Natal  Observatory

Current Information:
Current  Information:
The Observatory  has closed down. The Current Information section is not relevant  to this Observatory.

In Brief:
Noted  for:
The Natal Observatory was created in order to observe the transit of Venus in 1882, with  Edward Neison as the director. As the instruments were not installed on time Neison had to do some frantic improvisation. He did managed to observe the transit successfully. Thereafter it was an uphill battle to keep the observatory functioning due to a lack of funds. In 1911 the observatory closed down.

Historical background:
FROM THE HUMBLE eighteenth-century beginnings, great observatories have sprung up in South Africa, and astronomers here have played leading roles in almost every branch of research. However, there has been one outstanding failure — and an unnecessary one at that. This was the ill-fated Natal Observatory at Durban, whose one and only Director was
Edmund Nevill, better remembered today by the name under which he wrote: Edmund Neison. [Copied from Moore, p. 132.]
The 1882
transit of Venus created the need for an Observatory in Natal. “Since Venus is closer to the Sun than we are, it can occasionally pass between the Sun and the Earth, so that it then appears as a black spot in transit against the brilliant solar disk. Because of the orbital tilt of the planet, this does not happen often. Two transits occur, separated by eight years, after which there are no more for over a century; thus there were transits in 1761 and 1769, 1874 and 1882. (Incidentally, Captain Cook’s expedition to the South Seas, during which he discovered Australia, was originally dispatched so that he could take a party of astronomers out to a suitable site for observing the 1769 transit.)” [Copied from Moore, p. 134.]
The significance of transits of Venus was that they could provide a means of measuring the length of the astronomical unit. Before the present era of space-probes and radar, the transits were of immense importance, and every effort was made to observe them. Results from the 1874 transit were not wholly satisfactory, for various reasons, but more was expected from the transit of 1882, which would, it was thought, be well seen from South Africa. [Copied from Moore, p. 135.]
David Gill took up the problem. It had long been planned to set up a new observatory at Durban. It was decided to make it ready for the transit, and in June 1882 the Durban Corporation voted a sum of £350 for the purpose; another £500 was added by the Legislative Council in the following July. An 8-inch refractor was purchased by H. Escombe, who had been working together with Gill on the project, and the Government provided a 3-inch transit instrument.
Gill wanted a skilful and permanent Director; and who better than Edmund Neison? There was need for haste. By the time that he was ready to issue an invitation it was already June 1882, and the transit was due in December.
Gill sent Neison an urgent telegram, offering him the post of Government Astronomer at Natal, and urging him to arrive in time to observe the transit. It was a challenge which Neison did not feel disposed to ignore. He accepted, packed up, and sailed for Durban, arriving on 27 November 1882. By 1 December he was already at the Observatory, only to find that things were far from ideal; for instance, the machinery for moving the dome had been carefully covered with a thick layer of paint, while the polarizing eyepiece supplied by the firm of Merz, while doubtless excellent in quality, suffered from the slight disadvantage that it would fit neither the telescope nor its accessories! The transit instrument was in Cape Town, and could not be shifted in time. Neison had to do some frantic improvisation, and in the end he observed the transit with great success. [Copied from Moore, p. 135.]
It was an encouraging start. The Natal Observatory had begun its work, and Neison made great plans. He intended to improve tables of the Moon’s motion, carry out general observations in collaboration with the Cape, and also to set up a meteorological station. Publications were put in hand, and all seemed to be in order. Alas, the story from. then on was one of perpetual frustration.
The trouble was, quite simply, lack of funds. Neison had been promised an adequate salary, with provision for assistants, and also grants to help with the Observatory’s publications. As so often happens, the authorities broke their word. Publications were prepared and remained on the files; there was no money to print them. After 1887 there was no assistant, and Neison had to depend on sporadic help from local amateurs. He did have a new assistant for a while from 1888; a manuscript catalogue of the right ascensions of Zodiacal stars was prepared, as well as tide-tables for Natal, and Neison continued to do his best. He also became Government Chemist and Official Assayer for Natal, acting sometimes as pathologist in cases of suspected poisoning!
It was a noble effort, but as time went by things became more and more difficult. Money was not forthcoming, and publications from the Observatory had to stop, so that the records remained in manuscript form. Eventually even Neison had to admit that the odds against him were too great. Funds were cut off altogether, and in 1911 the Observatory was closed down.
The story of the Natal Observatory is not a happy one. Had Neison been given even a fraction of the support he had been promised, he would have accomplished far more than he was actually able to do. Nothing now remains of the Observatory, and it must be admitted that a great opportunity was lost. …  It is tragic that in South Africa he was unable to fulfil the tasks for which he was so clearly fitted. The fault was not his (Neison).

Edmund Nevill (Neison) was a very interesting person. He publihing the first book on the Moon in the English language; was founder member of the Selenographical Society; co-fouder of the Institute of Chemistry and was the director of the Natal Observatory.
For most of the time Nevill had no assistant. Reading between the lines  from Moore p.135 Nevill must initially have had an assistant. “After 1887 there was no assistant, and Neison had to depend on sporadic help from local amateurs. He did have a new assistant for a while from 1888”. Names of assistants unknown.



8 inch telescope (Manufactured by Grubb)
3 inch transit telescope (Manufactured by Troughton and Simms)


Pictorial  Sources:


  • Gray, M.A., “Raindrops, Test Tubes and Galaxies”, A history of Astronomy in Natal, with reference to the allies Sciences of Meteorology, Chemistry. etc., from 1850 to 1982. Unpublished.
    (Note: This is the definitive work on the Natal Observatory and Edmund Neison. It was never publised but it is available to the public on the ASSA Historical Website. The book is in 3 parts.)
  • Moore, P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, pp. 132 – 136 (General Source)
  • Smits, P., A Brief History of Astronomy in Southern Africa. (Unpublished)


-A collection of papers concerning the short-lived Natal Observatory in Durban is reportedly to be transferred to the Museum at Durban.  This collection includes correspondence of E. Neison 1880-85 and  later miscellaneous (particularly between Innes and Neison) 1907-25.

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