Observatory Life: At Home with the Astronomers Royal

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Essential information

Opening times: 
10am–5.30pm daily
Royal Observatory, Meridian Line and Historic Royal Observatory, Flamsteed House

What would it have been like to live at the Royal Observatory? Step behind closed doors into the lives of two families that once lived there.

Astronomer Royals were once required to live in the original observatory building, Flamsteed House. Some even brought their children up there. Now you can enter into the lives of two families living at the Royal Observatory at different times during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Maskelyne Family (1765-1811)

June 2th 1785 at 20 minutes past one in the morning Mrs Maskelyne was brought to bed of a girl, being her first child. July 26 she was christened Margaret then name of her godmother, my sister Lady Dowager Clive.

From Nevil Maskelyne’s notebook

After nearly 20 years of living alone at Flamsteed House, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811) married Miss Sophia Rose in 1784. Their daughter Margaret was born at the Observatory a year later.

This bright little girl grew up to become Maskelyne’s intellectual heir with an excellent education that included arithmetic, astronomy, French and Italian. After Nevil’s death in 1811, Sophia and Margaret moved out to the family home in Wiltshire.

At Flamsteed House, you will have opportunities to see textiles worn by the Maskelyne family, including a thermal all-in-one suit made from wool, linen and silk, designed to keep Nevil warm while observing the stars. Perhaps as consequence of his unusual working hours, Nevil took a keen interest in his family’s health and wrote numerous recipes for homemade cough mixtures, elixirs and digestive tonics, samples of which will be available to view – and to smell!

The Airy Family (1835-1881)

Mr Airy is as usual completely busy... he gets engaged in so many things, that I have given up all expectation of the time when he will be at leisure.

From a letter by Richarda Airy to her friend, Lady Herschel.

A few decades later, in 1835, George Biddell Airy (1801–1892) and his wife Richarda moved to Flamsteed House with their young family. Over the next ten years, the family expanded to include nine children, three of whom died in childhood.

Despite the hustle and bustle of a large household of children and servants, Airy commented that he liked to have his desk in the house, as being surrounded by his family ‘took the edge off his work’.

He kept to a meticulous daily routine of working from 9am-2pm before taking a walk in Greenwich Park and returning to eat his main meal of the day at 3.30pm. After a few more hours’ work, Airy spent his evenings with his family, relaxing with a book or a game of cards and retiring to bed at 11pm.

During your visit you will have the chance to explore the Airy children’s nursery and see how the Observatory provided an inspirational environment for their education and entertainment.

You can also visit the Airy parlour, where the story of George’s scientific achievements is told through a dazzling array of precious gifts from several organisations who called upon him for advice and expertise. Richarda’s story will also be shown, and how she used her linguistic and artistic skills to increase her husband’s success, hosting visits from foreign dignitaries and providing illustrations for his work.

Flamsteed House is open daily, 10am-5pm

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