Centenary of Maison St Louis Observatory

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The Observatory
Marc Dechevrens

Marc Dechevrens

1994 marked the centenary of weather recordings at the Maison St Louis Observatory. The Jesuits first set up a headquarters in Jersey in 1880 but it was in 1893 that Father Marc Dechevrens arrived in the island and thought of building an Observatory here. A Swiss national, he had previously been in charge of a Jesuit Observatory in China and wanted to continue and develop his studies of the weather. His superiors gave permission for the construction of an Observatory and also a tower to house some of the instruments.

Father Dechevrens wasted no time in starting his work in Jersey. A full programme of observations commenced on 1 January 1894, but it was not until later that year that the Observatory itself was built. The original account paid in November 1894 still exists, showing that the building cost a total of £531. The tower was also built in 1894 by a Belgian company and finished at more or less the same time as the Observatory. It was more expensive, costing a total of £1,260, but formed a very impressive sight on the skyline above Maison St Louis (now the Hotel de France), standing 50 metres high and looking very much like a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower. With Father Dechevrens as it's director, meteorological activities at the Observatory developed quickly; an annual summary of the weather recordings was published, Dechevrens himself wrote many scientific papers on a wide range of topics and he designed some new instruments of his own.

The outbreak of war in 1914 made the work of the Observatory more difficult when many of the masters and students left to join the army or returned to their own countries. The weather observation programme was able to continue but on a reduced scale and a brief resume of the recordings was published in the Annual Bulletin of La Societie Jersiaise. The original handwritten manuscripts from those times still exist, but they ceased at the end of 1920 and, after a period of failing health, Marc Dechevrens died in December 1923.

Christian Burdo

Christian Burdo

From 1920 until 1924 no recordings were made, but soon after the death of Father Dechevrens, another Jesuit came to the rescue. Father Christian Burdo had previously studied in the island and, keenly interested in science, he championed the cause of the Observatory, effectively saving it from permanent closure. Later in his life he became well known in local circles for his archaeological knowledge. Recordings started again on the first day of 1925 and Father Burdo remained as the director for a total of eight years, although the number of recordings was reduced to three per day, compared to the eight per day in the Observatory's heyday under Marc Dechevrens. However, the cost of keeping the tower in good repair soon proved too much and, after some discussion, a decision was made to demolish it. So it was that on 20 February 1929, the Jesuit Tower (as it had become known) fell to the ground to be sold for scrap.

Father Rey

Charles Rey

In 1934 another Director took over from Father Burdo and he, too, had previously studied in the island, at times under the guidance of the original director. Father Charles Rey was a scientist with a wide range of skills and was to remain in charge of the Observatory for nearly half a century. Meteorology was his speciality but previous experience in seismology in Madagascar led him to introduce a seismograph to the Observatory, where it remains and still records, though it underwent some modification in the 1980's. Father Rey was also skilled in the making of instruments and several of those which he constructed are still in good working order today. During the war his talents were put to another good use in making crystal wireless sets, one of which was built int£o a pocket watch which he had a habit of looking at in the presence of the Germans.

In 1954 the Jesuit training college at the Maison St Louis closed but Father Rey remained as the sole occupant of the Observatory, continuing his work with meticulous care, and when Highlands College closed in the early 1960s, he became the only Jesuit remaining in Jersey. In 1969, when the Weighbridge Gardens instrument site was removed to allow an extension for the bus station, Father Rey willingly augmented his recording programme and the Observatory became Jersey's official Health Resort station. It is these readings which appear each day in the national newspapers.

States buy observatory

The States of Jersey bought the Observatory in 1974, recognising it's importance in terms of a very long series of recordings, but also recognising that the director, Father Rey, would not be able to continue indefinitely and that plans should be made for the long term future of the Observatory. In the event Father Rey spent another five years in charge of the weather observing, until he had the misfortune to fall and break a leg in December 1979. He was forced to retire and died in France in March 1981. During his lifetime a number of honours were conferred on Father Rey by the French government and others in recognition of his work in various fields.

Members of the Meteorological Department at the Airport helped out with the recordings when Father Rey left, to ensure continuity of the records, then early in 1982 Mr Syd Rogers took up residence. He had recently retired from forecasting at the Meteorological Department and, following in the traditions of his predecessors, has spent a lifetime studying the weather. The Observatory had changed little since it was built nearly 90 years before, so to make life a little more comfortable for Mr Rogers and his wife, some modernisation of the living accommodation was undertaken, though the main instrument room and other parts of the Observatory remain little changed even now.

Frank Le Blancq

1994

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