General news

The Cawthron Atkinson Observatory sited in the grounds of Clifton Terrace School, Nelson – Photo: Nelson Mail
8 March 2018

Cooke ‘Atkinson’ Telescope returns home to Cawthron Institute

Nelson astronomers are looking forward to the arrival of a new state-of-the-art telescope so they can continue gazing at planets and stars. However, it is the historic Cooke telescope, which is about to be retired, that is the focus of this story. 

Bob Dickinson, Chair of the Cawthron Institute Trust Board recounts the provenance of this special telescope. “In the 1880s there was growing interest worldwide in physics and astronomy. One of the people who became passionate about such matters was Thomas Cawthron; a New Zealand businessman and philanthropist responsible for the establishment of the Cawthron Institute. He and his friends spent many nights star-gazing.

A highlight was the observation of the official transit of Venus in 1882 from the grounds of Fairfield House, using a 4-inch Browning telescope. Thomas Cawthron also had a dream of establishing a solar physics laboratory in Nelson and many times talked about establishing an observatory”.

Atkinson and his party with the telescope (after Venus' transit in 1882)

Arthur Atkinson, a good friend of Thomas Cawthron, was part of these conversations. Atkinson imported a 5-inch refractory telescope made by Thomas Cooke and Sons, which was much superior to the existing telescope and was used for official observations of a rare solar eclipse in 1885. Based at Fairfield House for over two decades, the telescope was widely used for many astronomical observations. When Atkinson died, the telescope initially went into storage and then in 1904 was placed in the care of the Nelson Institute (subsequently the Museum and the Library) under the condition that it be known as the ‘Atkinson telescope’. 

In 1934, ownership of the telescope was transferred to the Cawthron Institute Trust Board who placed it in the care of the Astronomy Section of the Nelson Science Society. The telescope has been housed in several locations since then – in buildings on Alton Street, Emano Street and Pipers Park – and most recently in the Cawthron Atkinson Observatory at Clifton Terrace School.

This observatory opened in 2008 with support from the Cawthron Trust Board’s philanthropic fund. The observatory hosts monthly Friday night star-gazing parties and these are popular with the Nelson-Tasman community. The success of these events has encouraged the society to consider new technology to inspire a younger generation of astronomers. This has resulted in the purchase of an advanced telescope, so the society is now gratefully returning the historic Cooke ‘Atkinson’ telescope to the Institute.

The Cooke is 3 metres in length with a plinth 2 metres high. The Cawthron Institute, Nelson Science Society and the Nelson Museum are working together to dismantle and store the Cooke telescope until a suitable viewing space is available at Cawthron Institute. 

The President of the Nelson Science Society, Jenny Pollock, said that “The Cooke telescope is being honourably retired after having done sterling service for well over a century." 

The process has been “very rewarding and we have even uncovered a few mysteries along the way, such as what happened to the old 4" Browning telescope that observed the transit of Venus. I am sure that Thomas Cawthron would be very proud that astronomy is alive and well in Nelson”, said Pollock. 

Further information

For those with an interest in the stars and space, the Astronomy Section of the Nelson Science Society (Royal Society of New Zealand) meets on the first Thursday of the month in the Milton Room of the Cawthron Institute (corner of Halifax and Milton Street). For more information about Astronomy in Nelson email or visit the website 

Find out more about the history of the telescope here