Captain Henry O’Reilly – State Library of Queensland


In this paper I have researched the life of Captain O’Reilly while he was living and working in Brisbane, but particularly focussing upon his astronomical activities.  In order to better accomplish this, I needed to learn something about the man himself.  I became very impressed with his attributes – competent, capable, and courteous, and feel sadness that he was not allowed (dying as he did at 52), a couple more decades of life. He left a fine legacy.  In my view he can be regarded as the first Queensland (non-indigenous) astronomer.

My thanks go to Steve Hutcheon for his indefatigable research efforts, Bill Kitson, former Senior Curator of the Queensland Museum of Lands Mapping and Surveying, to the descendants of Henry O’Reilly, the State Library of Queensland, and especially to the ‘Trove’ service which has made so much material from earlier Newspapers and publications so readily accessible on the internet.

His move to Australia

Henry George O’Reilly (22nd February 1824 – 18th February 1877) was born in Dublin and emigrated to Sydney.  Throughout his life he simply used his first name ‘Henry’.

His grandson Henry George O’Reilly (1882-1959) often referred to as ‘Henry George,’ clearly indicates a family connection with the name ‘George’.

Henry’s descendants hold some of his personal diaries.  The diary entry for 1st November 1852 states:

‘So now with a start of £30 in my pocket and an implicit trust in Divine Providence assisted with my own determination of a strict integrity of conduct, sobriety and a determined perseverance of doing my duty for my next employers, as I have always endeavoured to do for my past ones, I sold my traps (belongings, baggage) and bid goodbye to all friends and stepped on board the ‘Athlone’ on Monday’.

Wreck of the ASN Co. Steamer ‘Telegraph’ 1867
Wreck of the ASN Co. Steamer ‘Telegraph’ 1867

He had been trained as a master mariner.  In Australia he captained a number of Australasian Steam Navigation Co. ships.  He was the regular captain of the paddle steamer Telegraph plying between Sydney and Brisbane and made a total of 320 such voyages without incident.  This 367-ton paddle wheel steamer was later wrecked at Camden Haven, south of Port Macquarie in 1867.

In 1859 O’Reilly had the pleasure of taking the first Governor of Queensland (Sir) George Ferguson Bowen from Sydney to the newly independent colony.

His move to Brisbane and employment

Ham’s Map of Brisbane in 1863

By 1859, when Queensland became a separate colony, Brisbane had a population of 5,000.  This increased to 19,000 by 1871, 37,000 by 1881, and a leap to 88,000 by 1891.  Cross river traffic was by ferry until the first Victoria Bridge was constructed in 1865.  Unfortunately, being made of wood, it collapsed due to wood worm in 1867.  Its replacement, an iron bridge built in 1874, lasted until the great flood of 1893.  This gives a perspective of the times.  Ham’s map of Brisbane in 1863, shows the city as Henry O’Reilly would have known it when he first came to live.  South Brisbane was a separate municipality until 1924.

On 4th December, 1863, O’Reilly relinquished his Captaincy of the Telegraph to take up the position of Manager (Managing Agent), of the Australasian Steam Navigation Company’s Brisbane office.  He had assumed duty by mid-month and remained until ill health forced him to retire from business activities some months before his passing from cancer on 18th February 1877.  Therefore, his career in Brisbane was short, less than 13 years.

Australasian Steam Navigation Company’s Brisbane Headquarters 1875 – State Library of Queensland

The company headquarters in Brisbane was a fine stone building at 193 Mary Street.  It was completed by late November 1866 and substantially rebuilt in 1889.  The supporting image, circa 1875 shows it as it was during O’Reilly’s tenure.

In a Newspaper report as the building was nearing completion, (The Queenslander, Page 6, 10th November 1866), Messrs O’Reilly and Pritchard1Alexander Brown Pritchard was in partnership with O’Reilly.  Both were confirmed as agents by the ASN Company, effective from 2nd April 1866.  Between late April 1866 and mid November 1867 O’Reilly was overseas, principally for medical reasons – see later.  The partnership was dissolved on 9th December 1867, O’Reilly taking over the business of the partnership paying the accrued debts of more than £4,389 owing to the company.  Pritchard is subsequently described as insolvent.  On the face of it, it would appear that Pritchard accumulated at least the bulk of these debts during O’Reilly’s absence, which, as the solvent partner O’Reilly was obliged to repay upon his return.  He did this after dissolving the partnership. are described as the company’s agents and the three levels of the building (about 60 × 33ft in dimension – 18 × 10 metres), are described as well as its other usage as a bonded warehouse for the storage of bonded goods.

The architect of the building is stated to be Benjamin Backhouse (builder A. Tupper), and it is interesting to note that two years later in 1868 O’Reilly purchased the ‘Toonarbin’ property from Backhouse.

His residence ‘Montpelier’ in Bowen Hills

As previously stated, Captain O’Reilly lived in Sydney and regularly plied between Sydney and Brisbane, making 320 trips in all, without incident.  Whether it was because Sydney was more closely settled (and expensive), or for some other reason, O’Reilly had before 1861 already purchased a 7 acre 37 perch block of land in Brisbane.  This property had a large flat crown at 160 feet altitude with a fine view of the river and the surrounding area.  The area is now called ‘Bowen Hills’ but it was called O’Reilly’s Hill when he built a very substantial house upon it.  Tenders were called in January 1861 for construction of this house, and by August 1861 the house was presumably complete or nearly so, because Mrs O’Reilly’s arrived from Sydney.  In February 1862 sales advertisements for nearby blocks reference O’Reilly’s new house as a geographic reference point and in June 1862 there is a reference to Mrs Henry O’Reilly at that address, named ‘Montpelier’.  For several years the family lived in this house, before moving out and renting the property.  A story passed down within the family is that Mrs Mary O’Reilly would always light a lamp on the ‘Montpelier’ veranda when the Captain was coming up the river at night so he could see it.

The property was still in O’Reilly’s hands when in March 1865 a birth notice appeared in the name of Cairns at this address.  Then in July 1867 it had been let to the Hon John Watts but it soon became vacant.  In February 1868 the house was advertised for rent again, last having been let to a Mr W.B. Tooth.  Finally, on 5th June 1869 (after O’Reilly had purchased ‘Toonarbin’ (see below’), it was advertised for sale, with a full description of the house – constructed of stone and ‘cement rendered’ (is the present term) with 12-foot verandas.  The surrounding block containing fruit trees and flower gardens is also described.  It was noted that the house was occupied at the time by the Colonial Secretary, the Hon A. Hodgson, indicating it was a very fine home.

A name remaining from this period is ‘Montpelier Road, Bowen Hills’.

View circa 1872 from O’Reilly’s Hill (Bowen Hills) over Newstead House. – State Library of Queensland

His inner-city Brisbane residence

A notice in the ‘Brisbane Courier’ on 3rd November 1885 advertised the sale by auction of the 193 Mary Street property and surrounding warehouses and wharves.  In the description: ‘while on a part of the frontage in Felix and Margaret Street is erected a very commodious residence occupied by the well-known popular manager of the company, Wia. (sic) Williams esq…’  

On the basis of this advertisement it may well be that managers of the Brisbane Office were expected to live on site.  Henry O’Reilly had taken up his managerial appointment in December 1863.  The company’s new substantial business premises at 193 Mary Street, were completed in late 1866. It is reasonable to assume the manager should be on site in any event during the planning and construction period.  However, O’Reilly was absent overseas from late April 1866 to mid-November 1867, principally for medical reasons, and his partner Alexander Brown Pritchard appears to have acted as manager in his absence.

The previous Manager, Mr G.D. Webb who retired at the end of 1863 to be replaced by O’Reilly, was still in residence beyond 10th March 1864 because of an advertisement on that date for a cook and laundress at that address, referencing Mrs Webb.  However, the Webbs moved during the year to a new house they were building near ‘Montpelier’ and the O’Reilly’s moved in because there is an advertisement on 19th December 1864 by Mrs O’Reilly for a respectable girl as a general servant giving the same Felix Street address.

There is a similar advertisement by Mrs O’Reilly for the same address in August 1872.

It is a reasonable conjecture that apart from the aforementioned period in 1866-67, the O’Reilly family lived in Felix Street between the years of 1864 and 1872 (at least).  It may have even been more financially economical to do so during the period (1864-1869) that they rented out the ‘Montpelier’ property.

Bear in mind that though his new residence ‘Toonarbin’ in what is now Dornoch Terrace, Hill End was purchased by O’Reilly in late 1868, there was further fit-out conducted, possibly before occupation.  It certainly became the long-time family home until 1926, but it appears that the O’Reilly’s did not take up residence until after 1872. Captain O’Reilly was certainly well established in ‘Toonarbin’ at the time of his death in February 1877.

Why didn’t they move to ‘Toonarbin’ earlier?  Apart from the pressure for his continued presence in his managerial position, there was certainly in the early years, the small matter of crossing the river to and from the Hill End home.  Though there were ferries it would have been time consuming to make this trip twice daily.  As stated, the previous wooden bridge crossing the river had collapsed due to wood worm in 1867.  The new iron replacement was not completed until 1874. 

His residence ‘Toonarbin’ in Hill End

Brisbane Courier 1868 advertisement for sale of ‘Toonarbin’.

In 1868 O’Reilly purchased ‘Toonarbin’2Benjamin Backhouse named the property ‘Toonarbin’ after a manor in Henry Kingsley’s early Australian novel, ‘The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn.’ from Benjamin Backhouse, a well-known Colonial Architect.   This property and surrounding land of 8 acres is situated on Dornoch Terrace, Hill End.

Identical advertisements for the sale of the property appear in the ‘Brisbane Courier’ in September and October 1868. (See image No. 6.)  By that time Backhouse was already in the process of moving permanently to Sydney, because the sale of his furniture etc. at his residence at North Quay in the city was held by auction on 26th October.

(Click images to see full size)

The evidence is that ‘Toonarbin’ situated on the future Dornoch Terrace had already been built several years earlier when purchased by Captain O’Reilly, and indeed from all accounts had been designed and constructed by Backhouse.

The property extended down to the Brisbane River.  O’Reilly increased his holdings to 24 acres by purchasing surrounding land.  The area was known as O’Reilly’s paddocks and often used for picnics and children’s parties, certainly as late as 1913.

After O’Reilly’s death in February 1877, his son Charles John O’Reilly (1854 -1925), and family members lived there until 1926 when the property was bought by Archbishop Duhig and converted into a convent.  Alterations were made and a brick exterior added.

Some of the surrounding land had been subdivided and sold in 1912 and the remainder was sold in 1928.

In recent times the house, now in private ownership, has been heritage listed and restored.  It is available for public inspection.

The Brisbane time service and Henry O’Reilly’s possible involvement

Brisbane Convict Windmill 1933. Note Platform on top and Time ball. Queensland State Archives.

During 1861 and until December 1863, O’Reilly was a ship’s Captain on the Sydney-Brisbane route.  His house ‘Montpelier’ in what is now Bowen Hills, was built in 1861.  It is extremely unlikely that he would have been involved with the provision of a public time service involving the dropping of a time ball from a mast on the Convict Tower building on Wickham Terrace, which commenced in October 1861.

When the ‘time gun’ was installed at the same site in May/June 1866 he was absent from Brisbane.  His absence was between April 1866 and November 1867 and was principally to travel to England for medical reasons. So it was extremely unlikely that O’Reilly was involved with the time gun service either.

O’Reilly died in February 1877.  A press article in June 1881, decries the lack of being able to obtain accurate time in Brisbane, with hopes for this to be rectified when O’Reilly’s observatory, then presently under reconstruction at its new site on Wickham Terrace, was brought into operation.  It was stated that the transit method would be used to determine time.  One problem with the inaccurate service then existing, seems to have been the accuracy of the Post Office clock which provided the time for the ‘time gun’.  It was not being carefully set.  Certainly, during the O’Reilly era, it was well known that he kept very accurate time.  But any connection he had with the public time service is clearly tenuous.

Therefore, though his name has been mentioned, it is unlikely that O’Reilly had much involvement in the public dissemination of accurate time. For nearly five years commencing late 1871/ early 1872 when he operated his observatory, he determined and maintained very accurate local time himself, and as described later, part of this involved testing the accuracy of marine chronometers brought to him by ship’s captains. However, any connection with the established public time service remains tenuous at best, despite suggestions such as the matter immediately following.

As stated, the inaccuracy of the Post Office clock already described gave rise to complaints.  A suggestion by ‘Watchmaker’ in a letter to the Brisbane Courier published on 18th June 1875 proposed an alternative time source and stated in part:

‘… My second proposition is to negotiate with Captain O’Reilly for him to transmit from his observatory, by means of a telegraphic key, to the Telegraph Office, where there is a first-class clock, the information that 1 o’clock has arrived, and let some official there fire the gun by electricity, and also transmit to the stations where required the true time of 1 o’clock.  This plan is adopted in New South Wales for the information of the up-country stations.  I need scarcely add that the observatory of Captain O’Reilly is complete, and more than sufficient for the requirements of Brisbane for many a year.’

Later, of course, from 1881 (after his death), O’Reilly’s relocated observatory, now on Wickham Terrace, was pivotal in providing the time service by the transit method for nearly the next 40 years.

The Brisbane time service

How did the public time service so necessary for commerce and industry operate in Brisbane?

Records indicate the daily dropping of a time ball commenced at 1pm on October 14th 1861.  The ball was dropped from a mast atop the Old Convict Windmill, on Wickham Terrace (often called ‘The Observatory’).  The new Queensland Government had appointed Lt. G.P. Heath RN on the recommendation of A.C. Gregory Surveyor General.  He was given the task of providing the time for the control of the dropping of the ball until the Sydney-Brisbane telegraph line was completed.  This line was opened on 9th November 1861 and thereafter telegraph time was used.

A ‘time gun’ was later installed at the same site to replace the dropping time ball.  This daily ‘time gun’ service commenced at 1pm on June 18th 1866.  The ‘time gun’ referenced was a 24-pounder muzzle loading cannon (quite a substantial weapon) which was one of twelve brought on the immigrant ship ‘Clifton’ in 1862 for the purpose of defending the colony.  These guns were maintained at Queen’s Park and mainly used for drill purposes, the firing of salutes on ceremonial occasions, and the opening of Parliament.  In May 1866 this particular gun was sent to serve as a ‘time gun’.  In 1873 a shed was erected to protect the gun3Brisbane Courier 3rd October 1873.  There have been several guns over its period of operation, a 32-pounder in the 1870’s giving rise to complaints about undue noise and the shaking of nearby buildings when it was discharged.  But other citizens complained to the newspaper that they could not hear it when the charge was reduced.  It seems you can never please everybody.

A twelve-pound Howitzer reconstructed from component parts found at Fort Lytton, is also referenced.

In early 1879 (report in the Brisbane Telegraph, 1st April 1879) the Postmaster’s Department of the Queensland Government proposed to offload the operation of the ‘time gun’ to the City of Brisbane administration.  The City replied that its operation was not within their authority, but that they would be prepared to pay for the gunpowder.  Their six-monthly accounts accessed for the next few years shows expenditure of between £20 and £36 each half year!

The following report (the monkey incident), referring to the ‘gun loft’, was presumed to refer to the tower, but another source indicates that the firing was carried out from ground level, so it could more easily refer to the roof frame of the gun shed.  Certainly the 1873 shed referenced in a preceding paragraph was built on ground level as attested to in a later photograph.  It is possible that the firing site depended upon the characteristics of the gun in question.

There are some interesting stories about the original ‘time gun’ as related in ‘The History of Astronomy in Queensland’ by Haynes, Haynes and Kitson 1993.

‘The gun was fired by a retired sea captain, John Sully, whose son later recalled that on one occasion his father forgot to bring his watch down from the tower and while he was returning for it, one of the pet monkeys, accustomed to sit in the gun loft and observe the daily ritual, pulled the lanyard firing so that the gun went off a minute early.’

I suppose the expression ‘monkey see, monkey do’ would apply!

On another occasion it is reported that the ramrod broke off and it was discharged also. It was found near the People’s Palace some 250 metres away. The current ‘People’s Palace’ building that dates from 1910/11 is presumably at the same site, on the corner of Ann and Edward Streets. It is 260 metres distant.  This indicates that the blank charge was fired in the general direction towards the city centre for most effect.

But the time-sourcing and related arrangements were apparently not satisfactory, and so from 1881 Queensland determined its own time by the transit method from O’Reilly’s relocated observatory on Wickham Terrace.  One of the principal reasons for finally removing the equipment from this site in 1920 was its increasing unsuitability for transit time determination.  Such transit work then continued in Brisbane at different sites within the city for several decades afterwards until a unified time service came into being under the province of the Commonwealth Government.

Total Solar Eclipse December 12th 1871

The Queensland Government generously allowed the use of one of its ships, the Governor Blackall, for an expedition from Sydney to the far north Queensland coast to observe this total eclipse of the sun.  Henry O’Reilly whose astronomical prowess was already known, was the obvious choice to go as the Queensland representative on this expedition, but pressure of business prevented him.  He nominated Sylvester Diggles whose colourful account pays tribute to the zeal and preparation of the party.  But the eclipse itself was a total washout with thunderstorms and heavy rain all day4see Lomb, N., 2016. Australian solar eclipse expeditions: the voyage to Cape York in 1871. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 19(1), 79‒95.

O’Reilly’s Brisbane Observatory 1871

O’Reilly was residing at the Felix Street company premises (the Managers’ residence), adjacent to his Mary Street workplace between later 1864 and the latter part of 1872 at least, excluding his aforementioned absence in 1866/67.  In 1871 he constructed his observatory in Felix Street, on company land adjacent to this residence.

There is no record of any observatory at his previous ‘Montpelier’, or his later ‘Toonarbin’ residences.

O’Reilly’s Observatory – Part of a larger cross river view 1873.

O’Reilly refers to this observatory as his ‘new’ observatory, though no record can be found of a previous observatory which was possibly a more modest structure nearby or upon the same site.  The ‘new’ observatory dates from 1871 and would have been complete at the end of that year or early in 1872, and was a rectangular building aligned east-west.  There are no good images of the building but panoramas from a distance, specifically a confirmed 1873 image from across the river shows the building to have had a shallow sloped roof on the near (eastern) side of the central dome and a taller section (partly obscured by foliage) on the far (western) side.  This image is a section of a larger panorama.  The manager’s residence is the substantial building immediately to the left of the observatory.  Other images around this period confirm this layout and description.

An 1878 proposed railway plan for the Australasian Steam Navigation Company’s site shows the east-west outline of the observatory building.  This has enabled accurate identification of the alignment and positioning of the observatory.

This observatory, originally situated in Felix Street at the rear of his work building at 193 Mary Street, was stated to be on a small triangular piece of land, ‘Felix Street’ being given for its location.  Further discussion about the exterior of the observatory appears in the section dealing with its reconstruction and use on the Wickham Terrace site.

O’Reilly kept very diligent records of its cost and in the period between March and the end of December 1871 he expended an amount of £327 6s 8½d.  From this we can assume that the observatory was likely operational from the end of 1871.  This amount includes instruments, observatory materials and fit-out, books and other items, even gardening!  These accounts include £77 10s for the 4½ inch Ross refractor and £16 for the 20 inch focus transit instrument, both on 21st April and £45 for the sidereal clock on December 27th.

O’Reilly was elected a member of the Philosophical Society of Queensland (later Royal Society of Queensland) on 28th December 1871 (Member number 78.)  He became a life member by paying five years’ subscription.  He was very quickly elected to their Council on 25th January 1872.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (F.R.A.S.) on February 9th 1872, and of the Royal Society of Tasmania on October 8th that same year for donating and then having delivered free of charge, two dugong skeletons.

It therefore appears that the establishment of this observatory (completed in late 1871 or early 1872), was concurrent with his rapid development of astronomical and scientific interests, but it is deeply regrettable that he had less than five more years before his final illness.  Henry O’Reilly was very ill by late 1876 and died in February the next year.

Despite the lack of good images, drawings, or plans, there is a wonderful report in the ‘Brisbane Courier’ of 10th December 1874 (Page 3) and ‘The Queenslander’ of 12th December. Bear in mind that the Transit of Venus had occurred on 9th December so the interest of the public had definitely briefly turned to astronomy.  This report titled ‘Our Local Observatory’, in both papers is identical. It is by the correspondent ‘JOT’ whose identity has not been positively established. However, he displays a good technical knowledge by this and his other articles. He is most likely James Thorpe (1845-1899), born in England and emigrated as a child with his family to Brisbane.  In the 1870’s he was a fellow member and the Secretary of the Philosophical Society of Queensland, so would have been well versed in the science of the day.

The section of this report relevant to the Felix Street Observatory, its contents, equipment, and use is quoted in full below:

‘Captain H. O’Reilly, as he has already made known through the medium of the Philosophical Society, made preparations for the transit of Venus observations at his private observatory in Felix-street, and in response to his cordial invitation, I spent a very pleasant evening there.

Started several years ago on a small scale, his observatory has now outgrown itself, for on entering it I could not but be struck with the large number of instruments, meteorological and astronomical, crowded within two small rooms – a perfect multum in parvo; (much in little; a great deal in a small space or in brief. – latin) for wherever a picture could hang, a curiosity stand, or an instrument be fastened, you may be sure there was one.  Water color drawings of the Eclipse Expedition at Eclipse Island, stellar maps, including a picture, on a large scale, of a cluster of colored stars, situated near the Southern Cross, showing stars of orange, yellow, blue, and crimson colous (sic) ; a photograph of the moon, taken with the great reflector at the Melbourne Observatory ; native weapons, Chinese compasses (real curiosities these), belonging to an age when our present compass was in its infancy ; a wind gauge, devised by the Government astronomer at Sydney, comprising four revolving cups, which register their velocity by means of a series of dials similar to those of a gas meter.  When required for use, the gauge (which can be held in one hand) is held in the wind for three minutes, the time being regulated by an egg-boiler attached to the stand, the number of revolutions during the time is then ascertained, and converted into miles by means of a small printed table compiled for the purpose.  The great recommendation of the gauge is its portability.  Besides these, standard barometers, wet and dry bulk thermometers, aneroids, hygrometers, sympiesometers, &c., went far to fill up any vacant spaces in the rooms mentioned.

But having tarried too long in the outer room, accompanied by the host I now entered the transit room, an apartment nearly wholly covered by an iron dome, revolving on cannon balls, with a shutter in it opening so as to give a view from the horizon to the zenith of any portion of the heavens desired, the remainder of the building being covered by two flat shutters opening north and south ; under them is situated the transit instrument, the chief in any observatory.  This instrument, made by Jones, of Charing Cross, London, has a object glass, a focal length of 20in., and is provided with five wires ; direct and diagonal eye-pieces, and a declination circle, which is divided to minutes of arc.

In connection with, and close to the telescope is the sidereal clock, by Cochrane of Brisbane.  This clock, which has a mercurial pendulum, has given proofs of being of first-class workmanship, for, during the last two months its average rate, as deduced from observations of the sun with the transit circle, has been only .3 of a second gain daily.  This, considering the circumstances under which it is placed, close to a flat roof, and exposed to great variations of temperature, may be considered as exceptionally good.

With the telescope and clock is connected a “chronograph” or ‘time-writer’, an instrument similar to the ordinary telegraph instrument, and devised to enable the clock to record seconds of time on a fillet of paper by means of electricity.  When used in connection with the telescope, the observer, by means of a small telegraphic key held in his hand, records the time when the object observed passes each wire in the telescope, by dots side by side with those made by the clock.  In this manner the clock error is ascertained, for, the exact time of the sun’s limb passing the meridian being known beforehand, the time when it passed, as given by the clock, is compared with it, and the difference will show the clock error to the hundredth part of a second.

A glance of the row of chronometers sent to be rated by the captains of the various vessels in harbor testifies that they are fully alive to the facilities of this observatory for obtaining the errors of their chronometers.

A very good mean-time clock by the same maker stands in the same room.  Both clocks are kept in excellent order by Mr. Given.

The equatorial telescope under the dome is a powerful 4½ -inch instrument of 5 feet focal length, by Ross, of London, mounted on a Varey tripod stand fixed on a stone foundation, as are also the clocks and the transit instrument.

The dome being revolved and the shutter opened, Captain O’Reilly obligingly turned the equatorial on to several objects of interest.  But I cannot dwell on the scenes unfolded to me of minute specks of light which turn out in the telescope to be clusters, each made up of myriads of stars, of light cloud-like patches which resolved themselves into calm milky seas of nebulae, seas of glowing gas, baby worlds; or of stars which, on being tested with this magic crystal, quadruple themselves, appearing as four suns, which, by observations, are found to circle around each other in pairs.

These and other marvels were rapidly shown to me and explained by my host, who shifted the dome, changed the eye-pieces of the telescope, and picked up the various stellar objects with an ease which betokened long familiarity with the science.

His telescope is provided with six eye-pieces of magnifying powers ranging from 65 to 400 diameters ; but very rarely can the highest powers be used, the ‘desideratum’ (from Latin – the indispensable or desired thing) being a steady atmosphere and a very fine adjustment, to enable them to be used satisfactorily.  What an astronomer would call a “good” night is of rare occurrence-about six a year in England, I have heard.

The declination and right ascension circles attached to the instrument are of silver ; it can be readily clamped down in either, and is provided with slow motions for each.  The want of a clockwork motion , to enable the observer to follow the course of a star easily and surely, must, I think, be much felt by Captain O’Reilly and his confreres, and especially during the transit of Venus observations.  For this event many preparations were made, not the least among which is a moveable arm for holding a sheet of paper at certain distances from the eye-piece. On this sheet is thrown by the telescope a magnified image of the sun or moon, of any diameter required.  By this means Venus’s track across the sun could be watched at ease, and without putting oneself into any of the many extraordinary attitudes which are almost inseparable from astronomical observations.

The gong of the mean-time clock now struck the hour for retiring, so after taking a glance at an artificial horizon made of dark glass and levelled by means of three screws and a spirit level (thus doing away with the old quicksilver method), and at an instrument with the formidable name of dipleidoscope devised for transit purposes, I shook hands with my kind entertainer, and bade him “good night,” thinking, as I went home, that in a few years, and when the commerce of the city has greatly exceeded its present dimensions, the keeping of correct time and the watching of the skies will not be left to private amusement or enterprise in a colony which devotes a tenth part of its expenditure to educational purposes.


At his observatory, O’Reilly also had a large, possibly iron meteorite. In the 21st June 1873 edition of the Sydney publication, The Australian Town and Country Journal, a reporter who visited the observatory states: ‘There is also a large meteoric stone, which was seen to fall at Transit Station near Gympie’ (in South East Queensland).  However, JOT in December 1874, writing his comprehensive report of an evening visit to the observatory does not refer to it, despite carefully detailing the contents of the observatory building. This is curious because it was an important exhibit.  A possible explanation is that the meteorite, being large and weighty, was kept outside and so not seen by JOT. Alternatively, it may have been removed before the time of his visit. In any event, no further record of it exists.

Transit of Venus 9th December 1874

The transit of Venus on the 9th December 1874 had been observed under excellent conditions by O’Reilly and the report of his observation in ‘The Queenslander’ of 12th December states:

“There was no ‘Black Drop’.  The dark edge of Venus was illuminated five minutes before internal contact and that planet came on to the sun, passed over its face, and went off preserving a well-defined round disc.  As Venus advanced upon the sun’s disc at internal contact at ingress, a thin greenish stream of light was visible between her and the sun’s edge, and gradually became brighter, until the planet appeared a complete circle on the sun.  The following are observations for Brisbane mean time:-

External contact at ingress .. ..      not observed.

Internal contact at ingress.. ..         0h. 30m. 21s.  p.m.

Middle of contact ..  ..  ..                2h. 14m. 58s.  p.m.

Internal contact at egress .. ..         4h.  2m.  40s.  p.m.

External contact at egress ..  ..     4h. 32m. 10s.  p.m.

A neutral tint-shade was used with a power of 115.”

The image was also projected upon a specially marked large sheet of cardboard for observatory visitors.

Activities of the Observatory

O’Reilly was clearly familiar with the heavens, but I have found no indication of any specific line of observation or research conducted at the observatory.

In conjunction with astronomy and meteorology, considering his nautical background, O’Reilly tested ship’s clocks for accuracy.  An accurate ship’s clock was essential for navigation, because it was necessary to ascertain longitude, and use of an accurate clock was the most practical way at the time.  Determining latitude is relatively straightforward.  It could be obtained at sea by a sextant etc. measuring the altitude of objects, the Sun and stars, especially as they transited.

However, determining longitude was traditionally a problem.  Because the Earth is spinning on its axis, knowing the distance/angle the observer is around it (longitude) can best be found by knowing the standard time at which the positional observation by sextant or other instrument is made.  It is essential to do this because the sky at the same latitude, for example Sydney, Perth, Cape Town or Buenos Aires, will look the same at the same local time.  So (say) at 7pm the night sky would be effectively identical in any of these places.  But, again as an example, Sydney is some 10 hours or 150 degrees ahead of Greenwich, the standard reference point.  So any sextant etc. observation referenced to a very accurate clock, with the appropriate correction, will provide accurate positions at sea, because it will allow for this shift in longitude.  The rotational movement of the Earth’s surface at the equator is close to half a kilometre per second, so the greater the accuracy of the clock (and of course the instruments employed), the better the result.  So, until the advent of radio time signals, the ship’s clock was an extremely important piece of equipment.

The Observatory on Wickham Terrace 1881 (principally a meteorological and time service)

This observatory came into being upon the sale of the previous observatory and its contents to the Queensland Government in 1880, three years after the death of Henry O’Reilly in 1877.  The purchase had been arranged by his son.  The representations, namely for the Queensland Government to purchase the observatory as a public service, that may have been the initial stimulus for the Government to Act, were first mooted at the meeting on 30th November 1876 of the Philosophical Society of Queensland and became a formal approach by them after their 4thJanuary 1877 meeting.  By that stage Henry O’Reilly was gravely and terminally ill and it was hoped that his instruments would be retained in Queensland.  Following the Government purchase the instruments were turned over to Edmund McDonnell the Government Meteorological Observer.  Therefore, the approval and purpose of the purchase appears principally to have been for the meteorological, and not the astronomical aspect of use.  However, use was soon to be made of the transit telescope to keep accurate time, and the 4½” refractor would occasionally be used for the demonstration of celestial objects. Later a larger and more satisfactory transit instrument would be obtained and used.

The construction of the observatory at the new site is reported in the ‘Brisbane Courier’ of 14th June 1881.  It decries the lack of a means of obtaining correct time in Brisbane and that this will be corrected when the observatory is in operation.  Then it states: “The structure which formed Captain O’Reilly’s observatory, and which is now being put up on the Wickham-terrace reserve, is certainly not an ornament to the reserve, and complaints are being made that such a small dilapidated-looking building should be erected in so prominent a position in the city.”  It then hopes that the current arrangements are only temporary and that a more imposing building will be erected upon one of the principal reserves.  There was at least one similar criticism, but in much stronger terms, in a letter to the editor published on 3rd June about the unsatisfactory materials and appearance of the observatory.

Wickham Terrace Observatory early 1880’s.

This observatory was situated on the lower (eastern) side of the triangular block on the south-western corner of the intersection of Wickham Terrace and Edward Street, and quite close to the Edward Street alignment.  The first of the attached photographs – of the view overlooking Brisbane, shows its appearance in the early 1880’s.

This image also gives an indication of the general appearance of the original building, though at the Felix Street address it had been built on flatter land.  The photograph shows two rooms, one a conventionally fairly steep roofed room, and the second a domed roof observatory, on the higher side with very low-pitched transit slot adjoining, all within the same building footprint.  This interpretation is made based on the previous description by ‘JOT’ printed herein.

The clearest of the photographs taken during the earlier period when the observatory was located at Felix Street, is the distant cross–river 1873 photograph, and its internal layout at the end of 1874 is described in the report by ‘JOT’.  The building was rotated 180 degrees when re-erected on Wickham Terrace in 1881.  This is because the low roof section containing the transit slot which was on the river (eastern) side in 1873 then appears on the western (Wickham Terrace) side.

For some years after the establishment of the observatory at the Wickham Terrace site, Sir Augustus Charles Gregory, scientist, explorer, and former Surveyor–General of Queensland, undertook time measurements as a hobby from the observatory and personally constructed apparatus for electrically recording the observations.  The provision of time, and weather recording were the principal activities.

Wickham Terraces weather stations and observatory, (including inset) – 1900. State Library of Queensland.

The image at right was taken circa 1900 and shows the weather stations with the observatory in the background.  The inset image is from a vantage point high on Wickham Terrace dates from not long after.  Both clearly show a small new transit building with a shallower roof line to house later equipment, which had not been yet constructed in the original early 1880’s image but appears in an 1886 image.

It also shows that the building and roof of the section containing the transit slot has been extended and dramatically altered by constructing a steep pitched roof with a new steeply sloping transit slot.  This transit slot extends from the base of the roof to the ridge line.  The records show the replacement of the transit telescope and observatory extension for the telegraph before December 1886.

However, 1886 photographs while showing the separate transit building had already been constructed, still shows the flattish roof of the transit section of the main building, so the steep roof was added later, probably, (from yet another photograph) after 1893.  Thus until at least 1893, the general exterior appearance of the building remained as it had been since O’Reilly’s time.  The new steep transit slot referenced would have been much more satisfactory for larger, longer focal length instruments and reinforces the appearance of three distinct sections in a rectangular building with the dome being in the centre.

The image dated circa 1900 shows the handiwork of Clement L. Wragge (famous for his Vortex rain or hail guns) who was appointed Government Meteorologist in January 1887, resigning in 1903.  He is shown here at one of his weather stations.  It is recorded that “…under his energetic supervision the observatory is becoming rapidly furnished with meteorological standard instruments, and for daily weather marking, during 1887 a daily weather map was commenced which shows the weather in all the colonies of Australia.  The observatory contains also a 4½ inch equatorial instrument by Ross of London, also a transit instrument, clocks, chronographs etc. and it is anticipated that a suitable building will soon be erected for it near the present site on Windmill Hill.”

But this was not to be.  The observatory continued at this site for many years, gradually becoming more dilapidated due to white ants and the lack of maintenance, and the site became less suitable (vibration, smoke) as the city grew.  The telescope appears to have been little used for anything other than demonstration though the transit instrument was employed for timekeeping (using the Sun according to an 1881 newspaper report and also as stated in Surveying Queensland 1839 -1945 at page 114:  ‘… Edmund MacDonnell, the Government Meteorological Observer (retired 1887) carried out daily astronomical observations on the Sun to determine the local time, and the gun was fired.  But an 1886 official report states ‘… the determination of Brisbane local time by Star transits at least once per week, the result being communicated to the Electric Telegraph office …’  Perhaps both methods were in use.

Instead of the signal gun, other methods were tried to publicly provide a time determination.  From the beginning of 1895 (after the arrival of the new Kullberg mean solar clock installed in the observatory the previous May), a permanent arrangement was in place with a 5 foot diameter black time ball being dropped at 1pm from a pole erected atop the old convict windmill building which is situated on the Wickham Terrace hill overlooking the city.  The time ball is stated as being 228ft above high water level and 79ft above local ground level when raised.  It did not operate on Sundays and Public Holidays and was controlled by ‘an electric signal from a clock at the survey office observatory’ namely O’Reilly’s old observatory.  At that stage the present existing (Eastern Australian) standard time based on the 150th meridian was adopted.

In the absence of the adoption of standard time as at present, Brisbane local time was some 12 minutes in advance, and Sydney time five minutes in advance of that based on the 150th meridian.  Therefore, if Sydney local time was transmitted to Brisbane it would require to be advanced some 7 minutes to accurately convert to Brisbane local time.

By this time the earlier ‘time guns’ had been replaced by an old twelve-pound Howitzer from Fort Lytton.  It was retired, though it had not been in constant use throughout; a newspaper report on 23rd April 1891 stated that the ‘time gun’ had ceased.

Though the observatory building was suitable for a single astronomer, it was proving much too small to function as an official observatory and, as stated, was deteriorating markedly.  Dimensions given in 1896 by which time it was already in a very poor state were 34’ × 9’6” (10.4 × 2.9 metres), veranda 4’ gable 11’.  So it was quite a modest structure.

Wickham Terrace Observatory in 1918/1919. State Library of Queensland.

The final image of the observatory (at right), was taken from the lower and Edward Street side.  Dated to 1918/1919, the building appears ‘run down’ and the surrounding yard contains equipment and meteorological installation plus several small latticed or louvred Stevenson screens on supports.  Around the time of this last photograph the very ramshackle observatory was discontinued.  Within five years it was no longer on site apparently having been demolished.  It appears that meridian timekeeping transit observations were virtually the only astronomical work in which the Government had any interest.  In the Queensland Surveyor General’s report for the year 1920 it states:


The erection of the new Trades Hall at the intersection of Edward and Turbot Streets having rendered the site of the existing observatory quite unsuitable for meridian observations, it became necessary to make provisions for carrying on the time service.” (A new station was then established atop the new Government Insurance Building, corner George and Elizabeth Streets.)

53. A small room is now being constructed to house the transit instrument and clocks’ (at the new premises) will shortly be ready for occupation.  The old site and ‘hut’ in which the astronomical work of the Department has been carried on for so very many years, will then be vacated, and left to the Commonwealth Officers for meteorological purposes only.”

So the meteorology aspect was handed over to the Commonwealth.  Older Brisbane readers will recall that the Brisbane headquarters of the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology was subsequently constructed on this site at the corner of Wickham Terrace and Edward Street, and operated for many years before relocating in recent times to the Brisbane Airport. 

The illness and death of Captain Henry O’Reilly

In April 1866 Henry O’Reilly departed for England for the purpose of having an operation performed because of ‘a painful disease of one of his eyes, the sight of which had become greatly affected.’5Obituary- Brisbane Courier Feb 19th 1877

He was given quite a send-off with a banquet in his honour at Braysher’s Metropolitan Hotel.  The tables were crowded and the demand for tickets outstripped the places available.  Many prominent citizens were present and it was obvious that he was held in considerable esteem.6Report in the Brisbane Courier 26th April 1866.

His diary reveals that in London, after consulting specialists, it was deemed necessary to remove his left eye.  The operation was performed on 10th August 1866 by Doctors Basset and Lawson. This was conducted in the rooms of his lodging in Harley Street!  After recovering he visited friends in London, relatives in Dublin, with trips to Liverpool and Paris before returning to Brisbane in 1867.

His diary reveals that on 13th November 1867, on board the Yarra Yarra (ASN Co. ship on the Sydney – Brisbane run, so presumably bound for Brisbane), : ‘At 2.30pm passed Camden Haven Heads and saw the intermediate shaft, cylinders etc, the only remains of my old favourite the Telegraph, lost I consider by gross negligence…..’ 

This was correct.  The Telegraph had been wrecked only five weeks earlier on 9th October 1867. The December 1867 Commission of Enquiry revealed that the Captain was not in command but had instructed his Chief Officer to remain a mile offshore.  The Captain went to his cabin for about 20 minutes and returned just before impact, appalled to discover they were very close.  The Chief Officer had possibly been induced by passengers to go close to see the remains of the wreck of the ‘Prince of Wales’.

After returning to Brisbane and resuming his duties, O’Reilly’s obituary notes ‘but no permanent benefit resulted therefrom.’ (from the operation).

Apparently, O’Reilly’s health did improve with the condition in remission until possibly 1875 or even early 1876.  Despite having only one eye, he was able to successfully continue his employment, purchase and fit out the substantial property ‘Toonarbin’ on Dornoch Terrace, Hill End (late 1868 onwards), and establish and operate his observatory (1871 onwards).

The obituary continues:

‘Ultimately cancer formed on the face near the eye, and for this disease he underwent another operation about ten months ago, which unfortunately was too late to check the spread of the disease.  Since then the state of his health grew rapidly worse.  He was obliged to retire from his business avocations, and some months ago it was known to the deceased gentleman himself, and amongst his personal friends, that there was no room for hope of his recovery.

During the last few days it became evident that the hour of merciful release from his long and painful illness was rapidly approaching.  Yesterday forenoon he was conscious for a little while, and was able to speak with those around him, but it was only the brief revival which so frequently precedes the great final change, and he expired shortly before four o’clock in the afternoon.  (He died on February 18th 1877, four days before his 53rd birthday on February 22nd.)

He was buried at the South Brisbane cemetery.

The public standing of Captain Henry O’Reilly

Henry O’Reilly’s grave marker.

In his obituary referenced above, it is stated:

Captain O’Reilly was one of the oldest, if not the oldest servant of the A.S.N. Co. and certainly the Company had none more devoted to its interests, with which he most thoroughly and actively identified himself.  The Company has, at various times, been very unpopular in this colony, but that unpopularity never extended to its principal representative.  His courtesy to the public never varied, and whether as Captain of the Company’s boats or as a medium between his employers and the mercantile community of Brisbane, and his sound judgment and tact has, we make no doubt, often prevented the discontent of the Queensland public with the Company’s treatment of the trade of this colony taking a definite shape which might have been far from satisfactory to the great Sydney corporation.’

He was well respected and the report on his funeral in the ‘Brisbane Courier’ states:

…The attendance was one of the largest and most respectable that has ever been witnessed at a funeral in this city, including Sir Maurice O’Connell, Chief Justice Cockle, several members of both Houses of the Legislature, a number of professional men, nearly all of the principal business men of the city, and many others.

The Rev. T. Jones and R. Creyke officiated at the interment, and the whole proceedings showed how general was the esteem with which the deceased was regarded.’

His monument, with nautical motifs, is one of the most impressive in the cemetery.

Aftermath and later use of the instruments

One source quotes:

In 1880 at the prompting of the Queensland Philosophical Society, the Government agreed to purchase the astronomical instruments, including a small transit telescope, a chronograph, two clocks and two chronometers, from the estate of Captain Henry O’Reilly, a prominent amateur astronomer.  They were transferred to the care of Edmund McDonnell, the Government Meteorological Observer and deposited in the Trigonometrical Survey hut at Wickham Terrace.

Arthur Page’s address to the Astronomical Society of Queensland in 1959, includes the following:

… McDonnell reported to Parliament in 1882: “At the close of the year 1881, the small transit instrument was got in correct position, Sidereal and Mean time clocks put in regulation.  Transit observations are frequently taken to correct the sidereal clock, and it is now keeping good time. (This 20 inch focus transit instrument was replaced in 1884 by a larger ‘Troughton and Simms’ 32 inch focus instrument especially purchased for the trigonometrical survey commenced at that time.)  The telescope has been the means of many visitors enjoying what cannot be obtained elsewhere in the colony – a personal inspection of the most interesting objects in astronomy and many of the more advanced pupils in both public and private schools have attended the observatory.  My best thanks are due to Augustus Charles Gregory, Esq, C.M.G., for the great interest he has taken to, and assistance rendered in connection with the instruments.”  The appendix to the Auditor General’s report 1881 records “3 Nov 1880 – The Postmaster General’s purchase of the late Capt. O’Reilly’s meteorological instruments £225.”  Instruments purchased included a small transit instrument, a chronograph, 2 clocks and 2 chronometers, and were moved to a site in Wickham Terrace.  (This report fails to state that it included the observatory building as well.)

O’Reilly’s 4½ inch Ross refracting telescope being used by Inigo Jones. – Queensland Museum of Lands Mapping and Surveying.

The 4½ inch Ross Equatorial Refractor, found its way into the Queensland Surveyor General’s Department and around 1926 was loaned to the well-known long-range weather forecaster Inigo Jones who is shown in this image using it at his observatory at Crohamhurst.

The instrument was not returned after his death in 1954 and despite enquiries its whereabouts are unknown.  The Queensland Museum of Lands Mapping and Surveying also holds the sidereal clock built by Cochrane in 1871 for O’Reilly, some of O’Reilly’s books and notes on navigation and astronomy, and other instruments dating from this period possibly also having belonged to O’Reilly7W Kitson, former Senior Curator.

About the author

Peter Anderson
Peter Anderson
Peter has been involved in practical amateur astronomy and involved with the local astronomical society since 1958. Has been a member of the AAQ since its inception in 1978, and is the Associations unofficial Historian.
%d bloggers like this: