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Robert Lewis John Ellery, Astronomer & Scientist (1827-1908)

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Source: Museum Victoria

Robert Ellery was born in England in 1827 and initially seems to have commenced training as a medical practitioner, although never obtained his qualifications. He also had an interest in astronomy, and was given access to instruments at Greenwich Observatory, where he received some informal training. He migrated to Victoria in 1852, as a young man of 25, and settled in Williamstown. As result of a letter to a newspaper advocating the establishment of an observatory and time service, he was appointed to establish the Williamstown Observatory by Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe.

With the creation of Melbourne Observatory in 1863, Ellery was appointed Government Astronomer, a position he would retain until his retirement in 1895. A man of tremendous energy, Ellery took on ever increasing responsibilities for the Observatory. To time keeping and astronomical observations he added the geodetic survey of the colony, then the magnetic research of Georg Neumayer's Flagstaff Observatory, and finally meteorological observations and weather reports, an area into which Ellery directed a great deal of effort. He quickly became one of the leading scientists of colonial Victoria.

Ellery was president of the Royal Society of Victoria for 20 years, treasurer of the Council of the University of Melbourne, chairman of the Alfred Hospital, and a trustee of the Public Library, Art Gallery and Museums. He was deeply involved in scientific committees, including the first Australian Antarctic Exploration Committees and the Australian Association of the Advancement of Science. Somehow he also found time to be the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Victorian Torpedo Corps and foundation president of the Victorian Beekeepers' Club. Ellery's scientific achievements were recognised locally and in Britain, where he was made a fellow of both the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of London.

Nineteenth-century astronomers and scientists often had to develop considerable mechanical skills in order to design, build and refine their instruments, and Ellery was particularly skilled. In conjunction with the Observatory's instrument maker, he designed and built chronograph apparatus, clocks, and recording machines to automatically chart meteorological data. A blacksmith observing Ellery at the Observatory's forge and anvil commented 'that man has been in the trade; he hammers like a professional'.

Ellery had married Amy Shields in 1853 and lived at Williamstown near the Observatory. His wife died in 1856 and in 1858 he married her sister, Margaret, and they had one daughter. When the Melbourne Observatory was established Ellery moved into the Astronomer's Residence, located on the current site of the Shrine of Remembrance. He moved into the new Astronomer's Residence on the Observatory site in 1889, and remained there after his retirement in 1895 until his death in 1908. Thus for 45 years the Observatory was his home and work place, both day and night.

References:
Gascoigne, S.C.B. (1972). 'Ellery, Robert Lewis John (1827-1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, pp.135-137.

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