Canterbury College

Learning by Design: Building Canterbury College in the City 1873-1973. An illustrated history based on the Armson Collins Architectural Drawings Collection

Biological Laboratory and Observatory


A rare view of the Biological Laboratory and Observatory before the extension was added linking the building to Physics in 1918.

The study of Biology was taught at Canterbury College from 1874, with the subject being stretched to encompass zoology and paleontology up until 1954. As the department grew in size into the 1890s, there was an increasing need for a separate laboratory, but the nationwide depression meant that funds were limited. To make the most of the available resources, the College Board opted to build a new biological laboratory and incorporate into it an observatory for the Townsend Telescope, which had been donated to the College in 1891.

Completed in 1896 the Biological Laboratory and Observatory were designed by Benjamin Mountfort at a cost of £3,004. This would be Mountfort’s last major contract for the College. The first floor had accommodation for a large lecture room, alongside a store room and a study for the Professor. On the ground floor the building included a preparation room, a senior laboratory and a main laboratory, which could accommodate 21 students seated at benches. The main laboratory also featured displays such as a wax model of an embryo chicken and a gelatin model of typhus bacteria.

The Townsend Observatory contains an equatorial telescope, built in Britain by T. Cooke and Sons in 1864, and gifted to the College by James Townsend in 1891. The donation was supported by the Astronomical Society, who also provided funds for its installation in return for access. Writing in ‘Topics of the Day’ on 11 November 1895, The Press was impressed to discover that not only could the telescope be used to "penetrate into the depths of stellar space" but also that the instrument could also be used to take photographs of the stars. To prevent vibration, the telescope was installed on a large block of stone set on two iron girders.

When the Observatory was finally opened, the telescope was made available to interested members of the public under supervision. For example, the College ‘Conversazione’ (exhibition) described in The Press 20 June 1899 noted that “In the Biological department there were exhibitions of microscopes and specimens, dissections and demonstrations-by students, and other attractions, including an exhibition of the binocular microscope. On the roof there was a search light which flashed its rays all around, while the observatory was also called into requisition.”

In 1918 an extension to link Biology and Botany to the new Physics Building was completed, with the added benefit that this helped to enclose the southern quadrangle. Designed by Collins and Harman at a cost of £3,957, the building was a challenge, given that it had to link two buildings with differing styles. Sometimes details appear to have been overlooked in the planning, as when it was complete students on the upper floor of Botany had to climb through an internal window into the Physics building to get to a fire escape.

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