Navigation and technology in the dock at the Old Bailey


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This weekend was the tenth anniversary of the superb online resource The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, which has provided many early modern historians with vital clues and contextual flavour for their research. It has been an invaluable resource for my own study of longitude and navigation during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and on instrument makers in early modern London.

Navigational practices including the finding of longitude pop up in many trials, since so many deal with events on British Naval and merchant ships. However, the earliest specific mention of longitude involved an event which took place not at sea but, appropriately enough, at the Ship-Tavern at Temple-Bar. On 7 December 1692, John Glendon was convicted of the Manslaughter of Rupert Kempthorne, for which he was to be branded on the thumb in the courtroom:

'some difference arose between them about Latitude and Longitude; Mr. Kempthorne alledging that there was no such word as Longitude; after that, further angry words arose, and Mr. Glendon would give him a 5 l. Piece for a bite of his Thumb; but that past off for a little time; but immediately after they drew their Swords, and fought, and the said Kempthorne received the wound, &c. The Prisoner alledged that Mr. Kempthorne was very severe upon him, and threatned him, and drew his Sword first but no Witness could confirm that; and as for a bite of the Thumb, he said it was a word that he commonly used in a jesting way.'

Nicholas Pocock's 'The East Indiaman, Rockingham, being floated off a shoal in the Red Sea, on the night of 8 June 1801'

Other cases shed light on the methods and technologies used in navigation and in finding the longitude at sea, either when mentioned during the recounting of shipboard events or through the theft of technology. For example, on 13 January 1796 23 year-old Jonathan Layton was sentenced to transportation for having stolen items from the East-Indiaman Rockingham. This included a 'small chronometer' with silver casing which Captain Hugh Lindsay used in determining the longitude. Testimony reveals that the timekeeper was kept in a mahogany box and guarded by the first or second mate in the ship's roundhouse (cabin) alongside 'very considerable property' including 'a great quantity of diamonds'. This reflects how valuable the chronometer was considered, in both the material and utilitarian senses.

Some cases mention the specific monetary value of navigational instruments. On 7 December 1826 18 year-old George Hall was sentenced to death with a recommendation of mercy for having stolen a chronometer worth £50 (and a waistcoat worth five shillings) from Captain Edward William Corry Astley of the Royal Navy. While it is hard to estimate the true worth of historical sums in modern money, the National Archives currency calculator equates the value of the timekeeper to £1700 or more today - or the equivalent value of other goods mentioned in court that decade including ten pairs of pistols, two good horses, or a large quantity of cloth. The captain testified that he had commissioned it from the well-known maker Thomas Earnshaw ten years before, for ascertaining the longitude during his service. He kept it at home locked in a drawer with his confidential papers, and it was marked with one of Earnshaw's identifying serial numbers.

Painting of Thomas Earnshaw c. 1808 by Martin Archer Shee

Timekeepers and navigational methods including dead reckoning are mentioned in other cases at the Old Bailey which dealt with the behavior of those serving on ships. On 1 March 1842, 29 year-old Patrick Maxwell Stewart Wallace was sentenced to transportation for life for having caused the destruction of the brig Dryad near Cuba in order to defraud the marine assurance companies and underwriters. The master of another vessel testified that he had seen the Dryad appear to sail straight into well-known local reefs, despite his having fired a gun signal to her and then sent his pilot aboard. The brig's experienced first mate testified that they were never provided with a proper logline, and that the Captain never allowed him to see the purported ship's chronometer in order to know the longitude. It had to instead be kept by dead-reckoning, although it was said that 'vessels of that sort do not frequently go by dead-reckoning, probably some do it, but not at the present day'.

Similarly, when Captain George Johnston missed both St. Helena and Ascension for re-provisioning during a voyage between Liverpool and Hong Kong on the Tory in 1845 and apparently drank heavily, he told crewmen that 'he expected his chronometers were wrong, and he was out of his longitude'. (On 2 February 1846 the Captain was found Not Guilty despite having bayoneted a crewman to death because of 'being of unsound mind at the time of committing the act' - whether because of the drink or mental illness.)

'The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court', 1808

The records of the Old Bailey also shed light on the working practices of some of the well-known London instrument makers who worked with the Board of Longitude and many of its associates. This included Edward Nairne of Cornhill near the Royal Exchange who accused one of his workmen on 28 June 1758 of stealing brass to make and sell his own instruments (although here his surname is transcribed as Navine). Six years later, his workman Peter Ritchie was sentenced to transportation on 12 December 1764 for having stolen eight pounds of brass. Nairne recognised in the stolen metal 'a rough brass foot to a reflecting telescope [that] evidently appeared to be cast from my patterns' and cleverly had his foreman start putting a 'private mark' on his brass so that he could more easily identify stolen materials. He also showed the court part of an air pump handle which the workman had made.

The large size of the workshop of Jesse Ramsden, frequent collaborator of and recipient of a reward from the Board, is mentioned in a case of 13 January 1779. Workman Peter Kelly was whipped for stealing from the shop two quadrant glasses, three steel arbors, three steel broaches, a steel countersink, two steel files, a brass and steel center, a steel chamsering tool, and a pair of steel dyes. Ramsden testified that he employed a 'great many workmen', each with a private locked drawer for the tools he gave them. A number of these men testified against Kelly in court, although some former employees supported his claim that workmen also brought their own tools to the shop.

Finally, details are revealed about the workspaces and security measures of the famous mathematical instrument making brothers John and Edward Troughton, who kept a home and retail business at No. 136 Fleet Street and another house in Peterborough Court that contained workshops and warehouse space. 28 year-old William Bean was condemned to death with a recommendation of mercy on 17 February 1802 for having broken into Peterborough Court. Edward Troughton rather thrillingly testified that:

Watch House of St. Mary Le Bone (Marylebone), 1810

'my niece being wakeful, told me there were men walking about the rooms with a light, and that the street door was open; I put on my coat, took a bayonet in my hand, and went down; I then called a watchman, and we went up the court to the door; one of the men rushed out, and I believe that is the man, but am not certain, as the man shewed a disposition to hide his face; I told him he must not pass till he gave me an account of what he had been doing; he struck me in the face, and I returned it by a push with the bayonet, but do not think that I wounded him; he pushed past me, and made to the gate at the end of the court, and at that instant two other men came rushing down the court, in a direction from the house, but I did not see them come out of it; the first man got out of the gate, and drew it after him, in consequence of which the other two and myself were shut in; they were on the opening side of the gate, and had the power of opening it, which, I endeavoured to prevent, but could not; I stabbed at them, as I did at the first, with the bayonet, but I am afraid with as little effect; the watchman then sprung his rattle, and the men were pursued by the watchmen;'

'I went back to the house, and found a pair of eliptical compasses at the door, the box open, and the instruments scattered about on the inside of the door; we then picked up one of the men's coats, and a large turn bench, an Hadley's sextant, and upon the stairs was the brass work of a reflecting telescope. In the shop there is but one drawer kept locked, in which I generally keep small valuable articles, and which had been wrenched from the bench; about this time they brought the prisoner to ask if I knew him; I found the watchman pushing up his face forcibly for me to see it; I called him inadvertently by a wrong name, but finding I knew him, he went down upon his knees, and begged I would forgive him; I would not hear him, but ordered them to carry him to the watch-house; he had been in my service five or six months, and had quitted it about a month or five weeks; he knew the house near as well as I did'.

Image credits: Rockingham painting - WikiGallery; Earnshaw painting - National Maritime Museum; Old Bailey & Watch House - Wikimedia.