Reaching for the stars: The Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux

By Emma Johnson

Watching the stars is now often considered an enjoyable pastime, but in 1675 when King Charles II established the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, its aim was to help reduce shipwrecks. Sailors found it very difficult to navigate when far from land. By the 1770s, sailors were able to find their longitude at sea by observing the stars. A sailor could use the position of the moon, in relation to nearby stars, as a clock. A detailed set of times and locations were kept at Greenwich- hence ‘Greenwich time’. The observatory kept measuring time and compiling tables every year in order to help sailors navigate. But the astronomers also began to use the observatory to explore the stars themselves.

By the early 1900s and with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the air around Greenwich became heavily smoke filled, making it difficult for the astronomers to see the sky. In 1947, the observatory was transferred to Herstmonceux in East Sussex, where the skies were much clearer. It was completely installed by 1958.

Housed here at The Keep are a number of documents relating to the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux, including leaflets, pamphlets and an information sheet for visitors.Royal Observatory

A Sussex pamphlet written in November 1958 observes that the move to Herstmonceux even attracted interest from the Duke of Edinburgh, who visited the new site: ‘His Royal Highness saw the Solar Dome, where he observed sun spots and solar flares through one of the large telescopes.’

The information sheet provided for visitors to Herstmonceux informs us that the Tercentenary dial, is located 100 metres north of the north wall of Hertsmonceux castle. ‘The time marks are at 5 minute intervals on a circle of radius 1610mm. Thus on this circle the shadow of the gnomon moves 7mm a minute.’

In 1990 the Royal Observatory moved again to Cambridge and closed its doors in 1998. You can visit the Royal Observatory and Planetarium at Greenwich – click here for details. For a local visit, the Observatory Science Centre is based at Herstmonceux.

Science in the Archive: Doctors come to Brighton

19 February 2016

By Kate Elms

History and science are often seen as opposite disciplines, but the history of medicine – a fascinating subject in itself – brings the two together, documenting social change along with advances in science and technology. The history and growth of Brighton is closely tied to health and medicine, thanks to the enterprise and ideas of a group of 18th-century doctors who exploited the town’s coastal location, wealthy patrons and proximity to London to attract new visitors.

One of Dr Russell's case studies

One of Dr Russell’s case studies

The first of the medical men was Dr Richard Russell, who was born in Lewes and studied medicine at the University of Leyden. Qualifying in 1724, he set up a practice in his home town and developed an interest in diseases of the glands. Although Russell wasn’t the first to prescribe seawater cures, he was an extremely successful advocate of this type of treatment, corresponding with leading physicians of his day and, in 1750, writing his now-famous Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Diseases of the Glands. The first edition was written in Latin but an English translation appeared in 1752. A couple of years later, Russell built a house by the sea in Brighton, where he could supervise his patients’ treatments more closely.

Much has been written about the fact that Russell recommended not just bathing in sea water but also drinking large quantities of it, often up to a pint per day. He would also prescribe medication made from unusual combinations of ingredients – including tincture of woodlice, burnt cuttlefish bone and syrups of violet and rose – to treat a wide range of conditions.

Russell died in 1759 but there was no shortage of doctors looking to take advantage of Brighton’s growing reputation as a health resort. London-based doctor Anthony Relhan spent the summer season at his home in East Street and in 1761 wrote one of the town’s first guide books, A Short History of Brighthelmston, with Remarks on its Air and an Analysis of its Waters. As the title suggests, the book includes chapters on the town’s Air, Water, Well Water, Sea Water and Mineral Water, and Relhan emphasised the health benefits of Brighton’s chalky soil and refreshing sea breezes, along with its sea and spa waters. He also seems to have tried to back up his claims by comparing Brighton’s birth and death rates with London’s, concluding that the statistics ‘show [the town’s] healthiness in a still stronger light’.

An early image of Awsiter's Baths

An early image of Awsiter’s Baths


Another key figure at around this time was Dr John Awsiter, author of a publication entitled Thoughts on Brighthelmston. Concerning Sea Bathing and Drinking Sea-water with some Directions for their Use and proprietor of Brighton’s first indoor baths. Awsiter refers to the bathing traditions of the Romans, who would ‘use the temperate bath, hot bath and sometimes the sweating room, to open the obstructed pores, and breathe off the offending humours by sweat,’ adding that with the availability of indoor baths, ‘invalids would have the advantage of this bathing remedy all the year round’ His own establishment opened in 1769, featuring six cold baths, a hot bath, a showering bath and a sweating bath. Others followed Awsiter’s example, notably – in the early 19th century – Sake Deen Mahomed, who we have featured previously on this blog.

Awsiter, like Russell, advocated the drinking of sea water, but he recommended it be mixed with ‘an equal quantity of new milk’. This, in theory, was to prevent the nausea, sickness and extreme thirst that was caused by excessive consumption of salty water. To modern tastes, however, the idea could have come straight from the pages of Horrible Histories rather than from the annals of medical science!

The Keep’s archive includes lots of interesting material relating to Brighton’s history as a health resort, including works by Russell, Relhan and Awsiter, all of which make fascinating reading.

Science in the Archive: Algernon Sidney Bicknell

Here is our next science in the archive blog

By Emma Johnson

According to his obituary in the Sussex Express, Algernon Sidney Bicknell (1832-1911) who resided at Barcombe House, Lewes, had a wonderfully varied life. He served as a soldier during the Franco-Prussian war and travelled the world; he attempted to cross the Amazon and succeeded in climbing Mount Vesuvius ten times. The obituary notes that Algernon inherited two great passions Bicknell portrait ACC 8490.3from his parents; those of science and art. Indeed, it was believed that his father Elhanan, who was a great patron of art, was one of the first men to discover and encourage the great landscape artist, J.M.W. Turner. In his later years, Algernon turned his attention to science and astronomy. He was one of the oldest Fellows of the Royal Astronomical, Linnean and Geographical Societies.

Here at The Keep in the care of the East Sussex Record Office are some beautiful handwritten autobiographical notes of Algernon’s life. They also include local newspaper cuttings and publications written by Bicknell and his family members.

As well as astronomy, Algernon was also interested in fungilogical botany and issued a pamphlet on the value of certain fungi. Here is an extract from his ‘Notes on the edible fungi of Italy’:

‘I think there may yet be corners of the fungological domain where greater light may fall and one of these I hope to show. In every science there is a department strictly scientific, usually abstruse, and there is generally another in which all with average observant faculties may, as it were, stroll and render services. In fungology it has certainly always been so. For years the popular statements concerning fungi, with their terrors and their superstitions, were almost all we had to read, and as fungological studies assumed their proper botanical position through our better knowledge of structure and classification, fascinated by scientific discoveries, we somewhat neglected to rectify the popular beliefs of our forefathers; the wondrous stories of hecatombs of poisoned families still circulated, ill contradicted, in the autumn papers, and the credulous public still today believe that a couple of grammes of any toadstool for breakfast, will be followed by delirium, coma and death, which no injection of stramonium or of atropine can avert… It struck me then that it would not be wholly waste of time if I were to revise the hallowed statements concerning the sale and commercial value of fungi in Italy, and correct to modern date the antique and omnivorous assertions of the enthusiastic Badham. I propose to tell you what species are at present authorised by law to be sold in the public markets of the great cities of the peninsula; what species I have seen in them; and inasmuch as what has been said concerning these edible Italian fungi rests almost exclusively on the text of Vittadini…’

Notes on the edible fungi of Italy

Bicknell’s writing oozes enthusiasm- it is very clear that he was fascinated by fungological botany and that he was intent on refuting the misconceptions about fungi. We came across these wonderful books detailing Algernon Bicknell’s incredible life on the off chance. That is the beauty of archives; sometimes you find the most interesting things when you are not directly looking for them.

Science in the Archive: Magnus Volk

2 February 2016

By Kate Elms

Mention the words Brighton and Magnus Volk and, for most people, Volk’s electric railway and his extraordinary ‘Daddy Long Legs’ spring to mind. Volk’s other achievements – and there were many of them – are perhaps less well known. In a series of posts written to coincide with Brighton Science Festival, which runs from 2-28 February, we’re taking a closer look at how science is represented in our archives here at The Keep. This post focuses on how Magnus Volk’s endless curiosity and invention helped bring electric light to Brighton’s public buildings and spaces towards the end of the 19th century.

Portrait of Magnus Volk

Portrait of Magnus Volk

Brighton claims to have the longest continuous public electricity supply in the world. The first steps were taken in 1881, when Robert Hammond arrived in town. He demonstrated an arc lighting system that seems to have dazzled a group of observers, including members of Brighton Corporation. A brief experimental period followed, during which time local people – or those who could afford it – were able to try out the service, and in February 1882, Hammond set up his eponymous Electric Light Company.

Meanwhile, Magnus Volk was busily experimenting at his home and workshop in Brighton. First, he decided to build an organ. Then he set up a telephone connection linking his house with that of his friend William Jago; he also began to think about installing electric lighting. Volk’s endeavours may or may not have overlapped with Hammond’s, but he was certainly making progress at around the same time. In December 1881, for example, he demonstrated ‘Swan’s Incandescent Electric Lamps’ (alongside electric bells, clocks, fire alarms and a complete telephone exchange) at The Brighton Health Congress and Domestic & Scientific Exhibition, which was held at the Royal Pavilion.

What seems to have happened next is that Hammond’s initiative spurred Brighton Corporation into action and, in 1882, Volk was asked to use the new incandescent lamps to light parts of the Royal Pavilion during a promenade concert and display of electrical appliances. The operation was a success, and on 4 November 1882, the Brighton Gazette reported that, ‘The room…was brilliantly lit by means of the electric current …The light was dispensed from arc and incandescent lamps, there being three varieties of the latter…’

Report published in the Brighton Gazette, April 1883

Report published in the Brighton Gazette, April 1883

On 5 April the following year, the same newspaper reported that ‘the powers that be’ had engaged Volk to oversee the installation of electric lighting at the Pavilion, starting with an ‘experimental display’ in the Banqueting and Music Rooms. 216 lamps were required to light the Banqueting Room – 96 for the central chandelier and 30 for each of the side lights – and the effect was described as, ‘a light of great purity, strength and softness’. It was also considerably safer than gas lighting.

Electric lighting was adopted by Brighton and Hove Councils in 1890 and 1891 respectively, and during the 1890s, arc lighting was used to illuminate the seafront and other main arteries. When the Palace (Brighton) Pier was opened in 1899, it’s said that it was lit from end to end with more than 3,000 lightbulbs. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s difficult to imagine a town such as Brighton without its landmark buildings lit up at night, but in the late 19th century this new technology – and the skill and tenacity of men such as Magnus Volk – enabled people to see their home town quite literally in a new light.

Brighton's Palace Pier lit up at night in the 1920s

Brighton’s Palace Pier lit up at night in the 1920s

The Keep holds a range of archival and reference material relating to Magnus Volk, including family papers, biography, pamphlets and newspaper cuttings.

Look out for more science-inspired posts later in the month.