History of Astronomy at Hanwell

Astronomy at Hanwell, the history


There is documentary record from the time that ‘that ingenious virtuoso’ Sir Anthony Cope, 4th baronet, 1632-1675, had a collection of scientific instruments here at Hanwell in the 17th century, which would surely have included telescopes, that latest scientific novelty of the age. It is therefore highly likely that some astronomical observation was at least occasional on the Hanwell site in the time of Newton, Hooke, Cassini I, Hevelius and Huygens. Did Sir Anthony ever see the Rings of Saturn or the Galilean satellites of Jupiter?

Roll on some 300-odd years to the arrival here of Rowena & Christopher Taylor in the summer of 1984, with the veteran 12½-inch reflector which Christopher had been using at four previous sites successively since 1967. (This is the McIver Paton telescope, see entry under ‘Telescopes’ on this website.) At that point, Andrew Baxter, now HCO’s Project Engineer and also a long-time amateur astronomer, arrived on the scene in his professional capacity as structural surveyor to advise about some rather alarming-looking settlement cracks in the centuries-old buildings. The house, we are pleased to say, is still standing. Astonishingly, Andrew recognized the then-dismantled components of the 12½-inch as actually being those of an astronomical telescope – more than most visitors do even when faced with the instrument complete and assembled!

Although Halley’s Comet was faithfully followed with smaller, portable optics from Hanwell in 1985-86, it was not until June 1992 that time spared from the extensive work needed on the house and grounds in the early years, and acquisition of further land providing a suitable site, allowed re-erection of the 12½-inch. This event marks the beginning of the modern history of significant astronomy at Hanwell. It had finally been prompted by Christopher’s promise to provide some real stargazing for a visiting American undergraduate he had been teaching mathematics and astronomy in Oxford at the time. Almost from the beginning this itself had suggested thoughts of the possibility of doing something interesting for public and educational astronomy at the Hanwell site.

Meanwhile, Andrew had been back in touch in connection with his initiative to start a Banbury astronomical society*, under which flag he, Christopher and a few like-minded souls occasionally did some astronomy together.  In the mid-1990’s, he and Christopher had both, in their different ways, been toying with designs for large, permanently mounted telescopes feeding their images to eyepieces which remain stationary relative to the user as the instrument rotates to point in different directions, something especially relevant for a telescope intended for public use. Andrew even built an 8-inch aperture ‘Baxterscope’ prototype which worked rather well. These were the beginnings of the train of thought leading ultimately to the 30-inch reflector, now the flagship instrument of the Hanwell Observatory.

Then, in the early summer of 1998, over dinner in Oxford with a particularly enthusiastic group of Christopher’s students in that year’s Rewley House (O.U.D.C.E.) astronomy evening classes, the proposal was made to start an informal stargazing club ‘Ad Hoc’ (‘Hoc’ = Hanwell observing club), meeting monthly at Hanwell. Late that autumn we heard, very belatedly, of the Royal Society and British Association’s millennium awards scheme, which was handing out grants for projects devoted to the public presentation of science. In the nick of time, an application for the last grant-awarding round squeaked in just as the whole scheme was closing down. Months passed. Finally, the following May, came notification that our application for funding to set up ‘The Hanwell Community Observatory’ had been successful, with Christopher as Project Leader, Andrew as Project Engineer, 6 members of the O.U.D.C.E.  classes and David Randell as other signatories, and finally the Oxford department itself as institutional partner.  Dr.Geoffrey Thomas, head of O.U.D.C.E., and himself an astronomer, had provided an extremely positive written recommendation in support of the application.

That funding, the maximum £15,000 awardable under the scheme, was for the purchase of 6 portable telescopes usable for public events at any venues, plus the seed-capital (as it transpired!), at least, for the construction of the Hanwell dedicated public-use 30-inch reflector. This last is a unique one-off instrument deriving from our ideas of a few years earlier, the reflex, 3-mirror optical system mathematically designed by Christopher and the engineering of the telescope, all 2½ tons moving weight of its steelwork with necessary adjustments, drives and controls, by Andrew and his team. For more on the story of this substantial undertaking see ‘The 30-inch’ on the ‘Telescopes’ page of this website. Its completion has required additional funding of £6000 from Banbury Charities, for which H.C.O. is hugely grateful, as well as some thousands raised from our own Stars & Snowdrops open weekends which have run annually in most Februaries since 2005. The result is certainly the largest custom-designed public-use telescope in Britain and, quite possibly, in western Europe#.

Formally constituted as H.C.O. in 1999, the observatory and its team have staged many public events both locally and in Oxford, as well as privately booked group stargazing evenings for local people, schools, astronomical societies both local and national, girl guide & scout groups, the U3A and other local clubs. By now, literally thousands have witnessed a great variety of things celestial through telescopes provided and operated by H.C.O. In Oxford we have partnered both the university’s Museum of the History of Science and the The Oxford Trust, each, in providing a number of spectacularly successful astronomical events for the public – including those for the Transits of Venus in 2004 and of Mercury in 2016 – as well as holding extremely well-attended stargazing evenings at a number of the university’s colleges. Our best nocturnal event to date was an open-house “Free Public Stargazing: Target Jupiter!” a few years ago, a quite glorious evening when we had some 400 visitors, young and old, at the eyepieces of the Hanwell telescopes in the space of three hours. We were hoping to repeat this in November 2020 but plague intervened. We’ll try again when the time is right.

One particular very gratifying outcome of all this has been that several former visitors to the observatory and members of H.C.O.’s own team, after having their first encounter here with serious telescopic astronomy in their early years, have since gone on to take astronomy or astrophysics much further. This includes a former H.C.O. webmaster who, having joined our team while doing A-levels, subsequently completed a Manchester Ph.D. in astrophysics, and our current webmaster who joined H.C.O. in schooldays and is, at the time of writing, working for a Ph.D. in planetary science. Two undergraduates visiting from the United States, who had their first-ever views through a serious astronomical telescope here one night in the mid-90s, are now distinguished holders of professorships in the subject at two well-known american universities. And there may be others from whom we’ve not heard in after years. Cause and effect in these cases are, of course, not always clearcut and it would be presumptuous to claim credit but we hope and believe that these young people’s astronomical encounters at Hanwell did nothing to discourage their subsequent pursuit of this noble science. This is helping to hand on the torch to the next generation in just the same way as that from which one or two of us benefitted in our own youth.

Astronomy continues at the Hanwell site unabated, even though all public and visitor sessions at the telescopes are currently suspended for the duration of the pandemic. One substantial paper based on observations made with the 12½-inch was published in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association in June 2020, a second reporting work done here with one of the H.C.O. 4-inch refractors was accepted by the same journal in spring 2021 and a third, again mainly devoted to observations on the 12½-inch, is with the referees for that journal as this is being written. These papers all deal with revolving binary stars. More, hopefully, will follow in due course. And, naturally, we will continue to develop H.C.O’s public and educational activities to the best of our abilities and resources: more of that anon. We hope that Sir Anthony would approve.


Christopher Taylor,

Hanwell, September 2021.

* Given that the nearest local societies are at Chipping Norton, a town considerably smaller than Banbury, and Stratford (of which Andrew & Christopher were founder members in 1994), there is very obviously still scope for a ‘B.A.S.’, if someone wished to take that on; it would, of course, have the full support of H.C.O.

#  The largest telescopes in the UK are of 36 or 37 inch aperture but these are professional, single-user research instruments not optimized for group visitor use by the lay public and not user-friendly. There are also one or two other 30-inch telescopes in amateur hands but these also have not been designed as dedicated public-use instruments.