John Flamsteed was by all accounts A Grumpy Old Sod. Britain’s first Astronomer Royal might have been a mathematical genius, but stuck away in the Royal Observatory more or less on his own for years on end, being constantly freezing cold, having to stay up all night, being paid bugger-all and having to buy his equipment out of his own money made him generally hard work to be with.
On the other hand it did make him thrifty. And not only that, he was genuinely curious about the night sky and the wonders of the universe. He was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to find out more about the world – and because virtually everything to do with scientific instrumentation was still being invented, he was quite happy to look at everything around him with an improvisatory eye.
The Observatory had been built out of all kinds of bits and bobs – anything that Sir Christopher Wren could lay his hands on – from rubble purloined from the demolition of part of the Tower of London to whatever was left of poor old Duke Humphrey’s Tower (which is pretty much why it’s where it is – building on top of the old stronghold, one of Greenwich’s earliest brownfield sites, meant that there was less lugging heavy dressed stone around…)
Flamsteed realised that the longer he could get a telescope the better he’d be able to see the heavens, but then, as now, money for research was tight. He was very impressed with his mate Robert Hooke’s ingenious way of funding a telescope in the centre of London, by sneaking it into his design for The Monument in the early 1670s – the spiral staircase that winds around the outside meant that they could fit a giant telescope down the middle.
I find it hard to believe that Flamsteed actually went to the expense of digging a 100ft hole round the back of the Observatory for his own version in 1676 – but it would make perfect sense if he used Duke Humphrey’s old well for the job. Flamsteed installed 150 spiral steps all the way down, and put a dear little cupola top on it. He then put his telescope down it, the idea being he would lie on a mattress and peer through the pipe.
Sadly it was never much cop. I’m slowly beginning to understand why Flamsteed was such a miserable git. The telescope was really rather wobbly and even if it could be fixed it could only look at a tiny part of the sky. What’s worse was that lenses were pretty crude in those days too. It was abandoned almost immediately for other designs which presumably worked somewhat better.
The picture here is all that’s left of the well – for years it was covered completely – when A D Webster wrote about it in 1902 there was merely a pole marking its position.
A few years ago there was a small archaeological dig to uncover the well – but they didn’t get very far down through the rubble and detritus that had been used to fill it up before, presumably, the cash ran out for that particular project too. It is possible to at least see the top these days, though I’m not sure if the brick surround is original. I would love to see it uncovered just to a few feet down to give us some idea of what it would have been like, but as it is, it’s filled in with gravel these days.