Radcliffe Observatory

The eighteenth-century Radcliffe Observatory is the central focus of the three-acre Green Templeton College site.

The Radcliffe Observatory and associated buildings were built following a request in 1768 by the then Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, Thomas Hornsby, after he had used his room in the Bodleian Tower to observe the transit of Venus across the sun’s disc in 1769. The transit was a notable event which helped to produce greatly improved measurements for nautical navigation.

The Observatory was built with funds from the trustees of Dr John Radcliffe (1652-1714), whose considerable estate had already financed a new quadrangle for his old college (University College, Oxford) as well as the Radcliffe Library (now the Radcliffe Camera, completed in 1749) and the Radcliffe Infirmary.

On its completion, the Observatory immediately became a centre of scientific knowledge internationally.

In addition to making astronomical observations, the Observatory site maintained meticulous meteorological records.

Starting in 1881 and for a long period before the First World War, the Observatory provided daily reports to the UK Meteorological Office for inclusion in their national weather report.

History of the Radcliffe Observatory

The Radcliffe Observatory building functioned as an observatory from 1773 until the previous owners (the Radcliffe Trustees) decided to sell it in 1934 and to erect a new observatory in Pretoria, South Africa, where the less polluted atmosphere would be suitable for the study of the southern hemisphere.

The purchaser of the Observatory was Lord Nuffield, who presented it to the hospital authorities and in 1936 established the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research there.

In 1979 the Institute moved to new premises in the grounds of the John Radcliffe Hospital, thus freeing the Observatory site for its new owner, Green College.

Origins and design of the Radcliffe Observatory

Building began in 1772 to plans by the architect Henry Keene, but only the Observer’s House is his design. Upon Keene’s death in 1776, the Observatory was completed to a different design by James Wyatt (1746-1813).

Wyatt based his design on a small Tower of the Winds in Athens, an illustration of which had appeared in Stuart & Revett’s Antiquities of Athens published in 1762.

Radcliffe Observatory Print 1850

The Radcliffe Observatory in 1850

Wyatt placed his Tower of the Winds above a semi-circular central building with its arc facing north. This central semi-circle provides space for an entrance hall at the foot of the stairwell and for two other side rooms, originally for the Observer and his assistant.

How the Radcliffe Observatory is used today 

Beneath the Tower itself are rooms at each of three levels: the ground floor is now the college dining room, the first floor, originally the library, is now used as the Common Room, and on the top floor is the magnificent octagonal observing room.

Now bereft of its instruments, the room nevertheless still contains some of the original furniture as well as a spiral staircase which leads to an upper gallery.

From this gallery the Observer had access to the roof (now closed off) where meteorological observations were carried out. Large windows lead from the observing room onto the balcony, making it possible to wheel observing instruments outdoors.