Lockyer’s legacy: the observatory on the hill

Norman Lockyer Observatory. Stars and Comet Neowise.

The Milky Way rising above Norman Lockyer Observatory in Sidmouth - Credit: Alex Walton

When it comes to space, the distances involved are frankly mind-blowing. Earth’s nearest neighbour, the Moon, for example, is 238,855 miles away. 

Although the distance between the Earth and Mars varies, the average distance is just under 140 million miles which means light itself takes around three minutes to reach us from the Red Planet. Light from the Sun, meanwhile, takes around eight minutes to reach the Earth.

And all this is just within our own solar system. The sun is just one star in the galaxy of the Milky Way. The Milky Way itself has ten times as many stars in than there are grains of sand on the entire planet Earth. And the entire universe is thought to contain between 200 billion to two trillion galaxies!

The numbers are so large as to be completely ridiculous. In some ways, it’s better not to think about it.

Norman Lockyer.

Norman Lockyer - Credit: Norman Lockyer Observatory


Much closer to home is the Norman Lockyer Observatory which is located one mile to the east of Sidmouth. This is good news for anyone eagerly awaiting the start of the ‘history’ part of this column.

The observatory was established by Sir Norman Lockyer and Sir Francis McClean in 1912. Born in Rugby in Warwickshire in 1836, Lockyer had already enjoyed a life of high achievement and was effectively retiring when he moved to Sidmouth as much to his upset, the Solar Physics Laboratory in South Kensington which he had founded had moved to Cambridge. The new observatory was originally called Hill Observatory. It is positioned to overlook Sidmouth and the house now the Brownlands Hotel where Sir Norman and his wife, Lady Mary Lockyer spent their retirement. The observatory was renamed Norman Lockyer Observatory after Lockyer’s death in 1920. He died in Salcombe Regis and is buried there in the churchyard of St Peter and St Mary.

Amongst other things, during his life, Lockyer had founded and edited the long-running science journal, Nature in 1869, the first magazine of its kind to be launched in Britain. It continues to this day. Lockyer was particularly interested in solar eclipses and several times embarked upon expeditions around the world to observe them. He was also a pioneer of archeoastronomy, the study of the role astronomy played in the history of ancient cultures: in the construction of temples, for example.

Lockyer married twice. He had six sons and two daughters with his first wife Winifred before her death in 1879. In 1903, he married Mary Thomasina Browne (1852-1943). She had herself been married before to a much older surgeon, Bernard Brodhurst who had died in 1900. Although always constrained by the many restrictions placed on women by the society of that era, the new Lady Lockyer was a leading suffragette and by all accounts an impressive and independent figure who was determined to play her part. She became honorary assistant treasurer to the British Science Guild which her husband formed in 1905 and in the same year volunteered to take part in a solar eclipse viewing expedition to Mallorca.

Following her husband’s death in 1920, she was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1923. Women had only been allowed to be elected to this body at all since 1917. She remained a key figure in the life of the Observatory until shortly before her own death in 1943. Between 1948 and 1984, the faculty was operated by the University of Exeter. In 1984, East Devon District Council became the owner/trustee of the observatory and leased it to the Norman Lockyer Observatory from 1995.

According to Wikipedia, in 1996, a sixty-seat planetarium was added and a 100-seat convention centre for lectures and academic conference was added in 2005. The Connaught Dome was opened in 2012 with Queen guitarist, Brian May, as the guest of honour invited to carry out the official duty of opening the facility. Today, the observatory contains an impressive collection of up-to-date state of the art observatory technology as well as many examples of fine historic telescopes.

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