Frederick Ferriman and the fantastic telescope

Frederick Zaccheus Duckett Ferriman was a remarkably stubborn and dedicated man who exemplified volunteerism and giving to a community. He was a well-known past real estate agent, philanthropist, benefactor, staunch temperance/prohibitionist, Anglican and Borough Councillor; indeed, Mr and Mrs Ferriman were together a formidable force in the social history of Ashburton.

The Ferriman family, from left to right: Annie Dent (nee Ferriman), Gordon Dodderidge, Joseph, Elizabeth, F Z D, and William (Zac) Ferriman.

An early inhabitant of Ashburton, Elizabeth Ferriman (nee Hunt) was just nine years old when the first ploughing took place in the Ashburton district in 1866. She was as staunch as her husband in upholding denominational doctrine and humanitarianism. Elizabeth died in 1942, aged 85.

Interestingly and fittingly, the name Zaccheus was the name of the chief ‘tax collector’ in Jericho at the time of Jesus, and like Mr Ferriman he gave away most of his possessions. However, this story is about an astronomical telescope: In particular, the Pope/Skey/Ferriman telescope.

A generous gift

Amongst the many thousands of images from the Ashburton Museum’s collections, there are several showing a piece of local history that has significant connections with the wider histories of astronomy, timekeeping and geophysics in New Zealand. Ashburton College is one of the few schools in the country (Oxford Area School being another), with an astronomy observatory – yet alone with an operational historic With-Browning telescope.

The telescope gets its name from Mr George With and John Browning. With made the silvered reflecting mirrors and Browning made the telescope body. The first reported mention of such a telescope was as a gift from Mrs Ferriman to the Ashburton Borough School. Mrs Ferriman was one of the first four pupils at the Borough School and perhaps thought it would be a fitting place to gift the telescope.

This was when the new Borough School foundation stone was laid in 1918, but exactly how the Ferrimans came to own the telescope remains a bit of a mystery.

Tracking the telescope

The history of this telescope is a little unclear, but it was a Mr James Henry Pope, a teacher at the Girls High school in Dunedin who ordered a “first class telescope from Browning of London” and that it was therefore originally owned by Pope (Otago Witness, (1192) October 3, 1874). It was ordered to be able to observe the December 9th, 1874 transit of Venus.

It seems that Dunedin pioneer Henry Skey (b. 1836) inherited it from Pope who left Dunedin in 1876 to go to Ballarat College. However, Pope suffered from ill health and he returned to Dunedin in 1878. Pope died in Wellington aged 78 in 1913, a year before Henry Skey.

Although printed two days after the transit and with an error of aperture size (should be 9½ inch), an article printed in the Christchurch Star clearly states that the Browning telescope was owned by J H Pope. The Otago Witness also mentions the names of the key people connected to this story – Henry Skey and Archibald Hilson (A. H.) Ross.

Henry Skey was a draughtsman, meteorologist and early amateur astronomer in Dunedin. He was also the father of Henry Fawsit Skey who eventually became the second director of the Magnetic Observatory in 1904. Henry Skey married the eldest daughter of A H Ross who was also a draughtsman and then a leading optician and instrument maker in Dunedin. Ross was also Mayor of Dunedin in 1880.

When Henry Skey died in 1914, he willed the telescope to his son along with his father-in-law’s transit instruments and astronomical clock. The family then came to Ashburton, perhaps to be closer to friends and family, as eldest son Henry Fawsit was not far away in Christchurch. He would have visited Ashburton frequently and probably got to know the Ferrimans – they would have been the ideal people to pass his father’s telescope onto, but with a proviso that it be properly housed and used.

Ashburton’s telescope

The telescope came to Ashburton and was gifted to the newly opened buildings of the Borough School in 1918, but unfortunately the school was unable to fund the observatory for it and had no one skilled enough to use it. The telescope languished and was given to the Ashburton High School who eventually built the observatory to house the Browning telescope.

The telescope house about 1970. Around the rim of the observatory could be seen the words “the heavens declare the glory of God” – fitting for the times.
Location of the observatory about 1956 (left) and the grounds of Ashburton Intermediate today (right). Images from Canterbury Maps (LINZ).

The original High School observatory was demolished in 1972, and the next ten years or so were spent once again arguing over who was to pay for a new observatory. Finally, an observatory was built on the present Ashburton College site with the historic telescope set in place and used by many. Pope, Skey and Ferriman would be proud to see it in action and not consigned to a dusty corner.

The “new” swimming pool at the Ashburton High School, about 1956, with the telescope house in the background.

Mr Ellis Wood, the longest serving President of the Ashburton Museum and Historical Society, and history teacher at the Ashburton High School was one of the few people who could focus the telescope on the Moon, but he was unable to focus it on the stars.

In the December 1926 issue of the Magazine of the Ashburton High School, it states on page 12 that ”the telescope house is still a thing of the future, but we have every reason to believe that it is not a distant future. Early next year (1927) should see us watching the vagaries of sunspots or tracing the canals of Mars”.  Today, we fly drones on Mars, and as for the canals, well…

By Glenn Vallender

This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 1 May 2021.

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