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?

24 Responses to Why put a compass up a pole?

  1. Tom Moore says:

    Dear Ian,
    I’m afraid I have no information to give you re. pole compasses, but would like to ask your assistance in your Maritime capacity at Tyne and Wear Museums. I am trying to find out about a Rigging business that was owned by my GreatGreatGrandfather Thomas Moore b 1809, Sunderland and then run by his son John George Moore until it was sold on or closed early 1900’s when iron ships came in. According to one family member they think the premises were just alongside the Wear Bridges , southside opposite where the old Sunderland Echo building stood. T&WM may have business registers that you could direct me to,if so I would be obliged.
    Best regards

  2. Ian Whitehead says:

    Hi Tom,
    You had me excited there for a minute because I thought I’d found another pole compass enthusiast! Anyway, despite my disappointment, I will address your enquiry about Thomas Moore and his rigging business.
    I’ve looked through local maritime directories from 1852 – 1897 without finding the business. I’ve also been through a small selection of trade directories from 1856 up to the 1890s. The only likely candidate is from an 1856 directory of County Durham. In that I found “Thomas Moore, jun. canvas manufacturer 19 Panns B. (Bank) and ship broker, 1, East Cross Street”. I think the Panns Bank address would fit your suggested location. I would suggest that the best place to look for the business in trade directories and other reference works would be in Sunderland Library in Fawcett Street. Regards Ian

  3. Ian Williams says:

    Hi Ian,
    I write for the Marine Modelling Magazine and weould like to do an article on a ship type that is modelled in the Sunderland Museum. I saw it some years back and was fascinated at the time. It is a model of a double ended ship (I think it waqs an early warship, perhaps an early minesweeper or patrol boat.) The main thing I remember was it seemed to have a bow at either end, and had two bridges etc. Can you help? Although I only live at Houghton-le-Spring I find that I very rarely have the time to visit the Museum when I need to.
    Ian Williams

  4. Ian Whitehead says:

    Hi Ian
    You are not the first person to ask about this particular model. It was obviously a popular feature of the display. The model is of HMS LADAS, a 24 Class fleet mine sweeping sloop, built by Osbourne Graham at North Hylton and launched 21st September 1918. In the same year Osbourne Graham also built two other ships of the same class, HMS SIR VISTO and HMS PERSIMMON. They were designed to appear as if they had two bows in order to confuse any submarine preparing to make an attack. Although very interesting looking vessels they were reckoned to be indifferent sea boats and were said to roll a lot. HMS LADAS was sold in November 1920 but bought back in May 1921 to be used as a mooring hulk. She was broken up at Rosyth in 1936.

    The model came off display in Sunderland Museum a few years back but is safely stored at Discovery Museum, Newcastle.

    • Ian Williams says:

      Hi Ian,
      Thanks for the quick reply. Do you know if there are any photos available of the model?

      • Ian Whitehead says:

        Dear Ian
        Yes, there are photos available and I have e-mailed a few to you. Just to add a few more details. HMS Ladas went into service in 1918 with the Granton, Edinburgh mine sweeping flotilla. She was named after a famous racehorse, the winner of the 1894 Epsom Derby. All the ships of this class were named after Derby winners and it should have been called the Racehorse Class, but, since there was already a Racecourse Class of paddle minesweepers, they were officially named the 24 Class to avoid confusion.
        Best wishes


  5. Keith says:

    Sorry to upset you – I am not a pole compass enthusiast (yet!!) but I just came across this site doing a google search of the SS Cogent, a ship that I believe was owned and captained by my great-grandfather John Duff. Can you point me in the right direction where I might find more information about the ship and its history.

    • Ian Whitehead says:

      Hi Keith
      I’m delighted that you are interested in ss Cogent so I shall set aside my disappointment that you aren’t a pole compass spotter. In preparation for putting the John Hudson painting of Cogent on display in Sunderland Museum I did some research on the ship. In the event the painting is still in store but I found that there was a great deal of information about Cogent on the Sunderland Site of Peter Searle – a marvellous source for Sunderland Shipbuilding. So as not to leave the casual visitor frustrated I’ll post a brief account of Cogent ‘s career, but I recommend you follow this link: http://www.searlecanada.org/sunderland/sunderland079.html
      to discover what happened in detail.

      ss Cogent was a tramp steamer of 2000 gross tons built in 1883 by Short Brothers of Sunderland for local ship owner/manager, James Westoll. She traded under Westoll’s management up to August 1914 when she was seized in Hamburg on the outbreak of the First World War. During the war she served as a collier and a transport for the Imperial German Navy. In 1918, at the end of the war, she was transferred to Spanish owners and renamed Tres Hermanos. Sold in 1928 she was renamed Antonio Garcia. On Dec. 13, 1929, while steaming from Aviles to Valencia with a cargo of coal, she collided in fog with the Greek owned ship Hydra, off Vigo, and sank with the loss of 4 lives.

      I’ve looked at Cogent ‘s ownership details in the years 1889, 1891 and 1897 and I can’t see a Duff in the list of owners. At what period of her career was your great-grandfather her master and owner?

      All best wishes


  6. Hello Ian,
    I understand that you removed a ship model M.V. Geddington Court from its original case so it could be photographed for insurance purposes (Ahoy There)
    I am wondering how much the Model in the case was valued by the Insurance Company, do you have any idea?
    My interest is that my ancestor was C.C. Crawford, born 1842. I am a great grandaughter! We know that his son carried on the business, and obviously that family made the model of M.V. Geddington in about 1954.
    I live in Minehead, Somerset, and although I would love to visit the museum it would not be an easy visit, as I am 74yrs.
    I appreciate that you are very busy, but if you could help, I would be grateful.
    Sincerely, Beryl Julian

  7. I am not sure how this ‘comment’ works, or whether you will receive my previous letter about the Geddington model. I would be pleased if we can make contact through b.julian@tiscali.co.uk

  8. Colin Boyd says:

    Your request for info re: pole compasses prior to 1884.
    The Newcastle Courant of 6th December 1878 contains the following:
    ‘HARWICH, Nov 30, NW (Force 3), the Rose of Grangemouth, Oldershaw, from Dieppe to Middlesborough, ballast, was in collision off Ofordness last night with a ship, supposed to be foreign. Part of the steamboats crew jumped on board this vessel. Steamer has foremast and mainmast carried away, bulwarks clean swept on starboard side, forward wheel and steering apparatus gone, plates bent, pole compass gone, lifeboats smashed and other damage.’
    I haven’t had time to research the previous history of the ‘Rose’ and the possibility that the pole compass was a retro-fit but it definately had one in 1878.

  9. Colin Boyd says:

    Hello again Ian,
    Just like buses you wait for ages and two come along together.
    The official enquiry into the loss of the ‘Juno’ off the coast of Norway on 13 December 1870 at Hull on 25 April 1871 contains several mentions of a large iron propeller being stowed on the deck ‘beside the pole compass’. I haven’t been able to find the verdict yet but the general impression is that the crew are blaming this large screw (over 3 tons) for compass deviation and subsequent wreck. There are quite a few references to pole compasses about the same time so perhaps they were in use for longer than originally supposed. I’ll keep digging!

    • Ian Whitehead says:

      Hi Colin
      Hurrah and thank you! At last another pole compass enthusiast! Great to hear from you and thanks for sharing your research. It takes pole compasses back 14 years from where my source material left it and I’m delighted. In 1854, on the Tyne, the tonnage of iron ships built overtook the tonnage built in wood, so I would at least expect some pole compass action around then so perhaps there is more to come. JUNO was built by Samuelson in Hull in 1861 so unless the pole compass was fitted later that would be about right.

      I happened to be working with the Sunderland collection when I posted the blog. Since Sunderland was slow to switch to working in iron I suppose it might be expected that the problems of dealing with an iron hull might not show themselves so readily in the museum’s maritime collection.

  10. Colin Boyd says:

    Hello again Ian,
    This is becoming an obsession!
    In 1856 it was proposed to fit a pole compass to the ‘Great Eastern’ but with Brunel being Brunel the pole was a forty foot high lattice work structure whereby “the helmsman will probably either read off the points from above as they appear through a transparent card illuminated like a clock-front, or the shadow of the trembling needle will be projected down a long pipe upon a card below, so as to avoid the necessity of the helmsman looking up and to obviate the difficulties which would occur in foggy weather.”
    This ship is so well known that it should be relatively easy to check if this structure was in fact fitted.
    I’ll probably post another comment soon as I am currently researching the work of the Rev. Dr. William Scoresby who proved the concept of the pole compass.

    • Ian Whitehead says:

      Hi Colin

      Great stuff. I like the idea of projecting the shadow of the trembling needle down to the helmsman on deck, but not the thought of climbing up the 40 foot lattice at night to relight the lamp when it blows out! I’ll look forward to further revelations concerning the work of the Rev. Dr. William Scoresby.

  11. Colin Boyd says:

    During my research into pole compasses the name of William Scoresby kept cropping up so I thought I would spend a little time finding out more about him.
    William Scoresby was born into a Whitby whaling family in 1789 and was in turn a whaling skipper, an Arctic explorer, a clergyman and a scientist. He first became aware of compass deviation during his time whaling on the Greenland coast and this led to interest in magnetism. Scoresby began expounding his theories in 1823 and over the next 30 years gave lectures and published papers in support of them. He was particularly concerned with the variations in the accuracy of compasses caused by the introduction of iron hulls. This had caused many shipwrecks and was not fully understood by the shipping community.
    Scoresby proved by experimentation that the orientation of the slip decided the initial magnetic field of the iron ship. As an example of this in a ship built on a slip aligned North to South the compass will always deviate to starboard. This field was not constant as it would change depending on the course being steered, the cargo being carried and any repair work carried out.
    The Rev. Dr. Scoresby’s solution was to mount a compass as far away from the iron hull as possible to be used as a check on the other compasses which could then be used with relevant deviation cards. These compasses were originally mounted on the mizzen mast (that on the ‘Royal Charter’ was 43 ft above the deck) but then shipbuilders started to build masts from iron so the compromise was the pole compass. The height of the pole varied but the minimum appears to be about 15 ft.
    A rival solution was championed by George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, consisting of adjustable magnets mounted close to the compass and moved in accordance with a set of mathematical tables. Both systems apparently worked and it was up to individual shipowners to specify the type fitted. The perfection of the gyrocompass in 1906 rendered both systems obsolete.
    One of Scoresby’s theories could not be proved by experiment so in 1856 he sailed to Australia and back on the ill fated ‘Royal Charter’ with scientific equipment supplied by the Admiralty. His theory that the polarity of a ship was reversed when sailing into the Southern Hemisphere, with the attendent changes in compass accuracy, was proven along with all his earlier theories.
    Unfortunately the Rev. Dr. Scoresby FRS returned from Australia with his health broken and he died in Torquay on 21 March 1857.

    • Ian Whitehead says:

      Hi Colin

      Many thanks for the extra information on Scoresby and Airy and their contrasting approaches to dealing with compass deviation caused by iron hulls. I’m very pleased you decided to comment on the blog and delighted that the model and paintings have been properly set in their historical context.
      Best wishes

  12. Richard Ashley says:

    Not so much a pole compass as your describing but most deep sea side winder trawlers had pole compasses above the wheelhouse which was generally constructed in aluminium. The vessels were of course swung annually whilst the compass adjuster stood on top adjusting spheres, Flinders bar or lateral magnets. The reversed compass card was viewed through the glass bottom of the compass housing via a mirror in the wheelhouse. I hope this is of use.

    • Ian Whitehead says:

      Hi Richard
      Many thanks for taking the trouble to comment. It is interesting to hear of this late blooming version of the pole compass. Was it the main steering compass? I’m just wondering why they mounted the compass above the helmsman. Was it to save the space that would have been taken up by a conventional deck mounted binnacle?



  13. Richard Ashley says:

    Dear Ian,
    No, not just because of lack of room ahead of the helm but simply to get it as far from everything that might affect its accuracy. Deep sea trawlers had as much electronic navigational, depth, ship to ship, ship to shore as the largest ocean going liners so the annual “swinging” to check and correct the overhead compass must have been a headache. Some of the later trawlers used Giro compasses but of course still had to have a corrected magnetic compass just in case. The overhead binnacles had corrector spheres, Flinders bar, horizontal, lateral and heeling error corrector magnets just as deck mounted binnacles had. Really pole mounted versions of the Patt. 922 overhead binnacles fitted from 1935 well into the 80’s and often still seen today. I hope this is of help and might bolster further comment.

  14. Richard Ashley says:

    Having re-read your reply and owning just one quite vital brain cell, yes, this was the standard steering compass on deep sea side winder trawlers. Fishing drifters generally had an uncorrected overhead binnacle which was generally hopelessly inaccurate.

    • Ian Whitehead says:

      Hi Richard
      Many thanks for your comments clarifying the reasons behind the use of pole compasses on deep sea side winder trawlers – and your aside that drifters usually had an uncorrected overhead binnacle which was generally hopelessly inaccurate!

      Best wishes


  15. Claire says:

    Aberdeen’s Maritime Museum has an example of the pole compass- and more unusually, a plan of the St Hubert which has a pole compass labelled, despite being built by Alexander Hall & Co in 1950. It appears (to my amateur eyes) to be attached to the outside of the Wheelhouse, on level with the fencing around the Morse Lamp, but suspended outwards above the trawl winch.
    I was trying to work out why this was when I stumbled on your site, so thank you Richard Ashley and Ian Whitehead for the help!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *