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Royal Observatory
Observatory, Cape Town, Western Cape

Sir John RENNIE: Architect 1821
Sir Herbert BAKER: Architect 1894

Date:1821 : 1894
Street:Observatory Road


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33°56'08.69" S 18°28'37.62" E

Originally designed by RENNIE in 1821. Skirrow was sent by the British Admiralty to the Cape Colony to act as contractor and to supervise the erection of the Royal Observatory, Cape Town; he was clerk of works. He arrived unannounced in Table Bay on 22 February 1825, to the pleasant surprise of His Majesty's Astronomer at the Cape, Reverend Fearon Fallows, who handed responsibility for the construction over to him. Skirrow immediately realised that the existing specifications for the building were inadequate and renegotiated the building contract. Among others he provided clear specifications relating to the quality of mortar and building stone, and the methods of construction to be used. He also introduced the practice of allowing the wooden roofbeams freedom of play (by resting their ends on plates protruding from the walls) so that their expansion or contraction would not place stress on the structure. His work at the Royal Observatory had a lasting effect on building practices at the Cape, particularly on the standard of masonry work.

Initially Skirrow lived in a cottage on the grounds of the observatory but late in 1827 he moved to Cape Town and started taking on other work. As a result progress at the observatory, particularly the completion of the instrument piers, slowed dramatically. Eventually a function to celebrate the laying of the last stone of the mural circle pier was held on 29 October 1828. Among the guests were Skirrow, Fallows, MJ Johnson, Captain W Ronald, the governor Sir Lowry Cole and the colonial secretary John Bell. The two rotatable domes arrived from England only in September 1829, when Skirrow supervised their installation. The Observatory was completed in December 1829. Additions were done by BAKER in 1894.

[After Plug: see S2A3]

These notes were last edited on 2022 03 11

Writings about this entry

Duncan, Paul & Proust, Alain. 2013. Hidden Cape Town. Cape Town: Random House Struik. pg 140-143
Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 171-172 (with photo)
Greig, Doreen. 1970. Herbert Baker in South Africa. Cape Town: PURNELL. pg 238
Radford, D. 1979. The architecture of the Western Cape, 1838 1901. A study of the impact of Victorian aesthetics and technology on South African architecture. Johannesburg: Unpublished Ph.D thesis. Dept of Arch. University of the Witwatersrand. pg 110
Shorten, John R. 1963. Cape Town : A record of the Mother City from the earliest days to the present. Cape Town: JR Shorten in association with Shorten and Smith Publications. pg 105 ill.
Warner, Brian. 2006. Cape landscapes : Sir John Herschel's sketches 1834-1838. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press. pg 74, 92-97