Why put a compass up a pole?

Not to help the dancers find their way! Over the past year I’ve been working with the Sunderland ship model and ship portrait collections. In that time I’ve become unnaturally interested in a feature of some Sunderland-built ships from the 1880s and 1890s – a compass on the top of a 15 foot pole.

Oil painting of the steam ship ss Cogent 1884 sailing into the wind

Oil painting of ss Cogent 1884

Detail of painting of ss Cogent showing her bridge amidships with the pole compass on the front

Detail of painting of ss Cogent showing the pole compass on her bridge

For hundreds of years seafarers using wooden ships used magnetic compasses to help them navigate. Once ships began to be made of iron, the magnetic field of a ship’s structure caused the compass needle to deviate. To prevent disaster something had to be done to counteract the effect of the hull. Adjustable iron balls were placed either side of the compass to reduce the influence of the iron hull.

Model of a binnacle compass with polished wood body, grey soft iron adjusting balls either side and brass compass chamber above. Made by James Morton and on display in Sunderland Museum

Model of a binnacle compass by James Morton on display in Sunderland Museum

Before she proceeded to sea, a ship would be ‘swung’ through all the points of the compass. The deviation of the compass was recorded and used to create a chart. This provided the helmsman with the precise adjustment needed for each heading.

The strangest modification, seemingly only in use for a short period in the 1880s and 1890s, was the pole compass, or in German Pfahlkompass.

Builders model of the Sunderland-built ship ss Euterpe 1886 painted pink below the waterline, black above with a black funnel and natural wood decks and stump masts.

Builders model of the Sunderland-built ship ss Euterpe 1886

Detail of the model of ss Euterpe showing the pole compass and ladder on the bridge together with safety rails around the bridge and the normal compass binnacle and ship's wheel

Detail of the model of ss Euterpe showing the pole compass and ladder on the bridge

As one might expect it was a compass mounted at the top of a pole situated on the bridge or some other piece of deck as far from the hull as possible. The pole compass appears in marine dictionaries of 1885 and 1890 but had disappeared by 1900. To read the compass somebody had to climb up the ladder that ran to the top of the pole. I can imagine it was not a popular task if the sea was rough!

Oil painting of the Sunderland-built barque Lota 1892 under sail. She has a blue hull and there is a coast in the background as she sails on the starboard tack - wind from the right hand side of the ship looking forward.

Oil painting of the Sunderland-built barque Lota 1892

Detail of the painting of the barque Lota 1892 showing the pole compass just forward of the mizzen mast, out of the way of the sails and rigging

Detail of the painting of the barque Lota 1892 showing the pole compass just forward of the mizzen mast, out of the way of the sails and rigging

I don’t know why pole compasses had such a short life, but I find myself looking for them on every model and ship painting that crosses my path. The new Public Catalogue Foundation website: www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/ could easily become a guilty pleasure but one I’ve resisted up to now.

Anybody out there seen examples of pole compasses from before 1884 or after 1892?

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