Welcome to The King's Observatory Website

The King’s Observatory, located within the Old Deer Park in Richmond, Surrey, has an intriguing history. Commissioned in 1769 by King George III, this remarkable building occupies just under 7 acres in an arcadian setting, making it one of the most beautiful properties in the London area.

A Historical Landscape

King George III, then recently ascended to the throne, envisioned an impressive private park adjacent to his country retreat at nearby Richmond Lodge. To achieve this, he acquired and demolished existing buildings in the hamlet of West Sheen, situated on the western edge of the Old Deer Park. These very buildings once stood on the site where the grand Carthusian Monastery, built by Henry V in 1414, had once commanded the landscape. The monastery’s remnants were partially dismantled during the reign of Henry VIII and completely removed under Queen Elizabeth I.

The landscape design for the Old Deer Park was entrusted to Capability Brown, one of England’s greatest landscape architects. The Old Deer Park, with its sweeping views across the Thames to the Norman Church at Isleworth and the impressive Syon House, provided the perfect canvas for Brown’s vision.


A Royal Interest in Astronomy

King George III, ever fascinated with the science of his time, conceived the idea of constructing an observatory within his park. His specific goal was to observe a rare astronomical event: the transit of the Planet Venus across the face of the Sun, predicted to occur in 1769. This celestial phenomenon would allow astronomers to calculate the size of the solar system more accurately and estimate the distance between Earth and the Sun.

The task of designing the observatory fell to Sir William Chambers, the renowned English architect. Chambers, an admirer of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, had previously encountered the Swedish Astronomer Anders Celsius, who designed the Uppsala Observatory in Sweden in 1740. The construction of The King’s Observatory was completed just in time for the King and his Queen to witness the Venus Transit on June 3, 1769. Its telescope cupola remains the oldest of its kind worldwide.


A Hub of Learning

 The Observatory served various purposes during King George III’s reign. It functioned as a schoolhouse for educating royal children and housed an array of treasures: The existing glass cabinets constructed within the two main octagonal parts of the building, and which have recently been restored, housed ‘some excellent mathematical instruments, a collection of subjects in natural history, well preserved, an excellent apparatus for philosophical experiments, and a collection of ores from His Majesty’s mines in the forests in Germany’ .

The King also maintained his collection of clocks and watches within the building. Among these was a very accurate clock made by Benjamin Vulliamy, ‘Clockmaker to the Crown’, which provided “standard time” to important government buildings in London. This task was later transferred to Greenwich Observatory


Aligning with the Stars

Three obelisks erected in June 1778 within the Old Deer Park assisted in aligning instruments at the Observatory. The northern and western obelisks marked the true north-south Meridian Line, passing through the west room housing a tracking telescope. The southern obelisk aligned with the east room, which once held the great mural quadrant.


A Transition of Ownership

In 1840, The King’s Observatory passed from royal hands to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Responsibility later shifted to the Kew Committee of the Royal Society in 1871.

To the present day…

As long as the Observatory remained part of the King’s own personal estate, it had no external boundaries. However in 1893, additional land was leased to the Observatory for its “protection” following the grant of a lease to the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club. Part of this land in turn was sub-let to the Golf Club “for the pasturing of horses”. From 1910 to 1980, the then named Kew Observatory was the home of the Meteorological Office and was from where weather reports went out to the Country. Instruments, sent from all over to be tested, from 1878 were branded with the coveted “KO” stamp.

In 1999, the Crown Estates commissioned a master plan for the Grade 1 landscape linking to Kew Gardens, Syon Park and Richmond. A landscape was envisaged that would re-open the eighteenth-century Meridian Line and reintegrate the parkland for informal recreation, sport and nature conservation. This commission resulted in The Thames Landscape Strategy Study being published the following year. Amongst other measures, this Study recommended the progressive reduction in the number of trees within the Old Deer Park and the consequent restoration of the original historical view lines earlier enjoyed. The Study’s recommendations were accepted by all stakeholders of the Old Deer Park including the Richmond Borough Council who noted for its own Development Management Plan “that such parks and gardens as well as landscapes of special historic interest will be protected and enhanced and prohibits any proposals that would have an adverse effect on such settings”.

The most recent landscaping for the building completed in 2018 was in line with the Thames Landscape Strategy Study and has restored some of the views of the King’s Observatory to what they would have been 250 years ago. It has also been designed to be ecologically friendly and act as a haven for bird life and a refuge for insects and other wildlife.

The building – constructed by a King and designed by one of the Nation’s foremost architects – stands today as part of the Nation’s Heritage. The beauty of the building and its surroundings are shared with the local residents when it opens its doors to the public annually.

RJF Brothers – May, 2024