Windsor is a quaint rural town built along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. It’s full of interesting historical sites and famous for its Sunday market stalls overflowing with crafts, ceramics and home grown produce.
Tebbutt’s Observatory, tucked away on Palmer Street at the eastern end of Windsor, is featured on the local walking tour map, but otherwise it would be an easy place to miss.
The observatory, house and adjoining land, known as Peninsular, are part of the heritage listed Tebbutt Estate. John Tebbutt, Australia’s celebrated astronomer, built three observatories on this tract of land in the 1800s for his private use. His astronomical observations over the next 50 years resulted in a phenomenal contribution to science both in Australia and Great Britain.
William Dawes was Australia’s first official astronomer. Dawes volunteered for service with the NSW Marine Corps, and left England for Australia with the First Fleet in 1787. Dawes was recognised as a capable astronomer and was asked to make astronomical observations while at sea and to establish an observatory after landing in New South Wales. He went on to build Sydney Observatory near the southern approach to Sydney Harbour Bridge and nearby Dawes Point is named after him.
John Tebbutt’s grandparents, John (I) and Ann Tebbutt, arrived in Sydney in 1801 with sons John and Thomas, and daughter, Elizabeth. They arrived as free settlers and established themselves on farm land in Windsor owned by the Reverend Samuel Marsden.
The first John Tebbutt’s son, John (II), married Virginia Saunders and in 1834 their only son, John (III), was born. His sister, Ann, had died in infancy, leaving John an only child. John’s parents ran a successful family store in Windsor and sold it when John was nine. They bought 68 hectares of land in Windsor and later built a house. The land, Peninsular, derived its name from its tendency to be separated from the rest of Windsor when South Creek and the Hawkesbury River flooded — and that is still the case today.
John and Virginia Tebbutt were determined to give John a good education, so his first school was the Church of England Parish School where he was taught by Edward Quaife. Quaife had a keen interest in astronomy and encouraged his students to learn the science. A private school run by the Presbyterian Church was John’s next port of call, followed by another private school with only six students, four of them the sons of the school master, Reverend Henry Tarlton Stiles. John was taught Latin, Greek, French and maths, and from an early age was fascinated by how things worked mechanically, including his father’s farm machinery, steam engines, clocks and telescopes.
Tebbutt started observing the skies when he was just 19 with a sextant and an ordinary marine telescope. He attracted national and international attention when he discovered the Great Comet of 1861 on 13 May. This comet was recognised as one of the most brilliant comets ever sighted. In England the comet became visible on 29 June, and at that time there was no technology that Tebbutt could use to relay his sighting back to the other side of the world. He was therefore acknowledged as the discoverer of the Great Comet and the first computer of its approximate orbit.
Later that year he bought more complex and thorough observation equipment, enabling him to do a lot more research. His notoriety did not go unnoticed, and in 1862 he was offered the impressive post of Government Astronomer for New South Wales. He refused the role and the following year built his first observatory on his father’s land and continued his groundbreaking work alone from rural Windsor.
He installed a telescope, a transit instrument and a box chronometer in the observatory. No one knows the real reasons for Tebbutt declining the government role but it is thought that he liked to work alone and enjoyed being in control of what he researched and when. He may have also wanted to stay near his young wife and family and could have been needed to help his father on the land.
Tebbutt continued observing and plotting the skies, resulting in an immense output of scientific papers and reports. These were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, in the Astronomical Register, London, and in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales.
In 1874 Tebbutt built a second observatory and in 1879 a third. In 1881 he discovered his second comet.
For the next 20 years he continued to observe comets, predict eclipses and make other astronomical predictions. Then in 1895 he was elected the first President of the newly established British Astronomical Association in New South Wales, and in 1905 was awarded the Jackson-Gwilt gift medal by the Royal Astronomical Society of London.
In 1908 Tebbutt published his Astronomical Memoirs, which detailed his life’s work, 54 years of astronomical observations and in 1910, six years before his death, he observed Halley’s Comet.
In 1914 he was delighted when a small party of British astronomers visited him at his Windsor observatories. Two years later Tebbutt died. His wife, Jane, and three daughters died before him.
Tebbutt’s unwavering passion for science and astronomy has left us with a unique and lasting legacy to cherish. ☐
John Tebbutt was commemorated on the reverse side of the $100 note in circulation from 1984 to 1996. An observatory and a local church are the backdrop.
Story and photos by: Lorraine Clifford