Brass Clocks

Almost all narrowboats appear to sport at least one brass clock (chronometer) and also a barometer. Albert is no exception. When we first became boat owners in 1996 we purchased a battery operated chronometer and an aneroid barometer and they are still doing us pround. We swapped them onto Albert when we sold our first boat. We weren't partcularly intending to get any more brass clocks for Albert, since we already had a decent replica brass clock in the galley, but just over a year ago an opportunity arose to get an unusual and authentic marine chronometer.

When I was working at the research institute at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, an unusual maritime chronometer was mounted on the wall of the laboratory. It appears that one of the former researchers was a keen sailor and he presented it to a collegue as a leaving present. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, it failed to work and when that collegue also left it looked like it was destined to remain on the wall until scrapped. I could't bear to see it go to waste so I contacted the last owner, who confirmed he didn't want clock and was happy to see it go to a "good home". I then set about getting it restored and researching its history.

It got it repaired by a member of the British Horological Institute (i.e. people who deal with real clocks) and mounted in the engine room of Albert. The dial indicated that it was a Smiths Astral. A web search indicated it was manufactured in the 1960s and is a Smiths model 6156 WRD. It is a workman-like choronometer with a fairly ordinary metal case. Evidently the Astral was once widely found on merchant vessels throughout the world with various different dial designs available depending on where on the vessel the clock was to be used. For example, in the captain's cabin or the saloon they generally used roman numerals and didn't have a second hand.

Smiths Astral WRD clock

So why the red segments on the dial just after quarter past and quarter to the hour? The clock has a WRD dial, which is the abbrevaition for "wireless room dial". The red segments indicate the period in each hour where radio silence should be observed so radio operators could listen out for emergency signals. Evidently, radio silence periods were introduced for radio telegraphs after the sinking of the Titanic and it appears that they continued until 1999.

There's not much call for radio silence on the Grand Union, or radio telephones come to that, but it makes useful addition to the engine room since it's an eight-day clock and does keep good time. The only negative is that it has a quite a loud tick and has occasionally kept us awake when we sleep in the nearby boatman's cabin.

Steve Parkin