Chest of drawers, cedar / metal, maker unknown [Australia], 1870-1890, used at Sydney Observatory, Observatory Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
As early as 1856 the Sydney Observatory began to acquire furnishings. While some furniture, such as couches and desks, was used in conjunction with instruments most of it was used for storage or in the general running of the Observatory. As furniture fell into disrepair replacements were ordered through the New South Wales State Government while other items appear to have been made in the Sydney Observatory workshop.
In 1982 the management of the Sydney Observatory and its collections was transferred to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Documentation of the accumulated furniture began after this date when it was accessioned alongside the rest of the observatory's collection. This was done in recognition of their significance as examples of the movable heritage held by Sydney Observatory.
It is unclear from the historical records where the furniture was purchased from. There are no separate categories for office or furniture expenditure listed in the Observatory correspondence or in the Colonial Architect's papers. Neither do the Observatory's Annual Reports refer to furniture or furnishings. Expenses of this kind are likely to be included in 'Incidental Expenses' although, some of the items may have been simply transferred from other Government departments when they were no longer required.
The Colonial Architects records held by State Records NSW show that in 1856 the Governor approved £423-10s 2d for "Apparatus for a time ball". While this was a large sum to take from the colonial coffers the government did not part easily with its money and it seems that they were reluctant to spend any money on the Observatory unless it was for instruments or equipment for meteorological or astronomy observations.
The Government Astronomers, from 1857 through to 1900 were constantly trying to get purchases approved. Whether it was for office purchases or maintenance items like painting or carpets, it was always a struggle. During the period H. C. Russell was in charge, requests for items were often simply refused by the Colonial Architect's Office.
Some of the furniture appears to have been made at Sydney Observatory as in October 1868, one of the workers at the Observatory, William, ended up making a table. This may not have been that unusual during the 1860s as the Government Astronomer, G. R. Smalley, frequently ordered planks of wood from the Colonial Architect's office.
In 1864 Smalley also requested a desk, three more tables and three sets of steps and in May of the same year he asked for a new gas stove. As the Observatory became more established and increased the number of its employees it needed more furniture and in 1867 Smalley again requested additional furniture items including a Secretary's writing desk and a high stool. By 1868, the premises were being upgraded with the addition of Venetian blinds and felt carpet in the Assistants Computing Room and the waiting room.
Once H. C. Russell took over the Observatory in 1870 it was not unusual for requests to be refused, or for requests to be forgotten altogether. Sometimes it seems it was easier to make do than to try and get approval from the Colonial Architects office and Russell appears to have done just that. Not only was the Observatory making its own furniture, it borrowed things as well.
By 1876, the Observatory had acquired enough furniture that the Department of Justice and Public Instruction made a request for "a list of all Furniture on hand in your department, distinguishing such as may be unserviceable." Russell provided the Department with an extensive list which includes tables, chairs, bookcases and pigeon holes. Nothing appears to have been deemed unserviceable.
In 1887 there seems to have been a flurry of activity when Henry Alfred Lenehan became acting Government Astronomer. While Russell was overseas, he placed an unusually large furniture order for six cedar pigeon holes, one pine pigeon hole, two draftsman's and four trestle tables and two drawing boards.
By the end of the nineteenth century it would seem Sydney Observatory was deemed furnished to an acceptable standard as there were no further significant requests, other than in May 1889. This was for a "two horse power gas engine" to power electric lighting which may have led to the purchase of the glass lamp shades in the Observatory Collection.
While furniture continued to be acquired by Sydney Observatory throughout the twentieth century most of the material assessed as moveable heritage dates from the nineteenth century. While the significance of these items is measured against other examples of furniture from this period but their significance is even more marked in their intimate relationship to Australia's oldest government run observatory. This chest is also a good and intact example of the office set-up and operation in Sydney Observatory in the mid 1870s.
State Records of New South Wales, Reel 2130. Sydney Observatory Annual Report.
State Records of New South Wales, Colonial Architect; Government Blue Books, 1856, Observatory. Lists.
State Records of New South Wales, Sydney Observatory, A3003, Container 37, Letter Book R14, p. 273.
By Michelle Stanford, 2007