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Friday, 26 February 2021
Old Government House, Parramatta
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

I, too, pay my respects to the Dharug people on whose land we gather.

The great Southern skies above these unique lands of ours have always been a great source of fascination to astronomers, navigators and those who have left their footprint on the land continuously for 65,000 years. For Aboriginal Australians the constellations are found in the black spaces between the stars. Western astronomers are guided by the stars themselves. Astronomers from around the world continue to look to the Southern Skies in their search for the beginning of time.

Thomas MacDougall Brisbane, the 6th Governor of NSW,  nearly came to grief when, as a young military officer, the ship upon which he was sailing on route to the West Indies was nearly shipwrecked due to a navigational error, in the longitudinal measurement.  

Brisbane, already fascinated with science, and now acutely conscious of the need for pinpoint navigational accuracy, quickly and completely became master of nautical astronomy.

Brisbane crossed the equator 12 times,[1] read widely on mathematics, science and nautical astronomy and studied the subject through correspondence with leading astronomers.

Such was the depth of his knowledge and the expertise he acquired over the succeeding years that the Duke of Wellington ordered his army to study Brisbane’s tables of the sun’s altitude.

It was this fascination, not only with nautical astronomy, but with all things astronomical that brought him to the colony of New South Wales.

Brisbane was a Fellow of the Royal Society in London and news from the Colony sparked his interest in the Southern skies.   He thus decided to petition for the role of Governor of New South Wales.  He wrote, in letters which are held in the Mitchell Library, that the position would provide him an opportunity to carry on “extensive Astronomical Observations that are not only highly interesting to science but may be beneficial to mankind.”[2]  Indeed, Brisbane hoped that he would be able to calculate the shape of the earth.[3]   We know from those letters that he purchased astronomical instruments in the expectation of the appointment.

Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time was unimpressed with the application.  On hearing of Brisbane’s petition, he wrote to the Duke of Wellington complaining that he required a man to “govern, not the heavens, but the earth”.[4]    

However, Brisbane had the strong support of Joseph Banks who had accompanied Captain Cook on his 1770 expedition and was at the time the influential President of the British Royal Society.    

And thus, Thomas Brisbane became the 6th Governor of New South Wales arriving in the colony in November 1821.   Shortly after he commenced to build the observatory here at Parramatta, where he lived.[5]   This was the second of four observatories built by Brisbane.   The first was a stone observatory at his family’s estate, Brisbane House, at Largs in Scotland in 1808; the third was built in 1826 at his estate in Kelso shortly after he returned to England after his term as Governor had ended, and Scotland’s first magnetic observatory built in 1841.[6]

Although the observatory here at Parramatta was an improvement on William Dawes’ makeshift observatory at The Rocks, it was nonetheless simple in structure and design, consisting of a timber building about 7.5 metres square with two domes facing north and south. The Observatory housed the Transit telescope; Bourdon’s pendulum for determining the shape of the Earth; a mural and repeating circle, used for measuring the distance between the stars; a sidereal time regulator clock for measuring the rotation of the stars in relation to the earth; a marine chronometer, compass, barometers and thermometers for meteorological observations. Several were Brisbane’s own instruments.  

Together with a German astronomer, Charles Rumker, and a Scottish instrumental clockmaker, James Dunlop, Transit observations were made by listening to the clock while watching a star cross the wires in the eyepiece.[7]

This collaboration saw 7385 stars identified in the southern hemisphere from 40,000 observations.  This was the first comprehensive catalogue of stars since Lacaille’s Chart, compiled during a two-year journey to the Cape of Good Hope in 1751-52.[8]   

Brisbane’s most important observation, however, was the return of Encke’s comet on 2 June 1822.   It was the second only comet discovery to Halley’s comet in 1758 and the second recognised return of a comet, proving that comets, like planets, obeyed Newton’s laws of gravity.  

While these important astronomical observations and discoveries were being made, what was otherwise happening in the Colony?

It appears that after 1822, Governor Brisbane was forced to rely on his assistants to continue the Observatory’s work.  As Brisbane  said: “In place of passing my time in the Observatory or shooting Parrots, I am seldom employed in either. And Altho' I rise oftener at 5 o'clock in the Morning than after, I cannot get thro' the various and arduous duties of my Government.”[9] 

Although there was discord in the Colony over land grants and amongst the squattocracy, Brisbane nonetheless worked to ensure the colony was well governed.  He was particularly concerned with food security, establishing Experimental Farms, the Agricultural Society of NSW, importing seeds and animals and forming farm work gangs from untrained labour.

Brisbane’s administration saw the first steps towards representative democracy.   In 1823, following Commissioner Bigge’s report, the United Kingdom had passed the New South Wales Act[10] which established the first Legislative Council and a Charter of Justice, and provided for the creation of a Supreme Court of New South Wales and the appointment of a Chief Justice.’[11]

Despite these significant developments in the Colony, the view in England was that Governor Brisbane was spending too much time on his astronomical activities.   This had been the subject of correspondence in 1823 between Sir Humphrey Davy the then President of the Royal Society and Lord Bathurst.   In attempts to dispel these concerns, Lord Davy argued that it was anticipated that Brisbane’s observations in the Colony would “lay a foundation for a Survey of our Colonies in the great and unexplored Country.”[12]

This time, the support of the Royal Society was to no avail.

Brisbane was forced to relinquish office in 1825.   

Notwithstanding the political disapprobation of his role as Governor, Brisbane retained his status as a distinguished scientific figure in England.  For his survey of the stars of the southern skies, Brisbane received an Astronomical Society Gold Medal in 1828, prior to publication of the Chart in 1835.

But what of his legacy to New South Wales, then and now?

First, he left us his Chart of 7385 stars, priceless instruments, featured in this exhibition, as well as 349 volumes of his scientific library gifted to the State.[13]

His portrait hangs in the Main Hall of Government House Sydney, along with the portraits of every Governor of the colony and now of the State of New South Wales.   Brisbane’s portrait, painted by Augustus Earle in 1825, was the Colony’s first commissioned full body portrait.  The portrait signalled Governor Brisbane’s intention to be remembered for his astronomical endeavours; his spherical astrolabe featured prominently in the right hand corner.

He was the first President of the Philosophical Society of Australasia, the predecessor of the Royal Society of New South Wales, whose motto “omnia quaerite” (question everything) aligns so well with this Exhibition.

In 2009, a relatively minor planet, asteroid 5277, discovered at Siding Creek Observatory in Coonabarabran[15] was named in Governor Brisbane’s honour.  It was observed by a Scottish Australian astronomer, born only 20 kilometres from Governor Brisbane’s birthplace in Scotland.[14]

And he shares his birthday, 23rd July with the 39th Governor of New South Wales, and, as the 39th Governor I am honoured to open this Exhibition.

The more auspicious anniversaries, however, are this 75th anniversary celebration year of the National Trust NSW and the 200th anniversary of the Royal Society. Governor Brisbane’s achievements have thus come full circle with this exhibition.

An early President of the Royal Astronomical Society, John Herschel, addressed the Society in 1829 with these words: “…(T)he first brilliant trait of Australian history marks the era of (Brisbane’s) government” [15] Albeit that this statement failed to recognise or, indeed, understand the history of the First Australians, living sustainably in this country over millenia, it is nonetheless a fitting tribute to a great western astronomer.

It is my pleasure to officially open the exhibition.


[2] Brisbane letters, 1815 in ‘Symposium Commemorating Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane,’ National Trust, Observatory Hill, 1 December 2011 by Raghir Bhathal, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, University of Western Sydney, Kingswood Campus, Penrith.

[3] This point (paraphrased) made in The Governors of New South Wales 1788-2010, Clune and Turner, Federation Press - Chapter on Governor Brisbane - Pages 129-145


[7] ‘Symposium Commemorating Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane,’ National Trust, Observatory Hill, 1 December 2011 by Raghir Bhathal, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, University of Western Sydney, Kingswood Campus, Penrith.





[12] Sir Humphrey Davy to Earl Bathurst, Historical Record of Australia Series, Vol 11 1823-1825 in:


[14] Found in 1988

[15] Herschel (1829) ‘An Address delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Astronomical Society of London on Feb 8 1828, on presenting the Gold Medal to Ltg Gen Sir Thomas Macdougal Brisbane and James Dunlop Esq in: ‘Symposium Commemorating Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane,’ National Trust, Observatory Hill, 1 December 2011 by Raghir Bhathal, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, University of Western Sydney, Kingswood Campus, Penrith.




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