We Never Closed
Bet you got all excited there, thinking I was going to talk about Greenwich’s own version of the Windmill Theatre. And, if indeed there was a saucy girlie show going on in Greenwich during the Blitz, I want to hear about it, okay? But actually this statement is probably the one thing that Greenwich Royal Observatory has in common with the notorious Soho establishment run by Judi Dench during the war. They neither of them ever closed.
Of course, the Luftwaffe did their darnedest to put the mockers on the observations – not least lighting up the skies with their pesky bombs and annoying smoke, making the readings difficult. And that’s even before we get to the direct hits.
Stephen from Blitzwalkers (who are pretty busy just now as you can probably imagine) sent me the picture above. It’s from an out-of-print book called “Red Alert” by Lewis Blake which is a history of Southeast London during the war. I think I need to get hold of a copy. I have no idea who actually owns the photo, so apologise in advance for using it without permission – if whoever owns it objects, just tell me and I’ll remove it. Scared of Chives has just pointed out to me there is actually a man in this picture. I won’t tell you where, just so you can have fun finding him…
It shows the Altizimuth Building after damage by a raid, and, according to Stephen, “ although it’s captioned 8th December 1940, this is probably when the photo was taken rather than when the damage was caused. There is nothing in the Incident Log for that date affecting Greenwich Park, so the most likely option is 16th October 1940 when the Royal Observatory was struck by a HE Bomb. This wasn’t the same day as the General Wolfe (sorry, The Greenwich Phantom) Statue was pock marked by shrapnel – this was on 25th October 1940 when a HE Bomb exploded 150 yards to the east of the Royal Observatory.”
But back to the never-closing bit. The Astronomer Royal, full of the Blitz Spirit, described the damage as “though considerable, not serious.” He was definitely employing his stiff upper lip here. The Flamsteed Building wasn’t habitable and the buildings were – well, you only need to look at the photo above to see they weren’t particularly useful (though, as every good pub-quizzer knows, the giant onion dome was made of papier mache, which meant that it wasn’t going to put up much of a fight to incendiaries…)
Happily, the really important instruments had been removed for safety, but after being heavily bombed, it seemed like a good time for most of the work to be transferred to Abinger in Surrey and Edinburgh. The Astronomer Royal moved out to Abinger too.
But that wasn’t the end of observations at Greenwich. Hurrah for the Solar Department, who can proudly say ‘We never closed.” These plucky fellows photographed the sun every day it was out, even if they had to dash out from the air raid shelter to the telescope and back during a daylight raid. There is also no interruption in the meteorological observation record.
Actually, there was only one more hit near the buildings, by a flying bomb in 1944, but the sturdy chaps holding their post at the observatory weren’t to know this. As far as they were concerned, they were sitting ducks, armed only with flasks of tea, gas masks and their trusty telescopes. And today, I doff my tricorn to them.
BTW, People often say that the move to Herstmonceux was instigated by WWII. That’s not true. They’d already decided to move, just before the war began, the main reasons being the smoke, smog, light pollution, grime and vibrations that were making Greenwich less than ideal for delicate instruments. The war merely hastened the decision to move. After all, when you’re planning to move anyway, there’s not much point in repairing the badly-bombed observatory you’re leaving. The poor old Observatory at Greenwich took years to be properly fixed. Looks great now, though…
BTBTW The Altazimuth Building will be open on Open House Day the weekend after next. Call the booking line on 020 8312 6608
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