The history of Maison Saint Louis Observatory

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Maison St Louis Observatory

From the 1961 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Marc Dechevrens, the founder of the Observatory

Father Dechevrens

It was in 1893 that the founder of the Observatory arrived in Jersey. Father Marc Dechevrens, born in Switzerland in 1845, went to China in 1873 to take charge of the newly founded Jesuit Observatory in Shanghai, in the town district of Zi-Ka-Wei, where the missionaries had established their residence. He gave to that Observatory the real start towards a reputation which has remained undisputed and acclaimed over the whole world, until the Communist Government took it over, expelling all the fathers and their faithful helpers.

In 1887 Fr Dechevrens' health compelled him to return to Europe, and it was in 1893 that he arrived in Jersey, at Maison Saint Louis, established since 1880 as a training college for young Jesuits studying philosophy and science. Soon he discovered that Jersey was a choice place to install an observatory, and had a very encouraging response from his superiors to begin his work, which had a double aim: first studying the weather and taking general observations which he had inaugurated in China; and secondly to train young Jesuits for our observatories in Mission lands.

The rest of his life was to be spent here, till he died in December 1923. His first task was to build the observatory, on the top of the property, well exposed to the wind. He drew the plans with the help of another Jesuit father, who had been an architect, for a building, simple in its interior arrangement, comprising a central room well lit from above, surrounded by six smaller rooms for habitation, library, photographic laboratory, transit instrument, magnetic recorders, workshop, etc. The central room housed all the meteorological recorders placed on shelves all round the walls. The top part of this room was the flat roof itself, made of one inch thick rolled glass slabs, supporting a gallery, on each corner of which were secured the wind instruments, for direction and speed, also the sun recorder, some thirty feet above the ground, and one hundred and seventy above sea level.

We still have the specifications given by Mr S Cuzner, of 22 Great Union Road, for the building, some details of which are interesting. The foundation walls to be ten inches thicker than the respective walls above, themselves eighteen inches thick. The work to be completed not later than the 15th day of September of the same year, 1894, under the penalty not exceeding four pounds sterling per week for each week exceeding that date. Unfortunately we cannot know how long it took to build, as on the tender the month is not mentioned. A receipt signed on 21 November 1894 mentioned the sum of £493, as per the contract, plus extras, making up the total cost £531 15s 2d. ; the 15s 2d being graciously ignored.

Father Rey (left)

High tower

To study properly the wind Fr Dechevrens was dreaming of a high tower, far away from the surface disturbances. With the help of another Jesuit, who had been an engineer in the French Navy, he began his enquiries, and we have a voluminous correspondence with metal frame builders in England, France and Belgium. The problem was complex, and full of difficulties, concerning the kind of material to use, the solidity of the foundations, its resistance to the wind, its weight, and height, and the price.

The Jesuits' observatory tower

Some of the estimates offer interesting data for us 55 years later:

  • From Archibald D Dawney, London Bridge House, London: a small structure for £1,564, delivered in eight weeks, to be erected by Mr. S. Cuzner, mentioned above.
  • From Les Etablissements Baudet-Donot, Paris, an uninteresting project costing 40,000 francs, (£1,600), which led indirectly to the final decision.
  • From the Societe Anonyme des Fonderies d'Art et de Batiment, Paris, who proposed a structure like the Eiffel Tower, erected in 1889, but expressed doubts about its resistence to the winds in the Channel, and would have preferred a chimney like structure, well anchored to the ground, and maintained by wire strands, if the configuration of the property permitted. The structure would be 50 metres high, and the study of resistance, and stresses would be made at the famous works of Le Creusot; cost: 60,000 francs, (£2,400).
  • A British firm, Malher and Co, of 21 Water Street, Liverpool, sent a great amount of letters, written in beautiful French, and many plans, but in the second letter asked cautiously: "How Mr Dechevrens intends to pay, as the final sum will be very important?" They insisted on the ornamental aspect of the tower, and intended to keep strictly to the regulations of the Board of Trade. Their plan was grandiose; the tower would weigh 90 tons, and this being objected to by Fr. Dechevrens, they suddenly dropped the whole project, as " they don't want to undertake a work which would not be to the credit and the reputation of the firm".
  • Another firm, Newton Heath Ironworks, Manchester, Contractor to the Admiralty, insisted on their great reputation, as having built the Blackpool Tower, 507 feet high, and being well on the project of the London Tower, which is to be 1,150 feet high, the highest tower in the world: "I am the only man in England who had experience in building towers. I submit that you should have the base of your tower not less than one fourth of its total height, that would be forty feet. I suppose you want the design as simple as possible, without ornamentation whatever. It should weigh at least 200 tons, and the cost would be between 6,000 and 7,000 pounds sterling, erected, painted, and finished complete."
The Observatory building, today owned by the States

Another letter of 20 February 1894 stated: "Of course, we know our business, and we strongly advise you to consult some civil engineer of undoubted repute." A few lines below, the letter continued; " Last Sunday week it blew such a gale at Blackpool that the steel flagstaff standing on the tower, 505 feet high, was bent over like a whip; the dimensions of the flagstaff were 20 feet high, 6 inches steel tubing, 1/4 inch thick, tapering to 3 inches at the top." Later in the correspondence the firm stated: "I never pretend to do cheap work, but I will guarantee good work, which is always cheapest in the end. As I said before, if you mean business, I will run down and see you, and could commence deliveries six weeks from now. My price, at such a distance must be £30 per ton." A letter of the 10th of March begins: "What have you done about your tower? If you would like to run the risk of getting it erected in Jersey, or possibly you can get the work done cheaper locally, than I could, being on the spot, and acquainted with the district, I will design you a tower, and deliver free on trucks in Manchester, at £20 per ton, giving it all one coat of paint. You shall pass the drawings before I start work." The correspondence did not go any further.

In a long correspondance with a Monsieur Zeigler, an old boy of one of our colleges in Paris, the name of Monsieur T Seyrig, who " has built the bridge on the Douro River", appeared for the first time; he is mentioned as a first class engineer of the Societe Anonyme de Construction et des Ateliers de Willebroeck, in Belgium. He was to be the architect of the Jersey Tower.

The specifications are given in a long memoir dated 2 April 1894, and long studies and discussions follow. It was finally decided that the tower would be 50 metres high, on four pillars in stone, 4 metres deep underground, two and a half over ground level, with a cavity and gallery which would allow to tighten from below the four bolts fixing the metal tower to its foundations. Twelve metres apart at the bottom the structure would taper to two metres at the top to support an overhanging platform able to carry the weight of twenty persons; a hollow mast at the centre would support another smaller platform to which access would be had by two ladders.

The blueprints of all the details are kept at the Observatory, with the studies of the strength of the metal, which was mild steel, the whole structure conformed to the logarithmic curve which it has to have to support its own weight of 37 tons, the resistance to the force of the wind calculated at 300 kilogs to every square meter.

Fr Dechevrens' wind speed recording machine

Shipped from Antwerp

The Tower was assembled in parts at the Willebroeck works, dismantled and shipped from Antwerp to Jersey, with all the bolts and rivets. The price was fixed at 31,500 francs, (£1,260) including the stone foundations and pillars, payable in French currency, 60 per cent when the parts arrived, 30 per cent at the end of the erection, 10 per cent after the delay of guarantee of one year.

The contract was signed in Paris, on 6 April 1894. On 16 May the first spade work on the foundations; on 18 September the first horizontal beam was placed; on the 3 November the erection was completed. The masonry has been done by Mr Cuzner; the foreman for the metal was Mr Mest, who came from Belgium with his team of specialists. Apart from some controversy about the salary of the men, who claim more money when they gradually work higher, it appears that the whole thing was a straightforward job; no accident was reported, and there was no record of festivities for the opening ceremony, which consisted of a blessing given by the Father Rector of Maison Saint Louis.

But the gradual appearance of this metallic frame in the skyline attracted the attention of journalists. On 23 October ‘’Jersey Express’’ writes: "An Observatory for Jersey. Great interest is being manifested in the erection of an observatory, which is now being constructed by the Jesuits on their property in St Saviour. The tower, which is built of iron, has already reached a great height, from the summit of which a splendid view is obtained, not only of the town, but also of the country. It is stated that when the observatory is completed it will be possible to see what is taking place in the armoury of Fort Regent. Should the observatory be opened to public inspection we doubt not that many will eagerly embrace the opportunity of witnessing an indescribable coup d'oeil; which must well repay any difficulty incidental thereto."

La Nouvelle Chronique, of 24 October writes: "La Tour F L (sic) a Jersey. Comme nous l'avons dit avant, les Jesuites sont en train de faire construire une vraie tour F L a Jersey. Cette tour, qui est un observatoire, est toute construite en fer, et aujourd'hui, bien qu'elle ne soit pas encore terminée, elle a deja atteint une si grande hauteur que du sommet on doit obtenir une vue des plus splendides, non seulement de l'entier de la ville, mais aussi d'une bonne partie de la campagne. On dit que lorsque cette tour sera terrninée on pourra voir, de son sommet, ce qui se passe dans la place d'armes du Fort Regent. Est-ce que nos militaires goutent l'idee d'oeils indiscrets a surveiller leurs mouvements? Ne fut-ce que par curiosité, nos lecteurs devraient monter Wellington Road, afin de voir cette tour."

After the erection of the tower Fr Dechevrens had invited Mr Seyrig to visit Jersey and see his work. In a letter of February 1898, the architect thanks the father for the photograph of the tower; he says he is pleased to know that the tower is giving every satisfaction; he writes: "but there is only one point where I do not entirely agree with you, it is that the structure is elegant. I am afraid I don't always find that my constructions are smart and graceful. I hope that other qualities make up for this. I am not at all enthusiastic about architecture in metal. But, as you declare yourself satisfied, I am delighted."

Was the Jesuits’ tower a beautiful asset to Jersey? At that time there was not yet a Comité des Beauts Naturelles to give the fmal verdict.

Christian Burdo succeeded Marc Dechevrens

Special occasions

Though built for science, the tower was on some occasions used for a very different purpose. On 24 June 1897, the Evening Post reported the illuminations for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee: "A magnificent searchlight that could be seen from miles around gleamed from the top of the Eifel tower-like Observatory. The tower itself being also gaily decked with lights throughout the whole length." In 1918, for the peace celebrations, it was used as a giant flagstaff, with bunting on the four comers from top to bottom, and the Allies’ national flags displayed from the top of the tower to the roof of Highlands College.

Father Dechevrens had not waited for the achievement of the Observatory and the tower to begin his weather investigations, as the first readings are dated 14 January 1894. A Stevenson screen was erected nearby to house the thermometers, thermograph, hygrograph, evaporimeter etc. Later, inside the Observatory building, the barometers, barographs, terrestrial magnetism instruments were placed, and in a special room, the flat roof of which could be lifted, a transit instrument was put on a pillar, as at that time, before wireless telegraphy, the only means to keep the right time was to observe the passage of the sun or stars on the meridian.

Soon, the top gallery of the tower received the wind instruments, connected to the observatory itself by a milticore conductor, transmitting the electrical impulses to the recorders. As a wind vane and anemometer were also installed on the top of the observatory, Father Dechevrens made a very extensive study of the wind at two different levels. It is amazing to see how he has used all the data, making graphs, calculating averages, percentages, for direction, speeds, frequencies.

Later a very complicated wind vane was put on the top of the mast, crowning the tower, registering the direction and the horizontal and vertical currents of air, as well as their velocity. This invention, which he had realised in his workshop, Father Dechevrens had built by an instrument maker in Paris, not without arguments between the master mind and the craftsmen, and it proved very efficient. The director of the observatory was helped in his work, which at some moments involved readings day and night, by another Father of his age, and of course by young students of Maison Saint Louis training for their future work in other observatories; from personal experience, the author of this article, between 1917 and 1921, knows that it was not always an easy job to climb the 250 steps of the tower to adjust an instrument on the small top platform, in any type of weather.

Being always on the alert to find new grounds of investigations, Fr Dechevrens began a study of some electric phenomena, known as telluric currents, measured by galvanometers, between two electrodes in the soil, showing the existence of an electric tide, connected with the sea tides and the insolation. The island had not then any electricity supply, and it was a choice place for such investigations. Apart from regular detailed yearly bulletins, the work of Fr Dechevrens and his colleagues is represented by some 130 memoirs and contributions to scientific periodicals. The amount of copybooks filled with column after column of figures, in his clear small handwriting, preserved at the observatory, is amazing. A few months before he died, he saw the publication by the Office Meteorologique National de Paris of his "Etude du vent a Jersey.-20 annees d'observations :-1895-1914-, a l'Observatoire Saint Louis." He died on 6 December 1923, aged 79.

Father Rey, the third and final Jesuit Observatory director and author of this history


Before we come to the work of his successors, a few words must be said about a machine invented by Father Dechevrens, the Campylograph, now exhibited in the Mathematical Section of the Palais de la Decouverte, in Paris. By means of two horizontal movements of a pen on a revolving platten, complicated curves could be produced, according to mathematical formulas, on the principal of Lissajous designs. When Fr Dechevrens had worked out on paper all the shapes and sizes of the pieces, he sent the detailed specifications to an instrument maker, who insisted that the machine would never work. But after assembly it proved to be a very clever piece of machinery.

It was not to be a successful commercial proposition, though we know that another one was ordered by an Indian Prince. It could have been of utility for the design of intricate regular patterns, as printed on currency notes. The inventor used it for science, as we can see from a memoir presented to the Societe Astronornique de France, dated February 1907, entitled: "The movement of the Planet Venus, in relation to the Earth, traced by the Campylograph Dechevrens, and seen in space with the aid of a stereoscope”.

After the death of the founder of the Observatory, it seemed that his intensive work could not be continued on the same scale. At that moment the Zi-Ka- Wei observatory needed more instruments and some were sent there from Jersey, and as it was felt that to keep two important observatories was too onerous, China would have the preference. Therefore, the local observations were reduced and would have ceased altogether if, in 1924, somebody interested in science, always ready to help and undertake new tasks, has not come again in Jersey; he was Father Christian Burdo, who with much enterprising courage, and the help of the mathematics and physics master at Maison Saint Louis, kept the observatory going. Ingenuity, skill, patience were rewarded, and soon the recorders ticked away again; and more students came to help and be trained.

Unfortunately the tower had much suffered from lack of paint and repair during the war years. In I920 the author of these lines undertook, with some fellow students, to hammer out rust, and repaint the metal, beginnning at the top, as no workmen could be found to undertake this somewhat perilous job. Later, when working level was nearer to the ground, plenty of labour was available and it seemed that the tower had still a long spell of life.

It was not to be. The expenses of keeping it in good condition of repair were too high, and it was decided that it should be pulled down. There was at some moment a hope of reprieve. Only the top part, the most unsafe, could be taken down, leaving a structure two thirds of its original height. Hunt Brothers, of 35 Commercial Street, in a letter dated 5 October 1928, state that after considering carefully the proposition, they did not feel disposed to do the work. The ‘’Morning News’’, on 28 January I929, writes under the heading: Going, Going ... " If you wake up one morning and can't see what we call the Jesuit's Tower for want of a better name, don't necessarily imagine your eyesight has gone wrong. This old landmark has apparently outlived its usefulness - due no doubt to wireless - for I hear that the owners are seeking suitable offers to have the tower taken down as far as the second tier.

The observation tower is demolished


Demolishing such a structure from the top is not an easy business, short of pitching it over in sections, and I doubt if the material salved would pay for the gear and labour needed to demolish piecemeal." The demolition was performed by A O Hill, of the Dockyard, Dover. It proved to be a tricky operation, as can be read in the Evening Post of 20 February. "The Jesuits' Tower has gone, for at 11 o'clock this morning one of the finest landmarks the island possessed swayed for a couple of seconds as the cables and tackles were tightened, and then began to fall, to finally crash in the exact place which had been marked out for its fall. In spite of several failures yesterday, today has crowned the work of those responsible for the demolition with complete success. In addition to the attempts which we reported, several others were made yesterday evening, but the tackle broke, and eventually it was found necessary to produce new gear. This morning in addition to the new gear, the two legs which had not been completely cut through had a little more cut away. At II o'clock the attempt was again made, and this time, as described, met with success. So the Tower, which was erected nearly 35 years ago, is now nothing but a mass of twisted iron. The work of erecting it was carried out by a Belgian firm in 1894. The work of demolition occupied just 24 hours, but a good deal of breaking up requires to be done before the iron can be shipped to England. There is believed to be 40 odd tons. We understand that before the fmal decision to demolish the tower was taken, Maison Saint Louis offered it to the States of Jersey if the States were willing to defray the actual cost of keeping it in repair, an amount expected to be somewhere about £120 every four years. The offer was declined."

The Climatological reports published annually in the Bulletin of the Societe Jersiaise, show the name of Fr Christian Burdo, director of the Observatory up to 1933. In 1934, another name appears, and remains the same up to now. The successor of Father Burdo had a beginning of training under Father Dechevrens between 1917 and 1921. He gained more experience in another Observatory, in Madagascar, during two different periods, 1921-1924, and 1929-1932. That year, the difficult task to set in position a new transit instrument for the verification of the longitude of Tananarive, proved too much for his sight, and he had to return to Europe. Within a year he arrived back in Jersey, was put in charge of the observatory, where no astronomical work was done.


In Madagascar one of the duties of the new Jersey Observatory director had been to look after the seismographs. He undertook this new line locally, and it was in June 1936 that the first recording of an earthquake was made, at precisely 15 hours II minutes, 45 seconds, some 90 minutes after the final adjustment had been made to the instrument, and the recording mechanism put in action. This first record was that of seism near the Kamchatka Peninsula, 5,450 miles away.

The seismograph, the same as the instruments of Tananarive, is a Mainka, weighing more than a ton, set deeply on the rock in the basement of the Observatory. The static mass weighs half a ton, and the recording is made by means of levers, which amplify the local movement of the soil 150 times, on a sheet of smoked paper progressing at the rate of a yard per hour under a fine tracing pen.

Lent by the Faculté des Sciences de Strasbourg, the centre of the International Union of World Geophysics, for a period of at least two years, the seismograph is still here. It is estimated that, since June 1936, some 4,000 earthquakes, from all over the world, have been recorded locally; "read", and interpreted. A monthly bulletin is prepared and sent to Strasbourg and Kew Observatory, for publication, and classification in international Ssummaries, of some 700 stations.

During the German Occupation the observatory was kept going; (the seismo-graph had to be idle for three years for lack of recording paper), not without untimely and unwelcome visits of the Gestapo, the Feldgendarmerie, and officers of the Kom¬mandantur SS. By special permission the wireless set was allowed to be kept, with the specification that it could be used for scientific purpose only. One of the results of this unique (in the mind of the occupants) wireless set in existence on the island, was that the Observatory was put officially in charge of giving the correct time to a jeweller's firm in town, in order that it could be shown to the public on a dial specially displayed. Thus, according to the Germans, the public had no excuse not to know the correct time, when caught outdoors after curfew.

So, the work which Fr Dechevrens began in 1894, with observations high up in the air at the top of the tower, has been continued, more humbly now, even under¬ground, with seismology, with much reduced staff, specially since the Occupation, and the end of Maison Saint Louis, indeed, reduced to one only now, the writer of this historical account.


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