The New South Wales Branch of the BAA & the Sydney University Observatory

The first university observatory in Australia was opened at the University of Sydney in 1909, with help from members of the New South Wales Branch of the BAA. Set up in the University’s Quadrangle, its main telescope was a 5-inch (12.5cm) Grubb instrument, which had been a gift to Irish-born engineer Cecil West Darley on his leaving the position of chief engineer for harbours and rivers in NSW in 1895. Five years later, before departing Australia for London, Darley, who had joined the Branch after receiving the telescope, donated it to the University’s Engineering Department. After careful restoration, it is now on display in the foyer of the University’s School of Physics, though its objective lens is missing.


The white telescope tube is mounted on an equatorial mount upon a plinth.
Figure 1. The Cecil West Darley Telescope in the foyer of the School of Physics, University of Sydney, on 2019 Sep 23. (Nick Lomb)


A beautifully restored 5-inch (12.5cm) Grubb refractor is on display in the foyer of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney (Figure 1). Its only label is one stating ‘PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH’. However, a brass plaque is screwed to the mount, with the text:

‘PRESENTED TO Cecil West Darley, M. Inst. C. E. on his retirement from the office of ENGINEER IN CHIEF FOR HARBOURS & RIVERS New South Wales, Australia. By the Officers & Workmen of his Department SYDNEY, 1ST JULY 1895.’

Prior to being put on display, the telescope had been on a flat portion of the roof of the old Physics building, on a roll-off metal frame covered with tarpaulin. The objective lens was and is missing. Nothing else seemed to be known of the origins of the telescope. After a recent, but pre-COVID visit to the School of Physics, my curiosity was aroused. Serendipitously, soon afterwards, while doing other research, I found some contemporary newspaper articles on how the telescope came to the University and how it was first used. I was pleased to find that members of the New South Wales Branch of the BAA had been part of the story.


Cecil West Darley

Darley was born on 1842 October 20 at Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, and was sent to school at King William’s College on the Isle of Man.1 After serving for two years as a midshipman, he embarked on an engineering career connected with railways in Ireland and Wales. At age 25, he emigrated to New South Wales, Australia, where he joined the Harbours and Rivers Department of the Colony. He was probably encouraged to move to Australia by his elder brother Frederick, who had arrived there five years earlier and was practicing as a barrister at the New South Wales Bar.2

Working his way up the ranks of the Department, Darley was promoted to the position of engineer-in-chief for harbours and rivers with a salary in 1894 of £1,100 per year, plus an extra £250 for being the president of the Sydney Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board. There was an additional yearly allowance of £100 for horse equipment.3 The salary was a good one; with the extra pay for the presidency it is equivalent to £122,500 today.4 It was when he left that position or ‘retired’ that he received the gift of the Grubb refractor. It was a highly expensive gift; according to a Grubb catalogue of 1888, the telescope was a small and portable equatorial of class B* retailing for £130 (£11,934 today).5

There is no indication that Darley had an interest in astronomy prior to receiving the telescope, but he did afterwards. Darley joined the BAA on 1896 Oct 20,6 as a member of the fledgling New South Wales Branch that was formed the previous year.7 He became a member of the Branch committee at its 1897 annual meeting, and he spent a year as vice-president in 1898–99.8

When Darley ‘retired’ in 1895, he in fact moved to the position of engineer-in-chief of all public works except railways.9 In 1901 he left Australia as inspecting engineer for NSW in London. That appointment was criticised by The Worker, a newspaper published by the union movement in Sydney:

‘… Cecil West Darley, another of the country’s lucky Civil Service pets, now receives the modest sum of £1100 [£93,400 today] per annum and travelling expenses for his services in London. The exact nature and scope of these ‘services’ THE WORKER, after diligent enquiry, has been unable to locate and define. … Concisely stated, Cecil West seems to have a ‘soft job.’10

Despite these comments, Darley continued in his position until reaching the retirement age of 65 in 1907. He died on 1928 Oct 18 in London, after a car accident.11 There is no record of any astronomical pursuits after leaving Australia. His retirement activities seem to have only involved the Church and gardening.12


The Sydney University Observatory

In the UK, at Oxford University, the Radcliffe Observatory was established in 1772 with Thomas Hornsby (1733–1810), the Savilian Professor of Astronomy, in charge.13 The Cambridge Observatory was established a little later, in 1823, with its first effective director being George Biddell Airy (1801–1892), the Plumian Professor of Astronomy.14 In the Australian universities there was no such history of astronomy professors and observatories. In 1906 though, there was a proposal for Sydney Observatory to be put under the control of Sydney University. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, John Tebbutt, the famed amateur astronomer,15 who had been the first president of the New South Wales Branch of the BAA,16 stated that this would be a bad idea since the university:

‘… has ignored the science in its annual examinations. While we have seen much of geology, chemistry, botany, etc., in its lists of subjects for examination, astronomy has found no place. Under the control of the University it is pretty certain that unless the director be both an enthusiast and of high scientific repute, the Observatory will occupy a lower place than it already had held for a number of years.’17

Due to much opposition, including from other members of the Branch, Sydney Observatory remained with the State Government.18 However, less than three years later, Sydney University did have its own observatory.19 It was the initiative of mathematics lecturer and associate professor Elphinstone McMahon Moors (1860–1924), and was based on Cecil West Darley’s telescope. Darley had donated it to the University’s Engineering Department in 1900,20 before leaving for England in 1901, and the Department in turn made it available to Moors.

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