Robert L. J. Ellery

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Robert Lewis John Ellery CMG (14 July 1827 – 14 January 1908) was an English-Australian astronomer and public servant; Victorian government astronomer for 42 years.

Early life[edit]

Ellery was born in Cranleigh, Surrey, England, the son of John Ellery, a surgeon, and his wife Caroline, née Potter. Ellery was educated at the local grammar school and qualified as a medical practitioner, but he had an early interest in astronomy. Friends at Greenwich Observatory encouraged him and he had some access to instruments there.


Ellery sailed for Victoria in 1851 attracted by the discovery of gold, and is stated to have practised as a physician at Williamstown, Victoria. If so it could only have been for a very short period, as in 1853 the Victorian government decided to found an astronomical observatory at his urging,[1] and in July 1853 Ellery was placed in charge of it.

The Victorian government observatory was at first on a very modest scale, being housed in a small two-roomed cottage at Williamstown, and the only instruments were a sextant, an artificial horizon and a marine chronometer. However, by March 1854, a 30-inch transit instrument, a good astronomical clock and a time-ball apparatus had been added, and a few meteorological instruments were also obtained.

The work to be done was not heavy, and Ellery also undertook for a time the duties of storekeeper of the marine depot. In 1856 he began a geodetic survey of Victoria which was not completed until 1874. At the beginning of 1858 the government founded another observatory known as the magnetic observatory on Flagstaff Hill, West Melbourne, under a distinguished German scientist, Georg von Neumayer, who had applied for a site in the Domain south of the Yarra without success. Both Ellery and Neumayer found that the sites given them were not suitable for their work, but it was not until 1863 that a move was made to the Domain. Edward John White, an able astronomer, was added to Ellery's staff in May 1860, and several valuable catalogues of stars were prepared and published. In 1868 a new telescope was sent out from England but the results obtained with it were unsatisfactory. Ellery resolved the issues he had with the telescope by applying his mechanical ability to the problems involved. At the end of 1890, another telescope arrived and Ellery began a new important piece of work, the preparation of the share allotted to Melbourne of the astrographic chart. He retired in 1895 and was succeeded by Pietro Baracchi.

Later life[edit]

In addition to his own work Ellery had much to do with educational and scientific bodies. He was one of the founders of the Royal Society of Victoria and its president from 1866 to 1884, became a trustee of the public library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria in 1882, and was also for many years a member of the council of the University of Melbourne. He was interested in the volunteer movement and in 1873 organized the Victorian torpedo corps, afterwards the submarine mining engineers. He was in command until 1889, when he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1900, Ellery was elected president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science; he chose as the subject of his address "A Brief History of the Beginnings and Growth of Astronomy in Australasia". Ellery was the first president of the Victorian Beekeepers' Club in 1885, and edited the Australian Beekeepers' Journal.

Early in 1907 Ellery had a paralytic stroke, but recovered well and was in fair health until shortly before his death at Melbourne on 14 January 1908. Ellery wrote many papers for scientific journals some of which were re-issued as pamphlets. Some of the catalogues of stars and other work done under his supervision at the observatory were published, but at the time of his death much remained in manuscript. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1873, and was created C.M.G. in 1889. He was married twice, to two sisters, daughters of Dr John Shields. He left a widow and a daughter.

Ellery was awarded the Clarke Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1889. Mount Ellery in Antarctica was named after him in 1886.


  1. ^ Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved 22 August 2012. 


Preceded by
Julian Tenison Woods
Clarke Medal
Succeeded by
George Bennett