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Gordon Patston - Founder of the ASNSW

by John Flavin

Gordon Patston - Founder of the Astronomical Society of New South WalesAt our AGM in August 2005, I raised the matter of our Society honouring in some way the memory of our founder, Gordon Patston. The suggestion was put that we might have an annual Memorial Lecture in his name. After some discussion, it was pointed out to me that many members - including committee members - did not know very much about Gordon Patston. I will here try as best I can to remedy this: What follows is not just my own recollections of Gordon, but also those of people (some now gone) that I have spoken to over the years who knew him better than I.

Gordon Patston was born in 1927 in southeast England. After leaving school he served an engineering apprenticeship with the De Havilland aircraft company, following which he served two years National Service in the RAF. Soon after completing his military service, he decided that Australia was the place to go, arriving here in 1949, followed not long after by his parents. It is likely that the family move was influenced by the strong advertising campaign which Australia in the post-war era was conducting in the UK in order to attract more people to this country.

Gordon’s jobs in his first few years here were of a somewhat itinerant nature, traveling about maintaining crop dusting aircraft in country districts.

He did not just service those light planes but flew them as well. In 1954 Gordon married Helen Chandler, whom he had met at a country dance. Following their marriage, the couple took up residence in Sydney where they lived for a time with Gordon’s parents at 42 Lincoln Street, Belfield. The Belfield house - standing on a very large block of ground - had been purchased soon after the Patston family’s arrival from England, with Gordon and his father Eric having some kind of joint ownership arrangement.

Sometime before his marriage Gordon was able to secure a lecturing position in aircraft maintenance at Sydney Technical College in Ultimo.

It has been said that, while traveling home on the train from night school classes, the conversation between Gordon and some of his fellow staff members at STC would often turn to matters of space travel and astronomy. It is to these discussions between like-minded friends that the very beginnings of the Sydney Amateur Astronomers (later to become the Astronomical Society of NSW) can be traced. The decision to form an astronomy club was made in late 1954, with a formal structure being set up and regular meetings starting soon after.

The first meetings of the new body were held in the garage behind the Lincoln Street house and would be attended by about fifteen members, with Gordon as the first president.

Recalling those meetings, Harold Berman – Secretary / Treasurer in those early days - says of Gordon: “He was the main instigator, the convener, the heart and soul of the group.”Harold also recalls some people who were of great help to Gordon in getting the Sydney Amateur Astronomers up and running - Ted Lumley, John Davies, Darrel Cox and others. The new group attracted a growing membership, so it was not long before it was felt that something more commodious than the garage would be required.

Work was started in a rear section of that large block on what would become a permanent clubhouse, nearly all the work being carried out by voluntary labour on weekends. Important as this voluntary labour was, in view of the shortage of available funds, even more important was the willingness of the Patston family to permit a part of their backyard to be used by the Sydney Amateur Astronomers.

The rear half of the block was so wide that Gordon had also been able to build his own house on this section, meaning he had the SAA facilities quite literally on his doorstep - a situation that may at times have left him with the feeling that he was a little too close to his hobby.

Work on the clubhouse progressed slowly but steadily, the members were very proud of this new facility that they had put so much of their own effort into. The official opening on the evening of Friday, 18th September 1959, by Mt. Stromlo Director Bart Bok was an outstanding event that all who were there can still clearly recall. With a secure base now established, the SAA became the leading amateur astronomy body in Sydney. Regular and well attended public open nights were held. The program of observing artificial satellites - that had been set up at short notice with the first Sputniks - was continued. In 1962 Gordon, with Ted Lumley and Ron Johnson, went to Lae in New Guinea to successfully observe the total solar eclipse of that year. A flare star observing program was carried on in conjunction with professional observers.

A very active junior section flourished, of which Ross Gould (now with the Canberra Astronomical Society) was then a member. In his recollections, Long ago and Far Away, he says of Gordon and his place in the overall scheme of things at Belfield: “Gordon Patston was one of the prime movers and shakers in the NSW Society of those days, the single most significant person.”In the mid-sixties, the society’s name was changed from the Sydney Amateur Astronomers to the Astronomical Society of New South Wales. I recall Gordon strongly urging the members to adopt the new name, as there was some resistance. This stable and fruitful scene continued through the 1960s - but it was not to last.

In 1969/70, two events occurred which were to have a great effect on our society. Canterbury Council announced a plan to subdivide some of the very large blocks in Lincoln Street, blocks that had been laid out decades earlier when there was no thought about urban consolidation in that area. A new street called Michael Avenue was put through at the rear of the Lincoln Street block, which meant that what we had always thought of as one large block became three smaller blocks; one fronting Lincoln St, on which stood the home of Eric Patston, while the other two now had frontages on the new street. The one on which Gordon’s house stood became 40 Michael Ave; and the other - on which the ASNSW’s facilities stood - became a valuable building block.

In what must have been a hard decision for the Patston family, this block was sold. That decision caused Gordon much anguish. Eleven years after that grand and happy opening in 1959, the clubhouse was demolished.

Coinciding with that traumatic event was Gordon’s success in being awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study aeronautical engineering in England. In the normal course of things, this would have been a happy occurrence, but it too was to cause its own anguish as it resulted in Gordon - either through study or subsequent attractive job offers - being away from Australia for many years. When he did eventually return, it was to take up residence in Tasmania, thereby losing nearly all contact with the body in which he had invested so much.

As far as I know, Gordon’s only ongoing contact with the Society in later years was through his close friend and fellow founding member, Ted Lumley. I recall Ted describing at a meeting how he had been advising Gordon on the construction details for a telescope where the eyepiece would remain at a fixed height, making it easier for him and Helen (who had become wheelchair-bound) to continue observing. Gordon even had an arrangement with the lighthouse keeper on Bruny Island that he was to be called at any hour of the night when an Aurora was spotted. In addition he began to explore astronomy based Aboriginal legends.

And so it came about that someone who had made amateur astronomy, and the fortunes of the ASNSW in particular, such a vital part of his life became with the passing years little known to all but a few of us. His great love of astronomy was lifelong. Gordon died at Dover, Tasmania, in May 2001.

In late 2004, the society marked its fiftieth year with a dinner at Tebbutts Observatory. There were some people there whom I had not seen in forty years - Shirley Rae, Len Williamson and his son, Peter (Peter and I were pals at Belfield). In the course of the evening, I mentioned to Peter how we had no good picture of Gordon and, a week or so later, Peter was back in touch with me to say he had struck gold: the Churchill Fellowship people had let him have a picture from their records. Reproduced above, it shows Gordon in what was, as you will recognize, his career setting. My thanks to Peter for finding this picture.

Over thirty-five years ago, the ASNSW lost its first home and, since then, we have stayed at various rented premises around Sydney. At the same time, and through no fault of his, we also lost that close contact we had with our founder. These setbacks did not prevent us from flourishing - we have a strong and active membership, and also two great observing sites at Bowen Mountain and Ilford. Nevertheless, there is a feeling - perhaps even a longing - among many members that we should once again have a permanent home. If some day we do find a home, there - having pride of place in that new home and reminding us of our founder - should hang this picture of Gordon Patston.

Note: As well as the people I have mentioned above, I wish to thank the Patston family for talking to me about their father, thereby letting me have information and insights that only family members could provide.


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