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Maritime Greenwich

For much of its existence, Greenwich has had little connection with the sea. It lies close to London, on the south bank of the River Thames, a short boat ride from the bustle of the capital. For this reason, it proved popular as a convenient rural retreat for successive monarchs. In the 13th century a royal hunting lodge was built there. Under Henry IV this was expanded into a manor house, and under Edward IV it became a palace. The Tudors spent large amounts of time in Greenwich. Henry VIII was born there, as were his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and the palace continued to be used by the Stuart kings up to the end of the English Civil War, when it fell out of favour.

Greenwich’s association with the maritime world began in 1675, when the hill above the old palace was chosen as the site for the Royal Observatory, the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain. A new position was established of Astronomer Royal, with the dual role of studying the movements of the heavens, and “for the perfecting of the art of navigation.” The observatory was equipped with the latest instruments, and the most accurate clocks. It quickly began to provide useful information to the merchant and Royal Navies. Charts were produced with lines of longitude calculated using the meridian that passed through Greenwich. The first Nautical Almanacs were published from 1767, and with the advent of the naval chronometer, Greenwich Mean Time became the standard to which they were calibrated. In 1833 a large red ball was installed on the roof, which dropped down a pole at the precise moment of GMT. This was visible to shipping passing to and from the Port of London, then the busiest port in the world, who used it to set their chronometers. In 1924 this service was enhanced by an hourly time signal broadcast by radio to ships throughout the globe.

Twenty years after the Royal Observatory was established, the decision was taken to build a Royal Naval Hospital for retired and disabled seafarers. The site of the old Greenwich Palace was chosen, from where these ancient mariners would be able to take their ease, watching the ships go by on the river. Six pence per month was deducted from every sailor’s wages, in return for which, if they were lucky to survive long enough, a place would be made available for them. Two magnificent buildings were constructed, each a mirror of the other. The most influential architects of their day, Wren, Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, were commissioned for the project, and the first pensioners settled there from 1705. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars there were some 2,700 former seadogs in residence, all dressed in a distinctive blue uniform. They were called locally ‘Greenwich Geese’. The buildings continued to be used in this way until the 1860s, when a place at Greenwich was replaced by a pension, and the hospital was converted into the Royal Naval College.

In the late 19th century, although the Greenwich meridian was used by most of the world’s ships, it was not accepted by all. French ships used the Paris meridian, for example, while those of Spain used a line that passed through the Azores. This could cause considerable confusion, not just for shipping, but also on land, where lines of longitude were used to provide the world’s time zones. New technology like the telegraph now allowed different parts of the globe to be connected in minutes. North American rail companies needed to publish timetables that spanned several time zones. A single prime meridian for the world was required, from which all time zones could be derived. An International gathering was convened in Washington DC in 1884 to sort out the mess. It was at this conference that it was agreed that Greenwich would provide the world with its prime meridian, although France abstained and soldiered on with a Paris meridian until it was finally abandoned in 1919.

Today, in addition to providing the world with its prime meridian, Greenwich is the site of the National Maritime Museum and the iconic clipper Cutty Sark, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Not bad, for a medieval hunting lodge.

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