BIS North Observatory

The BIS Observatory was built in Harrogate, and was a very impressive undertaking at Harlow Hill Tower (which now has a website

The following is taken from Spaceflight Vol 1 No. 4 July 1957.
It is a fascinating story without an end, and we really would like to know more about the Observatory project and what became of it (the Harlow Hill Tower website alludes to an Observatory dome being added in 1963, but an earlier one may have been destroyed by a storm). In fact we would also appreciate knowing more about the former Yorkshire Branch and its activities as a whole by e-mail at

The B.I.S. Observatory

By Leonard S. Strickson, FRAS

An account of the British Interplanetary Society’s first astronomical observatory.

We have several amateur astronomers in the Yorkshire Branch, and we thought it would be desirable to have an observatory in order to serve as a focal point for members with similar interests. In addition it is felt that there is a link between Astronautics and Astronomy, particularly in the lunar and planetary fields. After a conversation between the author and Prof. F. Whipple in Rome last year, we also decided to form a team to take part in operation “Moonwatch”.

The fact that the financial outlay had to be low rather limited our scope. Fortunately, we discovered that the Harrogate Corporation might lease an old observation tower. Thanks to close co-operation between Mr. L. J. Carter, the BIS Council and the Harrogate Corporation, a lease was drawn up at a purely nominal rental. All that remained was for us to inspect the premises and commence work.
The tower, which is 15 ft. square, is of stone, and is 80 ft. high. It was built in 1829, and stands on the top of Harlow Hill, 600 ft. above sea level on the western boundary of the town. There is no industrial haze, and no great amount of street lighting in the vicinity.

Since being used as a Home Guard H.Q. during World War II the building has been disused, and on entering the cobwebby gloom we found that a horde of pigeons had been using the place as a mass-production hatchery. As soon as we entered we were smothered with clouds of dust and dirt blown down by the beating of wings of the birds we disturbed. The stone steps were lost under a ramp of droppings, and we had to pick our way over nests of fledglings. There is a room off the first landing measuring 18 ft. X 10 ft.; here the window was boarded up, the ceiling completely down and shrouds of cobwebs hanging on the walls like coats in a cloakroom. Our first task was to get rid of the debris, and we are grateful to Mr. Bishop, Superintendent of the Parks and Gardens Department, for taking loads of rubbish off our hands. After some acrobatics by candlelight, the author managed to put up some temporary wiring for a supply of electric light; then Mr. Waddington, another member, completed the lighting and power circuits.

At this stage there was some doubt amongst certain of our members that perhaps we had taken on too great a task, but the working party was only spurred on to greater efforts by such pessimism. We had a firm of slaters to repair the roof of the “library”, as we decided to call the shambles of a room, and we fixed plaster boards to the rafters. Then Stephen Keeler spent his annual holiday decorating and laying lino. He has done one wall over with blackboard paint surrounding a projection screen. With the addition of some easy chairs and some special curtains woven by Colonel Stephenson, we have a very comfortable headquarters. We even have a camp bed for the more enthusiastic of the night watchers. The curtains deserve special mention, since the design is based on the BIS badge, and the curtains look very effective. Another of the Colonel’s activities is the installation of a Foucault Pendulum.

Our next main difficulty was the question of providing a suitable base for the telescope mounting and drive. The inner part of the building consists of a tower 18 in. thick and 8 ft. square. This structure is 13 ft. shorter than the main building. The problem was to build a rigid structure 13 ft. high on a hole 70 ft. deep, 6 ft. X 6 ft. I t seemed that we would never be able to make a first class job. Fortunately Mr. T. S. Lucas, of Concrete Ltd., Leeds, heard of our problem, and offered to help. After inspecting the site he produced a design of a concrete and steel structure which surpassed our expectations. One cold and foggy Sunday morning Mr. Lucas arrived with eight men and a lorry-load of equipment. A diesel winch was installed in line with the door of the tower, and the cable taken to the top to block and tackle. With this all the concrete slabs, steel pillars and buckets of cement were hauled up. Firstly the top of the inner tower was covered with concrete slabs; these were reinforced along the joints. Then this platform was covered with 4 in. of concrete over a lattice of j in. diameter reinforcing bars. Bolted to this is the steel pillar. This is fabricated from ½ in. steel plate and is 12 in. square. The pillar is in two sections since it was impossible to get a 13-ft. pillar into the building. The two sections are flanged and joined with 4 in. bolts. To prevent vibration there are four dampers of 2-in. angle iron running from the pillar to the outer walls. The top is furnished with an 18-in. square platform which will take the actual mounting. This platform is capable of a limited movement in any plane in order that we may obtain perfect alignment before bolting it permanently in place. Mr. Lucas and his staff worked all day to finish the installation, and we are indeed grateful to him.

Astronomers who have visited us recently have expressed approval. The winter months slowed down our activities; however, during this time we cleaned down the stonework and mixed about 5 cwt. of cement, with which we did some necessary inside pointing. Thanks are due here to Messrs. Greenwood and Gregory, who came over from Leeds every week-end and assisted in the cold and rough task. Gilbert Fielder designed the dome and Michael Wright furnished us with the necessary working drawings. Messrs. Rowlay and Metcalfe are well ahead with the mounting and drive and we hope to have that in position in a week or two.

Our next large task was the removal of a heavy wood roof over the observation platform. This was the cause of some careful thought, since none of us are steeplejacks and the thought of working outside at a height of 80 ft. was not without its terrors. However, the author, with the aid of two volunteers roped together like Alpine climbers, removed the roof in one afternoon. The next week we had the pleasure of threading 15-ft. joists down into the tower in the pouring rain.

The top is now cleared, and work has commenced on the construction of the shuttering for a 14-ft. diameter reinforced concrete ring 6 in. x 12 in., which will house the eight rollers 6 in. diameter, on which the dome will rotate. The framework o f the dome will be fabricated from standard steel sections and the covering material will be 16 s.w.g. aluminium alloy sheet which we are obtaining at cost through Mr. Rowe of Blackburn and General Aircraft. It is hoped that by the time this article appears in print we shall be nearing completion of the main work. The telescope, which has been donated by Colonel Stephenson, is an f /12 Newtonian 6-in. Reflector. The work done and the progress made could not have been achieved without a great deal of help from BIS members and others, and to all those not already mentioned may I say “ thank you”.

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