John Beebe in his study (David Bolton)

A June 2022 update can be found in the paper John Beebe Architect, owner of East Bendigo Observatory, and his later life in Queensland 1916 – 1936Peter E. Anderson.  775KB PDF.
also published on the National Trust.

Family History

The name ‘Beebe’ and its variations are interesting. It comes from the Old English ‘beo’ meaning ‘bee’ and ‘byr’ or settlement. Combining the two, it is a place where bees are kept. The Beebe family came from Cottesmore in the county of Rutland, England.   The family name is very old. This name or a variant, dates back to the 14th or even late 13th century.

John Beebe’s early life

John Beebe was born in Sandhurst, near Melbourne, Victoria in 1866. He started off as a stonemason with his father William who carried on his business in Bendigo, Victoria. A newspaper report dated 28th Sep 18911Trove, informs of the death of his father, aged 64, on 26th September. He had just completed a substantial stone mansion Rocky Vale Villa.  It appears that John who was a member of his father’s firm from about 1890 (William Beebe and Son).  He turned solely to architecture from 1892 after his father’s death.

John’s brother William and his son Wilfred John Beebe

John’s brother was called William, after his father. Like John, William was also in business with his father and turned exclusively to architecture after his father’s death. Wilfred John Beebe is William’s son and in 1914, he was apprenticed to his father. He was a draftsman. He saw meritorious service in the AIF in World War I, being wounded at least once.  He served in Egypt, Gallipoli and the Western front. He rose from the rank of Corporal at joining, to Sergeant.  Wilfred appears to have spent several years post-war in Brisbane (around 1925 in the Oxley electorate, namely the South Brisbane area as this electorate then was) and though living in a different electorate from John, may well have had contact with his uncle. They were of the same general profession and John was then in private practice. Wilfred returned to Victoria, possibly as the great depression took hold and in 1931 is recorded at Kooyong City, Melbourne. Wilfred came back to Queensland, because he died in Brisbane on 25th August 1937, aged 51, and was buried in Nundah cemetery.

John’s career in Bendigo

John married in 1887. In Bendigo in 1901, John entered a partnership with Henry Vahland, then William Vahland until 1912 when he became the sole proprietor of the business.

Astronomy in Bendigo

John Beebe’s East Bendigo Observatory (Martin & Orchiston 1987)

John’s solid brick East Bendigo observatory dates from the 1890’s and also served as a de-facto public observatory. There are no major instruments recorded, the largest being 12cm aperture. It is conjectured that his instruments were sold when he left, and the building abandoned. Still standing, by the 1980’s it was derelict.

Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society

On March 9th, 1917 John Beebe, “La Rocca,” East Bendigo, Victoria, Australia, was duly elected a fellow of the Society. This enabled him to use the letters F.R.A.S. as appropriate. It would seem that the initial steps for nomination had been set in motion before his move to Brisbane.

The move to Brisbane and speculation upon the reasons

John appears to have made a sudden move to Queensland in 19162 one source says December 1915, at age nearly 50, not a time of life when one would usually contemplate such a major shift for the proprietor of an established business. The purpose of the move was unknown, but he subsequently spent the best part of a decade working for the Queensland Public Works Department before re-entering private practice in 1924. He possibly came to Brisbane with the offer of this employment and perhaps in connection with the proposed Queensland State Observatory described below.

In his listing on the Queensland Roll of Architects, the following forms part of the chronological entry: ‘Bendigo 1913-6 ARVIA 1916 BCTC Instructor in Structural Mechanics’.  The acronym BCTC presumably is Bendigo City Technical College.

A major factor that might have influenced him to relocate was a possible downturn in architectural work in Bendigo, and that he was seeking to supplement his income at the Technical College. According to Martin and Orchiston, 1987, he worked as a mathematics teacher in the School of Mines.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Victorian Goldfields towns (such as Bendigo) were in decline. The population in 1900 was 42,710 and had decreased to 42,000 by 1910. Brisbane on the other hand was booming, increasing from 120,650 in 1901, to 143,510 in 1911, and 168,390 in 1916 and increasing apace thereafter3Qld Govt. Statistics. Clearly there was much more scope for employment and work as an architect in Brisbane.

Whatever the factors, he made his move to Brisbane.

His employment in Queensland

The Roll of Queensland Architects has him employed by the Queensland Works Department as an Architect/Temporary Draftsman 1916-1919, and Queensland Lands and Survey Department seconded on special duties 1921-1922.  Then Queensland Works as an Architectural Draftsman 1922-1923 in Brisbane.

The proposed Queensland State Observatory

1916 plans Qld Observatory (Department of Lands, Queensland)

There is an intriguing statement in ‘Explorers of the Southern Sky’ published by Cambridge University Press. It despairs of the dearth of professional astronomy in Queensland and states at page 88, ‘In 1916 and again in 1918, plans for a handsome brick observatory in Italian Renaissance style were drawn up, but they were never implemented’, identifying architect John Beebe as the author of these plans for such a State Observatory.

The paper ‘The History of Astronomy in Queensland’ by Haynes, Haynes, and Kitson (1993), sets out further detail. Captain O’Reilly’s observatory, which had had been purchased by the Queensland Government and relocated to a site in Wickham Terrace at the corner of Edward Street in 1881, had by 1911 become dilapidated and its work badly affected by traffic vibrations and smoke. A new site was necessary and it is stated that the old site was required by the Federal Government for meteorological purposes.

In 1915, Spowers (Queensland Surveyor-General) received permission to build a new observatory on land owned by the Water and Sewerage Board at Bartley’s Hill, Ascot. “An Architect…John Beebe was commissioned and his plans for a handsome brick observatory of the Italian Renaissance style, with a tower for a time ball, were sent to the Government Astronomers of Victoria and New South Wales for advice and criticism”. Unfortunately the plans were never implemented. After some further adjustment to the site position on Bartley’s Hill due to Water Board requirements, Beebe determined the true meridian and site foundations costing £750 were laid. Then the following year (1920), the estimates received for the cost of the observatory, totalling £1,150, were far in excess of that available, so the project was abandoned.

The need to move from the old site was now critical with the new Trades Hall building blocking the view of the meridian mark. Accordingly, at minimal cost, the instruments from the old observatory were installed in a specially constructed room atop the new Government Insurance Building, corner George and Elizabeth Streets. The addition was referred to by the Department of Works as an “unsuitable excrescence” but it was only one-tenth the cost of the planned observatory.

St. Leo’s Observatory, Wickham Terrace

St Leo’s Observatory 1919 (via State Library Qld/History of St Leo’s College page 140)

It is strange how stories intertwine, in this case with that of Dudley Eglinton, J. P. Thomson and the Brisbane Astronomical Society. In 1917, the 6” Grubb Refractor belonging to the now defunct Brisbane Astronomical Society was auctioned. At the auction Dudley Eglinton attempted to purchase it but was outbid by agents for Archbishop Duhig who intended to install it in a College Observatory. By 1919, after a few delays, it was installed at St. Leo’s College on Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, in an observatory building aligned North-South, East-West. The photograph from 1919 reveals a slightly rectangular building with a dome and beside it a transit aperture arrangement, but under the same roofline and building footprint. Adjustments were made and an 8 foot square room on the east side seems to have been added by 1924.  In ‘The Memory’ by Fr Michael Head detailing the history of St Leos, at page 140 it states, ’The (1919) 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.’

But there could be more to it than this. John Beebe may already have become known, not only for his East Bendigo Observatory background, but for his architectural work on the proposed State Observatory.  So it was John Beebe, who designed the St. Leo’s building and oversaw the project. The telescope fell into disrepair in the late 1920’s, eyepieces were stolen, and the telescope disappeared. The transit instrument, a ‘Wray’, ultimately found its way into the Queensland Museum of Lands Mapping and Surveying4W.Kitson, Former Senior Curator.

Site testing for a future Queensland Observatory

Darling Downs Site testing 1921 with 4 inch Grubb (Qld Govt Survey Museum)

But Beebe was soon to be involved in another larger project. By this time he had probably built up a reputation in Queensland astronomy. Quoting from the Haynes, Haynes, and Kitson paper again:

In 1919 the Royal Society of Queensland had received a communication from Professor William Pickering of Harvard Observatory suggesting that Harvard University, alarmed at the potential danger of earthquakes to its Grubb equatorial telescope then positioned at Arequipa in the Andes, might be prepared to transfer it to Queensland provided that the atmospheric conditions were considered suitable. (Brisbane Courier Mail (sic) 1919.) For this purpose the Society approached Spowers, the Surveyor General, for help in carrying out a series of atmospheric tests in the Darling Downs region.

Spowers, who was at this stage still optimistic about the transfer of the Observatory to the Bartley’s Hill site, agreed and detailed John Beebe the architect who had recently drawn the plans for the proposed new observatory, to carry out atmospheric tests. Beebe was also an enthusiastic amateur astronomer who contributed articles on astronomy to the Brisbane Courier and Telegraph in the 1920’s and ‘30s, and so the tests which he and his team conducted in the Toowoomba area may be considered reliable. But although Beebe’s report indicated favourable seeing at all these sites, the telescope failed to arrive, doubtless because of lack of funding from the state.”

A very interesting article appeared in the Brisbane ‘Courier’ on 21st October 1921, that dealt principally with plans for viewing the 21st September 1922 Total Solar Eclipse across the southern Darling Downs and elsewhere.  A second headline for the article was: ’Proposed Transfer of American Observatory’, and referenced site testing on the Darling Downs but further north than the total eclipse track.  This site testing was the ‘special duties’ for which Beebe was seconded to the Queensland Lands and Survey Department.

The article reads:

‘… A matter quite apart from the observations in connection with the eclipse of the sun, but probably of even greater astronomical interest and importance to Australia in general and Queensland in particular is the suggestion that the observatory of the Harvard University, now placed at Arequipa in Peru, should be transferred to Queensland. Attention has been directed in the ‘Courier’ to the provision on the current Estimates for the carrying out of certain investigations and tests to decide the suitableness of several suggested sites in Queensland.  There are Mount Gowrie, Tabletop Mountain, and Square Top and a site on the Bunya Mountains also on the downs.  The tests include the photographing of star trails for telescopic purposes and the determination of the suitableness of the sites in regard to access and astronomical and meteorological conditions generally.  These operations are being carried out by a State Officer – Mr Beebe – under the direction of the Surveyor-General (Mr A.A. Spowers), from whom it was ascertained yesterday that Mr Beebe was at present carrying out tests at Mount Gowrie. The tests at these places are being spread over a period of 12 months, so as to secure as full an amount of data as possible respecting the varying conditions. Four sets of tests are to be carried out at each site, the first of which has been completed.

Dr Piggot (sic) of Riverview College, New South Wales, who is a prominent Australian astronomical authority, and is associated with the project, paid a visit to Queensland recently and discussed various points with the State authorities.’ (Correct spelling Dr. E. F. Pigot – 1858-1929.)

The previous week, on 15th October 1921, ‘The Daily Mail’ Brisbane had reported:

‘Dr. Pigott (sic) (astronomer), spent last night on Gowrie Mountain with the object of ascertaining its suitability as an astronomical site. He left today for Brisbane for the week end and on his return with Messrs. Beebe and Sands will continue his investigations for suitable sites for an observatory.’

Nearly three years later, on 14th July 1924, the ‘Brisbane Telegraph’, under the heading ‘Observatory Site’ and ‘Gowrie Mountain Favoured’ stated:

‘Toowoomba July 14.

The Rev Dr. E. F. Pigot, who was given a civic reception in the Town Hall to-day, said the he was pleased to be back in Toowoomba again. Some little time ago admirable research work was carried out in the region of Southern Queensland with regard to the selection of a suitable site for an astronomical observatory for Queensland.

It had been his great pleasure to be associated with that research, and although nothing definite had yet been fixed with regard to the site, he thought that Gowrie Mountain near Toowoomba would be selected. (Applause.)  Gowrie Mountain, perhaps, was the one site which astronomers looked upon as the best for an astronomical observatory in Queensland.’

I make the supporting observation that Gowrie Mountain is conveniently situated near Toowoomba, easily accessible with the main road to Oakey and Dalby passing very close, direct access to the peak, and likely much less moisture and cloud than the peaks and rainforest of the Bunyas.  Also the Toowoomba –Oakey- Dalby railway line is nearby.

This is the task Beebe was engaged in during 1921-1922. I understand that Government financial support for the relocation and establishment of the observatory was not forthcoming and the project foundered – certainly it never happened! The image accompanying this paper of the 4” refractor and other instrument, site testing in 1921 atop a hill, is definitely that of John Beebe with his assistant the photographer Jack Lunn (J.A. Lunn) in the background. It is likely taken on Gowrie Mountain, though the site has not been positively identified5Information from W. Kitson.

The publication ‘Explorers of the Southern Sky’ published by Cambridge University Press confirms the information previously supplied.  It reports at page 88:

‘…the offer by Professor William Pickering of Harvard Observatory of the Universities Grubb Equatorial telescope, then positioned at Arequipa in the Andes. Harvard University was apparently prepared to transfer it to Queensland provided the atmospheric conditions were considered suitable. Extensive atmospheric tests were conducted by John Beebe…     …but though the report indicated favourable seeing at no less than four sites, the telescope failed to arrive, doubtless because of lack of funding in Queensland.’

Later career in private practice as an architect

John Beebe’s record is shown on the Roll of Architects as ‘1924-1936 AQIA 1925 Registered Architect (Q’ld) 1929, qualification (e) ARAIA 1930 FRAIA 1932’, showing that he achieved Associate (1930) and later Fellow (1932) status of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.  His name appears from the Pugh’s Almanac 1925 edition (in fact 1924 information) under the listing of architects as:

Bebe J. (sic) Architect, T&G Building, Queen St., Brisbane.

By 1936, he had relocated premises to 85 Adelaide Street, Brisbane6Newspaper classified.

His association with M. R. Hornibrook

Hornibrook Highway (Record number 1935 – John Oxley Library Qld)
Hornibrook Highway Brighton Portals (environment

One of the signal events in his later career was meeting (Sir) Manuel Hornibrook (commonly known as M.R. Hornibrook).  It is likely that Beebe met Hornibrook through his association with the Hamilton Bowls Club, where both men occupied committee positions in the early 1930s. Beebe had designed the club’s new pavilion, which opened in 1931, and a year later he signed a contract with Hornibrook for the tollhouses (portals) for the Hornibrook Highway across Bramble Bay from Sandgate to the Redcliffe Peninsula. This highway was a major employment project during the great depression and it took three years to complete the 2.7km long bridge (1932-1935).

The extract below is from the Queensland Deco Project – the story of art deco in Queensland:

‘Beebe’s choice of an Art Deco style is curious in the context of his body of work. While few records remain of his architectural footprint, his other known projects in Queensland, such as the Hamilton Bowls Club and Kirra Beach Pavilion, looked back to styles from the past. In any case, given the association of Art Deco with speed and progress, often symbolised by modern transport, it seems appropriate that the design for the Hornibrook Highway was classically of this style. The mass of symmetrically arranged vertical fins that adorn each pylon soars skywards, creating a stepped silhouette effect. This is balanced by an equally strong use of horizontal lines etched into the banded spandrel that connects the pylons and into the pylons’ rusticated bases. The tollhouse doors are framed by a stylised, low-relief geometric pattern. On approach to the portals are two smaller freestanding pylons which, in their tapered obelisk design, are reminiscent of the wave of ‘Egyptomania’ that influenced Art Deco styling. Viewed in their entirety, the portals exhibit a monumentality that suggests solidity and strength – important qualities for a bridge expecting high volumes of traffic.’

Queensland amateur astronomical organisations of the time – 1896 to 1927

In addition to his architectural practice, John Beebe remained active in astronomical circles.  The original Brisbane Astronomical Society had been formed in 1896 with Dudley Eglinton as the active promoter.  However, it had been inactive since the early 1900’s and any hope of revival was quashed by the sale of their 6 inch Grubb Refractor in 1917 by auction to agents of Archbishop Duhig. Following this in 1919, John Beebe had directed the construction of the St Leo’s College Observatory and the installation of this instrument, quite possibly to the chagrin of Dudley Eglinton whose auction bid had been unsuccessful.

In 1919, the indefatigable Dudley Eglinton formed another society, ‘The Queensland Popular Science and Arts Society’ which purchased a 12-inch reflector from Sydney that was mounted atop the Old Fire Brigade Building in Ann Street. However it appears that it was not ready for use until late 1922, and when two years later Eglinton went blind, there was no obvious person to replace him as a demonstrator and the instrument was largely unused. John Beebe is not recorded as being associated with this body, formed under the aegis of Dudley Eglinton.  There are few later references to this society.

So matters apparently went into recess until a new body was formed in 1927, soon to be renamed the Astronomical Society of Queensland. Eglinton managed to transfer remaining funds from the Brisbane Astronomical Society to this body and, though blind, was made a vice president.  It is doubtful whether Eglinton attended any meetings, being represented at times by his very capable wife Anna who helped him with his continuing popular astronomical articles.

John Beebe’s involvement with the Astronomical Society of Queensland

A newspaper report (Brisbane ‘Courier’) 3rd October 1927 deals with a paper presented to the inaugural meeting of the new society when renamed as the ‘Astronomical Society of Queensland’ (ASQ) on 1st October. The paper was presented by Mrs Eglinton on behalf of her husband, who did not attend. A list of officers elected at the meeting was published, Dudley Eglinton being one of the two vice presidents, and J. Beebe F.R.A.S. as one of the councillors.

Then eighteen months later, a notice of an ASQ meeting that evening appeared in the newspaper on 3rd April 1929, advising that Mr J. Beebe F.R.A.S. would give an address and inviting visitors to attend.

In a description of the records held by the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, referring to the Astronomical Society of Queensland, it states, ‘In 1933 the Society began to publish a bulletin under the editorship of Messrs Holdway and Beebe. …’ (I have not specifically researched ASQ records).

The previous confirms that John Beebe actively continued his astronomical interests after moving to Queensland.

Thoughts on John Beebe’s involvement with Queensland astronomy

I have not found evidence that John Beebe established an observatory, or made serious astronomical observations himself (apart from site testing as referenced), during his two decades in Brisbane.

His East Bendigo observatory could be regarded as a public observatory, providing public viewing and a time service etc. Though Beebe made some comet and solar observations, it cannot be said that these were a significant part of operations. There appeared to be no instruments in operation over 12cm in aperture.

In Queensland, the Government Survey Office provided the time service, Mr T.D. Fraser being the ‘Astronomical Observer’ throughout this period. Therefore that aspect was ‘covered’.

Eglinton was well known for providing the popular articles, though no longer public demonstrations after his blindness. Beebe also is stated to have contributed some articles to the popular press.

In the last decade of his life (1927-1936) the Astronomical Society of Queensland provided the social interaction and other stimulus to which John Beebe contributed as described.

John Beebe may have been content with this.


John Beebe died on 15th December 1936 at age 70 (1866 – 1936). At that time (from Court estate administration documentation), he was described as Architect and Consulting Engineer, and was living at More Street, Kelvin Grove.  He was buried in Lutwyche Cemetery, Brisbane.

John Beebe’s library

John Beebe left behind a library of astronomical books, to his friend J. R. Hornibrook.  In July 1944 Hornibrook presented them to the Astronomical Society of Queensland, each flyleaf bearing a prominent printed sheet   ‘The John Beebe Memorial Library, Presented to the Astronomical Society of Queensland by M. R. Hornibrook July 1944’. This library has now passed to the Astronomical Association of Queensland, the successor to the Astronomical Society of Queensland.

At a culling of old and excess material in 2015 I acquired four of these volumes. Two of them actually have ‘John Beebe’ written in script on the flyleaf – probably his signature.