John Beebe (1866-1936), architect and amateur astronomer, a contemporary of Eglinton and Thomson, was a member of the Astronomical Society of Queensland.
Captain Henry O’Reilly (1824-1877) may well be considered Queensland’s first non-indigenous astronomer.
In the early 1960s, the Astronomical Society of Queensland (ASQ) was the only major Queensland astronomical body in Queensland, having existed since 1927. However differences of opinion would add stress to the organisation.
The merger of the Astronomers’ Association, Queensland and the Astronomical Society of Queensland in 1978 saw the formation of the AAQ that now exists (the so-called AAQ Mark 2.
Following the upheaval of the division with the Bundaberg group in mid-1964, life settled down and Arthur Page took over the editorship of the ‘Astroquest’ from the departed Vic Matchett. The next two years were uneventful. The ASQ, as the sole major astronomical body in Queensland, had grown to a peak of 269 members in 1964 on a very much smaller population base than today. The central character was the long-time Secretary, Bill Newell. He was the official Government observer from the early 1940’s until 1957. Then Queensland handed over its timekeeping service to the Commonwealth. For timekeeping calibration, he used to time star transits from the roof of the old Executive building. This included a 4-inch refractor. The instruments are now in the survey museum.
Bill continued to work in the Survey Office of the Lands Department becoming Assistant Chief Cartographer and handled Government astronomical enquiries. He produced a planisphere for schools and a star chart booklet, and his book, ‘The Australian Sky’ was published in 1965. He was Secretary of the ASQ from 1942 until his death from a heart attack near retirement on 6th September 1971 on the platform of the Corinda railway station on his way to work. He wasn’t just the Secretary, he was an institution.
The ASQ was effectively run by Bill and Molly Newell. They nominated or at least approved the various key officers and Bill handled all public contact. One can assume that this was done with the best of intentions to keep things running smoothly, but it dampen individual initiative including proposals for new projects without their prior approval. Things under their stewardship went along routinely and there were few problems, and if routine and uninspiring, management was at least steady and predictable.
But Bill Newell was not an active astronomer and so there was little encouragement from the top to get involved beyond the ‘armchair’ stage. He said, “A 6 inch reflecting telescope was all that was needed to see everything that an amateur could reasonably expect to see”. Observational astronomy did not rank very highly. Nevertheless, in February 1961 the ASQ had established observing sections but these were largely ‘window dressing’ and kept the observing enthusiasts occupied.
There was dissatisfaction within the ASQ, but it was not obvious. I was blithely unaware of any undertones in mid-1966 when I had been ‘tapped on the shoulder’ by Bill Newell to become President. Beres Page (Arthur’s wife) also nominated and there was an election, which I won by a number of votes being supported, as I was, by ‘the establishment’. I assumed office on 8th July, one day before my 24th birthday. This election was probably not significant merely of itself. Yes, I was President, but especially being very young and inexperienced, I was in thrall to the ASQ establishment.
Arthur and Beres Page had refurbished the venerable 12-inch Eglinton telescope that they were caretaking in their observatory, and they were using it for their variable star research. However, there was an increasingly strident campaign for access to the instrument ‘at will’ by some ASQ members and this was clearly unreasonable. At the OGM on 12th August the ASQ Observatory Committee was formed and rumblings now began for use of the 12 inch in the proposed society observatory. (The old 18-inch project referenced in a previous article had come to nothing – so was forgotten.)
At a Special ASQ Council Meeting one week later on 19th August 1966, as an apparently unscheduled matter of business, Arthur Page advised he would return the instrument for use in the future ASQ observatory and then did so. He therefore prudently extricated himself from a difficult situation. The telescope was never really used again. The optics and some fittings are now on occasional display at the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. (This planetarium likely resulted from an initiative by the Museum Society which had been promoting one for years. It was taken up by the Brisbane City Council, receiving publicity in late 1973, and was completed in 1978.)
The move to establish a society observatory had quickly gathered pace. Plans would include the observatory and support building and a meeting hall and encompassing future ‘full site development’, even a possible planetarium. The ASQ had made approaches to the Brisbane City Council and on 27th August 1966 the society inspected two potential sites on adjacent knolls at Mt Coot-tha on a spur running off 400 metres further along the road to the West from the lookout (Honeyeater track). However though having formed an observatory committee, the proposal to ‘get serious’ and establish a building fund was defeated at the OGM on 14 September 1966 by the opposition principally of Bill and Molly Newell. This led to some dissatisfaction in certain quarters.
In the Newells’ defence, I can at least in part understand their reluctance to get deeply involved in a major project such as an observatory and support buildings. Given the demographics of the general membership and knowing them, very little would have been achieved as I discovered on a much smaller scale between 1997 and 1999 when I tried to activate our clubhouse with section meetings and extra activities – the clubhouse that had been someone else’s bright idea in the first place.
However, whereas the 18” project in 1963 had started with a £10 slab of plate glass and ‘pie in the sky’ unfocussed plans, this 1966 project had the interest of the Brisbane City Council, and sites had been identified upon which to locate the observatory etc. It had the very definite potential for the Council to be involved and the key supporters within the ASQ included qualified people such as a senior architect Fred Lafferty who drew up provisional plans.
Arthur Page later told me that the failure to establish an observatory building fund was one of the prime drivers leading to the formation of the AAQ Mark 1 in 1969. He subsequently slowly withdrew from participation in ASQ affairs, retiring as Editor in 1967.
I now quote from the first ‘AAQ Annual Proceedings’ (1969) written by Arthur Page: “In November 1966 a nucleus of serious astronomers commenced discussions on the possibility of forming a new-look astronomical organization. This group comprised Messrs F. and L. Lafferty, Mr J. Van Vegchel, Mrs. Page and I. We proceeded with caution and deliberation. In the ensuing discussions every factor was analysed, every principle examined in the light of experience gained from an understanding of the local situation, and those existing in other States and overseas…”
Unaware of any of this, when the first year of my term as President was due to expire in mid-1967, I offered to Beres Page that I would not renominate to allow her to stand for the position, at least not opposed by myself. She stated that things had moved on and she was no longer interested. I had simply thought that they were dropping out to concentrate on practical astronomy.
In hindsight, to detail the various factors contributing to the formation of the AAQ Mark 1:
- The 18-inch project had stalled a few years earlier indicating a lack of commitment to observational astronomy,
- Beres Page’s failed in her bid for election as ASQ President (July 1966)
- Increasingly unreasonable demands were made for unfettered access to the restored Eglinton 12” and the instrument was returned to the ASQ (after August 1966)
- The ASQ observatory etc. project had stalled for want of demonstrable ASQ support and effort to promote it beyond forming an observatory committee (OGM 14th September 1966)
- General intransigence of the ASQ management to change. In this last respect even a number of officers of the ASQ were somewhat uneasy and dissatisfied, certainly by the second half of 1968.
Towards the end of 1968, there were rumours of the formation of an informal practical observers’ club – emphasis on the word ‘informal’.
In January 1969 Arthur Page invited my wife Evon and myself to a meeting at his house in Kellino Street Chermside on 8th February ostensibly to discuss an informal observers’ group. We believed this was to be a loosely structured group, meeting regularly to discuss observing and observations. The ASQ at that time was largely an armchair astronomers’ forum, with only a few observers.
We were very surprised to be presented with a fully drafted Constitution which was then examined clause by clause. The original name proposed was ‘The Association for the Advancement of Astronomy, Queensland’. At this meeting the name ‘Astronomers’ Association, Queensland’ was decided upon as more suitable.
This photograph records those present at the birth of the AAQ Mark 1 which flowed seamlessly through to the merger with the ASQ in 1978 to become the present body, AAQ Mark II. This was the moment of its formal beginning! Perhaps the only people that some older members will recognize are Arthur Page, Harold Powell, and myself. I may well now be ‘the last man standing’.
The Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA), a professional body, was formed at a conference 30th November to 2nd December 1966 a few years earlier. Arthur Page became a member, served on its Council, and ultimately became an Honorary Fellow. (Arthur later also became a member of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1985 and received an Honorary Doctorate (UQ) in 1994. He was president of the AAQ on several occasions and died on 1st February 2011.)
I reference the previously quoted statement from the first AAQ Annual Proceedings in 1969:
“In November 1966, a nucleus of serious astronomers commenced discussions on the possibility of forming a new-look astronomical organization.”
By this time (November 1966), plans for the formation and structure of the ASA as a professional body devoted to the advancement of astronomy were well advanced, and I believe they acted as an inspiration to emulate on a local level.
There were a number of unique features of the AAQ and I will mention just a few: Three classes of membership were created – full, associate, and honorary. Full members were to be formally qualified or be actually engaged in contributory observational work or research … there was no compromise! They were the ones who would vote and hold office.
The Constitution was careful to set out the responsibilities of each of the Officers as well as other requirements such as a strict limit to the length of continuous service, considering past experience. The principal provisions, somewhat watered down, largely remain today.
In the original Constitution there was no provision for a ‘Newsletter’ but it included the core functions of the ‘Newsletter’ namely notices to members of forthcoming meetings and minutes. This formed part of the General Secretary’s duties. These started off as simple notices but soon developed into a newsletter produced and dispatched by an overworked General Secretary. As it developed it first became titled the ‘General Circular’ and from the October 1971 issue has been titled the ‘Newsletter’. The present style AAQ logo first appeared in the November 1972 edition. Currently we have Observing Sections that did not appear in the original constitution – observing activity in the early days being directed towards specific projects, but more of this in my next article about the early days of the AAQ Mark 1.
The first two meetings after formation were held at our home at 7 Hepburn Street, Stafford Heights, where we had a large downstairs room, then at a central city venue, but by mid-year we had settled into our long term meeting venue, the Professional Officers’ Association Rooms at 453 Ann Street, City.
After the establishment of the Astronomers’ Association of Queensland (AAQ Mark 1), significant activities occurred, as outlined in this retelling by Peter Anderson.
During my investigations I was struck by the many strong parallels between the events of the time and those that occurred in the amateur astronomical community up to a century later. I am constantly reminded of a quote often attributed to Mark Twain “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
So these events which unfolded in the Brisbane Astronomical Society between 1896 and 1917 were destined in a large part to repeat themselves over the ensuing century.
One of the main issues is the propensity of certain strong personality types to become antagonistic towards each other. Perhaps each of these active and energetic parties has a different vision and a different manner of pursuing it, and trouble is to be expected if their paths cross.
Sometimes, once a pattern is established, it may cloud rational action. In scientific and other organisations, this has occurred since antiquity. For example the dispute between Newton and Hooke became very vindictive, certainly on Newton’s part.
I am reminded of Julius Caesar (I,ii,140-141), “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” In this respect it can be interpreted that Fate is not what drives men to their decisions and actions, but rather the human condition. It is within us and not external.
Then, there is the lethargy of the members in failing to support even quite modest initiatives that would benefit the organisation. This lack of support by members of the Brisbane Astronomical Society after its formation in 1896 swiftly led to its effective collapse with a final coup de grace in 1917. This pattern has been repeated.
This may seem very pessimistic but there is also an upside. Often individual members will become very motivated and active. But equally as often they burn out after a few years when, either their interests change, or they realise that little lasting is being achieved. There are those of course who plod on in a steady fashion over decades, but the average membership lasts merely a few years.
The research by Steve Hutcheon into the history of various large telescopes in Queensland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries prompted my interest in the subject. His continued dogged research has provided much of the background for this paper which I hope provides a balanced historical perspective. In many respects I am merely piecing together his research into a chronological account.
I also acknowledge the assistance of Mr W. Kitson, now retired and Former Senior Curator, Queensland Museum of Lands Mapping and Surveying. Other material has been derived from the astronomical historical papers by Professor Wayne Orchiston, and finally I express my appreciation to the State Library of Queensland for the assistance rendered by their researchers.
This article provides some historic background to the events of 1890 to 1920.
A public notice appeared in the Brisbane ‘Telegraph’ (the afternoon newspaper) page 1 of the advertising section – on Friday 4th May 1917:
‘The Brisbane Astronomical Society
The committee have decided to distribute the proceeds amongst the original subscribers in proportion to their subscriptions.
No claim recognised which is not made before 1st August 1917.
Address Robert H Mills A.M.P. Chambers, Brisbane.’
But what happened to the telescope after that?
After its purchase by Archbishop Duhig, in 1918 it was to be erected at St. Joseph’s College at Gregory Terrace in connection with a new Science Hall. It was removed from that address before the hall was completed and blessed. It went for restoration and, what became, 12 months’ storage at the workshop of H. W. Valle, and there exists a photograph of the workshop with the telescope. It is of interest that Valle charged £45 for removal, restoration, 12 months storage and £400 fire insurance – the latter large amount possibly being the cost of replacement.
In 1919 it went to the new St. Leo’s College Observatory, at Wickham Terrace. The building is slightly rectangular, aligned North-South, East-West, and a photograph shows the dome and adjoining transit slot apertures within the same roof line and building footprint. A 1924 Brisbane Council sewerage plan shows some alteration with a second 8 foot square room on the east side, apparently a later addition.
‘The Memory’ by Fr Michael Head detailing the history of St. Leos, states on page 140, referencing the 1919 construction: ’The work was done under the direction of Mr J. Beebe, a man greatly interested in astronomy, who gave a number of night lectures on the subject to college students.’ Beebe, an architect and former owner of the East Bendigo Observatory (Victoria), was an excellent choice to design and oversee the project.
It is interesting to consider the personalities. Fr. Head references Father Boland in his life of Duhig1The ascent of Tabor : writing the life of Archbishop Duhig / T.P. Boland. Boland claims that the Archbishop ‘fancied the role of patron of the sciences’. Other examples involving the planning for telescopes, observatories, and acquisition of scientific equipment, and their donation to church institutions exist.
Note: Page 140 of ‘The Memory’ by Fr Michael Head incorrectly identifies the instrument as coming from the Estate of Clement Wragge, Government Meteorologist. Clement Lindley Wragge, who was famous for his ‘vortex rain/hail guns’, had moved to New Zealand, and lived until December 1922. He had lived for a time in Brisbane and disposed of his 4½” Wray of London refractor some years earlier, possibly as early as 1903. It was definitely the ex-BAS 6” Grubb refractor that was installed at St Leos in 1919.
Towards the end of the 1920’s the instrument fell into disuse and the ‘lenses’ (presumably eyepieces) were stolen.
Apparently, such thefts as described above were not rare. A newspaper report (‘Brisbane Telegraph’) on February 27th 1930 advised of a Mr Wetzig, an employee at St Leo’s College. Wetzig occupied a room at the rear and saw a man getting out of his window. Two pairs of socks and a wristwatch were missing. The police later recovered these items and arrested two youths who pleaded guilty to the theft.
A 1946 aerial photo shows the observatory building still there, but around this time the decision was taken for the land to go to the new Holy Spirit Hospital next door.
A 1951 aerial photo shows the building gone, and St. Leo’s College itself moved to the University of Queensland campus at St. Lucia in 1960.
As a matter of interest2Source: W. Kitson, the transit instrument in the St Leo’s observatory was a ‘Wray’. For a period thereafter, while surveying courses were being conducted, it had then been located at the University of Queensland. Ultimately it ended up in the Queensland Museum of Lands Mapping and Surveying.
There is no direct ‘official’ record of what happened to the 6” Grubb after that. W Kitson, however refers to an address by Mr Inigo Jones, the well-known long-range weather forecaster, to the Historical Society of Queensland on 24th April 1952. The title was ‘My Seventy-Seven Years in Queensland’. In it, Jones describes visiting Mr Stanley as a younger person and continues: “…the Grubb telescope now at Nudgee College and which I was one of the first people to see through. Later His Grace Archbishop Duhig offered me the use of this instrument.” We would have to assume that Jones declined the offer, but was it presumably then transferred to Nudgee College?
The archivist at Nudgee College, after enquiries and an extensive electronic search of recently computerised records was unable to find any evidence of this telescope. But if it had merely been placed in storage at the time, it might not appear on the records now being searched. Another factor is that close to 90 years have elapsed.