Campus curiosities

August 19, 2005

No 12: UCL's eclipsed staer-gazers

Flanking the approach to the imposing portico of the Wilkins building at University College London are two rather tired circular structures with metal-clad domes and carved stone cornices. The buildings, which are used for storage and bear the labels "Cleaning and Waste Services" and "Grounds Maintenance" on their doors, were once used by astronomy students to explore the heavens.

The observatories were built in 1905 and 1907, when the scientific facilities of the Bloomsbury site expanded. They were equipped with powerful telescopes that pointed up through retractable roof sections. Hundreds of students learnt in them despite the smog and the street lighting, which obscured views of the sky.

During the Blitz, German bombs destroyed a 10-inch telescope. In 1946, the last remaining instruments were moved to the University of London Observatory, which had been built 17 years earlier at Mill Hill, to the north of the city.

The observatory buildings continued to be used. One was occupied for a time by a senior academic who preferred to work in solitude away from his department. It was later taken over by a local bank branch as an office for the manager. Now the observatories house spades and lawnmowers.

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