Ward Observatory (Including Telescope & Mounting)

121 St Hill Street, Cook Gardens, Whanganui

  • Ward Observatory.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Helen McCracken. Date: 22/01/2002.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 170 Date Entered 28th June 1984


City/District Council

Whanganui District


Horizons (Manawatu-Wanganui) Region

Legal description

Pt Res H - Observatory


The Ward Observatory in Wanganui reflects the growing interest in astronomy in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century New Zealand, and the important contribution of amateur astronomers to the study of astronomy. During the late 1880s, interest in astronomy in New Zealand grew, sparked by the establishment of the Colonial Observatory in Wellington in 1868 and a number of astronomical events, such as the transit of Venus in 1874 and 1882, and a total solar eclipse of the sun seen in the Wellington region in 1885. Throughout New Zealand enthusiastic amateur astronomers, such as Joseph Thomas Ward (1862-1927), established astronomical societies.

Ward had immigrated to New Zealand in 1879 or 1880 and after marrying Ada Evelyn Wright, settled in Wanganui in 1894. Ward established a bookshop and stationery business, but his real passion was for astronomy. In 1901 he was instrumental in forming the Wanganui Astronomical Society. The new society, of which Ward was elected president, successfully sought permission from the Wanganui District Council to build an observatory in Cook's Gardens. In 1902 the society acquired a second-hand 9-½ inch refractor telescope that had been built in England in1865 by Isaac Fletcher. The telescope arrived in New Zealand in December of that year and was stored by the Railways Department free of charge until its new home could be built. Based on plans supplied by Ward, the new observatory was designed by Alfred Atkins (1850-1919) a noted architect who had designed a number of public buildings in Wanganui. It was built by Russell and Bignell, and was officially opened on 25 May 1903 by the Premier, Rt. Hon Richard J. Seddon, with Ward appointed the honorary director. Ward, and his assistant, local lawyer Thomas Allison, made a special study of double stars. Many of these observations are now recognised in international star catalogues as 'Ward doubles'. He also made astronomy accessible to the general public through lectures, opening the observatory to visits, and in his weekly column in the Wanganui Herald. Ward is also credited with making the first astronomical telescopes in New Zealand. In 1926 the observatory was handed over to the Wanganui City Council. Ward died in 1927, and his son William Herschel Ward was appointed the honorary director of the observatory. In 1952 the facilities at the observatory were expanded with the construction of a lecture room and toilets. In 1979/1980 the aperture of the dome was 'heavily modified' by the Wanganui City Council. Today the Wanganui Astronomical Society continues to use the observatory as a venue for their meetings.

Joseph Ward was one of New Zealand's most important amateur astonomers of the twentieth century. The observatory established by Ward, is one of the oldest observatories founded by an amateur still extant in New Zealand.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Atkins, Alfred A.

Atkins (1850-1919) was born in Birmingham, England, on 12 June 1850. He studied for seven years at the School of Science and Art in Birmingham under John Millward, a consulting engineer. In 1875 he immigrated to New Zealand, his first job being the Waitara to Wanganui railway line. This was followed in 1879 by his appointment as Engineer to what became the Waitotara County Council.

In addition to being an Associate Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers to which he was elected in 1886, he was also a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1888 and a member of the Royal Sanitary Institute from 1891. During the 1890s Atkins was in partnership for a time with Frederick de Jersey Clere at Wanganui and Wellington. Some of the more notable buildings completed in this period were the Wanganui Technical School in 1892, Wanganui College with Clere in 1894, Wanganui Museum in 1894 and the Wanganui Hospital in 1897. In 1903 he designed the Ward Observatory in Wanganui.

Atkins moved to Wellington in 1908 and set up practice with Roger Bacon. Over the next decade the firm designed many banks and public buildings, their work including several buildings at Wanganui Collegiate School (1909-1910), Cook Hospital, Gisborne (1911), Wairoa Hospital (1912) and much domestic work in Wellington. Atkins died in 1919. The firm known as Atkins and Bacon continues today as Gooch Mitchell Macdiarmid.

Russell & Bignell

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1903 -

1952 -
Construction of a lecture room and toilets. Carried out by Wanganui City Council and the Wanganui Astronomical Society

1979 - 1980
Aperture of the dome was 'heavily modified' by the Wanganui City Council

Completion Date

25th September 2001

Report Written By

Helen McCracken

Information Sources

Alexander Turnbull Library

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Wanganui Astronomical Society, Diamond Jubilee History, 1963, MS-2223

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Wayne Orchiston, 'Joseph Thomas Ward, 1862-1927', Vol. 3, 1901-1920, Wellington, 1996. p.555.

Other Information

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.