Inside the Collection

World Meteorology Day and a ‘mystery’ letter from the past

It’s funny what arrives in the post when you work at a museum!*

Last month we received a letter, an old fashioned hand-written one, from Myfanwy of Nowra, NSW. She described how on searching through an old box of papers from the 1800s she had discovered a letter from “H C Russell” addressed to “J Ramsay Esqre, Lyndarie via Bourke”.

I knew that Henry Chamberlain Russell was the Government Astronomer at Sydney Observatory from 1870 to 1905 but what was an astronomer doing writing to someone near Bourke – out on the far western plains of NSW? Read the letter below to see for yourself…

Detail of Letter from H C Russell
Letter from H C Russell of Sydney Observatory to J Ramsay of “Lyndarie via Bourke”, 29 April 1879 – page 1.
Detail of Letter from H C Russell second page
Letter from H C Russell of Sydney Observatory to J Ramsay of “Lyndarie via Bourke”, 29 April 1879 – page 2.


Sydney Observatory

29 April 1879

J Ramsay Esqre

Dear Sir

Your brother was kind enough to tell me that you would willingly take part in collecting meteorological observations. I shall only be too glad to have your assistance and will send you the requisite forms for sending Returns if you will send and let me know what instruments you have.

I send you by post a copy of the Rain map for 1878 you will see how the rain falls off as you leave the coast, much better by the map than from any number of figures.

Please let me know when you write how to place your station on the map

[to page 2]

for otherwise I should have difficulty in finding out where it is.

Yours very truly

HC Russell

So on this World Meteorological Day in 2018 it seems appropriate to write about the astronomers’ meteorological work. One of the tasks given to the first Government Astronomer at Sydney Observatory (William Scott) was to develop a network of observers across New South Wales who could return meteorological information such as temperature and rainfall. Russell greatly expanded the network, and didn’t waste any opportunity to do so as this letter shows!

In fact Russell was as much a meteorologist as an astronomer. By 1898 his network had grown to 1600 observers all reporting to him and many using equipment he’d designed. He designed his own self-recording weather instruments, made the first daily weather map, first published in February 1877 and wrote about the climate of NSW. He also made ‘the radical suggestion that the movement of anticyclones was a hemispheric phenomenon.’ []

When Russell died in 1908 Sydney Observatory was dominated by the Meteorologists who went on to form the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.


If you know more about J Ramsay and his station Lyndarie (or is it Tyndarie?) near Bourke please leave a comment below.


*While we all love a surprise we would really prefer you phoned us before sending in your discoveries!

One response to “World Meteorology Day and a ‘mystery’ letter from the past

  • Andrew, this letter provides a small glimpse into the scientific interests of a NSW family. James Ramsay managed Tindayrey station (spelled in various ways) near Bourke from 1878 to 1882 and was very concerned about rainfall (and lack thereof). He recorded his observations of birds and collected birds’ eggs. He also sent reptile specimens to the Australian Museum and insects to the Macleay Museum. The brother referred to by Russell was probably Edward Ramsay, zoologist and Australian Museum curator.


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