Te Tau Ihu and astronomy


The Nelson region has had some interesting and significant connections with astronomy - from the era of Kupe, to the Black Birch observatory. The Nelson Science Society continues to have a vibrant Astronomy Section, running frequent stargazing activities at the Cawthron Observatory.

The star compass and Māori navigation

The first people to discover and populate New Zealand, traditional Polynesian navigators, were able to position themselves mainly by the stars, using what's called a star compass. The ability to read the night sky is a great skill. The "Great Migration" from Hawaiki from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries brought to Te Tau Ihu several waves of visitations and occupations, some temporary and some permanent.1 All left their stories, and all who came were skilled navigators and possessed great knowledge of the stars.

illustration of stick chart

Illustration of Stick Chart, Marshall Islands. Journal of Polynesian Society, Vol: IV page 237.

The Europeans who followed the Polynesians and Māori did not possess or appreciate those skills; knowledge of the stars, astronomy and navigation developed slowly and through a range of technologies.

Ship Cove, the Transit of Venus and Captain James Cook

The initial purpose of Cook's voyages was to observe the Transit of Venus in Tahiti, to use the observations to measure the size of the solar system, and then search for a great southern continent which was believed to exist - Terra Australis. Cook spent a total of 328 days exploring the New Zealand coastline during his three voyages and returned to Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, on five separate occasions. Astronomers played a vital role in the visits.


Captain James Cook, Alexander Turnbull Library, ref A-217-010. Permission of ATL must be sought for further use of this image

On Cook's first visit in 1769 the astronomer on the Endeavour set up an observatory on the ship and spent five days determining the latitude and longitude for Queen Charlotte Sound. On the second visit, in 1773, William Bayly, the astronomer on the Adventure set up his instruments on Hippah (or Observatory) Island. On the arrival of the Resolution, William Wales set up his observatory on the beach - refining the exact position of the Sound.

Arthur Atkinson

Transits of Venus are rare. They come in pairs, eight years apart, separated by approximately 120 years. For the 1882 Transit, the Royal Society of London asked Arthur Atkinson, brother of the Prime Minister Harry Atkinson, to be an official observer.  Atkinson was a keen astronomer and the founder of the Nelson Astronomical Society. He had a Browning telescope housed in a small "electric house" on the hill behind his residence, Fairfield House. The hut was connected to the local telegraph house to keep the chronometer synchronised at official time.

Atkinson subsequently built a tower onto Fairfield House, but it shook so much that it was not fit for purpose, so he kept using the knoll. The tower became known as Atkinson's Folly and a replica of the original remains at the house today. With his telescope, Atkinson recorded the 1885 eclipse of the sun.2 

Total eclipse of the sun

Emily Harris (Circa 1837-1925). Total eclipse of the Sun from the Port Road, Sept. 1885. Oil painting. Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Loan Collection: AC472

The observatory, now named the Atkinson Observatory, was located at Pipers Park for many years. In 2008, following a complete refurbishment, the telescope was moved to the grounds of Clifton Terrace School with the support of the Cawthron Trust. The observatory is administered by the Astronomy Section of the Nelson Science Society, Royal Society of New Zealand.

cawthron park

Astronomers at the observatory camp in Cawthron Park, Nelson. Jones, Frederick Nelson, 1881-1962 :Negatives of the Nelson district. Ref: 1/1-009995-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22732359

The Nelson Solar Physics Observatory 

Thomas Cawthron himself was keenly interested in astronomy and the advancement of science on all fronts. From 1880 onwards, he advocated strongly for Nelson to become a link in a global chain of "solar physics laboratories."3 He donated £12,000 of his own money towards the building of a state of the art observatory, purchasing a large area of land on Dun Mountain, to be named Cawthron or Observatory park, for the purpose.4 Unfortunately Cawthron died before he signed the Trust Deed, and the project came to nothing.

Albert Jones

Albert Jones of Stoke had an international reputation as an amateur astronomer - one of the "greatest visual observers".  In 1963 he was the 6th astronomer to make 100,000 observations of variable stars - he discovered many comets, the closest exploding star and a minor planet is named after him. Jones built his own reflecting telescope and many of his observations were made from his backyard in Stoke.

Albert Jones

Albert Jones. Image supplied by Te Ara

Albert was a humble, self-taught scientist, who in later life refused offers to study his subject at university: "If I went to university I would never have the time to look at the stars".  He was born in Christchurch, in 1920, and educated at Timaru Boys' High School. At the beginning of the Second World War he joined the army, but in 1942 he was classified unfit for overseas service. He worked as a miller in a rolled oats mill, as a grocery shop owner and in a car assembly factory in Nelson. He died at his home in Stoke in 2013.5

Black Birch

In 1962 Frank Bateson, a well known New Zealand astronomer, and one of the world’s greatest contributors to the study and science of variable stars often working with Albert Jones, started to promote Marlborough as a potential site for a "national observatory" with a state of the art telescope. Black Birch, a conveniently flat topped range dividing the Awatere and Wairau valleys, was identified as an excellent dark sky location.6 

An observatory was constructed, with US support, but it was dogged by controversy.  From 1970 to 1996, the observatory made detailed sky photographs and also collected very precise positional information on stars. Speculation was rife that the survey provided data for targeting tactical nuclear weapons - in short, that the observatory’s purpose was to set up a guidance system for Tomahawk missiles, thus tying New Zealand to the nuclear arms race. New Zealand Government and US support for Black Birch was lost as the controversy mounted, and the University of Canterbury took over the project to run a national observatory. Mount John was their preferred location for this, and Black Birch ceased operations. Much of the structure and equipment from Black Birch was subsequently moved to the Wairarapa and became part of the Carterton observatory.

July 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Mitchell, H & J. (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough. Volume I. Huia Publishers, Wellington & Wakatu Incorporation, Nelson.: pp. 56-57
  2. Astronomy in Nelson (1942, November 27) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4 
  3. Proctor, M (1914) Story of the Cawthron solar observatory Project. Popular Astronomy, vol. 22, pp.433-435 
  4. A munificent gift (1913, August 2) Nelson Evening Mail
  5. Moore, B. (2013, September 13) City award-winning astronomer dies. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
  6. Thomas, L (1999, April-June) Black Birch resurrected. New Zealand Geographic https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/black-birch-resurrected/

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