 2007, and in 2009 the Government transferred responsibility to the Council, and it officially lost the title of National Observatory. The Wellington City Council from 2006/2010 spent $2.2 million on refurbishing and upgrading the observatory as a high-quality tourist attraction and education venue for national and international visitors.

Carter Observatory has three major telescopes. The first, housed in the Thomas King Observatory and until very recently has been used for public viewing . The second the Thomas Cooke Refractor acquired from the Marist Society in the main observatory building, and the third, the Ruth Crisp telescope, is used for public viewing.

The Carter Observatory has been the national repository for astronomical heritage as neither the National Archives nor Te Papa collect in this field. It had an active acquisition policy in seeking items of significant heritage, research data, and was said to have one of the best astronomical libraries in the Southern Hemisphere. Much of the equipment was on display, but the latest development has resulted in this material largely being placed in storage. It would be unfortunate if it is never restored to public display.


Sundial of Human Involvement

While we have been talking of time, at the rear of the Carter Observatory is the Sundial of Human Involvement. It is accurate to within a few minutes, and no corrections for daylight saving are required as the bronze indicators on the granite columns are moved twice a year. Constructed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Plimmer Family in Wellington, its construction was funded by the Charles Plimmer Trust. Designed by Peter Kundycki a Landscape Architect and Sculptor with WCC it is dedicated to John Plimmer , a founding father of Wellington.

It is known as an analemmatic sundial25 26 27, a type of sundial rare worldwide and unique in New Zealand. The 15 columns are constructed from rough hewn granite with inlaid recycled gunmetal bronze hour numbers which are moved at the beginning and end of daylight saving. Follow the instructions and see how accurate it is.

Kowhai Trail walk marker

Likewise, pipehenge , the celestial climbing frame forming a skeletal sphere, with the summer and winter path of the sun indicated by the arcs with the circle showing the path of the Southern Cross around the South Celestial Pole and which was outside the main entrance has been removed. Fascinating young and old alike, it would be great to see its return.

From the Cable Car Lookout you can follow the Kowhai Trail Walk (marked by brick path markers with a kowhai tile in the centre, walk anticlockwise), a 15 minute walk around the existing historic buildings and the Krupp Gun. A brochure is available from the Treehouse, or from guides on duty during cruise ship visiting days.

To round off the historical features of this area, if you stand on the Cable Car lookout, looking north, you will see the remains of a fence on the slope in front of you. This is part of the first fence used to enclose the Garden, erected in 1870/71, and is the oldest remaining construction still in existence. Its conservation is currently being considered. 28

View of historic fence from Cable Car lookout

This is an area with a fascinating history, not only for the Garden, or Wellington, but has left its mark on all of this County. Hosting 5 observatories over the years each with their fascinating stories, this comprises an important part of the Garden heritage.

The original gunners cottage erected 1896 for the battery soldiers
now occupied by the Scouts, the oldest continually occupied scout hall in New Zealand

Listed on first use only


1    Philip C. Tomlinson January 2011

2    My thanks to the Carter Observatory staff and Department of Conservation for assistance in researching this article

3    Sources are listed on the first entry only. Internet links clickable on web version

4    All land areas are approximate only, as are conversions to metric measure.

5    Winsome Shepherd and Walter Cook; The Botanic Garden, Wellington A New Zealand History 1840 - 1987 For full details see chapter 27 pp 331-347. Highly recommended for the story of the Garden.

13    Department of Conservation Dominion Observatory and Gardens Battery Conservation Plan 2003

14    For a discussion of standard time in NZ, and daylight saving time including its initial proposal of G V Hudson see:-
Standard time,

18     The Longitude of the Colonial Observatory, see .

19    James Hector biography

20    Kowhai Walk Brochure available from Treehouse.

21      G V Hudson biography

22    Glow worm information

23     Briony Coote's excellent History of Carter Observatory of Wellington

28    Historic fence, article in Friends August 2010 newsletter
   and - detailed web page

29  Gordon Hudson restoration of Carter telescopes

30   Gordon Hudson interview

Two excellent articles relating to the Wellington installation providing excellent historical information.

Roger Kinns   Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 20(1), 69–94 (2017).THE PRINCIPAL TIME BALLS OF NEW ZEALAND 

Roger Kinns   Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 20(2), 211‒222 (2017)  THE TIME LIGHT SIGNALS OF NEW ZEALAND: