Chronometer Section: 1914–1981 by William Roseman

Roseman worked in the Chronometer Section from 1949 until his retirement and the section’s winding down in 1986. In 1981, he wrote the account that follows below.



© WP Roseman


Chronometer Section: 1914–1981

Since the days of the testing of the famous “Harrison” marine timepieces in the early 1700’s the Royal Greenwich Observatory had been responsible for testing and issue of chronometers.

During the 1914–18 war the “Admiralty” was most anxious to purchase as many chronometer watches as possible provided they were capable of passing the acceptance test.

Robert Kunzler one of the best suppliers was a native of Switzerland, born near Le-Locle about 1870. He was a student at the Le Locle Technicum and after becoming a journeyman travelled in Germany before arriving in England about 1900. He worked for a time at the Erhardt factory in Coventry but it soon became apparent to him that no one in England understood or was very competent in the art of Springing and Adjusting. He decided to return to Switzerland for a special course in high precision watch adjusting at Le-Locle. After completing the course he returned to Birmingham, England, and was employed at the Waltham Watch Co., in Great Hampton Street.

He later decided to go into business on his own as a Watch Springer and Adjuster, he would do this work for other makers. He was a close associate of J. W. Player and Forrester two famous makers at the time. Forrester was also Swiss. Kunzler was soon submitting watches in his own name to the “Observatory” and by 1912 he was having his own movements made by Pybus at Prescott. These were mainly of the famous 3/4 plate type with centre­-seconds suitable for the Admiralty Chronometer Watch. He had of course the best of Coventry and Birmingham workmen to assist in making his watches. The escapements were made by Smith, jewelling by Collingbourne, and the finishing was done by White. Kunzler completed the watches by doing his own springing, adjusting, and rating to high standards.

During the 1914–18 war he was most industrious completing watches in record time and delivering them to Greenwich. After the war the Admiralty had little demand for navigation watches but Kunzler was always well employed servicing his own watches which were always satisfactory.

By 1936 Hydrographer decided to get as many of the unserviceable stock held back into going and working order again. Spencer Jones was Astronomer Royal and Humphry Smith had just been appointed Head of the Time Department. Batches of chronometer watches were sent out to the London trade for overhaul. Firms with names like Ashley & Simms, Frodsham, Dents, Kullberg and Johannsen were all kept very busy with this outwork. The failure rate was high with the exception of Kullberg and Kunzler who were very precise in their work.

The Astronomer Royal proposed that the only solution to the problem was to set up a repair workshop at the “Observatory” and asked Kunzler if he would accept the job of setting up the organisation, recruitment, and staff training.

By this time Kunzler was having problems in getting the right type of watchmakers to do his own work. However he had a very good business acquaintance in Glasgow, Mr. H. Warden who was a first class watchmaker. Kunzler then proposed to the Astronomer Royal that he and Warden should act as a team in the new repair organisation at Greenwich. This was agreed and the Chronometer Departments Repair Section came into being in November 1937. They both started together in a small work-room upstairs from the Time Dept[artment].

An advertisement appeared in the January 1938 trade press for watchmakers or improvers and through this D. Evans was taken on at £3.00 per week in March of the same year. The workshop was L - shaped with two Windows facing west but these had to be frosted glass as they overlooked the Astronomer Royal’s private garden. The other three windows looked out over the Naval College and the Deptford Power Station. The Time Department consisted then of Humphry Smith (Head), Finch, Rickett, Shortland, Harris, and Eldridge (Messenger).

All these were established civil servants but the watchmakers were another category. When Kunzler started he was told his hours of work were 0800 to 1700 but he maintained that no watchmaker started work before 0900 and his hours were therefore accepted as 0900 to 1800 with 0900 to 1300 Saturdays. He also considered it his duty to report in on Sundays to wind and rate his watches.

Kunzler was paid a good salary but since he was over age this did not matter and did not establish any precedent. Mr. Warden was being paid £6.00 per week and when he learned that Kunzler was getting nearly twice this sum he was not very happy. It was then discovered Mr. Warden should have been paying National Insurance and Unemployment stamps, he objected and said as a self employed person he had not paid such contributions and did not intend to start now. The only way his wage could be continued to be paid without deductions was if he became established.

Humphry Smith, Harry Barker (R.O.’s Secretary) and Hugh Warden were all having new houses built together on an estate at Falconwood and were sharing cars to and from work.

Initially the workshop was temporarily put together but early in 1939 it was re-furbished and lino laid on the floor. During this period the watchmakers Kunzler, Warden, and Evans moved temporarily up into the Wireless Room.

Kunzler was a difficult person, he lived at the Mitre Hotel near Greenwich Pier and every month or so would go on the drink and not report for work. Humphry Smith would go and see him and entice him back again, as sober as a Judge. In 1939 another trade advertisement brought in a watchmaker Bill Le Brun from Manchester at a wage of £5.00 per week. At this time the “Admiralty” were placing orders in Switzerland with Nardin for non-­centre seconds chronometer watches and also ordering through the London agents of Zenith, International, and Longines for Pocket Watches (Admiralty Deck Watches). All stocks held in London were immediately bought up. The watches had their hands changed to blue steel spade type and government markings printed on the dials. Evans as the junior watchmaker had the job of printing with a newly purchased second hand machine from Bouverat and Aberhardt.

The first Watch Rate Recorder Machine also arrived from Thomas Gibbs, Chicago, U.S.A. at what was considered tremendous cost. Evans was of the opinion this was partly because Humphry Smith was interested in the new technology, it was controlled by a tuning fork time base.

War was now imminent and concern arose about the safety of the nation’s stock of chronometers being held in London. Mr. Shortland was sent to Bristol (then considered a safe area) with a reserve stock which was held at a museum near the Cabot Memorial.

The Harrison Timekeepers were already in the Navigation Room of the National Maritime Museum having been there since 1937. H1 and H2 were going in their cases, Lt. Cdr. Gould was working on H3. H4 and the copy of H4, Kendall 1, were still at the Royal Observatory and occasionally came out for visitors to see.

When the war was declared on 3rd September 1939 Humphry Smith rushed off to Bristol and commandeered a large house in Pembroke Road near Clifton Downs to accommodate the Chronometer Depot.

Trenches were being dug in Greenwich Park and the Heath on the Tuesday after the declaration while the chronometers and watches were being loaded into Royal Navy lorries for transportation to Bristol.

Mr. George Rickett became the Officer-in-Charge of the new Chronometer Depot at Bristol. Another watchmaker G. Dingley from Kirby Le Sohen in Essex was engaged, Kunzler died in early 1940. Horace (Chris) Young joined as a watchmaker from Kullberg.

So the staff at Bristol was as follows: G. Rickett, A. Shortland, S. Gray, J. Eldridge and caretakers Mr. & Mrs. Hunt. watchmakers: Warden, Le Brun, Evans, Young and Dingley.

Bristol was no longer considered safe as night and day bombings were frequent so it was decided to move the depot again for safety. This was in February 1941. Humphry Smith found another large house this time at Bradford-on-Avon and it was called “Lynchetts”. The rooms in “Lynchetts” were converted into workshops and a bomb proof shelter was built in the garden. In the meantime the Harrison Timekeepers No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 along with Kendall 4 [1?] had been removed from their London locations and secretly stored for safety at the Observatory Cambridge (Inventory 1940). Navigation watches from Nardin, Longines and International were still arriving from Switzerland through Lisbon.

Wrist watches were introduced made by Cyma and Omega with poor quality aluminium cases. It was then decided to use the H.S. (Hydrographic Service) prefix to mark marine chronometers and watches for identification purposes, H.S.1. Marine Chronometer, H.S.2. Chronometer Watch, H.S.3.Deck Watch and so on through the range.

At this stage the aircraft beacon watch was introduced H.S.4 with a special rotating bezel marked off in 360º. The watches were first supplied by zenith and later E. Matthey Tissot. The demand for watches continued to grow so the depot acquired more watchmakers who were directed as essential war workers. The watchmakers included S. Gatward (Isle of Wight), E. Roberts (Blaestod [Bleanau?] Festinog), [and] E. Body (Grimsby).

Around 1942-43 a proper workshop was built in the garden and the Lemania Wrist Chronographs were introduced for the Fleet Air Arm.

These also found their way out of Switzerland with unluminised dials and hands which were later done in the U.K. For the first time girls were taken on to do the engraving of thousands of watch cases, serial and reference numbers.

The Workshop staff now consisted of: Warden, Le-Brun, Evans, Young, Lauener, Dingley, Wilkins, Roberts, Gatward, Body and Misses Negus, Musselwright and Sally. The office staff was Rickett, Shortland, Betty Gray, Cynthia Lark, C. Ryall and Joe Eldridge as messenger, Mr. & Mrs. Hunt as caretakers, [and] P.Ovens (Packer). Another trainee watchmaker named Hiscox [Hiscocks] was taken on.

With the end of the war in 1945 things eased off and the stocks of chronometers and watches returned from service gradually grew.

In 1946 the future of the Chronometer Depot was undecided. Mr. H. Warden retired and Mr. B. Le Brun died suddenly in 1946.  D. Evans was appointed workshop foreman.

The Astronomer Royal in 1947 was planning for the new “Observatory” and submitted a case that there was no necessity for the "Chronometer Depot" to remain under his control but this was overruled by Hydrographer.

In September 1947 Evans visited the new site for the R.G.O. at Herstmonceux with a view to setting up a temporary repair workshop in large wooden huts (formerly Hearts of Oaks Insurance Co.) opposite the front of the castle near the road junction. The range of huts was to include hostel accommodation, club room, stores, [and] chronometer workshop. The new repair shop was completed in 1948 so the chronometer department transferred to Herstmonceux. The office, packing and rating rooms were accommodated in the castle, the office at the top of the stairway, and the other rooms near the kitchens.

The staff transferring from Bradford-on-Avon to Herstmonceux included G. W. Rickett (Officer-in-Charge) A. Shortland, C. Ryall. P. Ovens. D. W. Evans (Workshop Foreman), G. Dingley, G. Wilkins, H. Young, R. Maber and A. Lippold (plus P. Christie, Apprentice) joined in 1948. W. P. Roseman, R. Miles (Watchmakers) followed in early 1949. The staff of the repair shop built up to twelve watchmakers, one chargeman, one fitter, [and] 2 apprentices, during its stay in the huts.

With the completion of the West Building in 1957 the chronometer repair section moved to its new purpose built laboratory, the office and rating sections remained in the Castle until 1962. The floor underneath the Chronometer Laboratory (previously a store) was converted into accommodation for offices, packing, stores (V & A), inspection, rating and testing rooms.

In 1961 D. W. Evans resigned and W. P. Roseman was appointed Head of Chronometer Workshops. G. W. Rickett was Officer-in-Charge.

During 1965 the overall responsibility for the Royal Greenwich Observatory transferred from the “Admiralty” under Hydrographer to the newly formed Science Research Council.

As the Chronometer Section was mainly involved in defence work Hydrographer decided to retain it under his control as an outstation, within the Ministry of Defence.

The set up in 1967 within the section later became W. B. Harvey (H.E.O.) Head of Administration, W. P. Roseman (TECH l) Head of Technical Services, H. B. West (TECH ll) Head of Laboratory, R. H. Maber (TECH lll) Inspection. With the additional work on behalf of all three Services the watchmaking staff built up to 21 Watchmakers, in addition for back up 2 Craft (Fitters), 2 S/Stores, [and]1 St/Asst.

In 1967 Harvey retired and was replaced by P.Hazell (E.O.) the restructuring appointed Roseman as Officer-in-Charge with an E.O. for administration assisted by 2 C.O.’s and 2 C.A.’s, this was later reduced, and finally finished up with 2 C.O.’s only under the Officer-in-Charge. On the 1st August 1972 Hydrographer through the Chronometer Section became Single Service Manager of Time Measurement Instruments.

This centralised the control of all watches, clocks, and chronometers under the Officer-in-Charge. The management responsibilities ranged from the Design through to the Disposal stage. Many changes took place, watchmakers were once again the problem, low wages and no housing eventually led to a greatly decreased staff. The chronometer laboratory was probably the best equipped technical establishment outside Switzerland, what had been built up to give a first class service was now on the decline not through lack of work, but mainly due to the shortage of highly skilled watchmakers. This problem continued through the late 1970s when the industry started to change, a complete new field of electronics was taking over from the mechanicals. The Officer-in-Charge was tasked with the project of change over. After much research the first electronic chronometers and watches entered service in January 1981.

The H.S.1. Marine Chronometer and the H.S.2.Chronometer Watch were replaced by a Quartz Crystal Chronometer HS.41-7361 and the H.S.3 Deck Watch was replaced by an electronic analogue wrist watch H.S.541-7362/3.

Other changes included the General Service Wrist Watch which many thousands were replaced by electronics in 1981, about l2,000 were bought for the 3 services during the year. At this time the work of the section was more of a technical or R & D service than a repair organisation.

Staff members were now very low and consisted of W. P. Roseman (Officer-in­Charge), H. E. West (PTO lll), A .C. Coleman (PTO lV), D  I. Clark (C.O.), D  M. Prangnell (C.O.), R. Maryan (Sen/Stores), W. Goldsmith (St/Asst), Watchmakers: R. Thatcher (Chargehand), C. Edwards, J. Page, A. Woodhams, K. Grierson, K. Jarrett, R. Marsh, D. Miller, N. Ovens. F. Bharmal. Fitter: P. W. Bourne and A Friend (Sen/Stores).

The section was now operating a policy of replacing the mechanical watches (where possible) by low cost non-maintainable electronics, and also using outside contractors for specialised repairs. The Harrison and Kendall collection which had been returned to the National Maritime Museum after the war and had been restored and maintained by the section since were not now receiving the attention or priority worthy of them. During the years 1949 to 1980 the following staff members were responsible in some way or other for their care and maintenance, D. W. Evans, R. H. Maber, W. P. Roseman, R. Bowie, R. Shergold, H. E. West, R. Thatcher, [and] R. Stevenson.

W.P. Roseman 20 May 1981