Botanic Garden Observatories
The south-east corner of the Botanic Gardens, next to the Cable Car Museum, is home to a collection of buildings that have served as observatories over the last century. Chosen for its clear sight lines and distance from the city, the site provides a great view of the city and harbour. The observatories are important to the history of New Zealand's scientific community.
Wellington’s first observatory was constructed in 1863 on the waterfront, on Customhouse Quay and was primarily used for timekeeping. Known as the Provincial Observatory it provided vital data for mariners to calculate longitude and allowing for timekeeping across Aotearoa to be synchronised. A time ball run up a mast on the roof of the customs building was dropped at noon every day so the ships in the harbour could set their chronometers. When further waterfront construction obscured the observatory’s visibility a new site was chosen in the Botanic Gardens.
In 1869 the Colonial Observatory was constructed in the southern part of the Bolton Street Cemetery. From here the timekeeping service continued and the observatory began weather and climate tracking. This site also became unsuitable in time as trees grew and the city encroached. Finally in 1906 when Prime Minister Richard John Seddon passed away the site was chosen for a memorial and the observatory was moved to higher ground.
When the Wellington City Council took over management of the Botanic Gardens in 1891, 2.4 Hectares of land between Upland and Salamanca Roads was established for an observatory reserve. Wellington City Council retained use and upkeep of the area, though it would be a while before any observatory was actually built. Over the following decades there was much back-and-forth between the council and the NZ government about ownership and who was responsible for maintenance of the land.
In 1896 a gun emplacement was built by the NZ government for coastal defence on the observatory reserve as part of a network of defences around Wellington harbour. The outline of the gun pit is still visible and now displays a Krupp Gun captured in the First World War by New Zealand soldiers. The building that housed the emplacement’s caretaker, located just down the slope, has been used as a scout hall since 1913.
The Hector Observatory was built in 1907 over the magazine of the 1896 gun battery in the Edwardian Baroque style (popular in the British Empire at the time). Like its predecessors it was mostly used for timekeeping, meteorology and climatology. The building would be renamed to the Dominion Observatory in 1925 and in 1962 quartz-crystal clocks were maintained at the observatory, these became the new standard for New Zealand timekeeping. These were in turn replaced by atomic caesium clocks in 1992 and the observatory was no longer needed for time keeping. Currently this Observatory is maintained by the Department of Conservation and is closed to the public.
Due to the Hector Observatory being used for timekeeping, the Astronomy Section of the Wellington Philosophical Society constructed an observatory open to the public in 1912. It was named the Thomas King Observatory, after the Astronomical Observer from 1887 to 1911 at the Hector Observatory. He had bequeathed his telescope to be used in this building before he passed. This building was specifically for astronomical observations and was the headquarters of the Wellington Astronomical Society.
The Carter observatory was opened in 1941, named for Charles Rooking Carter (1822-1896) who left £2,240 in his will for the establishment of an observatory. After many delays the project was underway in time to be completed for the New Zealand Centenary. Prior to the Carter Observatory’s construction, a small building affectionately nicknamed the Tin Shed was in use for research and public demonstrations from 1924 until the Carter Observatory was opened. The building was constructed on Botanic Garden land, rather than the observatory reserve. It has had several expansions over the years including a planetarium. In the early 2000s the Carter Observatory shifted focus from research to an education venue and is now managed by Museums Wellington under the name Space Place.
Carter Observatory, General Material relating to Observatory Board, Correspondence General, 1940-1973
Wellington City Council Archives, 00557-560-5