Maritime Tales : the One O’Clock Gun

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In the early 1960s the boom of the One O’clock Gun was the signal for father and I, Stephen Guy, to head for a Kardomah café or Cooper’s Corner for lunch. Many other people, both on ship and shore, must have been spurred to do likewise.

colour photo of a large cannon on a dockside

The One O'Clock Cannon outside the Maritime. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

A huge cannon standing on the quayside at Merseyside Maritime Museum was the first One O’Clock Gun - part of a tradition which lasted more than a century in the Port of Liverpool. For generations its familiar boom alerted people to the correct time - it could be heard for miles. The One O’Clock Gun was fired every day from the river wall at Morpeth Dock, Birkenhead, to give ships a time check. The 32-pounder at the museum was the first (in 1867) of a series of guns.

Ships would set their chronometers by the gun and, despite the introduction of radio time signals, this service continued until 1969. Timekeeping has always been an essential part of safe navigation. In mid-ocean, long before sighting land, the mariner must know the positions of both the ship and destination so that the ship’s course may be calculated. In 1845, an observatory was established at Waterloo Dock to give time checks for setting chronometers by which ships were navigated.

Liverpool had many instrument makers and navigation equipment suppliers, some of whom devised their own improvements to existing instruments. One such instrument in the museum’s collections is Croskerry’s Patent Position Finder. Devised by Captain Croskerry of Rock Ferry, this is a variation of a piece of equipment called a station pointer. If the horizontal angles between three landmarks are measured with a sextant and the arms of the Position Finder set to those angles, the ship’s position will be at the intersection of the arms.

Also in the collections is a sextant by JW Ray & Co of Liverpool presented by the White Star Line to Cadet Barradale of HMS Conway in 1910.  A fine chronometer was made by Richard Hornby of Liverpool. These accurate clocks are designed to be little-affected by temperature changes. They are mounted on gimbals to isolate them from the rolling of the ship. Using both a chronometer and sextant to observe the sun enabled seafarers to discover their exact position. Radio time signals and accurate quartz clocks have superseded chronometers for keeping time at sea.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.