• J.L. Hilton University of KwaZulu-Natal


Immediately prior to his departure from Cape Town to England in 1838, Sir John Herschel sold the estate, ‘Feldhausen’,1 on which he had erected his telescope and had conducted his astronomical observations, to Mr. R. J. Jones, an auctioneer. The property was sold with a servitude: a circular patch of ground 63 feet in diameter bounded by newly planted fir trees was to be kept in Sir John’s possession in perpetuity.2 This area marked the spot on which the telescope had actually stood. At the centre of the circle Herschel placed a small cylindrical column of granite engraved ‘I. H. 1838’ representing his initials in Latin (for Ioannes Herschelius) and the year in which he had completed his work and was leaving the colony.3 Subsequently, the members of the South African Literary and Scientific Institution, of which Herschel had been President,4 decided to commemorate his scientific achievements and his contributions to education in the Cape. At first they had the idea of devising a series of six gold medallions inscribed with the details of his scientific achievements.5 These had been paid for by a voluntary subscription and were designed by Herschel’s assistant, Charles Piazzi Smyth, whose father Rear-Admiral William Henry Smyth had recently (1834) published a catalogue of Roman Imperial medals.6 However, more had been collected than was expended and so the members decided to widen the scope of the exercise and to erect a more suitable memorial on the ground on which the telescope had stood. A meeting of the subscribers chaired by the Governor, Sir George Napier, was held in November 1838 to decide on the form the memorial should take. The resolutions taken at the gathering stated that it was to be ‘a permanent memorial’ and, although no further information about its exact architectural form was given is given in the resolutions, it must be assumed from subsequent references that it was to be an obelisk.7 The committee requested Professors Forbes and Henderson (who had been the second Royal Astronomer at the Cape) to arrange for stone-cutters to make a yellow-granite obelisk from a granite slab taken from a quarry near Edinburgh.8