Carkeek Observatory

270 Murphys Line, Featherston

  • Carkreek Observatory, Featherston.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Christine Barnett. Date: 20/11/2019.
  • Carkreek Observatory, Featherston. Detail - Example of mortice and tenon construction (joint with peg) and hand-made iron nails in the transit annex.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Kerryn Pollock. Date: 12/09/2019.
  • Carkreek Observatory, Featherston. Detail - Example of an iron wheel, part of the mechanism which allowed the canvas dome of the equatorial room to revolve when in situ. It is now on the ground in the transit annex.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Kerryn Pollock. Date: 12/09/2019.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 9808 Date Entered 25th June 2020 Date of Effect 15th July 2020


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Lot 5 DP 482853 (RT 679923), Wellington Land District and the building known as Carkeek Observatory thereon. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information).

City/District Council

South Wairarapa District


Wellington Region

Legal description

Lot 5 DP 482853 (RT 679923), Wellington Land District

Location description

Additional Location Information NZTM E 1794984; NZTM N 5442525


Built in circa 1867 on a farm south of the Wairarapa town of Featherston, the Carkeek Observatory possesses outstanding historical significance as Aotearoa/New Zealand’s earliest surviving astronomical observatory. Built by civil servant, timeball instigator and amateur astronomer Stephen Carkeek, the place reflects the crucial role of amateur practitioners in the foundation and development of science in this country. As a local version of the popular Romsey-style of observatory used in Britain, it represents the transfer of a British tradition of amateur astronomy to colonial settings. The place has technological significance through the use of construction methods and materials similar to the Romsey model, and it possesses enough original elements to demonstrate how these observatories worked. As the only surviving nineteenth century stand-alone astronomical observatory in the country, it is a rare historic place. Due to their light-weight construction, Romsey-style observatories are rare internationally, making the Carkeek Observatory a remarkable survivor in a global context. Rediscovered by historians of astronomy in the 1980s, the observatory has provided this community and local astronomers with a connection to their past, which affords the place social significance, a quality heightened by its location next to the proposed South Wairarapa International Dark Sky Reserve.

Stephen Carkeek built the timber observatory on the farm he bought following his retirement from the civil service in 1866. Carkeek was a dedicated astronomer, establishing latitude and longitude points by astronomical means and tracking planetary satellites, eclipses and culminations. His expertise was recognised in the lead-up to the 1874 transit of Venus, which attracted many international astronomical expeditions to New Zealand. Carkeek was also an active member of the Featherston community, providing meteorological observations to a local newspaper and serving on committees.

Likely made from locally-sourced tōtara, the structure was typical of modest, low-cost observatories built by western amateur astronomers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was comprised of two main parts, an octagonal equatorial room with a revolving canvas dome and a rectangular transit annex. The equatorial room housed a refracting telescope used to monitor astronomical objects while the north-south path of stars across the meridian was tracked with the transit telescope.

Stephen Carkeek died suddenly in 1878 and the farm was leased and subsequently sold. The observatory was no longer used for its original purpose, instead housing farming equipment, and gradually fell into a ruinous state. By the twenty-first century it was a partial yet authentic ruin, with enough original fabric surviving in-situ for the structure’s function to be discernible.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Carkeek Observatory is historically significant as the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in New Zealand. As an amateur observatory built by an individual, Stephen Carkeek, it is an excellent, early representation of the dominance of amateur practitioners in the history of New Zealand astronomy, and the importance of non-professionals in the early period of New Zealand scientific research. The place is connected to colony-building through the association of its creator with the development of accurate timekeeping and the creation of a national standard time service, and by the employment of astronomical methods in land surveying and mapping. It predates the burgeoning popular interest in astronomy that followed the transit of Venus in 1874, and other astronomical events of the late nineteenth century, such as the transits of Mercury in 1878 and 1881, of all which were major events in the astronomical calendar and attracted significant scientific and public interest.

The Carkeek Observatory represents the transmission of the British tradition of amateur astronomy to colonial locales. Furthermore, it is a nationally and internationally-rare surviving example of nineteenth century vernacular astronomical architecture realised in timber. Though ruinous, sufficient material survives for the building to act as a New Zealand version of the stand-alone Romsey style of observatory, which was designed in Britain as a model for amateur astronomers to emulate. It reflects a local translation of a vernacular architectural response to the growing popularity of astronomy in this period through the employment of low-cost materials and simple layout, culminating in a fit-for-purpose observatory achieved without major financial outlay.

Archaeological Significance or Value

There is great potential for a buildings archaeology approach to yield valuable information about this place, particularly in the absence of written records about its construction. Scientific analysis of the observatory timber could confirm the origin tree species. Measured drawings would likely contribute similarly vital extra detail on its construction methods and structural elements. Subsurface investigation could produce evidence of astronomical instruments and other equipment, furniture and materials related to the observatory. Additionally, investigation of the wider site known as the ‘Garden Paddock’ may produce archaeological material dating from the Carkeek family period. All these research avenues provide a rare opportunity to shed light on the practice of nineteenth century amateur astronomy.

Technological significance

The Carkeek Observatory has technological significance through the use of Romsey-style observatory construction elements, such as timber rather than permanent materials and an inexpensive, light-weight canvas-clad revolving dome. Though the canvas dome is not extant, sufficient amount of the iron channels and wheels survive to demonstrate how the dome would have operated. The Romsey model was widely adopted by amateur astronomers in the United Kingdom but no nineteenth century examples are known to survive, making the surviving elements of the Carkeek Observatory a good example of this type of astronomical technology.

Social Significance or Value

The rediscovery of the Carkeek Observatory in the late 1980s provided the New Zealand astronomical community with a tangible connection to its past. It has become a meeting place for historians of local astronomy, who have recorded the site and its physical changes. The observatory has gained additional public recognition as a key site close to the proposed South Wairarapa International Dark Sky Reserve.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The role of the amateur in astronomy and other scientific disciplines is an important theme in New Zealand history. The foundation and development of science in this country rested on the contribution made by individual practitioners and organisations dominated by amateurs for many decades, and in the case of astronomy, until the second half of the twentieth century. As a rare nineteenth century astronomical observatory, with a construction date that places it in the vanguard of Pākehā astronomy, the Carkeek Observatory is an outstanding representation of the early expression of the amateur theme. As the observatory of one person, Stephen Carkeek, it strongly represents the important contribution individuals made to scientific endeavour at a time when research institutions and government-sponsored science were in their infancy.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

Stephen Carkeek’s association with Pākehā concepts of time through his establishment of the New Zealand’s first timeball in Wellington and his related role in the implementation of standard time based on astronomy links the Carkeek Observatory to these ideas and practices. The advent of standard time was of major importance in the daily life of New Zealanders and contributed to the regularisation of work hours and schedules and leisure time. Carkeek instigated the timeball, supervised its construction and refined its workings and is thus an outstanding figure in the history of New Zealand timekeeping. Though his precise contribution to astronomy remains unclear, his astronomical activities and expertise were recognised by his peers and he is nevertheless understood as an important individual in the early history of amateur astronomy.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

As the earliest surviving astronomical observatory in the country, this place possesses the ability to provide meaningful insights into early Pākehā astronomical practices. The surviving fabric is a physical demonstration of the way amateur astronomers carried out their work in the nineteenth century, and further knowledge would likely be gained through archaeological investigations, measured drawings and scientific analysis of the building, the sub-surface surroundings and the wider site.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place

The importance of this place to the New Zealand astronomical community is demonstrated by successful efforts of members to find the observatory in the late 1980s and subsequent site visits and research. It is appreciated by the Martinborough Dark Sky Society as a valuable historic element near the proposed South Wairarapa International Dark Sky Reserve.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

The Carkeek Observatory has the potential to demonstrate to the public that astronomy and astronomical history is not confined to grander structures constructed in more permanent materials. As an authentic, albeit ruinous building, it shows how amateur astronomers could pursue their work as their means permitted. The present-day identification of the Wairarapa region with dark skies and astronomy, and the proposed Dark Sky Reserve, provides a very appropriate context for wider public knowledge and appreciation of this place.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places

The Carkeek Observatory is only nineteenth century timber astronomical observatory known to survive in New Zealand and the only extant, stand-alone observatory built in that century – no other personal observatories built by Stephen Carkeek’s astronomical peers are known to survive, while the Colonial Observatory of 1869 was demolished in 1906. Similarly, none of the 1874 transit of Venus portable observation huts, which had similarities in form and materials to the Carkeek Observatory, stayed in New Zealand, and few physical remnants of this major international scientific exercise remain. Furthermore, it is an internationally-rare New Zealand version of a popular form of astronomical observatory typified by the English Romsey model, favoured by amateur practitioners in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Amateur practitioners are critical not only in astronomy, but to the history of New Zealand science in general and there are few surviving places from the nineteenth century which tell that story. This local and international exceptionalism affords the Carkeek Observatory outstanding importance as a rare historic place.

Summary of Significance or Values

The Carkeek Observatory occupies an outstanding position in the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand as the earliest surviving astronomical observatory in the country and a building directly associated with amateurism, a major theme in the history of New Zealand astronomy and science in general. Its builder Stephen Carkeek played a critical role in local timekeeping by utilising his astronomical skills in the creation of New Zealand’s first timeball in Wellington, in addition to carrying out a range of observations that were typical activities for serious amateur astronomers of his era. This place goes a long way towards satisfying a claim to uniqueness as a rare surviving New Zealand version of the popular Romsey-style model of amateur astronomical observatory devised in England and once widespread in that country. Of relatively light-weight timber construction made with an eye to economy, it has weathered the elements, human and animal interventions, and the passage of time with remarkable endurance. Ruined yet highly authentic, the Carkeek Observatory evokes the lone amateur astronomer at work, tracking the eternal passage of the stars and planets across the night sky.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The Wairarapa region has a long history of Māori occupation, with the first arrivals settling in Palliser Bay in the late 1300s. Small communities were established on the east side of the bay and were supported by fishing, hunting and kūmara cultivation. By 1600 these communities had disappeared, most likely in response to resource depletion related to population growth. Two major earthquakes the previous century may also have been contributing factors. Early iwi groups were Waitaha and Ngāti Māmoe, both of whom subsequently left Wairarapa for Te Waipounamu/South Island. Some of these people may also have moved inland to the central Ruamāhanga valley area, where permanent settlements were located after the coast was abandoned. Later arrivals were Ngāti Ira, Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu. Ngāti Ira later relocated to Te Whanganui-a-Tara /Wellington, while Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu forged a largely peaceable co-existence in Wairarapa, with conflict tempered by intermarriage.

During the so-called musket wars period, the region was invaded on a number of occasions, in the early 1820s by Ngāti Whātua and Ngāti Maniapoto, and from the mid-1820s through the following decade by Taranaki tribes, in particular Te Āti Awa. Rangitāne people found a temporary safe haven in the Puketoi and Tararua mountain ranges, while Ngāti Kahungunu made a series of migrations north to Nukutaurua on the Māhia Peninsula. However, Ngāti Kahungunu leaders kept an eye on their Wairarapa rohe and sent taua or war parties back to fight the invaders. They returned for good in the early 1840s when peace was made with Te Āti Awa. The western boundary between the two iwi was the Remutaka and Tararua ranges, of which the Ngāti Kahungunu rangatira Tūtepākihirangi said: ‘I will call those mountains our shoulders; the streams that fall down on this side are for you to drink; on the other side for us’.

By then Pākehā explorers were assessing the settlement potential of Wairarapa and in 1844 Wellington settlers leased grazing land off Ngāti Kahungunu and brought the first sheep and cattle into the region. The first land sales occurred in 1853, including the Ōwhanga block, on which the future town of Featherston would be founded. The town was surveyed in 1856 and named after Isaac Featherston, the superintendent of the Wellington province. It had previously been the site of Henry Burling’s accommodation house and known as Burlings; Kawaewae and Paeotumokai were the Māori names for the area. Featherston was divided into town and suburban sections. It was on the 200-acre suburban section 258 that a timber astronomical observatory would be built by retired public servant Stephen Carkeek just over a decade later.

Stephen Carkeek

Stephen Carkeek was born in Swansea, Wales, in 1815. His father Morgan Carkeek was a sea captain and Stephen followed in his footsteps, spending his youth and early adulthood at sea. He and Martha Piotti were married in Sydney, Australia in 1838 and settled with their first child Frances in Aotearoa/New Zealand in 1841. Carkeek worked for the Customs Service in Russell before moving to Nelson where he was Collector of Customs from 1842 to 1849. That year the family transferred to Wellington following Carkeek’s appointment as the Collector of Customs there. In addition to his customs work he was briefly a member of the Legislative Council (1851-52). He purchased Wellington Town Acre 479 on Boulcott Street in 1853 and built a house on the corner where the street curved west to meet The Terrace.

Just when Carkeek developed an interest in astronomy is unclear. He is likely to have been exposed to it during his time at sea, due to the use of astronomy in nautical navigation, but there is no known evidence of any direct engagement during his time in Nelson. He had clearly developed considerable expertise by the early 1860s, when he instigated and supervised the construction of New Zealand’s first timeball station at the customs building on Wellington’s waterfront.

Astronomy in New Zealand

New Zealand has a centuries-old indigenous tradition of tātai arorangi or Māori astronomy, in which astronomical knowledge was applied to practices such as food production, house building and sea navigation. Communities had a good working understanding of tātai arorangi through its application to regular tasks like gardening and hunting, while deeper knowledge resided with tohunga kōkōrangi and tohunga tātai arorangi, the ‘teachers and specialists’.

Between 1769 and 1777 British navigator and explorer James Cook and expedition astronomers made numerous astronomical observations to calculate the latitude and longitude of New Zealand places for navigation and mapping purposes. After 1840 British settlers brought their own tradition of amateur astronomy to New Zealand. Until the late nineteenth century British astronomical research was an almost wholly amateur endeavour with private individuals funding their own work, while many enthusiasts simply enjoyed looking at celestial objects with whatever equipment their means allowed.

In New Zealand astronomy largely remained the province of amateurs until the second half of the twentieth century and there was little scope for dedicated professional astronomical work. Carkeek’s contemporary Archdeacon Arthur Stock became New Zealand’s first dedicated professional astronomer in 1869 when he was appointed official observer at the Colonial Observatory in Wellington, but this was a part-time post and the only one of its kind. Joseph Ward and John Grigg, both renowned New Zealand astronomers active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pursued their work on a strictly amateur basis. It was not until 1965, when the Mt John Observatory was established at Lake Tekapo by the universities of Canterbury and Pennsylvania that New Zealand had the capacity to host significant, professional astronomical research.

The importance of amateurs in New Zealand astronomy is consistent with the hegemony of ‘gentlemen scientists’ and the concomitant lack of professionalism and government-funded scientific research in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The formation of the New Zealand Geological Survey in 1865 followed by the New Zealand Institute two years later heralded the beginnings of institutional and centralised science, but dominated by well-resourced amateurs, they ‘did not professionalise science…to any large degree’. This only occurred with the formation of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1926.

It must be noted that local astronomy was not mere stargazing; ‘amateur’ is not intended to connote dilettante. Amateurs in the generation following Carkeek (Ward and Griggs for instance) made important contributions to astronomical knowledge. Additionally, astronomy was bound up with the establishment of the new colony. The execution of land surveys and maps by surveyors who used astronomical methods and instruments were ‘part of the wider process of colonisation’ in which Māori land was transferred to the Crown and Pākehā settlers. Over time amateur astronomy became very popular – in 1954 the director of the Carter Observatory suggested that New Zealand of all countries had the most astronomical society members per head of population.

Wellington Timeball

Timeballs provided accurate time once a day and were used by visiting sea captains to reset the ship chronometer (a portable timekeeping device) to local time. The Wellington timeball, which became operational in 1864, dropped at noon each day apart from Sunday. The drop time was determined by an astronomical clock and transit instrument (a small telescope). Carkeek, whose ‘scientific attainments’, according to a local newspaper, were ‘well known’, instigated the timeball, spent the first fourth months of its operation modifying and refining its mechanisms and subsequently established the site’s latitude and longitude by astronomical means. His work on the timeball was an early instance of professional astronomy and he was one of the few astronomers of his era to work in both the amateur and professional realms. The timeball was part of a wider move to institute an accurate timekeeping service in colonial New Zealand, which culminated in the establishment of a nationwide standard time in 1868. Standard time had a major impact on everyday life, influencing for example work hours and schedules and leisure time. In 1869 the Colonial Observatory, from which official time in New Zealand was set by measuring the transit of stars, was built in the Wellington Botanic Garden.

Construction of Carkeek’s Observatory

It is not known whether Carkeek had an astronomical observatory at his Boulcott Street home in Wellington; he at least owned instruments, including a telescope which was stolen when his house was burgled in early 1866. In April that year Carkeek took early retirement from the government service, likely due to long-standing ill health, and was granted a pension.

The Boulcott Street house was put up for sale in May 1866 and Carkeek, Martha and their youngest child Ellen moved to the South Wairarapa district, where they leased suburban section 258, now a sheep farm called Torohanga, approximately five kilometres south of Featherston. They had taken up residence by late October 1866, when the couple wrote letters from the farm to their eldest daughter Frances Stewart. In May 1870 Torohanga was advertised for sale and the Carkeeks purchased it the following month. Carkeek immersed himself in the Featherston community, becoming the chair of the school committee, a member of the Agricultural and Pastoral Association and a local magistrate.

Ill health and sheep farming notwithstanding, the move to Featherston must have allowed Carkeek more time for astronomy because he built a small timber astronomical observatory between the edges of the farmhouse garden and the road to Featherston. The precise year of construction is unknown. Circa 1867 is typically given in secondary sources and is fair conjecture based on Carkeek’s removal to Featherston the previous year. In the first half of 1869 the Wairarapa Standard published monthly meteorological observations made by Carkeek from his farm and described ‘the instruments being sheltered from the wind and sun’, which may suggest the existence of a shelter-giving observatory. The first known recorded mention of Carkeek’s observatory occurs in March 1871 and it appears to have been well-established by then. The Wellington Independent reported on flooding that encroached on his property, noting that ‘Mr Carkeek had just had his observatory refitted, and shelves with valuable books raised from the floor, the outsides of which became covered with mud, but fortunately the insides are very little damaged.’ Based on the surviving evidence, a construction date of circa 1867 is feasible.

The layout of the timber building was typical of modest nineteenth century observatories built by amateur astronomers in the western world. It was comprised of an octagonal equatorial room with a revolving canvas dome, a rectangular transit annex, and timber floor without footings, and is believed to have housed a 10.2cm refracting telescope in the equatorial room and transit telescope of between 4.5 to 6.4cms in the transit annex. The refracting telescope was used for monitoring astronomical objects (planets, comets, stars), while the transit telescope was used to determine geographical locations and time by tracking the north-south path of stars across the meridian.

Carkeek would likely have been aware of the simple observatory built by Admiral William Smyth in Bedford, England in the late 1820s which became a much-emulated model. Like Carkeek’s building, the Bedford Observatory was an equatorial room with attached rectangular transit annex. Though the Bedford equatorial room was spherical rather than octagonal, the dome metal-clad and the building resting on a concrete or brick foundation, Carkeek’s observatory owed much to its basic design despite not sharing these particular features.

It was also very similar to English astronomer and inventor Edward Berthon’s well-known Romsey Observatory (designed circa 1863), a timber building with a nonagonal equatorial room, revolving canvas dome, rectangular transit annex and timber floor that allowed for air circulation. Berthon claimed his design afforded the observatory ‘freedom from damp’ and high temperatures, critical in a building housing sensitive instruments. He argued that brick or stone observatories were unnecessarily expensive and furthermore, that light-weight timber structures produced better astronomical results.

The Romsey was specifically designed as a low-cost model for amateur astronomers, able to be built ‘by any village carpenter… in less than a fortnight’ and is believed to be the first such model explicitly aimed at amateurs. Berthon published basic architectural drawings and instructions for this model in 1871, following ‘a great many [that were built] in the last seven or eight years with uniform results’ and it proved very popular with amateurs. This was a development upon his even simpler twelve-sided ‘inexpensive garden’ observatory published in 1864. Whether Carkeek knew about Berthon’s designs is unknown but regardless of any direct connection, the shared characteristics and materials places his observatory within the Romsey mould.

Other contemporary New Zealand astronomers recorded as having their own personal observatories include surveyors Henry Jackson in the Hutt Valley and John Turnbull Thomson in Dunedin, Arthur Stock in Wellington and meteorologist Henry Skey in Dunedin, while Thames-based John Grigg built two timber observatories similar to Carkeek’s in the 1880s and 1890s. None of these have survived, leaving Carkeek’s observatory as the single extant example of this type of structure in New Zealand.

Carkeek’s Astronomical Work

In 1871 Jackson and Thomson wrote that ‘…Carkeek had for many years pursued observations for longitude by lunars, Jupiter’s satellites, lunar eclipses, and moon culminations’. Longitude calculations were critical to the work of surveyors, geographers and mariners and the observations pursued by Carkeek were typical activities for serious astronomers of the period. He is not known to have published, but fellow astronomers like Jackson and Thomson were clearly aware of his work.

Carkeek was well-placed to observe the much-anticipated transit of Venus on 9 December 1874. By tracking the passage of Venus across the sun, astronomers could work out ‘one of astronomy’s fundamental yardsticks’, the distance between the sun and the earth known as the ‘astronomical unit’. The entire transit would be visible from New Zealand and its offshore islands and this attracted official transit parties from England, France, Germany and the United States of America, drawing New Zealand into an internationally-significant exercise.

Prior to the transit, Astronomer Royal George Biddell Airy, of the Royal Observatory Greenwich in England, had corresponded with the New Zealand government regarding an appropriate location and the loan of astronomical instruments for the English observation station. James Hector, director of the Geological Survey and Colonial Museum, suggested Carkeek as one of the few locals who might ‘furnish such instruments’. In the event, the English brought their own instruments and portable observation huts and Carkeek declined an invitation to participate in their observation at Burnham in Christchurch.

There is no record of Carkeek following the transit at his own observatory but he is highly likely to have done so or at least have attempted to – like most of New Zealand, Wairarapa was clouded over on the day of the transit, wholly obscuring the sun. The 1874 transit and the next one in 1882, along with transits of Mercury in 1878 and 1881 and the appearance of a number of bright comets in those decades, popularised astronomy and spurred local astronomers to ‘systematically observe their patch of southern sky’.

Carkeek’s Death and Legacy

Carkeek died suddenly on 27 November 1878 aged 63. He had just returned to Torohanga from a visit to Tauranga, where his daughter Ellen Sheath lived. Reportedly ‘so pleased with the voyage and district that he resolved to spend the remainder of his life at the seaside’, he bought a property there during his visit. He had already planned to sell Torohanga, having ‘become tired of sheep-farming’. At the time of his death Carkeek was recognised for his public service and contribution to astronomy. One obituary referred to him as ‘the first astronomer in the Colony’, and another described him as ‘widely-known as an astronomer [who] always took a deep interest in astronomical matters’, noting his establishment of the Wellington timeball.

While Carkeek’s precise contribution to astronomical research and its practical application beyond the timeball is unclear due to the loss of his papers and apparent lack of publication, his work was recognised and valued by peers such as Jackson, Thomson and Hector. Carkeek was acknowledged in New Zealand as an observatory expert and advised the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury on the costs associated with establishing a small observatory in 1872. Contemporary reference to his ‘accumulated astronomical observations’ suggests Carkeek engaged in serious astronomical activity and produced a body of work known of in his life time and recognised at his death.

Later History

Within two weeks of Carkeek’s death, Torohanga, the livestock and household furniture were put up for sale, but the property was bought in at auction. Martha Carkeek returned to Tauranga and Torohanga passed to the couple’s children. Carkeek’s ‘numerous valuable notes and observations’ were apparently promised to the Wairarapa Standard before he died, but there is no record of this happening. At least one telescope ended up with the Carkeek’s daughter Frances Stewart and her husband John Tiffen Stewart. In 1882 this telescope was offered on loan to chief surveyor John Marchant for his observation of the second transit of Venus but he instead borrowed a 4-inch Browning refractor from a David Grey of Wellington.

In 1880 Torohanga was leased to Charles Welby Jackson and from 1885 to William Hodder, who bought it in 1896, ushering in over 100 years of Hodder family ownership. The farmhouse was destroyed by fire at an unknown date and the garden was turned over to livestock. The observatory became a store for farm equipment with the dome, floor and two walls of the equatorial room removed to facilitate access.

In the late 1980s Syd Cretney of the Wellington Astronomical Society (WSA), ‘rediscovered’ the observatory after researching Carkeek’s history. Members of the WSA, the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, the Martinborough Dark Sky Society and historians of astronomy have made periodic visits to the observatory since then, monitoring its physical condition and conducting research into its history. In 2015 the original Carkeek farmland, including the observatory site, was purchased by the South Wairarapa District Council and a land covenant was placed over the observatory by the Hodder family, compelling the new owner to ‘take all reasonable steps to ensure the preservation’ of the site.

In the twenty-first century the Wairarapa region is recognised for its dark skies and star-gazing activities. Stonehenge Aotearoa, inspired by the English Stonehenge, opened in Carterton in 2005 and observation tours were offered at Star Field near Martinborough from late 2019. The Carkeek Observatory is near the proposed South Wairarapa International Dark Sky Reserve applied for by the Martinborough Dark Sky Society in 2017. In support of this proposal the three Wairarapa local authorities and the New Zealand Transport Agency adopted softer street and highway lighting and businesses were encouraged to become ‘dark sky friendly’. If the reserve application is successful the Carkeek Observatory ‘will likely become a significant stop-over for astronomy buffs and any night sky enthusiasts’.

tracking the north-south path of stars across the meridian.pite not sharing these particular features.

Physical Description

Current Description

The Carkeek Observatory is located within a rural property approximately five kilometres south of Featherston. It sits near the eastern boundary of a flat field known to the Hodder family as the ‘Garden Paddock’, which largely follows the boundaries of Stephen Carkeek’s substantial garden. Numerous old trees, including poplars, Australian gums, fruit, tōtara and tī kōuka, grow throughout the paddock and were likely planted in Carkeek’s time. Some of the poplars once lined the driveway between the Otauira Stream and the farmhouse, and uniform spacing of the surviving trees hints at their avenue function. The house (not extant), was a two-storey ten room dwelling located in the north-west quarter of the paddock. There are remnants of nineteenth century post-and-rail tōtara fences constructed with hand-made nails incorporated into more recent fencing.

The observatory, comprised of an octagonal equatorial room and an adjoining rectangular transit annex, is a light-weight structure made of rough-sawn timber (most likely locally-sourced tōtara) and has been constructed with hand-made iron nails and mortice and tenon joints. Sections of lead flashing remain in situ. The building is in a ruinous state and is to some extent supported by a mature walnut tree growing through the transit annex. The floor is missing from both sections and grass and weeds grow inside. It is surrounded by a modern fence intended to keep stock out.

The equatorial room is missing approximately four of its original eight sides but the surviving panels show it was made up of a double layer of vertical boards with thin vertical battens on the outside. The canvas dome roof of the equatorial room is long gone; whether there are any remnants on or in the ground is unknown. Broken pieces of the iron channels and four of the iron wheels (which together allowed the canvas dome to revolve on top of the vertical boards) survive; the channels both in situ and on the ground, where all the surviving wheels have ended up.

The rectangular transit annex is slightly less ruinous than the equatorial room. It retains key structural and design elements, including the front, west-facing elevation, a double layer of horizontal boards on the north and south elevations and vertical boards on the west elevation, and the partially-intact gable roof with evidence of an observation slit running from north to south (through which stars were observed with a transit instrument as they crossed the meridian). There is an apex-shaped internal door opening between the building’s two parts that is embellished with simple mouldings. The equatorial room has a higher floor than the transit annex, as was typical of Romsey-style observatories, but the small flight of stairs that connected them are not evident. What may be a seat or shelf survives in the north-east internal corner of the transit annex.

Despite the general dilapidation of the building, enough fabric survives for its purpose and layout to be readily discernible by an informed viewer. The octagonal shape of the equatorial room is still clearly evident and it is possible to visualise how the revolving dome and transit annex slit would have worked when in use. There is no evidence of any astronomical instruments or related paraphernalia remaining on-site and though it is highly likely that all equipment was removed following Carkeek’s death, the possibility of finding items under the ground cannot be discounted.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1867 -

Construction Details

Timber; lead; iron

Public NZAA Number


Completion Date

28th November 2019

Report Written By

Kerryn Pollock

Information Sources

Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Phillips, Jock, 'Timekeeping - New Zealand mean time'', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2006a,

Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Wassilieff, Maggy, 'Astronomy – overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2006a,

Orchiston, 2016

Orchiston, Wayne, Exploring the history of New Zealand astronomy: trials, tribulations, telescopes and transits. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2016.

Other Information

A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Central Region Office of Heritage New Zealand