In 1821, the Royal Observatory became responsible for testing and rating the Admiralty’s chronometers. In 1937, a workshop was set up for the repair and adjustment of watches and chronometers. This was a strategic move designed to both ensure a high standard of work and a continuity of service should hostilities develop within Europe. At the outbreak of war, the entire operation was evacuated first to Bristol and then to Bradford on Avon. It remained in Bradford on Avon until 1948 when it was transferred to the Observatory’s new home at Herstmonceux. During its evacuation it was known successively as H.M. Chronometer Depôt, Bristol and then as H.M. Chronometer Depôt, Bradford on Avon.
With the threat of War looming, steps were put in place during 1939 to decentralise the stock of chronometers and watches held at the Observatory. With the co-operation of the Director of the Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, premises belonging to the Museum were made available, and were in use until September of that year. Shortly before the war began, it was decided to move the entire chronometer and watch testing and repair work to Bristol (which at that time was out of range of the German bombers). Suitable accommodation was selected on the 30 August, and as soon as approval had been obtained, the work required to make it ready for occupation was put in hand. Located at the junction of Pembroke Road and Downfield Road, its address was 124 Pembroke Road, Clifton (ADM190/20). Unlikely as it may seem, the building, in question was a substantial four-story Victorian semi-detached house situated directly above the tunnel carrying the railway line from Bristol to the docks at Avonmouth.
The accommodation was arranged to provide offices, rating rooms, watch repair shops, insulated chambers for high temperature tests, packing and storage rooms, space for a refrigerator for testing watches at low temperatures, an air-raid shelter for staff, and living rooms for a caretaker.
The transfer of staff and instruments was carried out between 7 & 12 September. This entailed the removal of some 1,400 instruments together with all the records relating to them, office furniture, stationery, the complete equipment of the watch repair shop, and the necessary materials required for the packing and despatch of instruments on service. Normal rating was recommenced by 30 September. In the meantime issues on service were made from reserve stocks, the winding and rating of which had been continued without interruption. The refrigerator was delivered the following June.
With the fall of France, Bristol became within range of the German bombers. Heavy raids on the city made it desirable to move the chronometers to a safer area. In January 1941, Lynchetts, a private house 18 miles away in Woolley Street, Bradford on Avon, was requisitioned from its then owner Mrs Phibbs for this purpose.
After the necessary alterations to adapt it had been made, the watch repair staff were transferred with their equipment on 24 February 1941. The majority of the watches and chronometers were transferred the following day. The rating and issuing of chronometers and watches continued at Bristol until 3 March on which date the office staff and equipment together with the remaining instruments, were moved. As an additional safeguard reserve stocks of chronometers and watches were widely dispersed.
Apart from a flat for a caretaker, the whole of Lynchetts was used for chronometer work. For security purposes, fire-resisting doors were fitted on the first and second floor landings.
The house is built into the hillside and had extensive gardens. Like the Astronomer Royal’s garden at Greenwich, it contained a number of peach trees, boosting the availability of his private supply of what was then an exotic fruit during the period of wartime austerity. The gardens extended behind those of its neighbours to a coach house, which had its own separate (and rather more private) access from Woolley Street. This is where the chronometers were delivered, the baskets in which they were transported being stored in the coach house.
Next to the coach house, there was an asbestos bungalow. Previously lived in by the gardener, it became the home of George Rickett (Superintendent of Chronometers) and his family. Although the bungalow didn’t have a bathroom, the main house did, and this is where the family went once a week for a bath.To lessen the impact of any air raids, a store with thermostatically controlled heating, was erected in the garden to house part of the stock of chronometers and watches together with some of the spare parts. The store, which is about the size of a garden shed, still survives. It has thick brick walls, an iron door, a vent, no windows and a thick flat reinforced concrete roof. After some delay, a substantial prefabricated building was completed in the garden at the end of December 1944 to house the watch repair shop. The transfer of the work from the main building was completed by mid-January. The new building had 54 feet of benches with good north lighting, bench space for lathes, cleaning machines and watch rate-recorders whilst benches along the south side of the building provide accommodation for rating and jobs additional to the normal repair work. Amongst the chronometers worked on were Harrison’s H4 and the Kendall’s copy K1, which were sent to Bradford on Avon for overhaul and cleaning in 1945. The building has since been demolished.
The Chronometer Department moved out of Lynchetts in September 1948 to a new but temporary workshop in one of the wartime hutments at the Observatory’s new site at Herstmonceux. It was the first of the departments to move there.
Lynchetts is a Grade II* listed Georgian house dating from 1785 with an earlier core. It retains many original features and has extensive gardens of over an acre with a productive orchard and vegetable garden. Lynchetts was restored by the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust between 1970 and 1974, having been given to them by its then owner Mrs OM Walker. Following its restoration, it was sold on a long lease. It is currently a family home offering bed and breakfast accommodation.
124 Pembroke Road survived the bombing and is today divided into flats.
Extracts concerning chronometers from Reports of the Astronomer Royal to the Board of Visitors, 1912-1964