Two Obelisks

About 20 years ago I was walking home along the towpath between Twickenham Bridge and Richmond Lock when an elderly man stopped me.

“Do you know what they are?” he asked, waving his arm in the vague direction of the two obelisks in the Old Deer Park. Thinking that he was a visitor to the area I was about to tell him that I didn’t when he launched into this story…

The Landlords Daughter

“About 200 years ago two young men in a local tavern were arguing over the favours of the landlord’s daughter, a beautiful but giddy girl. She was very excited by their squabble and suggested, half in jest, that the two men should fight a duel for her hand. To her shocked delight they both agreed so she brought out a brace of pistols that her father kept loaded behind the bar. Any outsider watching this would have told the young people not to be stupid and sit down but the drunken excitement of the moment had enthralled them.

So with pistols in hand the two suitors and the landlord’s beautiful daughter set off for the Old Deer Park. There they paced out their firing positions and turned to face each other.

The landlord’s daughter thought that this was very romantic – two young men fighting over her hand – and said that she would signal the moment to fire by dropping her handkerchief. In their cups and out of their minds the two young men took aim.

At the signal the two men fired but only one pistol went off and the youth facing it fell down dead – shot through the head. Horrified, the girl ran over to the fallen man and picked up the defunct pistol. The other man, the opponent, called out “How is he?” The girl turned towards him to answer and in that movement and completely accidentally the pistol suddenly fired. Hit in the chest the man fell down dead. With a smoking pistol in her hand, two dead men at her feet and now stone cold sober, the landlord’s beautiful daughter could see the awful outcome of her stupidity. Full of remorse she threw herself into the river and was drowned."

Kew Observatory

I was beginning to feel like the Wedding-Guest stopped by the Ancient Mariner when the elderly man said…“And those tall obelisks standing there mark the place where the two young men fell, lured to their death by the Landlord’s beautiful daughter.” A sudden need to get home to rub butter onto the cat’s boil called me away but as I made my excuses the man added this final comment…“And they do say that the ghost of that beautiful girl still haunts the towpath at night, crying for her dead suitors and holding a pistol that is about to fire… so if you see her don’t let her to turn towards you because if you do…!”

After all that excitement I was rather disappointed when I heard later the real story of the obelisks that stand by the towpath between Twickenham Bridge and Richmond Lock…

King George III

Although George 3rd is best known for his “madness” — probably caused by the inherited disorder porphyria — the King also had a reputation as a scientist with a particular interest in astronomy. Like others around the world he was anxious to observe the transit of Venus predicted for 3rd June 1769 when the planet would pass across the face of the sun. These ‘transits’ occur in pairs, 8 years apart, approximately every 120 years and are observable with an appropriate telescope. Realising that his small and rather decrepit observatory at Kew Palace wasn’t up to the task George ordered a new Observatory to be built in the Old Deer Park. Made of Portland stone and topped with a moveable dome housing the main telescopes, it was completed in good time for the King to watch the transit in the company of his wife Queen Charlotte, his official clock maker Benjamin Vulliamy and a scientific advisor Doctor Stephen C.T. Demainbray, who noted…

Shelton Regulator

“His Majesty the King, who made his observation with a Shorter Reflecting Telescope, magnifying Diameter 170 Times, was the first to view the Penumbra of Venus touching the Edge of the Sun’s Disk. The exact mean time (according to civil Reckoning) was attended to by Stephen Demainbray, appointed to take exact time by Shelton’s Regulator, previously regulated by several astronomical observations.”

It was important to record the exact time of the transit because with similar accurate readings from around the world it would be possible to calculate how far the sun was from the Earth. To help achieve a world-wide spread of timings Captain Cook had even taken a clock and a telescope to Tahiti.

OBELISKS map

With the next transit not due until 1874 every effort was made at Kew to ensure the accuracy of their observation. To correctly align the telescopes and to monitor the precision of the Shelton Regulator Clock three stone obelisks were raised around the observatory providing precise sightlines along the north-south meridian, one pillar corresponding to the east wing of the building, one to the west wing and a solitary obelisk, along the towing path towards Kew, indicating the true north point of the Observatory. Dr. Demainbray later noted that the observers at Kew agreed their timings within one second. These differed with timings taken at Greenwich Observatory by 60 ½ seconds. The Kew observation timings were not published or used in the worldwide calculations. Completely accurate timings of transits were not achieved until the 20th century and the development of radio astronomy.

Of course in the scientific world of sightlines and meridians there is no place for the landlord’s beautiful daughter but then again sightlines and meridians only work in daylight. Perhaps it is at night when the towpath is dark that the unsuspecting traveller might see the poor girl, crying for her dead suitors and deadly in the shadows with a loaded pistol in her hand.

Transits of Venue

Venus transit

We are lucky to be living in a time of two ‘Transits of Venus’. The last was in 2004. The next is on 5th/6th June 2012. There won’t be another one until December 2117 — so catch this rare astronomical event while you can. As the Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley once said… “This sight…is by far the noblest astronomy affords.”

A YouTube glimpse inside the dome of Kew Observatory

— from Martyn Day