In Search Of Isaac Newton's Lost London Observatory

By Stephen Coates Last edited 94 months ago

Last Updated 21 July 2016

In Search Of Isaac Newton's Lost London Observatory

The only stars you'll spot in Leicester Square these days will be sashaying down the red carpet at a blockbuster premier. But before the industrial revolution brought artificial light and smog to the city, the night sky above the capital was a celestial vault of actual constellations.  

Photo by Lee in the Londonist Flickr pool

In 1710, Isaac Newton — the man who discovered the law of gravity under an apple tree in Cambridge — came to live in a house just below its south east corner in what is now St Martin's Street. He chose this place because the square, then known as 'Leicester Fields', sat on the edge of a dark stretch of countryside and the location would give him an unobstructed view of the heavens. There, in a special observatory he built upon his roof, he carried on the astronomical and other researches that had made him famous. And there, he told a friend, he spent some of the happiest moments of his life.

The Observatory, which 'overlooked all London and its environs,' was built by Newton sometime after he moved into the house and it became the room where he quietly studied, experimented, and held conferences with the great and good of London intellectual society including Jonathan Swift, Edmund Halley, Sir Christopher Wren, John Gay and Alexander Pope.  

It was a glazed turret with a small fireplace, a chimney and a cupboard for coals. It was also said to be the room in which his dog, Diamond, knocked over a candle and set on fire the manuscript of A New Theory of Light and Colours, his work of several years, plunging the great man into desolation and distraction for a considerable time.

It may of course have been Newton who knocked over the candle; he was famously absent minded. It was apparently common for him to wake, but only get as far as the end of his bed where he would sit for hours, or to leave the house half-dressed, his dinner untasted or his friends unattended when he had gone to get them a bottle of wine and become absorbed in some abstract thought.  

Newton died in 1727 but his observatory lived on. Almost 50 years later, the author Fanny Burney lived in the house and wrote: "Sir Isaac Newton's observatory is still subsisting, and we show it to all our visitors..." (who included Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick and Dr Johnson), and: "it is my favourite sitting place, where I can retire to read or write any of my private fancies or vagaries."

Isaac Newton: absent-minded to say the least

Fanny's father Dr Burney, later restored it after the glass was blown out by a terrible hurricane and later still, in 1824 "two gentlemen had it repaired at their own expense" and wrote a brief memoir of Newton that was placed in the observatory with his portrait. By that time of course, the night sky would hardly have been visible at all.

But, strangely and rather sadly, the observatory vanished sometime in the 1860s. It was sold to pay for pews for the adjacent Orange Street Chapel. Like London Bridge in the 1960s, It was purchased by an American, who paid £100 for it (a bargain surely) and apparently took it to home for the purposes of an exhibition. But there, all records of it cease. Is it languishing somewhere in some American barn? Did it even make it across the pond? Who knows.

If there was a society dedicated to hunting down lost London architectural treasures, surely this extraordinary observatory would be high on its list. Whilst the destruction of historical gems such as the Euston arch have been well documented and that of others, such as Temple Bar, reversed, its disappearance has largely been forgotten.  

Westminster Arts Library. Photo by Andrea Liu in the Londonist Flickr pool

The rest of Newton's home had a rather mysterious fate too. After the observatory had gone, the house survived with its spacious staircase, cornices and panelling intact, much as it had been during Newton's time, and became a place of pilgrimage for his admirers.

But in June 1925, the City Council of Westminster bought the site from the Orange Street chapel in order to make way for the Westminster Arts Library. The fabric of the building was bought as an item by a certain Hugh Phillips Esq. who took measurements and had it dismantled carefully with the intention of reconstructing it elsewhere as a "long lasting national memorial to England’s greatest natural philosopher".

But he didn't, and what he did with it, no one seems to know.

Stephen Coates presents Antique Beat's Salon for the City on the last Thursday of every month at in a room Westminster Arts Library occupying the space where Newton's Observatory once was.

Written with thanks to Rossella Black of Westminster Arts Library.