Written by Matthew McMahon, Museum Collections Officer
On the 15 October 1918, a new Director took up the reins of Armagh Observatory. William Frederick Archdale Ellison arrived in Armagh having visited over the summer before formerly taking up his appointment. He and his family may have looked on their move into the Observatory on College Hill as a opportunity for a fresh start. A year earlier, their eldest son, ‘Freddy’ Ellison was killed in the First World War at Ypres. W.F.A. Ellison, or ‘Wiffa’ as he is affectionately called by staff today, arrived at Armagh from Fethard-on-Sea in Wexford, Ireland. He had brought with him his two younger sons, Mervyn and Henry ‘Harry’, and his wife, Elizabeth Havelock Ellison, whom he married in 1895.
The Ellison years were a sharp change of course for the Observatory, having previously been repaired and tended by Theresa Selina Hardcastle, widow of the former Director, Joseph Hardcastle who due to the illness that took him, never set foot in Armagh Observatory as the Director. Prior to Mrs. Hardcastles steady care, the Observatory had been led by J.L.E. Dreyer. Dreyer retired in 1916 after an impressive career which saw some of the most prolific publications by Armagh Observatory. And over all of these figures was cast the long shadow of T.R. Robinson, the Astronomer who had led Armagh Observatory throughout the longest reign in its history. Considering this legacy W.F.A. Ellison was a very different figure. Hailing from the clergy W.F.A. had a long interest in Astronomy. When he won the Elrington Theological Prize in 1895 he asked for a number of Astronomy books which were given to him. In 1887 he won a silver medal for Science of Physics from Trinity College Dublin.
William Frederick Ellison was cut from a different mould than his predecessors and was more like the earliest Astronomers that occupied the same role one hundred and thirty years earlier. He was not a trained astronomer, instead he was a clergy man with an unquestionable passion for science and observation. In his past role at Fethard-on-Sea he had constructed a personal observatory for his own use and had purchased the impressive Calver telescope.
He also brought with him a practical talent for optics and telescope making, and he quickly converted an outbuilding into a dedicated mirror grinding workshop. He produced so many competent and robust telescopes that he donated a significant number to a charity fund sending telescopes to the Western Front, where he held little hope of ever having them returned. Over his lifetime W.F.A. Ellison worked on over one hundred and seventy mirrors and before stepping foot in Armagh Observatory had published over five hundred articles and pieces in the English Mechanic.
The family settled quickly in Armagh and the two sons Mervyn and Henry, or Harry to his family, continued an education in astronomy and helped their father with his work. Both have collections that have been donated to Armagh Observatory and Planetarium and that will soon be available on the Online Collection. Mervyn would go on to become the Director of Dunsink Observatory outside Dublin, cementing the long historical ties between Armagh and Dunsink. Harry would go on to become an accomplished pilot and aerial archaeologist as well as an inventor and engineer.
The collection shows both throughout their lives, from photographs from their first birthday to photographs of them as young men. Many of the photographs in the collection were taken by either Harry or Mervyn, including one taken from the top of the old Oak tree outside the Observatory, that still stands today! W.F.A. Ellison’s love of photography was inherited by both of his sons and the ARM WFAE collection stands as an insight into the daily family life of the Director at the beginning of the 1920’s and beyond.
With the launch of the new Armagh Observatory and Planetarium E-Museum we’ll be making more of our collection available. The Armagh Observatory and Planetarium Collection has over thirty-one thousand records and it will take a while for them all to be added to the site.
As we go we will be exploring the various sub-collections and their connections to the local community and the wider history of astronomy, as well as the human stories of the people who made them.
The E-Museum can be accessed through our Armagh.Space website under the ‘heritage tab’, or directly via Our Collection – Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.
This project has been funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to improve digital access to our historical collections, provide volunteering opportunities and to improve our own staff skills for a better experience for all.