‘I remembered, later on, the prismatic compass’

One of the last items on the shopping list of things Carruthers has to take to Flensburg is a prismatic compass. It proves to be the most difficult thing to find – and is also the one item that seems to arouse suspicion in Carruthers about what this sailing and shooting holiday is actually about. Why would Davies need a technical surveying instrument if all the two men are meant to be doing is laying up and taking pot-shots at water fowl?

It turns out that several club members who actually know about sailing (please try to remember that Lloyd and I really don’t know much about anything…) think it would not be at all unusual to have a prismatic compass on board. It can be particular useful for coastal sailing where precision might be required. Maybe the several references in these early chapters simply is Childers’s way of suggesting that there’s going to be some slightly more adventurous sailing about to happen than would be to Carruthers’s liking.

Thanks to Paul Crespel for supplying us with these photos and a wealth of information about prismatic compasses. When we get Club badges sorted, Paul will have earned one.

I have, though, managed to make contact with an expert compass restorer and repairer, Paul Crespel, via his website at http://trademarklondon.com and he is adamant that a prismatic compass of that era was almost certainly a military item, used mainly for precision artillery. On a boat he felt a precision instrument of that nature would be pretty useless, and an ordinary compass would suffice. Even on land, prismatic compasses can be hard to use with unerring accuracy. Paul claims that in the heat of battle errors of up to 5 degrees can creep in, and, to his mind, inaccurate use of compasses are likely to be the cause of  a large proportion of ‘blue on blue’ casualties in recent U.S. campaigns.

As to what make of compass Carruthers would have been buying, Paul has some firm views:

“I’ve had a good think, and have attached a series of photographs of more or less what the compass would have looked like, in my opinion. I am sure that it would have been the smaller version, 2 inches in diameter excluding protrusions, and one of the photos shows it sitting on top of the more traditional 4 inch version. (see above)
I wondered if it might have been the then rather new version with a hinged lid, but then I thought a very new model would be unlikely to be found in a pawn shop, so this one is probably what the author had in mind.  The brand could have been one of many, but most were made by F Barker & Son Ltd of 12 Clerkenwell Road, London, and supplied wholesale and unbranded to the other “makers” who then put their own names to the instruments before selling them.  For example, the compass shown in the following photos was manufactured by F. Barker & Son Ltd., but was sold as if it had been made by T Armstrong & Son of Manchester.  Such business practices are still in use today.”
unnamed (2)
An F Barker prismatic compass

If you want to know more about F Barker, Paul has written a whole book about him, which you can download from his website here  – for free!

Lloyd and I, though, are rather sold on the idea that Carruthers acquires not a Barker compass, but a Stanley. Why? Well, we’re both people who live just off the Norwood Road, and I was rather pleased to find that William Stanley was a Norwood man. His factory was sited at Norwood Junction (near Arthur Conan Doyle’s house btw), he founded a technical school in Norwood that is still there today, the clock tower at South Norwood was built by him and, to top it all, there’s a pub down that way called the William Stanley – only a short bus ride away.

South Norwood clock tower

I guess we could compromise and say that our compass is an unbranded Barker that was then labelled up as a Stanley. Some might say this is an unimportant detail – but they would be Adventure Club members who  aren’t really getting into the full spirit of our project.

‘one of those showy shops which look like jewellers’ and are really pawnbrokers’’

One other point Paul made was that a prismatic compass was not a difficult item to find in London in 1898 – there would have been plenty of shops that would have stocked one. So the fact that Carruthers is forced to get one at a pawnbroker is an odd choice. Was he perhaps attempting to buy said instrument incognito so that he wouldn’t arouse suspicion – or was he simply in a rush?

The same pawnbrokers that Carruthers would have visited is still there in Victoria Street.

Whatever the reason, I’m happy to say I’ve found a pawnbrokers in Victoria that would have been around at the time in question. It’s Suttons & Roberstons and has a rather illustrious and glamourous history:

“Some of the fascinating and exceptional items we have valued and held as pledges over the years include a famous recording artist’s first recording contract…a 19th Century Russian side cabinet that belonged to Tsar Nicholas II…artwork by Salvador Dali, David Hockney, and Damien Hirst…a first edition X-Men comic … rare pink, green, and blue diamonds… and antique Victorian erotic pocket watches among them.”

Now, do we think Carruthers is perhaps the kind of man to own an erotic pocket watch? I’d like to think so. Maybe that’s one extra item we could be taking to Flensburg in September.



5 thoughts on “‘I remembered, later on, the prismatic compass’

  1. I don’t think Davies needed the prismatic compass for sailing. Dulcibella would obviously already have had a main steering compass in gimbals near the helmsmans position, and possibly another near the chart table.

    I think Davies wanted a pocket prismatic compass of military pattern because he foresaw the need to do a fair bit of walking over the sands at low water. This type of compass was, probably still is, used as a marching compass especially in country with few roads. It would have been essential to Davies as a tool to find his way across the sands, and to find his way back to the boat – especially in fog or at night.


  2. A bit more explanation. Compasses of the type described in this post are virtually impossible to use for navigation purposes on board a sailing boat because it’s so difficult to hold them steady enough to take bearings while at sea. The needles are not damped, so they swing around very rapidly if the compass is moved at all, and they are designed to be held perfectly horizontal, otherwise the needle jams. So, unless the instrument is held perfectly still and in the horizontal plane, impossible in a sailing boat, they don’t work.

    I’m sure Davies intended to use it to explore or map the sands on foot or from his dinghy.


  3. I’ve only just got to Podcast 2 in mid-May 2015. I was intrigued by your reference to spies and spying writers who sailed small boats. I expect others have suggested the man whose books first got me into sailing in the 1950s, Arthur Ransome. I think that Peter Fleming, Ian’s brother would also qualify, but probably not John Buchan?


    1. Hi John – interesting. We knew about Ransome, of course, but Peter Fleming is new to me. Will investigate.


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