Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Horological Mystery

It's a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes, who famously remarked that, once one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains -- no matter how improbable -- must be the truth.  How did a full-size ship's chronometer, sent on board HMS "Erebus" in 1845, end up encased inside the squat frame of a carriage clock, its interior works still sound and showing no sign of having ever been exposed to the elements?  Each of the ships had just two of these costly instruments, without which it would have been impossible to calculate their longitude.  They were set on departure, and it was the duty of the second lieutenants to keep them wound; the second was a vital back-up for the first.  Of all the instruments on board ship, the chronometers would be the most closely watched, and -- presumably -- the most difficult to steal.  Such an event, had it happened, would never have gone unremarked, and yet in all the letters sent home via the ships' last port of call in Greenland, no mention was made of such a theft.  Nevertheless, if the theft occurred after that point, it's nearly impossible to account for the extraordinary condition of the instrument; as Jonathan Betts, senior horology specialist at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich has remarked,
"This has never been lying around in the open air. I have handled a pocket watch recovered from the expedition, and it is so corroded it is not possible even to open the case. Conditions in the Arctic are so extreme this would have rusted within a day, and been a heap of rubbish within a month."
The timepiece will be one of the featured exhibits at the new exhibit on the search for the Northwest Passage at the National Maritime Museum, which opens this week -- but in the meantime, perhaps those of us who post here at Visions of the North can do some footwork to solve this singular mystery.

The case, as Holmes might remark, presents many "singular points of interest."  Let's enumerate what we know:

1. The timepiece was made in London by John Arnold.  Like all such naval chronometers, it was given a number -- Arnold 294 -- and sent to the Admiralty stores at the Observatory (the very room which now serves as Betts's workshop).  From there, its movements were carefully tracked, and the tracks end with its being assigned to HMS "Erebus" in 1845.

2. An examination of the present casing shows, according to Betts, that the chronometer was altered in ways which strongly suggest an attempt to disguise its origins.  Apparently, the "Arnold" name on the faceplate was "hammered flat" and another maker's name (made up, and not that of any actual clockmaker) substituted.  At some later date, when the interior name was discovered, the "Arnold" on the faceplate was restored.  This strongly suggests that, in the first instance, the clock was disguised in order to make its provenance less notable, and the second instance, restored when its value was recognized.  The second instance can be dated to 30 years ago, and began the course of events by which the timepiece was acquired by the Observatory and returned to its original home.

3. No known reference exists to the timepiece between the sailing of HMS "Erebus" and 26 June, 1886, when an entry was made in the Observatory's official ledger: "Lost in the Arctic Regions with the 'Erebus.'"

4. That the chronometer was, for any length of time, exposed to the elements while in the Arctic can safely be eliminated as a possibility.

5. No Franklin search expedition, in any case, noted recovering a ship's chronometer; those found and returned to Greenwich were pocket chronometers, all in various states of decay. Such a find would certainly have been remarkable.

So what can we say?  According to The Guardian, Mr. Betts "yearns to know who dunnit."  Can we assist?


  1. A p.s. to the above -- Hall, in his account of his second Arctic expedition, notes that he brought back about 125 pounds of relics from the "natives about King William's Land" -- on his list, suggestively, is "Chronometer-box, with its number, name of the maker, and the Queen's broad arrow engraved upon it." Frustratingly, he gives neither the maker's name nor number, but presumably this is still in the Smithsonian ...

  2. Elementary, my dear Potter. TIt should be exceedingly obvious that the chronometer was ... um ... well, you see ... can I get back to you on this? ;)

    Shouldn't the title read "An Horological Mystery"?

  3. Unless the /h/ in "horological" is silent, "a" is preferred in US English, I believe.

    But as to the mystery: I can think of two possibilities: 1) This chronometer was registered to HMS "Erebus" during JC Ross's expedition, and when the ship was re-outfitted for Franklin's, a different timepiece was substituted, and someone charged with the business either forgot to update the register, or deceitfully failed to do so, realizing that no one would be able to spot the theft. If the chronometer was supposed to be missing, it would not be "missed."

    A second, much less likely possibility, would be that the chronometer was removed from HMS "Erebus" when she was abandoned, and brought with one or another sledge parties. If the chronometer was still in its case, and if the case was in a tent or shelter, it's possible that it would have stayed in good condition. One should remember that the Arctic, though very cold, is also very dry, so if protected it might have lasted some time in fairly good shape. In this scenario, someone -- an Inuk, a Franklin searcher, or whoever -- finds the chronometer and realizes its great value. They then trade it to some intermediary who, realizing its likely source, chose to cover up the maker's name on the faceplate.


  4. Hall interviewed Teekeeta who described finding a chronometer at Toonoonee (Terror Bay).

    "Only one small box & something all metal, brass, inside. was round as one could see on opening the box. I now show him my Eggert pocket chronometer & he says it was like that only much larger & the inside of it like my chronometer but all much bigger."

    I'm inclined to believe that the good chronometer was stolen and another substituted. Or something similar.

    Unless an Inuit found it and traded it to a whaler and that whaler knew it was government property so he kept quiet. I would expect the Inuit to break up such a device for the metal and wood which were much more valuable to them than an intact chronometer.

    Hall collection, Field Notes, Book no 24. Quoted by Woodman.

  5. “It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won't speak to me for fifty minutes” (Sherlock Holmes, The Red-Headed League). Perhaps if I smoked a pipe I might have more chance of pondering this one?

    The simplest explanation is obviously that it was stolen from the Erebus before the Expedition sailed, but in that case surely another one would have been allocated to the Expedition? And evidence for the issue of the replacement would be in the records, surely? Equally, even if it was recovered by one of the earlier searching Expeditions it would have spent several years in the Arctic, and a wooden box would not protect it from moisture and freezing. Surely that would leave traces of rust and water damage?

    The only other thought I have is that perhaps, for some reason, it was swapped for one of the Baretto Junior's chronometers at Disko Bay, and then stolen from the transport on its return to London. I'm not sure how we'd take that thesis any further as the Baretto Junior was not a Royal Navy ship and I'm not sure where any records relating to it might exist, other than the letters of Lt. Griffith, the RN agent on board the Baretto Junior. I don't think he refers to any issues relating to chronometers at all.

    Maybe it's four pipe problem?

  6. (just now having his fifth pipe of Perique tobacco) Agreed -- the thesis that the chronometer passed through Inuit hands depends on it having been abandoned in a sheltered area, in its case, and not remaining at the site for a very long period of time. Since the Inuit did not know of the materials on the NW coast of King William Island for several years (they rarely hunted in that area, and learned of it from the Europeans), it could not have been among those materials. One would have to imagine a sledge party, chronometer in tow, which carried on past the season of 1848-49 -- Woodman, I believe, has it in his theory that the final party was still seeking a way out as late as 1850 -- and then met their end, and were discovered by Inuit (probably the Utjulingmiut of the Queen Maud Gulf region). So far, so good, but you are also right that the chronometer would not have necessarily seemed valuable, and would likely have been broken up for the metal. One could imagine, though, that an Inuk who had been in contact with whalers at Repulse Bay might have realized that the intact chronometer would have been of value in trade ... but its' a very very long shot!

    The Baretto Junior was, as you say, not an RN vessel. Not even sure what sort of chronometer they'd have had, and doubt that Franklin would have thought it equal to the carefully calibrated Naval one.

    I'm waiting to hear from a couple of contacts who know something about the last time this chronometer changed hands, and was purchased by the person who donated it to the Royal Observatory. According to them, it was identified in the sale catalogue as having been used aboard "Erebus" under JC Ross, not under Franklin ... this is part of the reason I wonder about some pre-sailing substitution ...

  7. A remarkable suggestion as to the solution of this case comes from my old friend and fellow Franklin-ophile Glenn "Marty" Stein, who writes:


"I've had a devil of a time trying to post on any blog, because my Google account is not cooperating, and won't let me in---hence, my apparent 'silence.'

I thought I might throw a thought your way regarding the mysterious chronometer.

    For a moment, going with the theory that it was indeed with Franklin on Erebus, there was a certain Thomas Burt, ARMOURER, who was invalided from the ship via the Barreto Junior at Greenland. What better person to alter the timepiece than a skilled metal worker?

    And why was the chronometer only struck from the Observatory's official ledger in June1886---over 30 years after all of men on the Franklin Expedition were declared dead?"

    Glenn didn't know this when he contacted me, but when I checked the annals of the London Central Criminal Court -- the "Old Bailey" -- I found an account of one Thomas Anthony Burt, alias Thomas Anthony, who was arrested, charged, and convicted of theft in 1840. His theft was of several articles of clothing; when pressed by the local constable as to what he was carrying, he would only say it was his "kit." I believe this was a common term of the era for a sailor's rucksack or carry bag.


So was "Thomas Anthony Burt" the "Thomas Burt" who was dismissed from the "Erebus," for being, in Fitzjames's words, "absolutely useless"? Alas, the Muster Books record no middle name; they simply list one "Thomas Burt" age 22, birthplace Wickham, Hants. The thefts of which Thomas Anthony was accused took place in Lewisham, near London, and a long way from Hampshire. Nevertheless, the facts are most suggestive.

    Wouldn't you agree, Watson?

  8. We can, at least, exclude Thomas Anthony Burt from our enquiries as further research indicates that he was aged 25 at the time of his conviction for housebreaking in 1840.

    The armourer Thomas Burt/Birt is a worthy suspect but stealing an essential instrument from a fully manned and operational ship would be no mean task. In order to avoid the finger of suspicion and the long arm of the law he would also have had to rely on the expedition being lost without sending further despatches. He would have had to commit the theft immediately before the Barretto sailed and conceal the booty on a ship where every other person on board was a stranger to him. If Burt was actually healthy while two on Erebus who would not survive the winter were passed as fit then the competence of the surgeon must be seriously questioned.

    Substitution with an instrument from one of the support ships prior to the theft is a possibility but gives us two unevidenced events instead of one.

    Jonathan Betts may have told us all we know about this object but I suspect he hasn't told us all he knows.

    To my mind the best fit of the so-far publicised facts is that the instrument never went North.

    I suspect it was issued for Ross's Antarctic expedition and disappeared when the ships of were paid off at Woolwich in September 1843. The officer who's responsibility it was at the time naturally had a motive to maintain the fiction that it was still with the ship. A fiction still convenient in 1886 and in 2009.

    That is the case as it appears to me, and improbable as it is, all other explanations are more improbable still.

  9. Peter,

    I find myself in agreement with nearly everything in your posting -- although the Burt age discrepancy is not a fatal flaw (criminals might well lie about their age), the difficulty of the crime, and the great leap in magnitude from stealing someone's shirts to stealing a ship's chronometer, tell against it.

    I would like to get in touch with Betts -- the NMM doesn't seem to make its emials publicly available, but I will try. I agree he may well know more.

    One document which might be of use would be the chronometer log from the "Erebus" under JC Ross. The last entries might have some indication of whether or not either of the ship's timepieces were kept or removed; similarly, it would also be great to have documents about the re-outfitting of "Erebus" for Franklin -- somewhere in those two places, one might find a significant discrepancy, if indeed the instrument was misappropriated.

    By the way, has anyone else noticed that the Google ad automatically placed on the blog page here is for Arnold & Son watches? A curious instance of the way Google parses their blogspace ...

  10. I would look for clues sometime before the Erebus left on her final voyage. We know this was issued to the Erebus but it sounds like it had been with the ship long before Franklin's expedition. I would try to look at records showing which chronometers were issued to the ships. Was another chronometer also issued to the Erebus once this one was found missing? Just because this one was issued to the Erebus some years before doesn't mean it went with the Expedition.

    While waiting to cross Baffin Bay, Erebus and Terror met with the whaling ships Enterprise and Prince of Whales. Captain Dannet (Prince of Whales) was visited by officers from the Expedition and Captain Martin talked with Sir John Franklin and James Reid for fifteen minutes when the Enterprise and Erebus pulled close together. If the chronometer was stolen from the Erebus then that event doesn't appear to have been related to these whaling captains. I skimmed Cyriax and didn't see any mention of it.

    My guess is the chronometer never left England in 1845.

  11. Russell,

    I have to agree that the age discrepancy doesn't destroy the case against Burt although it doesn't help.

    The museum's archive catalogue records a "Receipt for chronometers received from the Astronomer Royal by Lt Vesconte on behalf of Sir John Franklin of HMS EREBUS, 10 May 1845"

    If Arnold 294 is mentioned on that receipt then that would certainly undermine the Antarctic theory, otherwise it might be interesting to check the names of J C Ross's crew against the Old Bailey records.

    Yet another possibility, as if we need any more, is that the chronometer was taken off the ship during scientific observations at the whale-fish islands and mislaid or stolen there, Lt Vesconte perhaps assumed that it had been taken on board the Terror and concealed his error in the hope of recovering it later. Hence no mention to the whaling ships.

    I'm going to a special viewing of this exhibition on Thursday evening, thanks to William Battersby whom I will be meeting there. Hopefully this will provide the opportunity to establish contact with Mr Betts and other officers of the museum. It goes without saying that I'm really looking forward to it.

    I think we get different google ads, I assume depending on our locations. Mine seem to mostly be for "Arctic Adventures".

  12. Interesting that the receipt is in the NMM's own collections -- one would assume Mr. Betts would at least have checked there! But I will see if I can get someone to look at it.

    Given that land parties all had portable or pocket-chronometers, and that protocol called for checking these against the ship's chronometers both before and after, it would seem very unlikely that anyone would want to expose such a valuable instrument to the rigors of land travel -- unless of course the ship were sunk or abandoned!

    I will be eager to hear about the NMM show, although for the most part what's being shown Franklin-wise is still extremely limited (they have thousands of items in storage off-site, most not shown since the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891, as one can see since the tags from that show are often still attached!). I had been hoping to secure an invite to give a talk but have never heard back from their public programmes staff.