Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Observatory – Early Years

From "The Catholic Herald", I unearthed this little gem. Part one today, part two on Friday.

The Observatory – Early Years
By Father Pere Ray

Recent publicity in the Jersey Evening Post made readers of the Herald realize how little most people know about what goes on in this rather Mary Poppins type house called the Observatory.

There is no big telescope as you would expect, but a wealth of other research instruments that has made Jersey famous in scientific circles. Father Charles Rey, SJ the Director since 1934, let us take a look round, and continues his story of The Jesuits who lived at the Hotel de France (printed in December 1971 and January 1972) with this present chapter on the Observatory.

It was in 1893 that the founder of the observatory arrived in Jersey. Father Marc Dechevrens, born in Switzerland in 1845, went to China in 1873 to take charge of the newly founded Jesuit Observatory in Shanghai, in the town district of Zi-Ka-Wie (located in the Xuhui District), where the missionaries had established their residence.

He gave that Observatory a reputation which remained undisputed and acclaimed over the whole world, until the Communist Government took it over, expelling all the Fathers and their faithful helpers.

In 1887, Father Dechevren's health compelled him to return to Europe, and in 1893 he arrived in Jersey at the Maison Saint Louis, a house established since 1880 as a training college for young Jesuits studying philosophy and science.

Soon he discovered that Jersey was an ideal place to install an Observatory, and had a very encouraging response from his superiors to begin his work, with the double aim of studying the weather and taking general observations already inaugurated in China: and secondly to train young Jesuits for their observatories in the Mission lands.

The rest of his life was to be spent here, till he died in December 1923. His first task was to build an Observatory, on top of the property, on a site well exposed to the wind. Ile drew the plans with the help of another Jesuit Father who had been an architect, for a building, simple in its interior arrangement, comprising a central room well lit from above, surrounded by six smaller rooms for living quarters, library, darkroom, transit instruments, magnetic recorders, workshops, etc.

The central room was to house all the meteorological recorders placed on shelves all round the walls. The top part of this room forming a flat roof, made of one inch thick rolled glass slabs, supported a gallery, on each corner of which were secured wind instruments for direction and speed. There was also a sun recorder, some 30 feet above the ground, and 170 feet above sea level.

We still have the specifications given by Mr. S. Cuzner, of 22 Great Union Road, for the building, some details of which are interesting. The foundations' walls were to be ten inches thicker than the respective walls above, and these were to be eighteen inches thick. The work was to be completed not later than the 15th day of September of the same year, 1894, with the penalty not exceeding £4 per week after that date. Unfortunately we do not know how long it took to build as the month was not mentioned on the tender. A receipt, dated November 21, 1894 mentioned the sum of £493, as per the contract, plus extras, making the total cost of £531.15.2d; the 15 shillings 2 pence being graciously ignored.

But, to make a proper study of the wind, Fr. Dechevrens was dreaming of a high tower, far away from surface disturbances. With the help of another Jesuit who had been an engineer in the French Navy, he began his enquiries and had a voluminous correspondence with metal frame builders in England, France and Belgium. The problem was complex and full of difficulties, concerning the kind of material to use, the solidity of the foundations, its resistance to the wind, its weight and height, and price.

Some of the estimates offer interesting information. From Archibald D. Dawney of London Bridge House, London E.C.:

"A small structure for £1,564 delivered in eight weeks, to be erected by Mr. S. Cuzner,” from Les Etablissements Baudet-Danot, Paris, an uninteresting project costing 40,000 francs (£1,600) which led indirectly to the final decision, from the Société Anonyme des Fonderies d'art et de Batiment, Paris, a proposal to build a structure like the Eiffel Tower (erected in 1889), but with doubts expressed about its resistance to the winds of the Channel. They preferred a chimney like structure well anchored to the ground, and maintained by wire strands if the layout of the property permitted. The structure would be 50 metres high with tests being carried out at the famous Le Creusot works; cost: 60,000 francs (£2,400).

A British firm, Malher and Co. of 21 Water Street, Liverpool sent a great amount of letters, written in beautiful French, and many plans, but in a second letter asked cautiously: 'How would Mr. Dechevrens intend to pay as the final amount would be very high?'

They insisted on the ornamental aspect of the tower and intended to keep strictly to Board of Trade Regulations. Their plan was grandiose. The tower would weigh 90 tons. When Father Dechevrens raised an objection they suddenly dropped the whole project, as 'they do not want to undertake a work which would not be to the credit and reputation of the firm'.

Another firm, Newton Heath Ironworks of Manchester, Contractors to the Admiralty, insisted on their great reputation since they had built the 507 ft Blackpool Tower (1894), weight 3730 tons, and were working on the project of' the London Tower, which was to be 1,150 ft high, the highest tower in the world!

'I am the only man in England who has experience in building towers. I submit that you should have the base of tower not less than one fourth of its total height, that would he forty feet. I suppose that you would want the design as simple as possible, without any ornamentation whatever. It should weigh at least 200 tons, and the cost would be between £6,000 and £7,000 sterling, erected painted, and finished complete.'

Another letter, dated February 20, 1 894, stated:

'Of course we know our business and we strongly advise you to consult some civil engineer of undoubted repute.'

A few lines below the letter continued:

'Last Sunday week it blew such a gale at Blackpool that the steel flagstaff standing on the tower, 555 ft high, was bent over like a whip. The dimensions of the flagstaff were 20 ft high, 6 inch steel tubing, 1/4 inch thick, tapering to three inches at the top.'

Later in the correspondence the firm stated:

'I never pretend to do cheap work, but I will guarantee good work, which is always cheapest in the end . As I said before, if you mean business, I will run down and see you, and could commence deliveries six weeks from now. My price at such a distance must be £30 per ton'

A letter dated March 19 begins:

'What have you done about your tower? If you would like to run the risk of getting it erected in Jersey, or possibly you can get the work done cheaper locally than I could, being on the spot, and acquainted with the district, I will design you a tower, and deliver free on trucks in Manchester, at £20 a ton, giving it all one coat of paint. You shall pass the drawings before I start work.'

The correspondence did not go further.

In a long correspondence with a Monsieur Zeigler an old boy of one of the Jesuit Colleges in Paris, the name of Monsieur T. Seyrig, who built the bridge on the Duoro River appears for the first time. He is mentioned as a first class engineer in the Société Anonyme de Construction et des Ateliers de Willebroeck, in Belgium. He was to be the architect of the Jersey Tower. The specifications are given in a long memoire dated April 2, 1894, and long studies and discussions follow.

It was finally decided that the tower should be 50 metres high, on four stone pillars, 4 metres deep underground, two and a half above ground level, with a cavity and gallery so that the four bolts fixing the metal tower to its foundations could be tightened from below.

The structure was to be twelve metres wide at the base, tapering to two metres at the top supporting a large platform capable of hearing the weight of twenty people. A hollow mast at the centre would then support another smaller platform, to which access could be gained by mean, of two ladders.

The blue prints of all the details are kept at the observatory, with the studies of the strength of the metal, which was to be of mild steel, the whole structure conforming to the logarithmic curve which it had to have to support its own weight of 37 tons and resist to the force of wind calculated at 300 kilos per square metre. The tower would he assembled in sections at the Willebroeck works, dismantled, and shipped from Antwerp to Jersey, with all the bolts and rivets.

The price was fixed at 31,500 francs (£1,260) including the stone foundations and pillars, payable in French currency, 60%° when the parts arrived, 30% at the end of erection, and 10% at the end of a one year's guarantee. The contract was signed in Paris on April 6, 1894.

On May 16 a start was made on digging the foundations: September 18 saw the first horizontal beam in place and by November 3 the erection was complete.

The masonry was done by Mr. Cuzner; the foreman for the metal work, a Mr. Mest who had come over from Belgium with his team of specialists.

Apart from some controversy about the salary of the men who claimed an increase as the work went higher, it appeared to be a straightforward job. There were no accidents recorded, nor any record of festivities for the opening ceremony which consisted of a blessing given by the Father Rector of the Maison Saint Louis.

The gradual appearance of this metallic frame against the skyline attracted the attention of journalists. On October 23 the Jersey Express reported:


Great interest is being manifested in the erection of an observatory which is now being constructed by the Jesuits on their property in St. Saviour's. The tower, which is built of iron, has already reached a great height, from the summit of which a splendid view is obtained not only of the town but also of the country.

It is stated that when the observatory is completed it will be possible to see what is taking place in the armoury of Fort Regent. Should the observatory he opened to public inspection we doubt not that many will eagerly embrace the opportunity of witnessing an indescribable coup d'oeil which must well repay any difficulty incidental thereto.'

The Nouvelle Chronique dated October 24 reported:


As we have already said the Jesuits are at present constructing a real Eiffel Tower in Jersey. This tower, an observatory, is built completely in iron, and even today, although it is not yet finished, has reached such a great height, that from the top it is possible to have a most splendid view, not only of all the town, but a large part of the country as well. We are told that when the tower is completed it will be possible to see what is taking place in the armoury of Fort Regent. We wonder how the army feel about the prospect of prying eyes noting their movements. If only by curiosity our readers should take a walk up Wellington Road to have a look at this tower.'

After the erection of the tower Father Dechevrens invited Mr. Seyrig to visit Jersey to sec his work.

In a letter dated February 1 896, the architect thanked the Father for a photograph of the tower, and said that he was pleased to know that the tower was giving every satisfaction. He wrote: but there is only one point where I do not entirely agree with you it is that the structure is elegant. I am afraid I don't always find that my constructions are smart and graceful. I hope that other qualities make up for this. I am not at all enthusiastic about architecture in metal, but as you declare yourself satisfied, I am delighted.'

Was the Jesuits' Tower a beautiful asset to Jersey? At that time there was not yet a Comite des Beautes Naturelles to give the final verdict!

Though built for science, the tower was on some occasions used for a very different purpose. On June 24, 1897, the Jersey Evening Post reported the illuminations for Queen Victoria's Jubilee:

'A magnificent searchlight that could be seen from miles around, gleamed from the top of the Eiffel Tower-like observatory. The tower itself being also gaily decked mill lights throughout the whole length.'

In 1919, for the peace celebrations, it was used as a giant flagstaff, with bunting on the four corners from top to bottom, with the Allies' National flags displayed from the top of the tower to the roof of Highlands College.

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