Carkeek Observatory work not too late?

It was the mid-1980’s when astronomy historians located the remains of the star-gazers’ observatory built by Stephen Carkeek in 1868 on his farm near Featherston – and now one of the potential jewels in the crown of Wairarapa’s Dark Sky Reserve.

Since the rediscovery of the remains of New Zealand’s oldest remaining observatory, several critical events have occurred:

1. It was virtually forgotten, again, until the dark sky reserve crew was alerted to its existence;

2. Heritage New Zealand accepted the challenge, did a detailed study, and declared Carkeek Observatory a Class One heritage building – or “ruin” as its formal report explained;

3. Prompted by the Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve group to the existence of this great heritage/historic building, it had an archeological architect report on options for preserving, protecting and retaining the old mouldering totara plank-clad building;

4. Mayor Martin Connelly in early November convened a meeting of interested parties to kick-start the possibility of saving what’s left of the 153-year-old untreated and mainly collapsed totara structure. For the record, the remains of this observatory were ‘discovered’ in 1987 by the late Sid Cretney and Tony Dodson, two astronomers. Their feat was recorded by a colleague, Professor Wayne Orchiston, of the University of Southern Queensland and long-time Carkeek Observatory researcher. It took till 2020 for Carkeek Observatory to be formally reviewed by Heritage New Zealand staff and described as being of “outstanding historical importance” and an important element of Aotearoa’s astronomical history.

Carkeek himself remains something of a mystery as an active amateur astronomer as his decade of sky- watching and event recording near Featherston was lost after his death in 1878, with some reports that these journal records or books of data were burnt.

There is something of a timeline for his public office-holding and later life. He first appears in 1842 as Collector of Customs in Nelson. By 1849 he has relocated to Wellington and become New Zealand’s first Commissioner of Customs. He was instrumental in building New Zealand’s first official Time Ball on the Wellington waterfront. Back then, a Time Ball was used daily to set all time pieces, including ship navigation systems, to British standard or Greenwich Mean Time. As Prof Orchiston notes, “the timeball was operational by March 1864, and time telegraphed to other NZ towns.”

In 1866 Carkeek took early retirement and bought a sheep farm just south of Featherston where he built what was known in the day as a “Romsey Observatory,” a style of amateur star-gazing observatory popular across the astronomical world at the time.

In 2023, the so-called “ruins” sit on land owned by South Wairarapa District Council, which has begun a project many trust will preserve and protect the remains of the old collapsing totara pile. When Prof Orchiston heard that help may be on the way for the site, he sent the attached: an “Obituary” note about the observatory which was presented at the 2021 Centennial meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, New Zealand. He now hopes it was premature.