Founding Of Orwell Park Observatory

Kenneth J Goward, FRAS

This article gives a detailed description of the origins of the Orwell Park Observatory and of Colonel George Tomline, who commissioned the building.

Colonel George Tomline

The bulk of our knowledge of this multi-faceted figure is derived from obituaries and personal accounts of him published in the newspapers of the day, ferreted out from public archives by our Secretary, Roy Gooding.

Colonel George Tomline was born at Riby Grove, Lincolnshire in 1812. He was the eldest son of William Edward Tomline (MP for Truro) and Frances Tomline (nee Amley). William and Frances had a second son, William, who later married the daughter of Lord Gage. The estate at Riby was entailed upon both sons, but George eventually bought out William’s share. His considerable fortune came down from both sides of his family: his mother was a joint heiress of John Amley of Ford Hall, Shropshire and in 1827 his father inherited considerable properties from Tomline’s grandfather, George Pretyman Tomline, Bishop of Winchester. Pretyman was the original family surname until one Marmaduke Tomline (original owner of the Riby Grove estate and entirely unrelated to the Pretymans) without any heirs, bequeathed the estate and fortune to the Bishop, which the latter duly inherited upon his benefactor’s death in 1803. The Bishop assumed the Tomline surname as ‘the right thing to do in the circumstances’. Bishop Tomline was well connected, having at one time been the tutor at Cambridge University to the Rt Hon William Pitt and had been promoted through the church hierarchy by Pitt’s influence.

Little is recorded of Col Tomline’s youth and, perhaps, the most graphic illustration of the young Tomline may be drawn from the following newspaper passage:

The greater part of Colonel Tomline’s youth was spent in Lincolnshire. Riby Grove is situated close to the great fishing metropolis of Grimsby, where (writes a correspondent who knew him as a young man) the Colonel was greatly esteemed for his genial manners and kind and cheerful disposition. At this time he was somewhat of an athlete, and the following anecdote is related with reference to his extraordinary strength. Old Matthew Cunningham, a noted character in the neighbourhood of Grimsby, had taken a load of grain and flower to Riby, in sacks. As he was about to unload, the young squire appeared on the scene. 'Hullo, Cunningham,' was the greeting, 'Do you want a man?' And not heeding the old fellow’s expostulations, the squire seized hold of sack after sack and carried them to their separate places, as though they had been 20lbs. weight instead of 20st1.

Tomline was educated at Eton, where he first came to know William Ewart Gladstone who was a year above him and both pupils were spoken of as ‘very clever boys’2.

The date of the passing of Colonel Tomline’s father and his inheritance of the family fortune is unclear but at an early stage, the Colonel had purchased a second home (in addition to Riby Grove) at the prestigious London address of 1 Carlton House Terrace (adjacent to the Mall). As a very eligible bachelor, athletic, dapper and of impressive stature he indulged in London society and – in common with most well heeled young men of the time - went on the obligatory ‘Grand Tour’. It is said that he was let down in affairs of the heart about this time and that disappointment seems to have been carried upon his shoulders for the rest of his life. London society gossip of the day linked him romantically to Lady Flora Hastings and/or lady Clementina Villiers. A more plausible story - very much in the Jane Austen genre – comes to us from a descendant of the Pretyman family3. That version has it that Tomline fell in love with Louisa Stuart, the second daughter of his London neighbours, but her parents scotched the blossoming romance because they wanted Louisa to marry into a title – the one thing NOT possessed by Tomline. They eventually fixed her up with Lord Waterford and the deed was done. Whatever the truth, the outcome forever changed Tomline from the young man ‘greatly esteemed for his genial manners and kind and cheerful disposition’, and he never married.

Probably as a result of peer pressure Tomline entered politics and, in 1840, was elected to Parliament under slightly dubious circumstances (returned unopposed after some shady background dealings by party agents) for the Sudbury, Suffolk constituency. His party affiliation seems to have been ‘Liberal Conservative’. At this time his link to Suffolk was via estates owned around the Bacton area since times of yore and passed through the Pretymans4 down to him. However, his tenure in the Sudbury Constituency was short lived and he stood for Shrewsbury in the following year with Benjamin Disraeli5. They were duly elected but Tomline grew to dislike Disraeli intensely and in later years would refer to him unflatteringly as ‘that old Jew’6. Many years afterwards Tomline related to a close friend the main reason for coming to so dislike Disraeli when he said:

I may as well tell you all about it. I never forgive anybody who makes me look ridiculous, and he did so, ----him. You know when he was first returned for Shrewsbury it was the custom to 'chair' the successful members. That is to say, one had to sit in a chair and be carried round by men like a guy, you know. Now that was sufficiently ridiculous in itself, but my junior colleague must manage to make it still more so. He, as the junior, was carried in front of me, and at every two or three hundred paces they brought out a sort of loving cup, you know, from which we were expected to drink, but, of course, everybody in his senses knew it was a mere matter of form; one just put the thing to one’s lips, you know, bowed, and so up and off again. The Jew took it all seriously, and drank deeply every time. You may imagine the rest. And there was I powerless to help myself, and being tootled all round the town at the fellow’s heels, the butt of his vulgar witticisms about the ‘Pieriau spring,’ and so on, because I did not swill enough to please him. No, I have never forgiven him for that, and I never will7.

Tomline was no sort of drinker, other than socially. He was turned against the problems associated with alcohol during his days in London society when a member of the aristocracy - a close friend - ruined himself rather publicly through the 'demon drink'.

Tomline served as a member for Shrewsbury until 1868 and changed his seat to Grimsby a few years later (local influence again).

Sir Robert Peel once commented on Gladstone and Tomline 'The best of my young men were Tomline and Gladstone'8 (Tomline mentioned first). His comment came just after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, when, as Prime Minister, he had unsuccessfully fought off a bid to repeal those controversial acts which favoured the landed by keeping the price of grain artificially high. In a turbulent time, Tomline and Gladstone threw in their lot with Peel and were his staunchest supporters as he first tried to argue for the lowering the duty over a three year period before abolishment. Tomline and Gladstone effectively protected Peel from other members of their party who were not prepared to budge on the issue.

Without a shadow of doubt, our founder had an ogre like reputation – which he very much encouraged – but which he really did not deserve. His attitude towards charity, for instance, was completely misunderstood. A story told by a life long friend of Tomline demonstrates that ‘junk mail’ is by no means a 21st century nuisance and in an almost Dickens-like manner amply illustrates the true attitude of the Colonel:

On the library table at Riby, where I arrived in company with Colonel Tomline one Christmas season, was an enormous number of letters awaiting him. They nearly covered the table, and there must have been some hundreds. 'Why,' I said, 'it will take you all day to read them.' 'Will it?' was his cynical rejoinder, 'you will see.' And then he slowly walked round the table, pulling them down one by one from their endways position, so that he could see the different handwritings, selecting one here and one there until he had abstracted some couple of dozen from the long rows. With these he retired to an easy chair, and after receiving my permission, commenced to open and read them. While thus engaged, a servant entered the room and was calmly bidden to burn the rest, which he did, with all the method which had evidently come from long usage. I could not conceal that I was shocked, so when the servant had retired, the Colonel said, 'I am afraid you think it rather hard lines for the writers.' I admitted that I did, and added by way of apology for apparent meddling, 'I was also thinking that perhaps there are cheques in some of the envelopes thus destroyed unopened.' 'Oh dear no,' was the answer, 'they don’t send me any cheques, they want them, by Jove.' 'No,' he continued, 'at this time of year I am pestered out of my life with begging letters from all sorts of people I never heard of, containing the most harrowing narratives of the writer’s sufferings, some of them I am afraid quite true, poor devils. When I was a young man and first came into my property, I went into every application seriously, with the result that I could not sleep at night, and my life became an intolerable burden to me. The frightful amount of suffering in the world from poverty appals one, and everybody, no matter what may be the extent of his means, finds out sooner or later that he is powerless to apply any practical remedy. Like a good many more I struggled on with attempts to grapple with the problem, until I was fairly beaten and had to give it up.' 'And now, I suppose,' said I tentatively, 'you only subscribe to regularly organised charities instead of sifting the various appeals yourself?' 'Not I, by Jove. The plaguy secretaries bag it if you do.' Then, after a pause, he went on, 'I made a resolution many years ago, that I would scarcely give any money away, but that I would employ as many people as my means would enable me to do in every direction I could discover. And the time I used to spend in thinking how I could directly help the poor devils who confided their woes to me, I now direct to scheming new openings for people to work; and so indirectly helping many more. You would be surprised if you knew how many hands are busy now nominally for me, but as I hope to be saved, really for themselves and those in the same walk of life. I am reclaiming land from the sea, for instance. Then I keep all my people going on my different estates. I am building houses, and one of these days I mean to make a railway.9

Tomline purchased the Orwell Park House and estate around 1848 or 185010 from Sir Robert Harland. Within a short time he had the original mansion partly demolished and replaced with the beautiful red brick building we see today. The architect was a Mr Burn and Tomline chose an Italianate design, the grandest of three plans submitted by him11. The old mansion’s facade was reversed with the new entrance facing north. Tomline had one of the finest art collections in England, including works by Holbein and Murillo. He also built up one of the finest libraries of the day, with many first and rare editions. Orwell Park mansion became something of a treasure store. Over the years much other work was carried out around the building, including the observatory tower and eastern extension, upon which work started at the turn of the 1860/70s. Nacton village was extensively remodelled – houses close to the mansion were knocked down and local stories have it that houses along the main road through the village were remodelled so that front doors opening onto the road were replaced by side entrances in order that Tomline would not be stared at when he drove by12.

Tomline purchased huge tracts of local land and his acquisitions are explained in detail in the following extract from the Ipswich Journal:

The Orwell Park estate comprises 18,479 acres, not one single part of which was inherited by the late owner. It was all accumulated by purchase, and the result of his continuous acquisition was that he became the owner, with the exception of a few small holdings, of nearly all the Colneis Hundred13, having a frontage to the sea of about six miles, and there are few properties in England which combine so many attractions and advantages. The Colonel’s Suffolk possessions also include a pretty little estate at Bacton and Old Newton, the home of his ancestors. Col. Tomline obtained his extensive proprietary interest in the soil of Felixstowe and the neighbourhood by purchasing in 1867 three thousand acres of copyhold land, one thousand acres of shore and saltings, quit rents, rights of common, and 2,400 acres of unenclosed lands, &c., with six farms, cottages, Walton Ferry Inn, and woods, known as the Trimley estate, the property of his Grace the Duke of Hamilton. This was bought privately from Messrs. Fairbrother, Clark and Co., who had successfully offered the estate to public competition at Tokenhouse Yard on July 23rd 1887. Before this (in 1862) he had purchased the Old Hall Farm, at Felixstowe, now in the occupation of Messrs. Hyem, then the property of the representatives of Capt. Montague R.N., deceased, and about 210 acres in extent. Earlier still (in 1856) he had bought the Peewit Farm of Mr. Abraham Abbott, of Walton (father of Mrs. Shuckforth Downing, whose husband was himself Colonel Tomline’s confidential agent from 1872 to 1876) for £6,500. This was 152 acres in extent. Another purchase, even earlier, was the Wadgate Farm, at Felixstowe, 434 acres, bought from Mr. John Jakes Steele; and further acquisitions were the East End Farm (now, as regards the farmhouse, the head-quarters of the Felixstowe Golf Club), almost 500 acres; and Mr. William Fulcher’s estate, the Grange Farm, of 365 acres. Indeed, every farm in the Colneis Hundred which came into the market, and was added to the already large land possession of Colonel Tomline. He did not stand for price when he had made up his mind to have an estate, as proved by his purchase at public auction (through Mr. Shuckforth Downing, then his agent) on the 14th July, 1874, of the Cottage Farm at Walton – commonage – for £8,350. Whilst Mr. Downing was his agent Col. Tomline bought through him no less that £156,000 worth of property in Walton, Felixstowe and Harwich, besides constructing the railway to Felixstowe at a cost of over £140,000. The Riby Grove estate in Lincolnshire, comprising, 8,439 acres, with a rental of £11,534.2s., were entailed upon the Colonel and his brother William. He acquired his brother’s interest in the property by purchase about the year 1875. In addition to the Riby estate, Colonel Tomline owned, amongst other property at Grimsby, a large piece of valuable land extending from Riby Square to Humber Street14.

The following passage gives one an insight into the level of Tomline’s personal wealth:

Colonel Tomline was at one time said to have been the largest fundholder in England, and it was understood, by those who transacted business for him, that a certain portion of his income was always set apart for the addition of field to field and house to house, and that from this source he had ample means to meet all expenses. One story is told, upon pretty good authority, which affords some idea of his vast pecuniary resources, as well as a glimpse of family history. The Riby Grove estates in Lincolnshire, comprising 8,439 acres, with a rental of £11,534. 2s., were entailed upon the Colonel and his brother William. At the dinner table one night, about the year 1875, when William Tomline was staying at Orwell Park, there was something of a quarrel between the two, the upshot of which was that the Colonel purchased his brother’s interest in the property there and then. 'I want so much money,' he said directly afterwards to his business agent, 'go and mortgage the whole of my estates.' When the Colonel said 'go', those who knew him went. The estates were mortgaged accordingly, and the money raised. When the amount for the first six months’ interest was presented, however, the Colonel was so enraged at the amount that he communicated instantly with his brokers, obtained the ready cash, and paid off the mortgage at once15.

Undoubtedly, a number of members of OASI reside on land formerly owned by Tomline. I am most grateful to Dr Roy Tremlett for supplying me with an extract from the title deeds of his home in Bell Lane, Kesgrave, The extract shows that the freehold of Roy's land passed upon the Colonel's death to Ernest George Pretyman and to his eldest sons successively16.

An enduring monument to Tomline is the Port of Felixstowe, the town and rail connection. Built and worked by his own Felixstowe Railway and Pier company of 1875, the branch line from the Eastern Union Railway at Westerfield was opened in May 1877, with stations at Derby Road, Orwell, Trimley, Beach and Pier. By 1879 the Gt Eastern Railway assumed the running of the line and by 1887, confident in the growth of the port and town, had purchased the whole undertaking from Tomline’s company17. (The old Orwell Station still stands and is privately owned; however, one can’t help feeling that its occupants must enjoy getting shaken senseless every time a modern freight train rattles through!!) Eventually renamed the Felixstowe Dock & Railway Company, in 1884 Tomline’s firm was authorised by parliament to construct a dock basin at Felixstowe. The rest, as they say, is history...

A fundamental belief of Tomline’s was that it was his duty as a gentleman to employ his money in every direction in which human activity demanded recognition and the co-operation of men of wealth18. A life long fascination with the stars naturally led to the building of one of the country’s finest private observatories at Orwell Park. A clue to the depth of his scientific and engineering knowledge comes in this next quote from a personal friend, ‘With astronomers I have heard him apparently holding his own, and the same with chemists. Once with a well known ironworker, who was a foreman at a large Government establishment, so much learned talk about hardening and tempering, and case-hardening and annealing took place that I asked the man afterwards whether our acquaintance’s knowledge of steel and metals in general was as profound as it seemed to an outsider to be. The answer was, 'If the Colonel had worked iron and steel all his life he could not know more about those metals than he does.'19

Tomline Commissions An Observatory At Orwell Park

In the late 1860s Tomline resolved to expand the accommodation for his many guests at Orwell Park by the provision of self contained 'state' apartments and the addition of a fashionable Turkish Bath suite. He also aimed to add a Muniment room for his papers and other valuables and last - but by no means least - his own astronomical observatory. He stipulated that these refinements should be incorporated within the mansion and that the observatory should be part of the house too. It goes without saying, perhaps, that the convention for private observatories on country estates was to site them on high ground away from the main house.

Satisfied with the earlier alterations to the mansion carried out by the eminent architect William Burn, Tomline engaged his firm for the new project. However, Burn had passed away so his partner and successor, John MacVicar Anderson, took personal charge. The observatory would very obviously pose significant engineering problems and local engineer, Wilfrid Airy, was engaged to design the telescope and its equipment. Whilst there is not (yet) any documentary proof of an association between Tomline and the Airy family, it is certainly a plausible notion that they were closely acquainted and that Tomline was calling upon the experience of the Astronomer Royal through the latter's son.

John MacVicar Anderson FRIBA (1835 - 1915)

A Glaswegian by birth, MacVicar Anderson was a nephew of W Burn. Following a local education and upon graduating from Glasgow University, he went to work in his uncle's prestigious London architectural practice. In the course of his career25 he designed a number of mansions in England, Scotland and Ireland including: Althorp (Hants), Brampton & Blankney Hall (Lincs), Cheswardine Hall (Shrops), Iden Manor and Wilderness (Kent), Powercourt (Ireland).

MacVicar Anderson was responsible for some impressive commercial buildings, too, including a number of banks in the City of London and Coutts Bank (the Royal Family's bank) in the Strand26. His other works included the Carlton Club (amongst a number of private London clubs), many private homes of the rich and the Royal Scottish Hospital and Royal Caledonian Asylum. He served as Secretary to the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1881 to 1889 and President from 1891 to 1894. His very successful career brought wealth and fame and he lived in one of London's most exclusive areas - Stratton Street, Mayfair.

Wilfrid Airy (1836 - 1925)

Wilfrid was the fourth of nine children born to Sir G B Airy (7th Astronomer Royal) and his wife Richarda27. The first three children died in childhood and Wilfrid became the eldest surviving child. Just how big a role the science of astronomy played in Wilfrid's early life is not clear, but he was born at the Royal Observatory just a year after his father had taken office there and he cannot but have been influenced by his surroundings. Indeed, some of Wilfrid's experience of the minutiae of the workings of the Royal Observatory family helped to shape his ideas for Orwell Park - as we shall see later.

Wilfrid must have helped and accompanied his father on the many official trips abroad that he made. For instance, Wilfrid was a member - along with his parents and one of his sisters - of Warren De La Rue's 1860 British Himalaya Expedition to Spain (expedition named after the ship they chartered) to observe a total solar eclipse28. However, Wilfrid moved away from a purely scientific career path and qualified as an engineer.

It could be said that Wilfrid's father brought about his meeting with his future bride. Airy senior maintained excellent links with the scientific establishment on mainland Europe and he and Richarda were particular friends of Professor Listing at the Gottingen Observatory. Wilfrid married Professor Listing's younger daughter, Anna, in 1881.

Sadly, the marriage was cut short just a year later when Anna died giving birth to a daughter also named Anna. Wilfrid was left to bring up Anna alone and settled at the family home in Playford. He died there in 1925 and left the house to her. Anna became a renowned artist and lived at Playford until her death in 1964. The older residents there still remember Anna for her quirky ways and her indomitable spirit.

John Isaac Plummer MA FRAS (1845 -1925)

Most likely because of his many commitments and not least because of a lack of confidence in his own observational abilities, Tomline employed a professional astronomer, John Isaac Plummer FRAS, to operate the observatory. The astronomer was to run the observatory as a research establishment and also to be on hand for lighter occasions, such as showing favoured guests the rings of Saturn and so forth. A home was also provided close to the mansion for Plummer and his family20. It is not to say that Tomline did not make his own observations but – thus far – I am unaware of any records of observations made by him.

Plummer was a protege of that colourful Victorian astronomer, Revd Dr Temple Chevallier, and was one of a small band of assistants at the Durham University Observatory picked out by Chevallier in a ground breaking move to be trained for the professional running and management of astronomical observatories21. Click here for details of Plummer's life, his observational work and his many contributions to the monthly notices of the RAS.

However, I cannot resist quoting the dialogue concerning the lecture at Harwich, chaired by Tomline, at which Plummer was invited to speak upon the recent transit of Venus. The chemistry and friendship between patron and employee and Tomline's singular wit is self evident:

Some years ago, the Colonel was announced to take the chair at a lecture in Harwich, on 'The Transit of Venus.' As I happened to be staying with my family in Dovercourt, I thought I would attend. I met Colonel Tomline at the station in a great fume because in changing carriages at Manningtree, he had lost his friend who was to deliver the address. 'Oh yes,' he said, 'astronomer-like, you know, I expect he was watching the stars instead of looking at the train when it started. It’s devilish awkward, isn’t it?' I suggested that the lecturer would probably charter a special train by wiring to Ipswich. 'If he doesn’t', I said 'what will you do?' 'Oh, I shall have to get some Harwich Venus to give us an address on the transit of an astronomer,' was the ready reply. Somehow or other, I remember the missing gentlemen ultimately did put in an appearance, and a very excellent lecture he gave us, but, in discussing it over a glass of wine afterwards, the Chairman thought the language had been a little high-flown for an audience of boatmen. 'Did you notice what he was saying when I gave you a look?' he asked. 'No,' said I. 'Why, "any of those among my audience who happen to be skilled in the art of natation." There’s a sentence for you, instead of saying, "any d-d fellow here who can swim!"'22

Colonel Tomline's Death

With the exception of his last eight months, all the evidence points towards Tomline having enjoyed an almost rude state of health throughout his 77 year life span. The beginning of the end came just before Christmas 1888 at Orwell Park when, on 21st December he suffered what I think may have been a stroke. Obituaries describe the nature of his illness as having been struck down by a paralysis – having changed features and never quite the same man again. After weeks of care under a local doctor he was able to take carriage exercise and enjoyed trips to Rushmere Heath to watch the Suffolk Hussars on training exercises. Despite a number of minor relapses, by May he was able to travel to his London home where his health seemed to rally for a short while. On Sunday 18 August he took a turn for the worse and gradually faded away in the week following, suffering a paralysis of speech. He died in his sleep on Sunday afternoon 25 August 1889.

Considered eccentric in life, Tomline's funeral was considered - for his time - somewhat oddball: he was cremated at Woking. There was a certain level of consternation within the Pretyman family regarding Tomline’s will and they even speculated that he had left his estate to the Astronomer Royal!23 However, as mentioned earlier, the estate remained within the family. Regrettably, Tomline's heir had no interest in astronomy and within a year of Tomline’s death Plummer had left the observatory and that part of Orwell Park Mansion fell into disuse.

To close on Tomline's life, here is an extract to illustrate his love of the stars and, perhaps, his thoughts on man’s place in the grand scheme of things:

I particularly remember one glorious summer evening as we stood together on the terrace at Orwell Park just before retiring for the night, my companion [Col Tomline] suddenly changing the subject of conversation, and most impressively pointing up at the stars, saying, 'How can a man, looking at that sight, be such a fool as to doubt the existence of an all wise and superinding being?'24.

A shadow print of Colonel Tomline. 
Tomline.jpg (41379 bytes) The only known photograph of Colonel Tomline. We are grateful to Keith Lancaster for alerting OASI to the existence of this photo and to Peter Chapman for providing it.
1_Carlton_Hse_Ter.jpg (330014 bytes) Colonel Tomline's London residence at 1 Carlton House terrace (off the Mall). Photo by James Appleton, 10 July 2006.
Tomline_Death_Cert.gif (1805550 bytes) Copy of Colonel Tomline's death certificate.
John MacVicar Anderson (1835-1915). Architect of the East Wing of Orwell Park Mansion and of Orwell Park Observatory. Royal Institute of British Architects Presidential Portrait painted by Charles W Furse RA in 1893. Reproduced by kind permission of the RIBA.
Wilfrid Airy (1836-1925), son of George Biddell Airy, 7th Astronomer Royal. Design Engineer of Orwell Park Observatory. Photograph by kind permission of the Airy family.
Anna Airy (1882-1964), daughter of Wilfrid Airy. Photograph by kind permission of Mr B Seward.

Design Considerations For The Orwell Park Observatory

On 02 October 1874, Engineering published an account by Wilfrid Airy of the engineering aspects of Orwell Park Observatory. Just a few weeks later, on 16 November 1874, John MacVicar Anderson and Wilfrid Airy read a paper before the Royal Institute of British Architects on design of the Orwell Park Observatory, a successful co-operation between architect and engineer. The following extracts from the above documents illuminate the requirements of the design.

MacVicar Anderson began with these words:

To design an Observatory cannot fail to be, I should think, under any circumstances, a work of considerable interest, calling for the exercise of great care and no small amount of ingenuity; but when, as was the case at Orwell Park, the Observatory had to be connected with an existing edifice, so connected as to admit of faculty of access, and to combine with the somewhat complicated domestic arrangements of a country mansion, and yet so isolated, as to secure complete privacy and perfect quiet to the astronomical observer, the difficulties, I apprehend, are intensified to no small extent. The Observatory, of which I am now about to give some account, formed only a portion of other works which I was called upon to design at the same time in connection with the house at Orwell Park.

He went on to say:

The original house consisted of a square block, to which had, at various times, been added the several adjuncts you see on the large plan, such as the picture gallery, billiard room, and conservatory to the west, and an entirely new wing to the east, embracing the whole of the domestic offices, &c. In connection with these additions the main block of the mansion had, so far as the south front is concerned, been refaced, and made to assume the architectural garb it now possesses. These operations had, at different periods, been carried out by the late Mr Burn. Such was the subject for treatment. The requirements of the proprietor were, one or two suites of first class bedrooms, in which the house was deemed to be deficient, forming state apartments, a Turkish bath, and, though last not least, an Observatory, with other minor and subsidiary wants not necessary to specify. The main building, comprising the principal apartments, was complete in itself, and answered every purpose required of it. The east wing, comprising the domestic offices, was excellently arranged in point of comfort and convenience, and of a substantial character. It was clear, therefore, that neither one nor the other could be materially altered without disturbing arrangements which were good, and incurring a large and unnecessary outlay. Accordingly I resolved to adopt an arrangement which possessed the merit of retaining the whole of the existing buildings intact, with some unimportant exceptions - while it extended to more than double its then length the principal architectural front of the building, and obviated the inconvenience of the servants' offices overlooking the private grounds. This was done by building up the whole of the windows of the offices which looked to the south, and (by the sacrifice of one or two servants' bedrooms only, which were obtained elsewhere) lighting and thoroughly ventilating from the roof the offices which had previously looked to the south, an operation which proved perfectly successful and satisfactory. This simple expedient solved all difficulty, for the whole space to the south of the east wing was thus made available for the erection of an entirely new wing, comprising the additional accommodation that was required, shutting out from view the ugly and unfinished appearance of the old east wing, and completing the architectural facade of the building to the south. This new wing consisted of a handsome suite of apartments on each floor, so arranged that the rooms might be used together or separately, as occasion required, accessible on both floors by means of a corridor 176 feet in length; in connection with which was provided a new principal staircase, a feature of which the house was in want. At the extreme easterly end of this new wing I placed the Observatory, thereby providing a handsome and convenient access from either floor, by means of the corridors already mentioned, and at the same lime securing that complete isolation that the peculiar circumstances of the case called for. The rooms on the principal floor were arranged so that they might be used as a complete suite of family apartments, the proprietor's business room being at the east end of the suite, in close proximity to which - but properly shut off - were the Turkish bath chambers, and in immediate communication with which was the observatory above, by means of a private staircase.

Wilfrid Airy comments:

The first consideration is the situation of the Observatory. The most favourable position is on the top of a low hill or rise of ground, so as to command the horizon all round without the necessity of raising the Observatory. For ordinary observations a clear view of the horizon is not extremely important, as the observations are much affected by refraction, but for extraordinary observations, for example, for the observation of a comet when near the sun, it is of great importance; and it must be borne in mind that the chief use as well as enjoyment of a private observatory consists in the careful examination of extraordinary objects. Again, if the observatory be near a river, an elevation of 100 ft, or 150 ft is often necessary in order to keep above the river fogs; these fogs commonly occur on cold nights in the winter when the sky is beautifully clear, and unless the observatory were above the fog the night would be lost. The writer has frequently seen a dense fog extending as high as 100 ft above the Thames at Greenwich, while at the Royal Observatory, 150ft above the river, the air was perfectly clear and the stars brilliant. In the case of the Orwell Park Observatory it was desired that the Observatory should be attached to the mansion (which itself stands on a lofty bank overlooking the river Orwell), and since of necessity the Observatory had to be raised so as to clear the house and surrounding trees, the conditions as to elevation were amply secured. But, as might be expected, much expense and difficulty in construction, were caused by the great height of the Observatory, which will be referred to immediately. As a subsidiary matter of some importance, it may be mentioned that it requires some skill to secure a good architectural effect in an observatory attached to a mansion in the manner referred to; in the present instance, however, this matter received the most skilful attention from the architect.

Evidence straight away, then, of the usefulness of Wilfrid's experiences at Greenwich.

MacVicar Anderson:

At Orwell Park the Observatory, although standing on high ground, had necessarily to be of considerable height, in order to surmount the adjacent buildings and lofty trees in the vicinity. It was stipulated by Mr Airy that the floor of the equatorial room should be 6 feet below the top of the highest chimney in the mansion adjoining, a stipulation which involved a height of 53 feet from the ground level, and of 72 feet to the top of the dome, the total height from the bed of the foundations to the top of the dome being 86 feet. In selecting the site of an observatory, it is important that the situation should be dry and free from moisture, and it is to be further noted that when it is in the vicinity of a river, the observatory should be placed at such an elevation as to be above the reach of fogs, for such may prevail when the sky above is clear and well adapted for astronomical observations.

Wilfrid Airy:

For the proper support of an astronomical instrument it is essential that the column or columns should be carried up from the ground without contact of any sort from the walls, floors, or other parts of the building. If this were not carefully attended to, such is the delicacy of the instrument that the effect of a person walking about any parts of the building adjacent would be rendered immediately perceptible at the instrument by a tremor very annoying to an observer.

Historical Footnote On Wilfrid Airy

The Airy family has kindly donated Wilfrid Airy's scrapbook of papers & articles for safe keeping in the OASI library. Click here for a catalogue of the contents of the scrapbook.

Request For More Information

Can you provide any new information on the founding and early years of Orwell Park Observatory? Click here for a description of the type of information that we would like to obtain and how to contact us.


  1. Lincolnshire Chronicle, 30 August 1889.

  2. Notes from a 'friend who knew the Colonel well', East Anglian Daily Times, 1889.

  3. Orwell Park, by Gillian Bence-Jones, 1995.

  4. The Pretyman family in Suffolk can be traced back to 1200, owning land in Old Newton and Bacton.

  5. The Sudbury seat was acrimoniously contested in the general election of 1841 and became a benchmark for political shady dealing - bordering on corruption. Tomline owned a large estate just outside Shrewsbury (inherited from his mother) and that gave him sufficient local standing to be Disraeli's co-candidate at that vital seat (larger constituencies had more than one member in the mid 1840s).

  6. Jewish people were not then eligible to stand for Parliament but Disraeli was allowed to do so as his father had converted to Christianity.

  7. Reflections from a close friend, East Anglian Daily Times, 1889.

  8. Death of Colonel Tomline, East Anglian Daily Times, 1889.

  9. Personal Reminiscences of Colonel Tomline, Lincolnshire Chronicle, 30 August 1889

  10. 1848 according to the Ipswich Journal, 30 August 1889. 1850 according to Orwell Park, by Gillian Bence-Jones, 1995.

  11. Orwell Park, by Gillian Bence-Jones, 1995.

  12. Victorian class values prevailed here. It would seem that the Colonel did not wish to be overlooked by his tenants, reputedly saying: No gentleman's house should be overlooked by another's dwelling.

  13. The Felixstowe/Nacton Peninsular, bounded (approximately) between Ipswich and Woodbridge by the Woodbridge Road to the North - the Orwell to the Deben.

  14. Ipswich Journal, 30 August 1889.

  15. Personal Reminiscences of Colonel Tomline, Lincolnshire Chronicle, 30 August 1889

  16. The extract also finally clarifies to whom Tomline willed his extensive properties.

  17. A Regional History of the Railways of Gt Britain, vol 5, The Eastern Counties, by D I Gordon, 1968.

  18. Personal reminiscences by one who knew him well, East Anglian Daily Times, 1889.

  19. Ditto. Although I have not - yet - come across documentary proof of this, I strongly suspect that this conversation took place between a member of the family of Ransomes of Ipswich or Charles May and Sir G B Airy (7th Astronomer Royal). Around the period in question, Ransomes built a number of instruments on Admiralty contracts for the re-equipping of the Royal Greenwich Observatory to designs by Airy.

  20. The house, formerly known as Astronomer's House but latterly named Orwell Dene, stands at the top of the drive at the junction with the Levington Road.

  21. Six individuals were eventually trained thus. Source: Dr Allan Chapman, The Victorian Amateur Astronomer, Independent Astronomical Research in Britain, 1820 - 1920, Wiley Praxis, 1998.

  22. Personal reminiscences.

  23. Orwell Park, by Gillian Bence-Jones, 1995.

  24. Personal reminiscences. (One wonders what the good Colonel would make of that same view at the beginning of the 21st Century with the added nuisance of light pollution, much of which - by a supreme irony - comes from his own creation of Felixstowe Docks!)

  25. Obituary in The Builder, 18 June 1915.

  26. In the early 1990s most of Coutts Bank was demolished during remodelling of the Charing Cross area. However, MacVicar Anderson's stylish facade was retained and now fronts an entirely new commercial complex.

  27. Richarda also suffered a number of miscarriages.

  28. The First Photographic Eclipse?, by P D Hingley, in Astronomy & Geophysics, February 2001, pp 1.18 - 1.22. This expedition is thought to be the first to successfully photograph the phenomenon and which, according to Hingley is 'suggested to have led the first definite scientific result to be found from astrophotography' - it settled the question of what caused the so-called 'Bailey's Beads'.


J Appleton
Original: Newsletters December 2000, February and May 2001
Updated 25 July 2006