Observations

Station 4: Stone Pillars

Guest post by Artist in Residence, Lily Hibberd

Lily Hibberd is an interdisciplinary artist and writer working with frontiers of time and memory. Her projects are developed in long term place and community-based collaboration, and research with local artists, scientists and historians through combinations of performance, writing, painting, photography, sound, moving image and installation art.

This blog has been created for ‘Boundless – out of time’, Lily’s month-long artist and research residency at Sydney Observatory. View all of Lily’s posts here and read the introduction to Boundless Remapping Sydney Meridian. Presented by Powerhouse Museum as part of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney 2020.

Walking alongside the Fort Street Public School and note the sign: ‘Success Through Diligence’ … keep going. In the little cul-de-sac, on the left there is lonely stone pillar, this is Station 4.

Aside from the determination of time, the meridian provided a means to measure out the Earth. Ultimately the ‘prime’ meridian was instrumental in the colonisation of Australian space and time. And yet there are conditions of the Earth itself that challenge the premise of the absolute measure of time and of territorial boundaries.

What was the first meridian determined on this land? It’s actually unknown. Perhaps it was a French navigator or Dutch, or even Portuguese. As far as the records go, every British sailor from Cook onwards needed to measure longitude upon landfall. Although the story of Captain William Dawes’ Observatory down on the edge of Tar-Ra, or Dawes Point, is often said to be the ‘first’ observatory, this discounts millennia of First Nations’ astronomy practices.

And there are other accounts. One of which comes again from Andrew James. In his 2006 essay, ‘The Dawn of Australian Astronomy (1770-1820)’ James describes how the French ‘La Perouse’ expedition set up a temporary observatory in Botany Bay in 1788. All records of their observations were however lost when the ship sank during the return voyage.

The point of these anecdotes is that the debate about a single time, an original observatory or a prime meridian is futile, because meridians cannot be universalised or tied down to one place.

Street view showing driveway, lawn and a brick building in the background.
Figure 1: Fort Street, Station 4, Google Earth.

And yet, Fort Macquarie’s measure provided the basis for the first longitude of Melbourne to be established in 1839, when Victorian surveyor Charles James Tyers fixed the position of the 141st Meridian on a point on Batman’s Hill, Melbourne, at first by the transportation of chronometers, and after that by triangulation with a small theodolite. As such, it was Sydney’s Fort Macquarie Meridian that provided the longitude reference for subsequent survey and layout of Melbourne’s famous gridded city.

3 responses to “Station 4: Stone Pillars

  • For keen readers (possibly only Melbournians), I located the longitude provided for Port Phillip on the Earnshaw chronometers, noted by Matthew Flinders’ in his logbook as 144° 50’ 46”, which was taken on April 28th, 1802 at the time of 21:38.

  • Thank you very much Roberto – it is great to know that you’re following me on this walk!

    Anyone reading closely may notice an error in this Station – Tyers was not the first person to provide a longitude for Melbourne, because Matthew Flinders must have done so when he charted the southern coast, arriving at Port Phillip in 1802 (I’m still working through the original records made from the Earnshaw chronometers on this voyage to find the longitude given for Port Phillip, see here: https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-2122878795/view).

    It was a year later, in 1803, that Charles Grimes, Acting General Surveyor of New South Wales, was commissioned to undertake a survey of Port Phillip. A copy of the map he produced is held in the Department of Lands and Survey Melbourne (SLV MAPS 821.01 AJ) on which the positional longitude is noted as 144° 41’ 0” E (today: 144° 57′ 47.95″ E).

    The 141st meridian was instead the longitude that Charles James Tyers was tasked by the Governor of New South Wales to precisely establish in order to position the border between the colony of Port Phillip and that of South Australia, already declared in 1834.

    All of this is only relevant to the Meridian blog because Tyers had either remeasured or adopted the longitude of Fort Macquarie and transported chronometers (by ship) to determine the longitude of a point on Batman’s Hill, Melbourne. From there, Tyers travelled over land surveying by triangulation with a small theodolite, until he calculated the position of the 141st meridian.

    In a Station at the end of the coming week we will find out more about the consequence of the error that Tyers appropriated from Fort Macquarie’s Sydney Meridian for the eventual mapping of South Australia’s border.

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