Ticking for Britain – the forgotten story of George W Rickett

South London Branch of the BHI lecture

2 March 2017

 

This page is intended to support a lecture given by Graham Dolan to the South London Branch of the BHI.

 

 


 

George William Rickett

 

Born:         16 June 1903, Baptised 2 July Christ Church Greenwich
Died:         17 Feb, 1978
Married:     1930

Father:       Christopher Charles, (labourer)
Mother:      Ann Elizabeth

 

Following their marriage in Barnes, the Ricketts lived at 25 Mayhill Road (just to the east of the present Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach). Prior to that Rickett had spent his entire life living with his parents in various houses in Haddo Street (near the mouth of Deptford Creek) – initially number 14, then 15 and finally number 59.

Rickett joined the Observatory’s Time Department (time signals and chronometers) at the age of 14, on 18 March 1918, as an unestablished Computer.

Since 1896, all vacancies on the permanent staff had been filled by competitive examination from the male Temporary Computers – a process that was continued until 1936 when the post of temporary computer was abolished following the removal or the Royal Hospital School from Greenwich to Holbrook. Entry to the examination was restricted to people of age 18 to 25. Therefore if a computer hadn’t obtained promotion by the age of 26, he would have no prospect of ever being taken on as a permanent member of staff. With vacancies at the Junior Assistant grade being rare and normally only arising when an assistant died or retired, some computers would have had virtually no chance of ever gaining promotion, no matter how good they were.

Rickett was promoted 20 March 1923 to the post of Junior Assistant on the death of Walter Bryant, the Superintendent of Magnetic & Meteorological Department, who had died aged 57 on 31 January following an operation. In the cascade of promotions, Bryant’s Assistant post was filled by Witchell. His Junior Assistant Higher Grade post was filled by Stevens, whose own Junior Assistant post was then filled by Rickett. At that time, there was also one other vacancy that had been held open since the end of the war. With his promotion, Rickett received a substatial pay rise.

One consequence of the recruitment process was that between 1923 and 1936 (when Humphry Smith was appointed from outside as the new Head of the Time Department) all the Heads of Department were ex-computers. This was in complete contrast to the period 1904 to 1917, when all the Heads of Department had had no experience of being a computer, having been originally appointed directly to the post of Second Class Assistant (mainly as graduates) after competing in the Civil Service exams between 1872 and 1892. It was also in complete contrast to the First/Chief Assistants, who until the 1950s (with the exception of Dunkin) were exceptional maths graduates and tended to be recruited more or less straight from university (normally Cambridge).

With the outbreak of war, the Time Department was effectively split into two. Rickett was evacuated with the chronometers first to Bristol and then to Lynchetts, a requisitioned house, in Bradford on Avon. The bulk of the rest of the Department was largely evacuated to the site of the Magnetic Observatory at Abinger in Surrey where a new time service was set up. To reflect his new responsibilities, Rickett was temporarily promoted to the level of Junior Assistant Higher Grade, with the position later being made permanent. As the two sections were never reunited, Rickett as Officer-in-charge, was eventually referred to as the Head of the Chronometer Department.

With his small team at Lynchetts, he worked tirelessly to keep the armed forces supplied with the properly tested and rated chronometers and watches that they needed, issuing some 21,023 instruments in the last year of the war alone.

Following the war, the owner of Lynchetts threatened legal action in order to get the house back. As a result, the Chronometer Department was the first to move into the Observatory’s new site at Herstmonceux. One of the problems however of moving to such an isolated site was the inevitable lack of nearby housing. Whilst the Astronomer Royal was going to have an apartment in the Castle, those staff not in a position to buy a property were expected to take up hostel accommodation in the hutments or attics of the Castle until permanent housing became available. Those with families rejected this arrangement.

Meanwhile, the local council had been consulted and had made the promise of a special allocation of council housing. But this still had to be built, and was in any case only going to be available to married members of staff. At around the time that the Astronomer Royal was moving into the Castle, six houses became available a year earlier than had been expected. Located on the nearby Bagham Lane estate, they were sufficient in number to accommodate the staff of the chronometer department who moved in in September 1948. Unfortunately for them, their presence in the village was resented – no doubt in part, because they had been able to jump the housing waiting list. By the 1950s however, with more houses built, new arrivals from the Observatory were given a warmer welcome.

At Herstmonceux, the paperwork for the Chronometer Department was done in an office on the north side of the Library landing in the Castle. A chronometer workshop was set up in one of the wartime hutments, whilst the rating of the chronometers under varying conditions of temperature took place in rooms on the lower floor of the west-wing of the Castle. In 1957, the chronometer workshop moved into a purpose built space on the first floor of the newly completed West Building. The office and rating section however remained in the Castle until 1962. As well as his work as Head of Department, Rickett also wrote the script for the Observatory pantomime.

One of the outcomes of the Government’s 1945 white paper: The Scientific Civil Service, Reorganisation and Recruitment during the Reconstruction Period, was a reorganisation of the Observatory staff. This took place in the reporting year 1948/9, with all the Observatory staff at Rickett’s grade being regraded as Senior Experimental Officers. Later, with the rapid growth in the number of science and engineering graduates, together with problems inherent in the funding of ‘big’ science, the way in which civil science in the UK was arranged was reviewed by a committee set up in 1963 under the chairmanship of Sir Burke Trend. Among the outcomes of this review was the Science and Technology Act 1965, and the creation in April 1965 of the Science Research Council (SRC), to which control of the Observatory was transferred from the Admiralty Board. In the run up to this change, the Chronometer Department was transferred to the Hydrographic Department of the Ministry of Defence in 1964. Although some staff remained in post, the Scientific Assistants were gradually transferred to other departments. Rickett himself was transferred to the Solar Department under Philip Laurie where he remained until his retirement on 19 January 1968 at the age of 64.

When he retired, Rickett does not appear to have received any real acknowledgment or thanks for his past work from the Observatory’s senior management. By contrast, he received a very nice letter from a fellow officer at the Hydrographic Supplies Establishment. This began:

‘I have just heard of your retirement this week and although it is a very long time since we met, I feel that I cannot allow this to pass without a word from me on behalf of the Hydrographer and Department as a whole.  Thank you for all the past services you have rendered and all the help you have given us over the years. It is natural that in a period when faces change so rapidly, that the past is soon forgotten but there are still a few of us around who remember the name of Rickett and think of that name in association with chronometers and other navigational timepieces; in fact, it is a household name to us in the field.’

Rickett’s work has continued to languish in obscurity. A proper recognition of his contribution to the security of Britain is long overdue.

 

Video Clips

1958, November 14, visit by the HRH, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Slow moving to start with this unedited clip shows: the equatorial group, the Castle, the solar dome, the arrival of the Duke (who is greeted by the Astronomer Royal, Richard Woolley), the Duke looking though the 28-inch refractor, a tour of the chronometer department with George Rickett, and a visit to the Cooke RTC. Although today, the equatorial group the Castle and the old solar dome are well screened from each other by trees, at the time this film was made, the trees are conspicuous by their absence. (B/W, running time: 6 min 16 sec).

 

Buildings

Greenwich: Flamsteed House (the Rugby Room & the Clock Cellars)

Greenwich: The Meridian Building (the chronometer room, workshop, time desk and radio room)

Greenwich: The Great Equatorial Building (chronometer testing and storage)

Bristol & Bradford on Avon

Abinger

The buildings and grounds at Herstmonceux

 

Time

The astronomical basis of timekeeping

The Greenwich Time Service (the dissemination of time)

Chronometers and watches (testing and repair for the Admiralty)

 

Telescopes

Airy Transit Circle

 

People

Overview

The post of Computer

The Assistants