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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 4, October 1984

Edward George Leonard Morley — 1894 to 1973 Nelson Astronomer

Edward George Leonard Morley
1894 to 1973 Nelson Astronomer

page 19

Len Morley, as he was known to his friends, was one of those men whose exceptional talents were generally concealed from all but those of close acquaintance. He was an amateur astronomer who was recognised by the scientific world in a manner few amateurs have ever been.

Morley was born in Wellington, New Zealand, his father was a commercial traveller, his mother a Dane. His grandfather had come to Nelson on one of the first ships in 1842 and became a bridge builder, many of his works still standing.

He attended Nelson Central School where he was influenced at an early age by that famous teacher F. G. Gibbs, headmaster at the time, whose remarkable ability to explain complicated scientific theory in a manner easily understood by young students was legendary.

Following his years at Nelson Central he proceeded to Nelson College for five years of study followed by a period at Victoria University to study law. He joined a law firm in Nelson with only two subjects to finish when World War I broke out and typically of many young men at the time he resigned his position to enlist, serving for the duration in the Army Area Office.

His interest in astronomy, on which he soon became an authority, was kindled by his association with F. G. Gibbs and by 1909 he was assisting Gibbs at the Atkinson Observatory which was then situated in Alton Street near to Gibbs' home. In 1910 he began his first astronomical log book with his observations of Halleys Comet. Observation commenced on April 20, 1910, and his night by night comet watching is described in detail with delightful paragraphs telling of the wonderful sight the comet made. He illustrated the comet's shape with precise pencil sketches noting such things as the growth of the tail night by night, mentioning in one place
Mr & Mrs John Evershed and E. G. Morley on right – he was then about 30 years old. At the Third House on the Dun Line, January 1915. – C. Collier.

Mr & Mrs John Evershed and E. G. Morley on right – he was then about 30 years old. At the Third House on the Dun Line, January 1915. – C. Collier.

page 20that it had grown from 20 degrees to 100 degrees in 12 days. So long was the tail that the head could be seen in the evening sky while the tail was still visible in the morning, a sight we will not see again till the next appearance in April 1986.

By 1914 Len Morley was assisting Mr John Evershed of Kodaikanal Observatory, India, in selecting and site testing possible sites for a proposed Cawthron Solar Observatory which was to have been established in response to a request from the authorities of Yale University Observatory. Together with F. G. Gibbs, Morley and Evershed, along with Mr Arthur Atkinson, camped from the 15th to the 29th January, 1914, at several sites in the hills behind the Brook and Maitai Valleys. Using a number of small telescopes they took simultaneous observations at different locations making notes of conditions of "seeing" and comparing their information at base camp each evening. This work was arduous entailing as it did carrying heavy equipment through rough bushclad hills, felling trees away for clear observing sites and changing sites each day.

In 1913 he entered an essay in the Cawthron Competition appropriately titled "The Advantages to be Derived from the Establishment of a Solar Physics Observatory in Nelson". This was a scholarly work of some 6000 words carefully researched and eminently readable. Not only were the scientific advantages carefully outlined but also the gain in tourism and wider knowledge of the city were stressed. His essay won the award and was published in the Nelson evening Mail of Friday, September 26, 1913.

Atkinson Observatory, Nelson, N.Z. circa 1915.– Photo E. L. Morley.

Atkinson Observatory, Nelson, N.Z. circa 1915.
– Photo E. L. Morley.

page 21

When the Atkinson Observatory was moved to a new site at the top of the Bishopdale Hills near the end of what is now Princes Drive it was sledged from Alton Street to its new home. This was done at the personal expense of F. G. Gibbs and his assistant in its removal was Len Morley, this was in 1923 September. From this time on until 1954 when he retired F. G. Gibbs was the honorary curator of the observatory, his assistant of course was Len Morley. When Gibbs retired due to ill health Morley became curator and continued in that position until shortly before his death. His notice in the "Local & General" column of the Evening Mail became part of the Nelson scene with its beginning "if the sky is clear," etc. His remarks in the log book night after night make interesting reading, typical are these entries for 1953. April 4: Public Night attendance 40. Good. April 5: All Saints Bible Class 22. No comment. July 15: Girls College party, number attending 19. Conduct, indifferent. September 1: Over 70 Public, too many for adequate attention.

Each year he reported to the Board of Trustees at the Cawthron Institute, reports which are the models of brevity and clarity.

During the 1939–45 war he and Gibbs kept the observatory going with frequent public nights. Whilst Nelson airport was in use as a General Reconnisance Base many airmen were trained in star recognition and navigation by both curators.

Len Morley was the last surviving member of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand founded in 1920. He was president in 1956–57, vice-president 1958–59, council member 1960–67, and was awarded the Society's prestigous Murray Geddes prize in 1963. In 1964 he was made a Fellow, a distinction limited to only 10 members at any one time. He wrote countless reports and papers on astronomy and other scientific subjects, his first in 1918 on Variable Stars.

The Astronomical Society

In September 1956 Morley called a meeting of persons interested in astronomy to consider the formation of a society in Nelson. Sixteen enthusiasts attended with Morley being appointed president, a position he held for many years alternating with his being on the committee. The Astronomical Society functioned until 1960 when it became a Section of The Royal Society. Len Morley held office right up to the time of his death and was in demand as a speaker delivering talks on many subjects at least 25 times. For years, at his own expense, he prepared and distributed monthly copies of planet notes. He regularly explained planetary and constellation positions at meetings using a celestial sphere he had imported and donated to the Section. His love of knowledge was evidenced by the vast library of books, bulletins, journals and star charts at his home at 28 Alfred Street. Called Nga Roihi the name was simply Maori for Roses, being so named in honour of his sister who, before a long illness, was much interested in roses. His interests were wide including archaeology, membership in Toc H, Royal Forest & Bird, the Polynesian Society, Philatetic, N.Z. Founders, Royal Society and many others. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge, outstanding mathematical skill and would share these with any one who cared to listen or ask for advice.

He was a familiar sight around Nelson in his open tourer. Like himself the car was unique being one of only a few thousand made by Dodge Brothers in the U.S.A. It was a 1928 Dodge Victory Sports Phaeton now owned by a local vintage enthusiast. He would drive right up to the observatory while lesser mortals left their car at the gate and walked, dodging sheep and cattle on the way.

In later years he became hard of hearing and his habit of sitting near the front row and asking the speaker, no matter who, to "speak up" was both entertaining and disconcerting.

E. G. L. Morley's two great loves were Freemasonry and astronomy, both these having at least one thing in common. The search for Truth. He was a scientist of no mean repute. From practical experience and an active brain he became an authority in his particular field. He was well known not only in New Zealand but overseas. He was once offered a post in an overseas observatory but in typical page 22manner he turned down the offer saying that he must continue to look after his very sick sister.

He gave time and money in interesting two generations of Nelsonians in astronomy. He sought truth without regard for reward or prestige.

He will be remembered with affection by Nelsonians who had the privilege of knowing him. His passing 11 years ago left a gap which to this day has not been filled.

E. G. L. Morley at old Atkinson Observatory. The telescope is the five inch Cook Retractor bought by Arthur S. Atkinson to observe the 1882 transit of Venus. The telescope is still in use today.– Geoffrey C. Wood Photo.

E. G. L. Morley at old Atkinson Observatory. The telescope is the five inch Cook Retractor bought by Arthur S. Atkinson to observe the 1882 transit of Venus. The telescope is still in use today.
– Geoffrey C. Wood Photo.