Stories from Hospitalfield: Astronomical Telescope by Troughton & Simms

We know that Arbroath was home of many innovations in the 19th and early 20th centuries and astronomy was one of the areas of interest where the town led in enquiry and study; Hospitalfield and Patrick Allan-Fraser was always present and part of the conversation.

There is no doubt that the tower at Hospitalfield is a grand architectural feature, greatly influencing the scope of grandeur of the house. As Patrick Allan-Fraser was designing the structure, he was not just thinking about spectacle, he was thinking about how to create the perfect situation for an observatory.

By the mid-19th-century astronomy had grown in popularity and become a great passion for enquiring people across Europe. Allan-Fraser was as enthusiastic about this topic as he was about everything else that he was so involved with; from painting, craft and architecture, to science, photography and learning.

Arbroath’s Literary & Scientific Society was founded in 1835 and we can imagine that many of the meetings took place in this perfectly designed small room at the top of Hospitalfield’s tower which is where he placed his astonishing telescope made by Troughton & Simms. The scientific instrument would have been a state of the art example made by one of the leading makers of the day.

Other traces of Allan-Fraser’s involvement in astrology at the very highest level of research is the rare copy of Alexander Brown’s ground breaking book published in 1889 ‘Remarkable Seventeenth & Nineteenth Century Eclipses of the Sun’, held in the Library at Hospitalfield and a painting of the Rev. George Gilfillan by the young artist that Allan-Fraser supported, Alexander Bell Middleton. Gilfillan was a widely known and highly respected speaker on astronomy, speaking at societies and mechanical institutes across Scotland.

This astronomical telescope, which remains in the room at the top of the tower at Hospitalfield, is sadly no longer in working order but it could be restored. It was designed and built by Troughton & Simms (1826–1915, after which the company became Cooke, Troughton & Simms following a merger with Thomas Cooke & Sons). They designed for a highly specialist market interested in observing the planets and the Moon. The company was one of the leading manufacturers of the finest astronomical and optical instruments in which there was an expanding demand. The mid-19th-century saw a huge growth in interest in astronomy leading to a demand for precision instruments for surveying and precision measurement. As well as Hospitalfield, Troughton & Simms supplied Greenwich Observatory and observatories around the world from its shop at Fleet Street in London.

The telescope at Hospitalfield has been placed on an equatorial mount with the latitude axis pointing to the Polar star, the telescope has been specially adjusted to 56°N, meeting its precise viewing location at Arbroath. This is a type of refracting telescope that uses two lenses to focus the light, making distant objects appear brighter, clearer, and magnified. The largest lens is called the objective lens and the smaller lens, used for viewing, is the eyepiece lens. The telescope has an exceptionally long focal lens, measuring two metres.

During the eighteenth century and early years of the nineteenth century there was a gradual widening of popular interest in scientific topics in Scotland; lecture tours were undertaken by popular speakers on wide-ranging subjects to meet this demand. Rev. George Gilfillan was one such speaker, offering lectures on the Reconciliation of Astronomy with Scripture. Patrick Allan-Fraser commissioned a portrait to be painted of Gilfillan by the young artist Alexander Bell Middleton which is on display at Hospitalfield.  The later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the formation of scientific and literary societies, the forerunners of the Mechanics’ Institutes. The Arbroath Literary & Scientific Society was founded in 1835, with Patrick Allan-Fraser presenting as an active and well-informed member.

Remarkable Seventeenth Nineteenth Century Eclipses of the Sun calculated by Alexander Brown, LL.D [Only 100 Presentation Copies printed by T. Buncle in Arbroath, 1889]
Alexander Brown was a notable natural scientist who devoted special attention to the phenomena and literature of eclipses of the sun and moon, with accounts published in 1889 as the wonderfully titled ‘Remarkable Seventeenth & Nineteenth Century Eclipses of the Sun’, a rare copy of which is held at the Library at Hospitalfield. Brown computed the track of Halley’s comet and made meteorological records over many years from his home at St Vigeans near Arbroath and personally knew fellow Scottish scientific luminaries including Hugh Miller and David Brewster. Brown was active on the Arbroath Literary and Scientific Society, through which he would offer lectures to local people and fellow members, and it is likely that this is where he established a friendship with Patrick Allan-Fraser.

The telescope at Hospitalfield can be dated to between 1850 and 1860. It was around this time in 1849 that Patrick Allan-Fraser designed and ordered the construction of the distinctive five-storey tower that would serve to link the 18th-century estate house at Hospitalfield with the new Picture Gallery wing on the site of the earlier monastic barn. The lofty tower terminates with a viewing platform which commands a 360° view of the town and out to the North Sea with uninterrupted potential for viewing the sky at night, large enough for a gathering of up to at least 12 people. The tower was of course designed to serve important architectural functions in its own right; however, it is worth imagining the various considerations of Patrick Allan-Fraser as architect. In designing the tower to so easily accommodate a gathering of people, the polymath Allan-Fraser must surely have been enabling the advancement of scientific knowledge from a prime location, equipped with this fine optical equipment designed specifically for the purpose. This is likely to be the location from where the fellows of the Arbroath Literary and Scientific Society came to survey the celestial skies, and from where the early students at the still to be realised Allan Fraser Art School would be encouraged to do the same in the early 20th-century.

The item is not currently in working order, missing its two main lenses and the tubes that would have connected them. It has also tarnished to over time; however the finish of the telescope could still be brought back to its original polished brass making for a handsome object once again. The tripod is original to the telescope; however the wood has been painted white at some point during the 20th-century. It is possible that this instrument could be made to scan the clear skies above Hospitalfield once again and we are keen to pursue any opportunity that would furnish this fine piece of scientific engineering with its missing parts. In the meantime, it is an object of significance that offers an enticing insight into the aspirational scientific and literary life of the town of Arbroath in the 19th-century.

With thanks to Ken Kennedy of the Dundee Astronomical Society and the British Astronomical Association, to Sandra Kempele and Collections Volunteers at Hospitalfield

References: McBain, James (1897). Eminent Arbroathians: Arbroath, McConnell, Anita (1992). Instrument Makers to the World: A History of Cooke, Troughton & Simms, York: William Sessions Limited