Norwich Astronomical Society's History

Norwich Astronomical Society’s History

Before the beginning

Long before the Norwich Astronomical Society’s records began in the 1930s two gentlemen living on Cambridge Street, Norwich met to discuss and exchange views of the star and universe. They were Herbert Martins and Charles Thetford. One of Herbert’s work colleagues gave him a brass 4.5 inch refractor mounted on a wooden tripod. This telescope, one of the very few in Norwich, could be seen regularly protruding from the upstairs front window throughout the second half of the 1930s and during the Second World War with Herbert and Charles taking turns at the eyepiece.  During this time Herbert and Charles were in their element because the official war “blackouts” gave them perfect visibility for their viewing. That was until one night when an air-raid warden accompanied by a policeman knocked at the door of Herbert Martins and ordered Herbert to take his telescope down. Some people had mistaken the telescope as a gun targeting enemy aircraft!

A few people who knew Herbert and Charles periodically met at 92 Cambridge Street, Herbert’s home, to view the Moon and the planets. When the war was over these gentlemen decided to meet on a regular and more formal basis.


26th September 1945 - six elderly gentlemen founded the society in a meeting held at 92 Cambridge Street, Norwich. Mr Park was appointed Secretary and Mr Minns was appointed Chairman. They met once a month and paid half a crown into club funds. 1950s


Things started to move ahead when The society when Bill Bennett stepped in for the original speaker of a talk at the Baldic Society. At the end of the talk, 30 attendees expressed interest in joining the society.  

1953 AGM a Mr Charles Gates offered an 8" mirror and flat for constructing a club telescope.  At this time observing instruments were made by the members themselves. Around this time it was also identified the need for an observatory. In November, the Odeon cinema  showed 'Destination Moon' and the society put on a display in the foyer offering the viewing public a chance to view the Moon through a telescope which at the time was not common. The Society received welcome publicity when the Norfolk News/ Norwich Mercury featured the event in a news article with a picture of the members with the telescope on its front cover. The film itself won an academy award for Visual Effects.

1954 – society has 40 members and the need for an observatory was becoming an issue.

1955 - Work began on the society's first observatory, a converted World War 2 air raid shelter on Daniels Road (now the site of Notcutts garden centre). At the time, Daniels Road was at the edge of the city. This construction work was funded by the sale of astronomical equipment donated by the widow of by the late Mr Holt. Amongst the items donated was a partially finished 10" mirror which was later reground and polished by Mr Horace Dall.


1956 - The Daniels Road observatory was officially opened on May 12th housing the 8" reflector.

 1959 - The new Dall 10" mirror formed the core of a new telescope in the observatory, housed in a square tube.



1965- The 20th anniversary was marked by visit from the B.A.A. to Daniels Road. Patrick Moore took a photo of Bill Bennett with the B.A.A. president standing at the observatory doo r.

1966 - Despite the recent visit of the B.A.A. only 23 paid up members were reported at the AGM. At the time the society was kept financially afloat due to personal donations from Bill Bennett, and feeds from a monthly "Sky at Night" column in the Eastern Daily Press.

 The late 1960's a sudden renewed interest at the society due partly to the Moon landings. Problems with light pollution were now a big issue, so an alternative site was eagerly sought.



1970 - Members visit to Dr Dewhirst in Cambridge enhancing the need for new site and results in the society obtaining a 30" glass blank plus a grinding machine.

1973 - The society had obtained a lease plus planning permission for an observatory at Colney Lane. The move to the new site was carried out over the year.

1974 - The new Herschel Dome and 10" reflector was officially reopened on April 15th by Mrs Angela Baldwin, the 4 times great granddaughter of Sir William Herschel. At the ceremony, the Chairman,  Frank Harvey, was presented with a restored star atlas, originally printed in 1842 and signed by Sir John Herschel. 250 people attended the ceremony on a cold windy day.

During the rest of the 1970's work continued on the 30" mirror and dome.

1979 – Disaster stuck on the night of January 9th when the club house was destroyed by an arson attack. This was to result in the building of what was hoped to be a more secure club room. Sadly vandalism and various other anti-social activities such as break-ins and theft, plus fly-tipping were to plague the society in its latter days at Colney Lane with a further arson attack resulting in the Herschel Dome being badly damaged.



1982 - The 30" telescope was finally completed and operational, Brian Mitchell having overseen much of the grinding of the mirror and the construction of the dome.

In the late 1980's the Society was having problems due to the proposed building of the new Norwich and Norfolk University Hospital on a site directly next to the observatory. The Society objected to this proposal, so the Regional Health Authority agreed to relocate the Society to a new site if they agree to withdraw its objection.

After having its first choice of new site refused due to planning permission a second site, part of the old Seething Airfield was bought for the society by the Regional Health Authority for the sum of £4000 and they also paid for the current club house to be built and the relocation of the 30" telescope and dome. Add to the site was a run off shed. The Herschel Dome was to be rebuilt later, as it was still damaged state after the arson attack at Colney Lane.



1994 - On July 2nd, the society's chairman David Fagg welcomed Dr John Mason and Dr Gilmore to the opening ceremony of the Seething site.

1997 - A reconstructed and restored Herschel Dome with the Holt telescope installed Brian Mitchell, was restored with the fine 10" Dall mirror such that it could be used again. Also saw large public interest due to the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp.



2000 –The 30" telescope had regular technical problems often it could not. Project Genesis was proposed and debated at an extraordinary general meeting. Many passions were aroused at the meeting with the vote at the end going in favour of the Genesis Project. The purpose of this project was to raise £15,300 to replace the 30" telescope with a computer controlled telescope, a Meade 12" LX200 and modify the dome. The 30" telescope was given as a gift to some members of the society who wanted to try and reconstruct it elsewhere.

Over the next 18 months through the remarkable efforts of many members we succeeded in raising the necessary funds to enable

2001 - The grand opening of the Genesis Dome on the 29th September by Dr Robin Catchpole. At the same time the society was not idle with the Herschel Dome either. Due to nature of the ground at Seething being very wet, the original pier support of the Holt telescope had sunk and was touching the rest of the floor such that people walking on the floor would cause the image to shake quite badly. A new concrete pier was constructed during the summer of 2000 which remedied the problem. In 2002 the 10" reflector was replaced with a 6" refractor mainly due to safety concerns about the height the eyepiece could get to when using the 10" telescope.

During the 2000s work progressed on the site landscaping it and six telescope pads with electrical were added at the far end of the site. They have provided a better view of the southern horizon.



2011 – Stargazing Live on the BBC introduced a renewed interested in astronomy. One of the co-presenters was none other than our chairman, Mark Thompson. He guided the public around the night sky showed us what you can see with a reasonably priced telescope. At the Society public talks following the broadcast become very busy with up to 3 talks given in the evening.

At the AGM, Mark Thompson step down from his 15 year term as Chairman but accepted the position of President which was the new position.  

In the summer decking was installed around the Springfield telescope.

2012 – Plans to increase the indoor facilities at the society were made. Members who were observing on a club night needed an indoor red lit refuge that did not affect their night vision while there was still a need for a well-lit club room. Also the refreshment facilities used on public nights were not desirable and the increased numbers of talks left visitors waiting in the cold.

2013 - The society raised funds and obtained a grant which pay for the installation of a portakabin. Over the summer members pulled together to prepare cabin site with plumbing, electric and a level ground. The cabin was modified to give a small kitchen, an extra toilet and an additional lecture area. In September, at the start of the new observing season, on the first public night Mark Thompson, our president officially opened the Cabin.    

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Image: IC 1805 Heart Nebula

by Shaun Reynolds