The Secret Agent in Greenwich

The BBC is currently showing a dramatisation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, written in 1907. Conrad was partly inspired by the bizarre story of the anarchist Martial Bourdin, who officially became Britain’s first suicide bomber in February 1894 when a bomb he was carrying exploded in the park near the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

In the drama, starring Toby Jones (Dr Zola in Captain America, and the voice of Dobby in Harry Potter!) plays Verloc, a shabby pornographer and informer secretly in the employ of the Russian embassy. Verloc’s new Russian handler, Vladimir, tells him to organise the detonation of a device at London’s Greenwich Observatory, in a scene that shows them walking past the famous Shepherd Gate clock:


Vladimir tells Verloc to forget about trying to assassinate public figures:

The sacrosanct fetish of the day is science, it’s become the new measure of progress; of how the world is ordered, civilisation moving forward. And here, we have the prime meridian, zero longitude, the centre point of the earth, that divides the world into two, that orders the world, Eastern and Western. One line, emanating from this building, in Greenwich.

To which Verloc replies, incredulously:

Blow up the observatory?

As with all BBC productions (the recent series Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was another example), the period details — the drama is set in 1886 — are beautifully rendered and convincing, although of course nothing is ever as real as it looks.

In typically ingenious fashion, most of the London scenes were shot in Glasgow, which has a more realistic Victorian London vibe. Fortunately, the Shepherd Gate Clock and the Greenwich Park surroundings look authentically Victorian. But in fact much of this is also a recreation, albeit a real and necessary one. Here’s what the Shepherd Gate looked like in the 1870s:


The more substantial differences between the two scenes can be attributed to another bomb, one dropped on Greenwich in 1940 by German bombers during World War II.

If you’re very observant, you’ll notice that the 1870s photograph shows the clock as reading 23:20, whereas the 1886-set 2016-filmed TV show has the clock showing just after 12, although both scenes look to be set during the daylight hours. If you want an explanation, have a look at this old post!

Greenwich Shepherd Gate Clock – now available as a watch

The famous Shepherd Gate Clock at the Greenwich Observatory has been featured frequently on these pages, but at last you can wear this iconic design as a watch, courtesy of the folks at

IP Black 24h galvanic silver dial cocco dark brown strap

At present you can still join in their Kickstarter Campaign, but hurry — the 24 hour models are selling out fast (there is a 12 hour version for the less adventurous).

If you have a Mac computer, you can download my old Greenwich Observatory Shepherd Clock screensaver (halfway down this page). Surprisingly, it still runs OK after nearly 10 years:

Shepherd saver1

Greenwich time

This screensaver is a reasonably accurate simulation of the famous Shepherd clock at Greenwich in London. If you have a Mac, you can download it from this site. See the Software page on this site, or download it from this link.


In 1852 Charles Shepherd installed a new clock outside the gate of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. This was an electrically operated clock, one of the earliest ever made, and it was controlled by a master clock mechanism inside the main building.

While Shepherd provided the engineering know-how, the original idea had come from the Astronomer Royal, George Airy. With the arrival of the railway network, England had recently found that a single time standard was needed to replace the various incompatible local times then in use across the country. Airy decided that this standard time would be provided by the Royal Observatory. His idea was to use what he called ‘galvanism’ or electric signalling to transmit time pulses from Greenwich to slave clocks throughout the country. The new submarine cable recently installed between Dover to Calais in 1851 raised the possibility of sending time signals almost instantly between England and France – this would allow longitude differences to be measured very accurately, for the first time.

In September 1851, Airy wrote to Shepherd asking for proposals and estimates. He included a request for the following clocks:

One automatic clock. One clock with large dial to be seen by the Public, near the Observatory entrance, and three smaller clocks, all to be moved sympathetically with the automatic clock.

He also wanted the Greenwich time ball to be electrically operated, so that it would drop down its flagpole at exactly 13:00.

By August 1852, Shepherd had built and installed the network of clocks and cables in the observatory, although the costs were considerably higher than the original estimates. Shortly after, for the first time, Greenwich mean time was transmitted along cables from Greenwich to London Bridge, and thence to clocks and receivers throughout England. The primary pulse originated from this unlikely-looking master clock in the observatory.


By 1866, time signals were sent from this clock to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts via the new transatlantic submarine cable.

The public clock at the gate originally indicated astronomical time, in which the counting of the 24 hours of a day started at noon every day rather than midnight.

This photograph was taken in the 1870s, and shows the clock approaching midday, at the astronomical time of 23:20.


A similar photograph, from 1870, shows the clock early in the morning, with the dial showing 18:52. The clock faces east, and the sun is high up to the north east (early morning). Obviously at midday astronomers can precisely observe the sun crossing the meridian so as to set or reset a clock. The 0 here means “start counting again”.


Following the International Meridian Conference, the clock was altered to show civil time with effect from 1 January 1885. Ever since, it’s shown Greenwich Mean Time, rather than British Summer Time (Daylight Saving Time).

The dial has seen numerous minor design changes over the years:

The original:

After a (not very successful) 1910 repainting:
after 1910 repainting

In 1940, a bomb destroyed the gates and damaged the dial. In 1947 a new replacement dial was installed:


The 1981 repainting thankfully reverted to an exact copy of the original design:


The clock is still ticking happily away today, although it’s now controlled by a quartz mechanism inside the main building. Here’s one of thousands of recent photographs:


The master clocks are still on display, as are the famous series of chronometers made by John Harrison. In the shop you can buy postcards and lapel pins of the clock (but no fridge magnets!) and there’s also a small 24 hour quartz clock on sale. It’s like a replica, although the complexities of the original Shepherd design have been replaced by a simpler interpretation.

When attempting my own version of this clock, the hardest parts were definitely the roman numerals. I couldn’t find any font which matched and had to draw them again from scratch. If you compare my copy and the original you’ll notice how much better the original is. Many subtle variations in size and placement were employed to produce an acceptable solution to an intractable problem: how to make numbers of such different widths do the same job. It’s not a pretty design, I have to say, but it has a good solid Victorian heaviness to it, which matches its history well.

For even more information about the clock, refer to this article on the Royal Observatory Greenwich website.