Halley and longitude

If you’ve been following this blog about Halley’s voyages, you’re probably aware that 2014 is the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act, which offered financial rewards for practicable methods of finding longitude at sea to specified degrees of accuracy.

Halley was involved with the quest for longitude throughout his long life: in 1675, aged 18, he was present when Flamsteed and Hooke visited the proposed site of the new observatory in Greenwich, being built by order of Charles II to help find longitude at sea; he was made a commissioner under the 1714 Longitude Act, courtesy of his position as Savilian Professor of Geometry (later also as Astronomer Royal), and around 1730 it was Halley who sent clockmaker John Harrison to see George Graham to discuss his ideas for a marine chronometer.

By the second half of the 18th century, there were two serious contending methods for finding longitude at sea, lunar distances and timekeepers, but in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a diverse range of schemes was proposed, including finding longitude via magnetic variation.

Magnetic variation (or declination) is the angle between magnetic and true north in a horizontal plane and was well known to the scientifically-minded, as too was the fact that it varied in different locations and also over time. It was thought that if an underlying pattern to the variation could be identified, it might offer a way of finding one’s longitude.

Halley undertook his first two voyages to measure the declination around the Atlantic in order to improve the accuracy of compass measurements, and to ascertain more accurate co-ordinates for the places he visited – but his published magnetic data also offered a means of estimating longitude at sea.

We’ll see Halley’s results in due course but for now we’ll consider one of the key difficulties with the theory, which is best illustrated by comparing data from four ships’ logs. [1]

At the start of Halley’s first voyage, he sailed from the Isle of Wight to Madeira in company with Admiral Benbow’s squadron and four of the five ships’ logs have survived, so we can compare their recorded latitude and longitude over several days:


1698 Falmouth Gloucester Lynn Paramore
Dec 2 47°28′ 47°39′ 47°24′ 47°23′
Dec 3… 46.28 46.30 46.13 46.20
Dec 14 32.39 32.36 32.43 32.25
Dec 15 32.22 32.26 32.19 32.15

Here, I’m showing the first and last two days that all four ships recorded data (leaving the English Channel and approaching Madeira) and you can see immediately that the latitudes are very similar – but the reported longitudes present a very different picture (first/last 5 days):


1698 Falmouth Gloucester Lynn Paramore
Dec 2 149.3 8°01′ 2°10′ W 8°00′
Dec 3 60.1 6.59 3.30 9.10
Dec 4 5.53 5.12 10.03
Dec 5 29.9 5.34 6.00 10.09
Dec 6… 51′-5/10 4.27 7.07 11.07
Dec 11 8.41 W 3.00 9.35 12.15
Dec 12 8.55 W 3.00 9.39 12.15
Dec 13 10.50 1.08 11.15 14.09
Dec 14 12.03 0.14 11.42 15.03
Dec 15 13.20 13.11 16.07

This table looks like a confused jumble, demonstrating that this is a problematic coordinate. Looking first at the Paramore, Halley always noted that his longitude position was measured west from London, and on December 15 he described himself as being to the south-east of Madeira, which is 16°55′ west of London, and so 16°07′ seems a respectable figure for his position.

The Gloucester does not specify where its longitude is measured from but apparently starts from the same longitude as the Paramore but then declines in value to zero as it approaches Madeira, and so that ship’s longitude is being measured east from Madeira (or possibly El Hierro in the Canaries, a common zero meridian of the time, in which case the final value is over a degree out).

The Lynn‘s figures increase like the Paramore‘s, but the values are quite different and I think these values are measured from Lizard Point as they depart from the English Channel (it isn’t specified). The later values for the Falmouth are similar to the Lynn‘s but the earlier ones are unlike any others and I’m assuming these positions are only partially calculated and represent the minutes travelled since the previous noon.

So these logs demonstrate one of the problems with longitude: even if you could accurately measure your longitude, where did you measure it from? (The prime meridian at Greenwich wasn’t agreed upon until the 1880s.) And how did this varying data affect the accuracy of the period’s maps and charts?

In other words, Halley didn’t really know where he was (his recorded longitude is often erroneous, sometimes considerably so) or even, strictly, where he was heading as many places were wrongly laid down in maps – and so how useful could a theory be that was founded on wrongly-placed locations?

In spite of this, Halley apparently found all the islands he states he will sail for, even though some are little more than large rocks in a vast ocean. Halley followed the customary practice of parallel sailing (sailing along a coast until you attained the latitude of the place you were aiming for and then sailing east/west until you reached it) but on his “Southern cruise” he was seeking tiny islands (Tristan da Cunha, Martim Vaz) from the middle of the Atlantic ocean – I think he must have had at least one very sharp-sighted crew member on board!

IMG_0165 - Version 2


[1] References for the logs are: Falmouth NA, ADM 51/341; Gloucester NA, ADM 51/401; Lynn NA, ADM 51/3892; Paramore BL, Add MSS 30398. The figures are (mostly) degrees/minutes but the notation differs in each log (I’ve used the Paramore‘s).

A Guiney man of 30 Gunns

Five days after his last letter, Halley is still in the Downs waiting for a favourable wind, but he has evidently used the time to find a larger vessel to accompany him through the dangerous waters off North-West Africa where pirates operate – you may remember that Admiral Benbow escorted him during the passage to Madeira on his previous voyage.

(Halley to ?Burchett, dated 26 September 1699 from the “Downes”, National Archives ADM 1/1871)

Honoured Sr

Yesterday the wind coming up at NW most of the small craft weighd out of the Downs, and were followed [in the] afternoon by his Ma:ties Shipp the Winchester, but before Sunn sett the wind shifted to W and WSW, so that they were all taken short off of Folkston; A Guiney man of 30 Gunns having promisd to keep me company 800 Leagues, did not think fitt to weigh with so scant a wind, [so] I remaine here. This morning the wind is at SWbS, so if it blow fresh, we expect the return of those that sailed yesterday. I am ready to saile with the first wind, but belive that their Lopps are not willing to hazard the shipp to the Rovers of Barbary, by my going alone, before their ports with so small a force.

I am

Honourd Sr

Your most obedt Servt

Edm. Halley

At the court martial

On Monday morning, 3rd July 1699, the court martial to examine the complaint of Captain Edmond Halley against Lieutenant Edward Harrison and other officers of the Paramore is held on board HMS Swiftsure with Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral of the Blue, presiding:

(National Archives ADM 1/5261 f.35, dated 3 July 1699)

At a Court Martiall held abd: his Majties: Ship ye Swiftsure in ye Downes ye 3° July 1699


The Hon:ble Sr Clowdsly Shovell Kt: Admll of ye Blew.


[Captains]: Beaumont, Knapp, Haddock, Haugton, Jumper, Trevanion, Price, Wynn, Underdown, Elwes, Symonds

All duely Sworne pursuant to a late Act of Parliamt:

Enquiry was made into ye Complaint exhibited by Capt: Edmd: Halley Comander of his Majties Pink ye Paramour against Mr Edwd: Harrison Lt: & Mate & other Officers of ye Sd: Pink for Misbehaviour & Disrespect towards him their Comander. Upon a Strickt Examination into this Matter ye Court is of Opinion That Captain Halley has produced nothing to prove yt ye said Officers have at any time disobey’d or denyed his Comand thô there may have been some grumbling among them as there is generally in Small Vessels under such Circumstances & therefore ye Court does Accquitt ye Sd: Lt: Harrison & the other Officers of his Majties Pink ye Paramour of this Matter giving them a Severe reprimand for ye Same.

So Harrison found not guilty – but was this fair?

Was the civilian Halley over-sensitive to his officers’ behaviour as the court suggests? or did he fail to make his case adequately? or was the court perhaps prejudiced against him, the “philosophicall” captain?

I don’t think Halley was over-sensitive to Harrison’s behaviour (for a reason that will become apparent), but I do think his personality may have contributed to his difficulties. As a civilian captain and intellectual, he was always likely to have difficulty commanding the respect of his more experienced officers, and I think that probably needed a more authoritarian personality than Halley’s. Alan Cook describes him as a “masterful man” but I can’t say he comes across like that to me. [1] Cook knew far more about Halley than I do – so I may revise my opinion as I learn more – but Halley strikes me as someone who generally won people round by being pleasant and amiable towards them and I’m not sure he had strategies for dealing with people who weren’t amenable to that approach and who were determined to cause trouble – although he was certainly capable of standing up for himself.

The court ruled that Halley had failed to prove disobedience to, or denial of, his command, and as we’ll see tomorrow Halley didn’t actually accuse them of this – but I notice from looking through other reports of courts martial that “disobedience to command” often accompanied charges of disrespectful behaviour and so I wondered if Halley failed to make the most appropriate charge? In any event I would have thought he could have proved disobedience to command as his logbook details the event when Harrison tried to sail round the north end of Barbados, contrary to Halley’s orders, and then persisted in the course until Halley came on deck to remonstrate with him. [2]

But while I think that Halley’s kindly disposition was part of the problem and that he may not have presented his case as effectively as he would wish, I do wonder if the court may have been prejudiced against him. I don’t know the background of the captains but the president, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, had risen from cabin boy to flag officer and might perhaps have been more inclined to favour the sea-bred Harrison than the intellectual Halley? I take the remark “under such Circumstances” to be a reference to tarpaulins serving under an inexperienced commander and perhaps some of the court sympathised more with Harrison on that account? [3] However, when Halley saluted Admiral Benbow with “5 peices” at the start of his voyage, Benbow returned him the same number – which was a great compliment to the civilian Halley from a Rear-Admiral of the fleet.

But the most important fact that emerged this day was the existence of Harrison’s long-time grudge against Halley, which Halley will reveal in a letter the next day. His letter is ambiguous as to whether this came out during the court martial or just after; but if it came out during the trial then that strongly suggests the court was not as sympathetic towards Halley as I think his case merited, and if it came out afterwards, then Harrison was fortunate to be acquitted by a court that was unaware of all the relevant information.

So what was this grudge that lay behind Harrison’s voyage-long ill-behaviour towards Halley? Come back tomorrow and we’ll take a close look at that letter and find out…


[1] Alan Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) p 317

[2] Many records of courts martial held at the National Archives include the depositions made by the main players and witnesses, but disappointingly none were present for Halley’s case; they would surely have provided a fascinating insight into what happened aboard the Paramore and the interplay between Harrison and Halley.

[3] I also noticed when looking through the courts martial reports that where the charge was disrespectful behaviour to a superior, the inferior officer would usually be required to apologise to the superior officer, so it seemed notable that Harrison wasn’t required to do this. Although he was acquitted, he did receive a severe reprimand and so an apology would have seemed in keeping with other reports.

Halley and Peter the Great

In a previous post I mentioned that while Paramore had been purposely built for Halley’s voyage, Halley was not her first commander – that person was none other than Peter the Great!

In 1696 Peter became sole ruler of Russia after the death of Ivan, his half-brother and joint-Tsar, and immediately began a grand project to modernise his backward country.


Peter by Godfrey Kneller (© Royal Collection)

By the end of the year, preparations were under way for a Great Embassy that would travel through Europe recruiting allies against the Turks and studying western technologies. But what would be remarkable about this Embassy was that Peter himself would be part of it – not as its head, but as a private individual.

Peter was intent on travelling incognito to avoid the formality that would otherwise attend him and so he could work and move around like an ordinary citizen – though at 6 feet 7 inches tall, the Russian monarch was fated to stand out no matter how ‘ordinary’ he endeavoured to appear.

The Embassy left Moscow in March 1697 and travelled through northern Europe, arriving in Holland by mid-August. Here, Peter worked in the dockyards at Zaandam (where local boys threw stones at him) and at Amsterdam, but while Peter was impressed with Dutch ships, he was dissatisfied with their method of building them, finding they relied more on intuition and accumulated expertise than on mathematical precepts that Peter could learn and take back to Russia.

He was advised to visit England, where “this kind of practice is raised to the same perfection as other arts and sciences, and might be learned in a short time” [1] and so when William III (who was eager to cultivate Peter in order to secure certain trading rights for English merchants) invited Peter to visit England, Peter promptly accepted.

The main part of the Embassy stayed in Holland, while Peter and 15 companions set sail for England aboard HMS Yorke, flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir David Mitchell. It is said that Peter spent the voyage dressed as a Dutch sailor, and that he climbed to the top of the rigging, although he was unable to persuade the Admiral to climb aloft with him. [2]

The party arrived in London on January 11, and Peter initially resided in Norfolk Street, which ran between the Thames and the Strand (roughly where Temple tube is today), and it was here that Peter’s pet monkey is said to have startled William when it jumped on him during the King’s informal visit shortly after Peter’s arrival. [3]

But Norfolk Street wasn’t private enough for Peter and so in early February he moved his entourage south of the river to Sayes Court in Deptford, away from the intrusive curiosity of the London crowds and next door to the dockyards where Peter could continue his studies in shipbuilding.

Sayes Court was owned by the diarist and Fellow of the Royal Society, John Evelyn; it was a beautiful house admired by all people of taste, not least for its celebrated and influential garden. Evelyn had let the house to John Benbow in 1696, shortly after Benbow’s promotion to the rank of Admiral, but Evelyn was soon complaining of the “mortification of seeing every day much of my former labours and expense there impairing for want of a more polite tenant.”


Pity poor Mr Russell!

Oh dear. If Evelyn was dissatisfied with Benbow as a tenant, he was in for the shock of his life when his property was sub-let to the Czar of Muscovia. The destruction wrought by the visiting Russians on Sayes Court during their two-and-a-half months’ stay has passed into legend. Benbow sued the government for compensation, and the assessment by Sir Christopher Wren of the damage done to goods, buildings, and Evelyn’s cherished garden amounted to £350 9s 6d – more than seven times Halley’s annual Royal Society salary. [4]

Peter didn’t restrict himself to destroying one of England’s finest manor houses, her sailing vessels caught his attention too. On 7 March 1698, a letter from the King’s dockyard informed the Admiralty that:

A Little Yacht Called ye Dove wch: is hired from William Charlton of Greenwich to Waite on ye Czar of Muscovia and he goeing down to Woolwich … his Ma[jes]ty Steering himselfe run aboard one of ye Bomb Vessells wch Broake away ye knee Cheekes Figure Railes and all yt belonged to ye head… [5]

And a month later, on April 13th:

The Dove Yacht wch is hired from Mr Charlton of Greenwich to waite on ye Czar of Muscovia has Sustained such another Damage as I gave yo[u]r Hono[u]r An Acco[un]t of ye 7th March past, by his own Steering Run on board ye Henrietta Yacht in turning up ye River wch broak away all her head and shook the Vessell very much, and has caused her to be very Leakey. [6]

Bravo! Peter’s appetite for life was insatiable and he was rarely at rest between these impressive navigational displays. He visited the Mint at the Tower and the Observatory at Greenwich; he watched a mock battle off Portsmouth and a night-time gunnery display at Woolwich; he had an affair with an actress and walked under the outstretched arm of a giantess without bending; he drank copious amounts of hot pepper and brandy, and famously ate out a tavern when he tarried in Godalming.

And amid all this, Peter might possibly have met Edmond Halley.

Halley’s entry in the Biographia Britannica tells us that:

[Peter] sent for Mr Halley, and found him equal to the great character he had heard of him. He asked him many questions concerning the fleet which he intended to build, the sciences and arts which he wished to introduce into his dominions, and a thousand other subjects which his unbounded curiosity suggested; he was so well satisfied with Mr Halley’s answers, and so pleased with his conversation, that he admitted him familiarly to his table, and ranked him among the number of his friends… [7]

There is no known contemporary source that confirms their meeting and historians of Peter seem to regard this tale as part of the mythology that (unsurprisingly!) attaches to Peter’s visit to London. Yet none of the sources I looked at* mentioned the documented event that seems to offer the most likely indication that Peter and Halley met: Peter’s use of Halley’s ship Paramore.

In a letter dated 16 March 1698, the Admiralty writes to the Navy Board that:

The Czar of Muscovy having desired that his Matis Pink the Paramour at Deptford may be Rigg’d and brought afloat, in Ordr. to make Some Experimt. about her Sayling, We do therefore hereby desire & direct You … to give the necessary Orders for Rigg:g and bringing afloat the Said Vessell, & Employing her in such mañer as the Czar Shall desire…[8]


Order to rig the Paramore for the Tsar (© National Archives (£), ADM 2/178)

Now what’s interesting about this letter is that it says that Peter himself asked for Paramore to be brought afloat for his use, whereas the other vessels he employed all seem to have been proposed by the Admiralty: could it be that Peter made this specific request after meeting Halley, who perhaps talked to him about his ship? Halley’s diplomatic personality and nautical expertise would certainly seem to fit well with Peter’s character and maritime interests.

The semi-official Journal of the Great Embassy does not mention Halley but has entries for only 52 of the 105 days that Peter spent in England, and not everything that Peter is known to have done is recorded there. Peter might not have met Halley, but it seems to me just possible that he did.

And the story that Halley was one of those said to have pushed Peter through John Evelyn’s prized holly hedge in a wheelbarrow? Oh, now that’s undoubtedly mythical!

* ie sources which focus on Peter rather than on Halley – and there may be some that do mention Paramore beyond those I had time to look at.


[1] Arthur MacGregor, The Tsar in England, The Seventeenth Century, 19 (2004) p 117

[2] Anthony Cross, Peter the Great through British Eyes (Cambridge, 2000) p 16; MacGregor p 118

[3] Cross, p 18

[4] Sam Willis reproduces the itemised lists of the damage done to Sayes Court in his book, The Admiral Benbow, pp 241-244

[5] National Archives, ADM 106/3292, f.54v

[6] ibid, f.57r

[7] Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757), p 2517

[8] National Archives, ADM 2/178, p 462

Halley’s ship, the Paramore Pink

Since my last post, Halley made the decision to sail to the West Indies in the hope of finding a flag officer who could permit him to change those officers who had been giving him trouble, including mate and lieutenant, Edward Harrison, and boatswain, John Dodson. But when he reached the West Indies he found he was unable to do this without returning to England and so decided to abandon his voyage and return to London to petition “their Lopps” (lordships) to allow him to sail on a new voyage with different officers. He set sail north towards “Bermudas”, and is now crossing the Atlantic on a north-east course towards England, which he should reach in about a month’s time.

But before Halley arrives back in English waters I thought we should take a closer look at his ship, Paramore, which has been his home since leaving London last October.

I’ve written before about why I’m using the spelling Paramore, but what type of ship was she? how large? and what did she look like?


Fisher Harding, Master Shipwright (© National Maritime Museum)

Paramore was a type of ship known as a pink, a square-rigged vessel with a narrow stern. She was built at Deptford dockyard by Fisher Harding, who had been Master Shipwright at Deptford since 1686. I don’t know why this type of ship was chosen, as pinks were apparently most suited to coastal and shallow waters and Halley’s original plan had been to sail round the world, but the most likely explanation is that pinks were capacious, providing proportionally large storage space, which would have been useful for a small ship that was expected to spend lengthy periods on the high seas.

The Admiralty ordered her construction on 12 July 1693 and she was completed by April 1694. Two entries in the Deptford Letter Book give specific information about her size and appearance. One tells us that she measured:

Length by the Keell                             52 ft: 00 ins

Breadth from out to out Side            18 ft: 00 ins

Burthen                                              89 Tuns

while the other entry details the dimensions of her yards and 3 masts (see below). [1]


Extract from Deptford Letter Book (© National Archives (£), ADM 106/3291)

Paramore was an unrated vessel but she was listed with the 6th Rates in the monthly Disposition of Ships (a record of the whereabouts of the King’s ships at the 1st of each month).

Benjamin Middleton, the intended financier when the voyage was first proposed, was to be “consulted with about the conveniencies to be made in her for Men and Provisions” and there are several references to discussions with Middleton about the ship before he disappears from the project, though I haven’t come across anything specific in terms of, say, the number and layout of cabins.

When Paramore was being fitted out for Halley’s eventual departure in October 1698, she was mounted with “Six three Pounders of about four hundred Weight Each” and “Two Pattereroes” (small guns in swivels) and allowed a complement of 20 men.

In his log and letters from the early part of his voyage, Halley wrote that Paramore “proves an excellent Sea boat in bad Weather” but that she is “very Leewardly” and “goes to windward but indifferently”. The bad weather “opened some leaks which are considerable for a new shipp”, and Halley had to have these repaired and the sand ballast, which choked the pumps, changed for shingle before he could depart from the English coast.

Yet despite these problems, I’ve become rather fond of Paramore, and my favourite mental image is of the little ship sailing in company with Admiral Benbow’s squadron from Portsmouth to Madeira and being towed along by the Falmouth (“took a small Pink in Tow”).

I mentioned before that although Paramore was built specifically for Halley’s voyage, he was not her first captain – and that remarkable person will be the subject of my next post.


Drawing reconstructing HMS Paramore from sources (© Hakluyt Society (£), from Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley)


[1] National Archives, Deptford Letter Book, ADM 106/3291 11 Apr 1694 and 13 Oct 1693. By comparison, Benbow’s flag ship, Gloucester, measured 120 ft 4 ins (keel), 37 ft 5 ins (beam), 896 tons burthen, was mounted with 60 guns and had a complement of 278 men. (Sam Willis, The Admiral Benbow (2010) and NA ADM 8/6).

Capt Halley writes from Madeira

On December 16, Halley arrives at the island of Madeira after two weeks’ sailing in company with Admiral Benbow’s squadron, and with not a “Sallyman” in sight. On the 19th, he writes a short letter to Josiah Burchett, Secretary to the Admiralty, giving an account of their arrival and of Admiral Benbow’s prompt departure for the West Indies.

(Halley to Burchett, dated 19 December 1698 from “Madera”, National Archives ADM 1/1871)


Halley to Burchett 19 Dec 1698 (© National Archives (£), ADM 1/1871)

Honoured Sr

On the sixteenth Instant I arrived at this Island togather with the Glocester, the Falmouth, the Dunkirk and Lynn frigots, under the Command of Rear Admirall Bembow. By reason of the Holydays it was not possible for the Shipps to have their Wines on board before this day, wch occasioned the Admirall to leave the Island the same night he arrived, being unwilling to waite so long. I have gotten my self dispatcht, and shall persue my Voiage with the first wind it being now Calm. I thought I ought to give their Lopps an account of our arrivall here, not finding that there were any letters left for you by the Admirall here; who left the Island in ?all diligence.

I am

Your Honours most obedt: Servant

Edm. Halley

I looked for the logs of the four ships that Halley mentions to see if they remark on the Paramore and provide more detail of the passage to Madeira, but no log exists for the Dunkirk during this period and the Gloucester‘s makes no mention of either Halley or the Paramore.

The Lynn‘s journal does notice the Paramore in this entry for November 30: “Yesterday abt 2 in afternoon we weighed in copany [sic] wth. ye Gloucester, Falmouth, Dunkirk, Paramour Pink. A very hard gale”.

While the Falmouth‘s has this rather slighting entry under December 5: “Fresh gales till morning, then moderate, took a small Pink in Tow …”.

Not yet “the famous Dr. Halley” his voyages will help him become!

The Admiralty recommends the Paramore to Benbow’s protection

Admiral Benbow (Source: Wikipedia)

Rear-Admiral Benbow (Source: Wikipedia)

Josiah Burchett acted promptly on receiving Halley’s letter of November 28 requesting that the Admiralty formally recommends his ship to Benbow’s protection, and on November 30 Burchett writes to Admiral Benbow with their Lordships’ commands.

The letter is endorsed ‘Returned and Cancelled’ as Benbow’s squadron – and the Paramore – has already sailed.

(Josiah Burchett to Rear-Admiral Benbow, dated 30 November 1698 from the Admiralty Office, National Archives ADM 2/395 pp 487-488)


I have this day recd. a Letter from Captn. halley of the Paramour, whereby he desires, that he may have the Countenance of Your Squadron, soe farr as it shall lye in Your way, to protect him from the Sally Men of Warr, which I have comunicated to my Lords of the Admiralty, and am Comanded to signify their Lordpps. directions to You, that soe farr as Captn. halley’s way and Your’s shall lye together, You doe take care to protect him from any of those Rovers; but herein You are not to impede Your proceeding on the Service You are Ordered: Captn. halley has acquainted me that You have already promised him this Assistance, but as I have already said, ’tis by their Lordpps. Comand I doe recomend it to Your care, & not having opportunity of writing by this Conveyance to Captn. halley, I desire You will acquaint him with the Contents of my Letter, a Duplicate whereof will be sent by to Morrow’s Post to meet You at Plymouth, at which time I will write to him, I heartily wish You a good Voyage & am

Sr Your &c