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Papers of Sir Richard Woolley, 1927 - 1987

Reference Code: GBR/0180/RGO 10

Scope and Contents

The collection contains a wide range of material relating to the activities of the Royal Greenwich Observatory during Sir Richard Woolley's time in office, with some additional papers from other periods. The first half of the collection is comprised of correspondence. This begins with two long series of general correspondence arranged alphabetically by correspondent. These are followed by a long series of individual or small sets of letters relating to various correspondents. The second half of the collection contains letters and other papers concerning a wide range of subjects, including British and foreign observatories, particularly the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope; numerous other organisations, notably the British Association, International Astronomical Union, Ministry of Public Building and Works, Royal Astronomical Society, Royal Society and Science Research Council; departments and committees, including the Large Telescope Users' Panel; the acquisition, maintenance and employment of instruments and other equipment, including the Isaac Newton Telescope; the administration and organisation of operations at the Herstmonceux site; publications; and conferences.


  • Creation: 1927 - 1987


Conditions Governing Access

From the Management Group:

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Biographical / Historical

Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley (1906-1972) was born in Weymouth, Dorset, on 24 April 1906, the son of Paymaster Rear Admiral C.E.A. Woolley and Julia van der Riet. He attended Allhallows School, near Honiton, Devon (of which he later became a governor), before rejoining his family in his mother's homeland, South Africa. The family lived in Cape Town, where Woolley attended the city's university and obtained an M.Sc. in mathematics. He returned to Britain in 1926 to take up a place at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he studied for the Mathematical Tripos and was classed a Wrangler. From 1928 to 1932 he worked for a Ph.D. under the direction of Sir Arthur Eddington. He left Cambridge in 1929 to take up a Commonwealth Fund Scholarship at the Mount Wilson Observatory, California, but returned in 1931 as Isaac Newton Student. He became Chief Assistant at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1933, and published his first major work, 'Eclipses of the Sun and Moon', in collaboration with the Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Dyson, in 1937. That year he returned to Cambridge for a third time to become John Couch Adams Astronomer.

In 1939 Woolley left Britain for Australia to take up the post of first (and last) Commonwealth Astronomer at the Mount Stromlo Observatory, near Canberra. He remained there until 1956, during which time he supervised the construction of the 74-inch telescope which, along with the 74-inch at the Radcliffe Observatory, Pretoria, was then the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere. In 1953 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, awarded the O.B.E. and published his second major work, 'The Outer Layers of a Star', produced jointly with Professor D.W.N. Stibbs.

Woolley returned to England in 1956 to become Astronomer Royal. When he arrived the Royal Observatory was still in the throes of its move from Greenwich to Herstmonceux in Sussex, and as a consequence the first part of his stewardship was taken up with the supervision of this upheaval. By the end of 1956 all the main instruments were in place at Herstmonceux, and within three years Woolley had them working on a full-scale programme.

Under Woolley the main operations at the Royal Greenwich Observatory were diverse. Many of the traditional functions of the Observatory were still undertaken, including the measuring of the positions of stars for almanacs, the running of the Time Service and the making of geomagnetic and meteorological observations, although the last of these functions was soon discontinued. Woolley expanded the operations of the Observatory into wider fields, especially astrophysics. Study programmes were introduced for stars and much work was also done on variable stars, in particular RR Lyrae.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory under Woolley was noted for its international links. Staff were often sent on observational visits to foreign observatories, notably Mount Palomar in California and Helwan in Egypt. National and international links were strengthened further by Woolley's initiation of an annual Herstmonceux Conference, which was held for the first time in 1957.

The highlight of Woolley's time as Astronomer Royal came in 1967 with the opening by Her Majesty the Queen of the long-awaited 98-inch Isaac Newton Telescope at Herstmonceux. At the time this was the largest telescope in Western Europe. It brought much prestige to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, as well as allowing more advanced observation programmes to be carried out.

The building of another large telescope, the 150-inch Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring, New South Wales, owed much to Woolley's personal efforts. On becoming Astronomer Royal, he put forward the idea of a large southern hemisphere telescope to help redress the imbalance between astronomy south of the Equator and the much more advanced astronomy of the northern hemisphere. Woolley was the driving force behind the project, carefully steering it around many obstacles, and it was largely due to him that the Australian option was chosen in preference to the alternative of joining the European Southern Observatory project.

Woolley was also heavily involved in astronomy at what might be termed the 'grass-roots' level. He took many opportunities to popularise astronomy by means of television and radio appearances and newspaper and magazine interviews. He gave lectures and short talks at many functions organised by university, school and local astronomical societies and provided advice to individuals who wrote to him on astronomical and related matters. He was also keen to foster goodwill between the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the local community, taking an active part in events around Sussex whenever possible and giving his support to, for example, the village football team in Herstmonceux. He also forged close links with the Department of Astronomy of the newly-formed University of Sussex, becoming visiting Professor of Astronomy in 1966 and an Honorary Doctor of Science in 1970. He encouraged the university's astronomy undergraduates to spend time working and studying at the Royal Greenwich Observatory as part of their course, and also introduced a popular summer course for students from all over the country. Some of the students who took advantage of these opportunities later came to work at the Observatory.

Woolley received numerous awards during the course of his career in recognition of his contribution to astronomy and science. He was knighted in 1963, and in 1971 was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for his contributions to observational and theoretical astrophysics, particularly in the field of stellar dynamics. He was Honorary Fellow of the Australian National University; Honorary Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; President of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1963-1965; Honorary Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Uppsala, Sweden; and Vice-President of the International Astronomical Union, 1952-1958. In 1969 he was elected Warden of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. He was also granted the freedom of the City of London.

Woolley retired as Astronomer Royal in 1971 to become the first Director of the new South African Astronomical Observatory at Sutherland. At this point the decision was taken to split the posts of Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and Astronomer Royal, which until that time has always been inseparable. As a result, Sir Richard's successor as Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Dr Margaret Burbridge, did not become Astronomer Royal, this appointment going to the Cambridge radio astronomer Sir Martin Ryle.

Woolley returned to Cambridge in 1978, where he was awarded the title of Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge in recognition of his long-standing and very close links with the university. His first wife, Gwyneth Jane Margaret Meyler, who he married in 1932, died in 1979, and later that year he married Emily May Patricia Marples. After her death in 1985, he married his third wife, Sheila Gillham. Following a fall, Woolley died at Somerset West, Cape Province, South Africa, on 24 December 1986.


68 archive box(es) (68 boxes) : paper/photograph

Language of Materials


Other Finding Aids

A word-processed handlist is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Most of the papers became part of the Observatory's archives subsequent to Woolley's retirement. Details of later accessions can be found in the revelant entries in the catalogue.


This description was created by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives.


Woolley, Richard van der Reit

Finding aid date

2006-06-20 12:46:59+00:00

Includes index.

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom