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Brisbane Observatory

(Redirected from Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane)

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Brisbane Observatory was located in a wooded area approximately 1 mile to the north of Largs, and to the west of Brisbane Glen Road.

Little remains of the observatory.

The observatory was originally built by Sir Thomas Brisbane, close to the site of Brisbane House, but this has been demolished. Brisbane House was a mansion built in 1636, the date being marked on one of the skew stones (a stone cut at an angle and set at the base of a structure).

The roof was removed from Brisbane House just prior to 1939, and it was demolished during World War II, leaving only rubble on the site, with only a few identifiable parts surviving.

The observatory is described as one of the first to be built in Scotland, and as the prototype for Australia's first permanent observatory. This was also built by Sir Thomas Brisbane. In 1821, when he went to Australia as Governor of New South Wales, he took his telescopes and clocks with him and set up a similar observatory at Parramatta near Sydney, where he worked on the first major catalogue of southern stars.

Major General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane

Major General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane (1773–1860).

Brisbane built an observatory at his home at Brisbane House in Noddsdale, near Largs. Parts of it survive today and efforts are underway, led by the recently-established Brisbane Observatory Trust, to secure its preservation. Related survivals from the time are huge pillars called the Three Sisters, which once held lamps and acted as the fore sights for Brisbane’s transit telescope to ensure that it was pointing in exactly the right direction to make accurate measurements. Brisbane also established two other observatories, including magnetometers, one at Makerstoun in the Borders, and the other at Parramatta in New South Wales. The Parramatta Observatory was successful in the observational recovery of Comet Encke.

- The Royal Society of Edinburgh Makdougall Brisbane Lecture. Early Watchers of the Skies – Makdougall Brisbane and Other Great Scottish Astronomers.[1]

Brisbane memorial

Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane memorial, 2010
Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane
© Gordon Brown

A memorial to Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane lies nearby - the spelling is correct.

Two sets of meridian pillars linked to the observatory survive, and were installed to aid with setting up the telescopes. One set lies to the south, while the other lies in Waterside Street, Largs.

The Three Sisters are actually three stone pillars erected as a monument to Sir Thomas Brisbane who built an observatory in 1808 at Brisbane House. They are on Green Hill and are meridian sighting posts which enabled Sir Thomas Brisbane to establish due north, even when the north star wasn’t visible. In Brisbane Glen, there is another pillar near his observatory but it’s much smaller. Originally, it was used as a point of sight for the Three Sisters.

Brisbane medal theft 1961

Described in words that suggest the event was something more appropriate to the plot of a film than an actual robbery, just over 100 years after his death, a collection of medals belonging to Sir Thomas was stolen while being stored in a safe in London prior to their sale. Never seen again, the circumstances strongly suggested the medals were stolen only for their gold content, and were melted down by the thieves for disposal as nothing more than scrap.

In the magazine "Coins, Medals and Currency", printed in 1967, it was revealed that Sir Thomas's large collection of medals and other decorations, valued at £2750, were stolen in 1961 from the premises of a London dealer, where they had been sent to be sold.

The article stated: "As colourful an adventurer as ever fought for his country, General Sir Thomas Brisbane, gave his name to the capital of Queensland, Australia. In his long career in the battlefield, he amassed a fantastic collection of medals and decorations, many of them won in battles overseas.

"Together, the collection made a fascinating slice of history. But 100 years after Brisbane's death, it was to vanish from the face of the earth, never to be seen again.

"Brisbane died in 1860 at the age of 87. His list of decorations included Knight Grand Cross of the Bath; Peninsular Gold Cross; and Knight Grand Cross of Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order, the later in gold, silver and enamel.

When the collections passed into the hands of the dealers, it was noted that it also included the Badge of the Legion d'Honneur and the rare Badge of the Royal Order of Joseph Napoleon (Spain). Whether these decorations were awarded to General Brisbane, or were captured booty, has never been established.

"In the autumn of 1961, the Brisbane Collection was bought by Selby's who offered it for sale for £2750. Negotiations were in progress with Australia to enable it to be bought by the city of Brisbane. Then, on the night of 10 February, the blow fell.

"A ruthlessly efficient gang of thieves with oxy-acetylene cylinders inside rolls of linoleum, broke into Selby's premises in Great Portland Street. They stead (sic) at the offices for about 10 hours, blowing open the main safe, and taking everything of value inside. The contents included the entire Brisbane collection."

Mr P Frank Purvey of Seaby's said: "The police told us at the time that there were only half-a-dozen gangs in the country that could have done it."

There seemed to be little doubt, he added, that the robbers had only been after the gold, without concern for the numismatics (the study or collection of coins and medals) values of their hauls."

Medal ribbons had been ripped off, and left lying on the stairway as the gang made their getaway. None of the coins and medals - which included a unique Richard III boar's head penny of London - has never been recovered.

"It was a tremendous shame," commented Mr Purvey, "that such an interesting and historical record should have been lost. It's sad to think it has all been melted down. But I rather thank that must be what happened."

- Mission Impossible - The Brisbane Medal heist. Largs & Millport Weekly News. 23 April 2009.[2]

Action for Largs Brisbane Astronomical Heritage ALBAH

Back in 2008 we read of Action for Largs Brisbane Astronomical Heritage, but this seems to have evaporated and can no longer be found online. At the time, it had a page on the Largs Museum web site, but this had disappeared from the web by the time we came across it, so no information could be obtained.

Restoration plan revealed in 2011

In January 2011, the local media reported that a proposal to restore the Brisbane Observatory had been initiated by the Largs Historical Society some three years earlier:

It was around three years ago, I was asked by Neil Fraser to head up to the dilapidated old site of the old Brisbane Observatory as it approached its 200th anniversary.

The Three Sisters were built on Green Hill to help Sir Thomas Brisbane in the alignment of his telescopes to study other worlds and constellations up above.

The Largs Historical Society have launched a campaign to try and restore the Brisbane Observatory, a prospect which seems imminently under threat by the prospect of a major housing development as alluded to in the pages of the Largs and Millport Weekly News a few weeks ago.

- Brisbane Observatory has universal appeal.[3]


1 The Royal Society of Edinburgh Makdougall Brisbane Lecture. Early Watchers of the Skies – Makdougall Brisbane and Other Great Scottish Astronomers. Retrieved 24/03/2014.

2 Mission Impossible - The Brisbane Medal heist | Local History | News | Largs & Millport Weekly News Retrieved September 30, 2014.

3 Brisbane Observatory has universal appeal | Blogs | Opinion | Largs & Millport Weekly News Retrieved 24/03/2014.

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