In Search of John Harrison – His life in London (Part 1)

The grand finale of the TV comedy series “Only Fools and Horses” in 1996, hinges around the discovery, by the Trotter brothers, of a watch by a certain John Harrison.  They take it to be auctioned at Southebys where it raises the unbelievable, for them, sum of £6m.  The final scene is of the two brothers, Del Boy and Rodney, walking into a Hollywood-style sunset with Uncle Albert.

So why was this watch so valuable?  And who was John Harrison?  Well he was a Lincolnshire carpenter in the 18th century who turned his hand to making clocks made almost entirely of wooden parts.  He then became absorbed by the problem of making a clock that could be used at sea to calculate longitude.  He invented components that would enable a clock to operate in the unstable conditions of a ship on the high seas and that would be accurate over the long periods of a voyage.  This is very well described, in an easy-to-read book entitled “Longitude” by Dava Sobel.

In the 18th century Major-General William Roy was establishing the baseline for Ordnance Survey mapping of Great Britain as described in my recent blog.  At the same time, possibly ignorant of each other’s endeavours, the astronomical and scientific community led by seafarers were trying to establish a way to measure longitude.  By Act of Parliament in 1714 a learned committee known as “The Board of Longitude” and consisting of scientists, naval officers and government officials, was established to initiate a competition with substantial prizes.  Of course Roy’s project and the longitude project did not depend on each other but their combined outcomes dramatically improved our ability to accurately explore our planet.  And, by a quirk of fate, having found the local link for Roy’s work, I also found a local link for the work on longitude.

Having recently explored Roy’s local connections, I decided to seek out places with a connection to John Harrison within reasonable reach of home.  My journey, spread over three days, took me to Richmond, Holborn, Hampstead and to Greenwich.

In Richmond, between the town centre and Kew Gardens, there is a large area of open land called The Old Deer Park.  It is owned by the Crown Estates who have leased various parts to a range of bodies for sporting activities.  The local authority uses an area for swimming baths and a gym, tennis courts, football and rugby pitches and a car park.  London Welsh and London Scottish Rugby Clubs have their grounds in the park and a large area is leased to the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club.  Very discreetly surrounded by the golf club is the ancient Kew Observatory established by George III in the 18th century.

George III had the observatory built specifically to observe the transit of Venus across the sun on the 3rd June 1769.  The king had a keen interest in astronomy.  He also set up a facility to test time-pieces.  When John Harrison produced his highly successful and accurate H4 chronometer, and the Board of Longitude refused to hand over the prize money, Harrison made a direct plea to the king.  This proved to be successful as not only did the king put H4 to the test at the observatory, he also forced parliament to hand over to Harrison the prize money he was due.

Visiting the Kew Observatory today is a difficult task.  Firstly, over the years its usage has changed and it is currently awaiting conversion into expensive flats.  Secondly, to get to it you have to cross the private land of the golf course.  Undaunted, I set out on foot down the drive leading to the clubhouse, passing a number of signs saying that no unauthorised pedestrians were allowed. The road continued past the clubhouse and then crossed a number of fairways and by the practice area.  I passed one or two groundsmen but no one stopped me.  In the distance, largely obscured by trees, was the white building of the three storey observatory with a turret on the roof.  And then my progress was halted by a high iron fence and a locked gate across the road.  This was as far as I could get.  Very frustrating but at least I had seen a building that was part of the John Harrison story and less than 2 miles from home.

Retracing my steps took me into the public part of the Old Deer Park where I wanted to visit the King’s Meridian.  The establishment and international recognition of the Greenwich Meridian as the 0 ̊line of longitude and the baseline for measuring time did not happen until 1884.  King George, in the seventeen hundreds, declared that the line of longitude passing through his Kew Observatory should be used as the baseline for time.  And so it was.  It was used to set what was called the King’s Time at the Houses of Parliament.  Today a plaque stands on the Thames towpath at the edge of the Old Deer Park approximately midway between Twickenham Road Bridge and Richmond Lock.  On the ground is a slate line marking this original Meridian.  Nearby are two cenotaphs that were used as sighting aids and about midway between here and the distant (1/2 mile away) observatory, there is a smaller cenotaph marking the line of the Meridian.  The line of sight from the plaque to the observatory is supposed to be a preserved view but branches in the foreground obscured it and the observatory itself can only just be made out through the wood of large, tall trees.  What a pity.

Anyway, one box had now been ticked in the search for John Harrison points of interest.  It was time to go home and plan the next adventure.

The following day I set off for Hampstead where Harrison is buried.  The London Overground, formerly known as the North London Line, runs directly from Richmond to Hampstead.  On getting to the station I found that Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT Union, had thrown a spanner into the works.  There was a notice announcing that the London Overground was closed due to strike action.  Now I have no problem with workers striking for better pay and conditions but I do wish that notices were posted at the stations explaining what the strike was about and how the passengers will benefit from any settlement.

Quick change of plan.  A fast train was due in a few minutes which would get me to Waterloo in less than 20 minutes so over to platform 2 and I was soon speeding towards town.  My original plan had been that after visiting Hampstead totravel by bus to Holborn where Harrison lived for most of his years in London and where there is a blue plaque erected.  On the revised itinerary, from Waterloo a bus soon transported me to Red Lion Square, the site of his house.  Red Lion Square is now mostly offices, with, at one end, Conway Hall described as “The landmark of London’s independent intellectual, political and cultural life”.  It is also home to the South Place Ethical Society.

No 12, where Harrison’s House stood, is now the offices of the prestigious international lawyers Mishcon de Reya, famous for handling Princess Diana’s divorce.  The building is now called Summit House and is a rather fine structure clad in toffee-coloured faience, a form of glazed pottery.  It was built in 1922 as the headquarters of Austin Reed the men’s outfitters and was taken over by Mishcon de Reya in 2002 as their London Head Office.  The Harrison Blue Plaque is on a side wall of the building on Dane Street.  It reads “John Harrison 1693 – 1776 inventor of the MARINE CHRONOMETER lived and died in a house on this site”.  It occurred to me that Harrison might have fared better in his years of tedious and acrimonious dealing with the Board of Longitude if he had been represented by Mishcon de Reya.

Leaving Holborn behind, a 168 bus took me past Euston Station, Mornington Crescent, Camden Town and Camden Market where large crowds had gathered, it being August Bank Holiday Monday.  Beyond the market we passed the Roundhouse, a former railway turntable shed converted into a successful performing arts centre.  Then we started the slow climb up Rosslyn Hill towards Hampstead.  I got off the bus where it turned right to Hampstead Heath and continued up the hill on foot.

Harrison’s grave is in the churchyard of the Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead, a church that dates back to 986 AD.  Many famous people are buried here but I had to find Harrison’s grave first.  A helpful signpost showed the way to a large tomb standing close to the church building.  Carved on a frieze round the top of tomb are the words “Reconstructed at the expense of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers of the City of London 1879” three years after his death.  As I was standing and reading a synopsis of the key points of his life engraved on the side of the tomb, the vicar appeared by my side, in civvies but carrying a small but very heavy wooden cross.  “This is the most important grave in the churchyard – he saved many lives.  Unlike the more famous grave of John Constable – he just painted pictures”, he said.  And indeed he was right.  Before sailors could measure longitude with any accuracy, many, many lives were lost at sea due to shipwrecks.  Harrison changed all that.

Having soaked in the atmosphere of John Harrison’s tomb, it was time to take a look around the rest of the churchyard.  There are two churchyards, one around the church itself and the other across the road.  A quick visit to Constable’s grave was essential but it had no particular interesting features.  Then it was across the road to see the graves of some well known names.  The first was Hugh Gaitskell, distinguished Labour politician, Chancellor in the post-war Attlee government and leader of the opposition until his untimely death in 1963 at the age of 56.  Next to him lies George Busson du Maurier a cartoonist and author and grandfather of Daphne du Maurier.  And close to that grave lies Kay Kendall the film star famous for her role in Genevieve amongst many others and wife of another Mr Harrison, Rex.  So a nice full circle.

That was enough for today and time for a snack and a drink.  In Hampstead there is only one place to go, The Flask.  This is an historic Young’s pub in a quiet alleyway just off the main street.  It has been preserved, as far as possible, with its original Victorian glass screens.  In recent years a large conservatory has been added to the rear but this doesn’t detract in any way from the antique feel of the pub as a whole.  A pint of Young’s Ordinary Bitter was ordered and then I could not resist a cheese & garlic toasted ciabatta.  It was delicious.  And, as you will read later, ciabattas were to become a side theme of this adventure.

It was now time to head homewards.  The easiest route was via the Northern Line to Waterloo and then by South West Trains to Richmond.  Hampstead tube station is the deepest on the underground network.   The platforms are 192 feet below the surface.  The normal way down is by one of a number of lifts.  These go down 181 feet at some speed.  Fortunately they were operational otherwise it would have been a descent of 320 stairs to platform level. Once on the tube, the journey went well and I was soon back in Richmond and catching the local bus home.

A very interesting day, taking in two key milestones in Harrison’s life.  But the best was still to come on the final day.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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