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13 November 2014

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You are in: Bradford and West Yorkshire > History > Local History > John Harrison: Timekeeper to Nostell and the world!

John Harrison: Timekeeper to Nostell and the world!

People come from the other side of the world to Nostell Priory near Wakefield just to see a clock! We've been finding out more about this very special timepiece and its creator...

John Harrison's name engraved on Nostell clock

Harrison's name is engraved on the Nostell clock

It's Wednesday and Angie Sharpe, Conservation Assistant at Nostell Priory, is about to wind a clock. Unlike most clocks, this one has a wooden mechanism and it was made in 1717 by John Harrison, a carpenter who was born right here on the Nostell Priory estate.

Angie Sharpe winding John Harrison's clock

Angie Sharpe winding John Harrison's clock

Today John Harrison is remembered as the man who came up with the first reliable way of establishing longitude at sea. In the 18th century sailors travelling east to west had no way of determining where they were with any accuracy and this often had disastrous results. While others looked at the stars for an answer to the longitude problem Harrison realised the solution lay in creating a timepiece that would provide precise time anywhere in the world. Sailors knew that for every 15 degrees travelled eastward, the local time moves forward one hour. While they could measure local time by observing the sun, they also needed to know the time at a reference point such as Greenwich to calculate longitude and pendulum clocks could not cope with the movement of ships at sea. Harrison spent most of his life developing special mechanisms designed to overcome these problems.

Very little is known about John Harrison's early life and his years here in West Yorkshire. He was certainly born on the Nostell estate at Foulby around 1693; his baptism on March 31st at the parish church - a short stroll from the Nostell Priory car park - is a matter of record. His father Henry Harrison worked as estate carpenter for the Winn family who owned the house and estate. Over the years there's been some disagreement about where exactly in Foulby the Harrisons made their home. A blue plaque marks what is generally agreed to be the most likely site but the house was built long after Harrison's time.

John Harrison's wooden clock

Harrison's wooden clock but its case is later...

Terry Bedford is one of Nostell Priory's Volunteer Room Stewards. As it's his job to answer visitors' questions, he's made it his business to find what's known about John Harrison and his connections with Nostell. He tells us: "John Harrison was never trained as a clock-maker. He was taught by his father to be a carpenter and joiner. His father had been the estate carpenter here." The Winn family acquired another house in Lincolnshire and the family moved to Barrow upon Humber when John was still quite a young child. There's a story that he was given a watch to play with when he was ill in bed but it's unlikely to be true because, in those days, watches were very much rich men's toys.

Having followed his father into the carpenter's trade, John Harrison found himself repairing and then making clocks. Harrison's clocks, with their all-wooden mechanism, proved to be very accurate. Terry says: "I think he was 24 and this was his third one. His younger brother also worked with him. They worked together on a lot of the bigger clocks." Only three of Harrison's wooden clocks still survive today and Terry believes the Nostell clock may be the most accessible.

John Harrison

John Harrison at Nostell

And, nearly 300 years later, Angie Sharpe pays tribute to Harrison's clock: "This is our best clock for keeping time because of the wooden mechanism. During the summer, when the humidity is right, it usually keeps perfect time. It can lose if it's damp and things like that, but it's our best timekeeper." Terry says this is due to the materials used in its construction: "It's the lignum vitae, one of the woods they use in it. It doesn't need any lubricating like a metal one would. There are other woods there but that's the important one."

As Angie winds the clock, she tells us: "It's an eight day clock and we wind it once a week. It's always done on a Wednesday, usually at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. We have a wooden key - it's not the original - and we stop the clock and then we just wind it, very slowly and gently. We don't do the chimes because the chimes have some cogs in a delicate state." And, Angie adds, it's best to keep to the weekly winding routine: "If you let the clock run without, it takes forever. I always say there must be a hole in the bottom where the time must go. The pendulum goes right down to the floor...It makes your arms ache."

Terry Bedford

Volunteer Steward Terry Bedford

Until a best-selling book and a TV docu-drama appeared in the 1990s, very few people had heard of John Harrison and yet, Terry argues, Harrison was a technological genius: "He was very inventive. Some of the things we take for granted now were invented by Harrison - the bi-metal strip on the pendulum so that changes in temperature didn't effect the way the pendulum swung and kept time, and he also invented the escape movement that prevented the clock from stopping when they wound it."

Finally Harrison produced a timekeeper no bigger than a large pocket watch which, when tested, lost only five seconds over a six month period. This was the maritime chronometer now known as H4. Eventually - and only after King George III intervened - the Board of Longitude awarded Harrison the £20,000 prize for solving the problem. By this time Harrison was 79-years-old.

John Harrison's marine chronometer

H4 - Harrison's prizewinning marine chronometer

There were those who were very quick to appreciate Harrison's genius. Captain Cook took a copy of H4 with him on his second voyage of discovery - he described it as "our faithful guide through all the vicissitudes of climates." More recently astronaut Neil Armstrong has suggested that Harrison's chronometers are perhaps "the most significant clocks in history."

This is certainly what they think at Nostell Priory where Angie's been winding Harrison's clock for the last six years. She says: "When I first started doing it, it was just winding a clock but it was the interest of the public. This clock can draw quite a crowd...I realised it was a special clock." Terry adds: "The books and the TV film have made a big difference. Most people who come round the house now have heard of John Harrison." Angie and Terry have every right to be enthusiastic. Not only is his name engraved on the dial of the clock but Harrison has written its date on the back and, one can't help but think, this is the handwriting of the boy from Nostell who used both his genius and his craftmanship to save many thousands of lives at sea.

Harrison's wooden clock mechanism

Harrison's wooden clock mechanism

Nostell Priory is on the A638 Wakefield to Doncaster road. The blue plaque commemorating John Harrison is also on the A638 in the village of Foulby just a short distance from the entrance to the house and gardens.

last updated: 08/04/2009 at 15:22
created: 08/04/2009

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