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Our History

Clifton Observatory has a unique and varied history. From its construction on the spot of an ancient Celtic settlement and surrounded by the mythos of the Bristol giants, to its popularity among members of the Bristol School of Artists and its links to Brunel and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, there is no denying that the observatory has become an iconic feature of Bristol’s landscape.

Timeline

1766

James Walters is awarded £200 by the Society of Merchant Venturers to build a windmill on Clifton Down.

1768

The windmill is damaged in a fire. The Society of Merchant Venturers funds repairs.

1777

A violent storm causes the windmill to catch fire once more, burning it to the ground.

1828

The Society of Merchant Venturers grant a 7-year lease on the ruined windmill at 5 shillings per annum to William West, who converts the old mill into an observatory.

1829

A competition is announced to select a design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Isambard Brunel submits four record-breaking designs, one of which features the Giant’s Cave as the starting point for the bridge.

1835

While excavating the foundations, West discovers natural caves. He proposes a plan of linking the observatory to the Giant’s Cave. The Society of Merchant Venturers approves the plan and excavation begins.

1837

The Giant’s Cave opens to the public with entry costing one shilling.

1860

William West dies at the age of 60. His wife and children continue to live at the observatory. Eventually West’s granddaughter Edith, a noted suffragette and campaigner for women’s rights, becomes the observatory keeper.

1897

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s exploration of Newfoundland, a committee proposes that the observatory be demolished and a tower built in its place. However, Bristol residents argue to preserve the observatory, and Cabot Tower is built on Brandon Hill instead.

1940

The Home Guard requisition the observatory as a communications and patrol base, and the basement is rented out to Clifton residents as an air raid shelter.

1977

Clifton Observatory, now a Grade II* listed building, is sold by the Society of Merchant Venturers. The Society requires all future owners to maintain public access to the Camera Obscura and Giant’s Cave.

2003

Concord flies over the Observatory in the final minutes of its last flight.

2015

The Clifton Observatory is sold into private ownership to a Bristol-born resident.

2017

The museum is established at the observatory.