The Admiralty Compass Laboratory - Greenwich's smallest scientific institution
by Mary Mills
by Mary Mills
Hawkins Terrace in Charlton is a bit of a mystery to me. It is a narrow lane right on the Charlton/ Woolwich border and runs north from Little Heath, from near the corner with the old Woodman Pub, now a grocer. It is parallel to Erwood Road, which was Maryon Road, and runs along the backs of the houses. It ends in a patch of grass and rubble nearly the back of St.Thomas’Church in Woodand Terrace. On a map from the 1860s what looks like a garden and a tiny square building appear on that patch of grass. On some maps it is marked as ‘Observatory’ and it turns out that this was a government building - the Admiralty Compass Observatory.
The Observatory dated from the early 1840s but before that there had been a long process to meet the concerns about compasses in Naval ships following a series of accidents and the same concerns with compasses used by the merchant marine. Some of the problems were caused by the increasing use of iron in ships. Following the setting up of a committee, various experimental projects and learned papers a process was set up whereby naval compasses could be set correctly for each ship. In addition to the Observatory itself there was a row of giant letters on a wall on Cox’s Mount - this site is now within Maryon Park but in the 19th century it was a sand pit. Some distance away in Greenhithe was where the ships concerned were ‘swung’ in the river.
In the 1840s Maryon Road and the area around the Obsevatory was being developed with substantial housing aimed at officers and technocrats from the various local institutions and industries. St. Thomas’s Church was built around same time. At first a site for the Observatory had been considered in the gravel pits near Maze Hill but it was thought this would ‘spoil the beauty of the scenery’ there. Maryon Road was conveniently near Woolwich Dockyard and a site was leased from the Maryon Wilson estates.
In charge of the project was Captain Edward Johnson and he took on a retired Scottish Artillery Sergeant, James Nathaniel Brunton, who was to live in a house on site and be paid 2/6d. a day. Brunton was to be one of the longest serving members of staff of the Observtory. It was said at the time he had the ‘rank and education of a Sergeant of Artillery’ nevertheless, by default, he undertook work normally reserved for highly educated professionals and did so with great success.
Visitors to the Observatory arrived at a ‘modest house’ behind which was an octagonal wooden structure said to be ‘rather like a summer house'. It was surrounded by a garden ‘kept in perfect order by Mr. Brunton’ with fine oak trees and roses – said to be fifty different varieties. Inside the observatory and the surrounding area everything had to be free of iron – no iron nails, or buttons, or keys, or anything. There were two shutters in the roof and three masonry pedestals to hold instruments. Two of them determined true north and the other was to hold the compasses to be tested.
As part of the process a telescope was pointed at the number scale on Cox’s Mount.
Captain Johnson died in 1853 and James Brunton was left to run the Observatory alone For the next two years he continued with all the work of testing as well as negotiating with compass manufacturers, solving problems with new equipment, ordering repairs and checking the returns from the ships at swung at Greenhithe – and even conducting 30 swings himself. Although he was authorised to sign certificates from ships’ masters, and advise on which compasses should be used and much else, he was never the given the rank of Acting Superintendent. He lived in the house in Maryon Road with his wife Elizabeth who died in 1865, although she was thirteen years younger than him. There is no evidence of any children.
In 1869 as Woolwich Dockyard closed, the department, by then under a new superintendent, was moved to the Deptford Dockyard site. The Observatory building itself was moved to its new site and set up exactly as it had been in Charlton. Mr. Brunton continued in his role at Deptford but he was allowed to stay in the Maryon Road house for another year after which he was given a lodging allowance. In 1871 he was living in The Terrace at Deptford Dockyard, 17th century handsome houses built for officers and demolished in 1902. He was then living with another, younger and different Elizabeth, described as a ‘servant’. He was however by then ‘Assistant Superintendent of Compasses’.
In 1883 an inquiry into the running of department noted that James Brunton was over 80 and recommended that he should be replaced. He had been in post for 40 years and had never let standards drop. It is said that he resented this enforced retirement and said that giving it a younger man was not a good idea. However he was given a pension of £73.00 a year with £30.00 extra for his army service. There was an attempt to get him an increase in this pension but this was not allowed.
He died in 1887 living in Barry road, in Camberwell, leaving £1,461 18s 6d. His sole executor was his ex boss at the Observatory, William Mayes. He is said to have been buried in Greenwich but it is not clear where. He was a Chelsea Pensioner, which is of course for retired army personnel. However as he had worked for so long for a Naval institution maybe he was allowed into the Royal Hospital Cemetery. Maybe therefore is just down the road in what is now East Greenwich Pleasaunce, but I cannot verify that.
The site in Maryon Road reverted to the Maryon Wilson estates and was then let out as ‘Observatory Cottage’. In 1888 it was replaced by the present building at 80 Maryon Road which was built as the Rectory for St. Thomas’s church. It is now a hotel - although I do remember at some point in the 1970s going to a party there when it was a private ownership.
The letters set up on Cox’s Mount had a rather longer existence. There are several reports of the wall on which they were painted and a number of reasons given for their existence – some of which seem confuse it with an earlier signal station on the site. With later writers saying it was , ‘for telegraphic purposes’ from which signals were sent to Purfleet and a date assigned to it of 1794 . Elsewhere it was claimed that it was lined up with Shooters Hill for this reason. In fact the Admiralty had rented the site from the Maryon Wilson Estate in 1845 and it is described as a wall 'five yards high and nine yards long in line with the magnetic meridian' and was to be used for correcting compasses. It is said to have been blown down in a storm in 1850 and have been reduced to ruins, and then rebuilt.
As a small footnote – in a nearby house in Maryon Road in 1853 the archaeologist, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, was born. Note his middle names which were those of his grandfather. Matthew Finders, had written an extremely influential report on compasses which recommended the setting up of such an institution as the Observatory. However it took thirty years after his death, in 1814, for it to be set up and his daughter, Ann, the archaeologist’s mother, probably never knew him. Was it a co-incidence that the family lived so close by.
This must have been one of the smallest scientific establishments and Greenwich and the area had many others. In 1971 the Compass Observatory was part of the Admiralty Research Establishment in Slough but I do not know what has happened to it now. It was only in Charlton for a relatively short time of its long existence – but I think we should remember the long serving Mr. Brunton, who was only ever a Sergeant in the Artillery and a Chelsea Pensioner. He kept it going while the scientists and naval officers were elsewhere but was only ever a ‘retired Sergeant of Artillery’.
The book which describe the whole history of the Compass Observatory is ‘Steady as she Goes’ by
A.E.Fanning. there are also a couple of contemporary accounts of visits to the observatory one of which is Charles Dickens and appeared in Households Words. And no doubt there are people at the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory who will correct me, as the compasses were correcting in Charlton