Rupert Thomas Gould


Rupert Thomas Gould
Image source: Wikipedia

Rupert lived in Epsom for only a short time (approximately 1922-26), but he retained links to the surrounding area, subsequently living in Ashtead and Leatherhead. His mother also lived in Ashtead for many years up to her death in 1937. The reason for featuring him on a website dedicated to Epsom history is that something extraordinary and historic happened in the garage of his house there, which was 'The Cottage' in Lynwood Avenue. Fundamentally he was repairing old clocks, but not just any old clocks - these were prototype marine chronometers.

Marine Chronometers

Before we start the story proper I need to explain why the invention of marine chronometers was so important. Back in the days of sail navigators obviously needed to work out the latitude and longitude to know where they were. Latitude could be determined by observing when the sun was highest in the sky, at noon, and measuring the angle with a sextant (don't ask me what happened when it was cloudy or foggy - I am not an expert on this subject). However, in order to establish longitude, ships needed a reliable device which remained on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The Greenwich Meridian line is considered to be longitude zero degrees (anywhere left of the line is the western hemisphere and right of it is the eastern hemisphere) and, therefore, you can calculate your longitude anywhere in the world by comparing the local time with GMT. For interest, the Meridian runs from the North Pole to the South Pole, passing through eastern England in a line between Tunstall (approximately) in the East Riding of Yorkshire and Peacehaven, East Sussex. And, by the way, Greenwich Observatory now charges a considerable sum for straddling the Meridian there, so you might wish to consider a day-trip to Peacehaven, where you can do this for free and have a fine sea view at the same time.

The Meridian Marker at Peacehaven
The Meridian Marker at Peacehaven
Image courtesy of Linda Jackson © 2013

Detail from The Meridian Marker at Peacehaven
Detail from The Meridian Marker at Peacehaven
Image courtesy of Linda Jackson © 2013

Back in the 18th century a prize of £20,000, then a colossal sum, was offered to anyone who could find an effective way of measuring longitude: this was a considerable incentive and John Harrison, a Yorkshire-born carpenter who made and repaired clocks in his spare time, took up the challenge. You may ask at this point, 'what was so difficult about keeping a normal clock running on GMT?' and the answer is that clocks were not reliable in those days and were affected by heat, cold, humidity etc, especially at sea. I will not chronicle Harrison's travails here (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harrison for the full and very interesting story, or read Dava Sobel's book 'Longitude', or get the DVD of the TV film, with Jeremy Irons as a questionable lookalike for Rupert Gould), but he achieved what he set out to do and over many years produced and improved his prototype chronometers. There were five successive models in total, now known as H1 to H5, in chronological order if you'll pardon the pun. A copy of H4, called the K1, was used by Captain James Cook on his epic voyages. The evolution and increasing sophistication of Harrison's devices is clearly illustrated by the next two images.

The restored H1
The restored H1.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The H5
The H5.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

John Harrison by Thomas King
John Harrison by Thomas King.
Image source: Wikipedia

Further developments in navigational instruments eventually rendered Harrison's devices obsolete and they became dilapidated museum pieces, stored at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. We will leave them there for the moment and turn to the earlier life of Rupert Thomas Gould. Some of these chronometers will turn up in Lynwood Avenue, Epsom when he does.

Early Life

Rupert Thomas Gould was born on 16 November 1890 in Southsea, Hampshire, son of a professor of music and composer called William Monk Gould (1858-1923) and Agnes Hilton Skinner (known as 'Dodo', 1860-1937), daughter of an obstetrician. Money was not all that plentiful and, after the elder son, Henry 'Harry' Hilton Monk Gould (born 1889), had won a scholarship to Charterhouse Public School, it was decided that Rupert would enter the Navy. He passed the exams for entry to Dartmouth as a cadet, became a Midshipman in 1907 and saw overseas service, including a spell aboard a gunboat on the Yangtze. He had decided to specialise in navigation and part of that involved chronometers, which were still hand-wound and adjusted. So far he had excelled at the academic demands of the Navy and received good reports for his practical abilities and performance as an officer, but dark times were just round the corner and they would change Rupert's course in life more than once.

In 1914 he was serving as a navigating officer in domestic waters when 'the shot heard round the world', which killed the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, lit the touch paper for the First World War. Rupert had a phobia about revolution; he was taken ill and hospitalised, eventually being sent home, where it was confirmed that he had suffered a nervous breakdown. For all his abilities and talents, he was showing the first open signs of a recurrent mental fragility. He stayed in a naval psychiatric hospital for nearly a year, suffering a relapse in April 1915 when Harry died of tuberculosis. After Charterhouse Harry had gone to Cambridge University and was studying medicine when war came. He immediately volunteered to be a dresser for the Red Cross in France, but was repatriated after tuberculosis manifested itself.

By the summer of 1915 Rupert was well on the road to recovery and his mother took him to Harrogate, where he met Muriel Hilda Estall.

Marriage, children and new career.

Muriel Hilda Estall was born in 1894, the daughter of senior bank official Thomas Estall (1848-1920) and Emily Tilley (1854-1947). Both Rupert and Muriel were good-looking young people, sharing a love of tennis, and eventually they became engaged. It seems that they were very different in temperament, but that was not a problem in the early part of their relationship. The couple married on 9 June 1917 at St Peter, Cranley Gardens, Chelsea.

Following his serious breakdown Rupert had been placed on the retired list; he petitioned the Admiralty for a shore post, which request had just received a favourable response when he had a recurrence of his depression. However, by July 1916 he had recovered sufficiently to be given a position in the Hydrographer's Department of the Admiralty. Hydrography is topographical mapping and charting and this was a job that played to many of Rupert's considerable strengths.

In 1918 Rupert and Muriel's first child, Cecil Hilton Monk Gould, was born, followed by Jocelyne Muriel in 1920. Meanwhile Rupert was still at the Admiralty and had become an expert in polar cartography. He was also a talented artist, somewhat similar in style to Aubrey Beardsley.

In 1919 Rupert was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander (automatic after a certain time as a Lieutenant), although he was still officially retired. His appointment in the Hydrographic Department was extended, but he was already bored by the administrative side of the work and recognised it as a dead end in terms of career progression and intellectual stimulation. He had been interested in horology since he was a lad and naval service had increased his fascination with marine chronometers. Consequently he started to write a book about them and 'The Marine Chronometer, its History and Development' was published in 1923, becoming the standard work on the subject: a new edition is about to be published if you have nearly £50 to spare.

I should mention at this point, lest anyone feels as we proceed that Rupert takes an inordinate amount of time to restore a chronometer, that this is not simple work. Harrison's devices were in very poor condition by the time Rupert laid hands on them: they had to be dismantled and cleaned, delicate parts had to be made and components kept breaking. Additionally, tools had to be made to carry out the work. Nor did he always do the work perfectly, so that it had to be revisited at a later date. To emphasise the complications, the next illustration shows just how intricate the works of such a device really are (you are neither required to study it in great depth nor translate the German captions).

Cronometer
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Research for the book had begun in 1919 and in 1920 Rupert visited the Royal Observatory to see the Harrison chronometers, which were very corroded and dilapidated, especially H1; he was inspired and wrote to the Astronomer Royal begging for permission to restore it and offering a bond of £100 against any damage he caused. This was not quite a rank amateur keen to tinker with an old relic, since Rupert had already restored one valuable antique chronometer, but in truth he had done that on a wing and a prayer and it had fortunately turned out well. Surprisingly the Astronomer Royal gave his consent. As if the original request hadn't been sufficiently cheeky, Rupert then asked if he could do the work at home rather than at Greenwich and again he received permission, provided that he returned H1, cleaned and reassembled, in one month. Needless to say, the timescale was impossible, since he could work on it only in his spare time, but towards the end of 1920 it was finished. He then asked if he could restore H4, which was in better condition and was more of a watch than an unwieldy clock.

1802 drawing of the internal works of H4
1802 drawing of the internal works of H4.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

One can already see the problems that would have been developing in Rupert's home life. He was spending his days in the Admiralty job and his nights and weekends on both the restoration and the book. He had two very small children and did not spend as much time with them and his wife as he might have done. This is where the temperamental differences between Rupert and Muriel became clear: he was frankly obsessive about his chronometer projects, although the obsession could have been anything that excited his intellectual curiosity and practical talents. By all accounts Muriel was not intellectual.

Up to this point they had lived in Kensington, but in 1922 they moved to 'The Cottage' in Lynwood Avenue, with the children and the partially cleaned H4. The latter was put back on display in 1922 and Rupert turned all his energies to the book. After its publication to generally positive reviews he had another bout of depression, undoubtedly brought on by the massive amount of work he had been doing. He had reached another watershed in his life.

The Cottage, Lynwood Avenue
The Cottage, Lynwood Avenue as it is today.
Image courtesy of Peter Reed © 2013
The chimneys at The Cottage
The chimneys at The Cottage, still bearing the lightning conductors
that Rupert added - he had a fear of being struck by lightning.
Image courtesy of Peter Reed © 2013

What Rupert did next

In 1923 Rupert's father died and a salary reconstruction at the Hydrographic Department saw his income drastically reduced. A number of possibilities for his future, including the law, were considered and rejected and his decision was to bring H2 and H3 to Epsom for restoration. The Goulds were already experiencing marital difficulties and what Muriel thought about this can only be imagined.

By 1924 Rupert was still working hard for the Hydrographic Department and making trips abroad as part of his job; the restoration work tended to happen late at night or in the early hours of the morning. Something had to give and he became ill again, spending time with his mother, Dodo, in Southsea. Dodo subsequently moved to Ashtead to be nearer to the family. He finished H2 in September of that year and it was displayed at the British Empire Exhibition of 1925. Whilst waiting for the parts of H3 to be professionally polished he obtained permission to restore the Harrison Regulator held by the Royal Astronomical Society (known as the RAS Regulator). At the end of the year he had another serious bout of depression. By now Muriel was almost at the end of her tether.

Marital breakdown

Since 1920 Rupert had belonged to a men-only literary dining club, called 'The Sette of Odd Volumes' which met regularly in London and over the years he had developed a drink problem, which caused trouble at home. In April 1925 he threatened suicide and was then hospitalised. Muriel left him. Cecil was enrolled as a boarder at Kingswood House School, Epsom and she put the house on the market. Rupert returned home in July, found the house empty and moved in with his mother at Downside, 41 Woodfield Lane, Ashtead, a large property with several staff. Dodo was determined to effect a reconciliation between her son and Muriel and in 1926 the couple bought a house in Kingston Road, Leatherhead, to try again.

However, Muriel's life was not as it might have seemed on the surface. She had formed a relationship with an Epsom dancing teacher called Vivian Gurney and spent a great deal of time with her; Vivian also stayed at the Leatherhead house quite often. Things were never going to work out after that and in May 1927 Muriel went off with Vivian, taking Jocelyne with her; Cecil remained at his school. She claimed that her actions were motivated by Rupert's excessive drinking, and I am sure that was true in very large part, but she also had the pull of her relationship with Vivian, who apparently encouraged her to leave.

In those days the divorce laws were skewed in favour of men and, to obtain a divorce, Muriel would have had to prove both cruelty and adultery. She had no evidence of the latter, so went for a judicial separation and concentrated on allegations about Rupert's drinking, abusive behaviour and unreasonable sexual demands, which he denied. As is the way with such things, these accusations were expressed in ultra-dramatic fashion and were so lurid that the hearing was held in camera. Perhaps the most hurtful thing of all was the claim that Cecil and Jocelyne did not like Rupert. Muriel got her separation, set up home with Vivian Gurney and Rupert ended up with limited access to the children plus a large bill for costs.

Effectively he was a ruined man at that point. He looked bad in newspaper reports of the court case and was released from the Hydrographic Office; he was ostracised and struck off as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society because he could not afford the fees (although I am sure the Society could have found a way round this had the will been there). Some of his best friends sided with Muriel and his only income was a small pension from the Navy, out of which he had to pay maintenance to his family; he moved in with Dodo at Ashtead to contemplate his future.

Starting again

Rupert was broken and bitter by what had happened but found some consolation in his restoration work and it was now Dodo who had pieces of the Harrison regulator all over the house.

A Harrison regulator
A Harrison regulator (not the RAS but quite similar in appearance).
Image source: failing_angel via flickr.com
It was not in Rupert's nature to be idle and, of course, he needed money. Dodo would not support him, fearing that he would spend large amounts on alcohol. He wrote books about unexplained phenomena, lectured and completed work on H1 and H3. As an example of his industry he completed one book, 'Oddities', in one month. There was still the occasional bout of depression but on the whole he kept quite well during the 1930s. The children came to stay at Ashtead once a month and, by all accounts, enjoyed themselves, casting considerable doubt on Muriel's claim that they disliked him.

One of Rupert's great interests was sea serpents and so, when rumours of a Loch Ness monster began to fly in 1933, his friend Alexander Keiller (of the marmalade family) funded him to go and investigate: this resulted in a book entitled 'The Loch Ness Monster and Others' (1934). Rupert had made radio broadcasts in the past but now he was approached to be on 'Children's Hour', clocking up more than a hundred appearances over the next decade, talking on all manner of subjects, such as the Indian rope trick. He was known as 'The Stargazer', since it had been envisaged originally that he would cover only astronomy - even the late Sir Patrick Moore was a fan.

Also during the 1930s he indulged his love of tennis by umpiring at championships, including Wimbledon and the Davis Cup. On one occasion he ran into Muriel and had tea with her, having apparently managed to put the past acrimony behind him. Naturally, Rupert had not been celibate in the meantime and one of his pastimes with Mr Keiller was to invite young ladies for group sex sessions.

In 1937 the National Maritime Museum opened at Greenwich and Rupert had hoped to be appointed Curator of Navigation but was passed over in favour of an inferior candidate (inferior in terms of knowledge, that is). At various times over the years the Harrison timekeepers had to be revisited as they sometimes stopped or needed overhaul, but in later years Rupert was reduced to overseeing someone else working on them. One job he did in 1937 was to restore the world's first orrery, made by John Rowley in about 1712 (an orrery is a mechanical device that illustrates the Solar System and as can be seen from the next illustration it is not only an object of exquisite beauty but has the kind of works that Rupert was well accustomed to handling).

Picture of a small orrery
Picture of a small orrery, photographed by Kaptain Kobold.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

After Ashtead

On 24 November 1937 Dodo died of pneumonia and, because of the way she had structured her will, Rupert had to leave Downside, although he did acquire income from a trust fund she had set up, some of which had to go to Muriel in the form of increased maintenance payments: Dodo's assets were ultimately destined for Cecil and Jocelyne. Dodo was buried in the churchyard of St Giles and St George, Ashtead

Woodfield Lane, Ashtead
Woodfield Lane, Ashtead, where Downside House was situated before its demolition.
Image courtesy of the Leatherhead and District Local History Society, donated by W Bonner in 1978

In 1938 Muriel decided that she had had enough of the controlling Vivian Gurney and they separated, Cecil admitting subsequently that the latter had been responsible for the difficult relationship between the children and their father. Rupert enquired if there was any chance of employment at the Admiralty and tried for reconciliation with Muriel, but neither request was successful.

As readers will know, the tensions and events that led to World War II had been rumbling for some time before 1 September 1939 and you will recall that Rupert had a phobia about revolution. By that fateful September he was on the way to another nervous breakdown and took off for Shaftesbury in Dorset. After a few weeks in a hotel there he was admitted to a nursing home where he met divorcee (Veronica) Grace Ingram. He then went to live with Grace at a farmhouse called 'Upper Hurdcott' at Barford St Martin, Wiltshire: this property was rented by Grace's mother, who soon died, leaving them alone. They remained in the house for the nearly all the rest of the war years.

In 1941 the Ministry of Supply gave Rupert work investigating German time fuses and H3 went on its travels again - this time to Upper Hurdcott. Then, in 1942, he was invited to be a panel member on radio's 'Brains Trust' programme, which could be regarded at that time as near to the ultimate recognition of a formidable intellect.

Rupert's health was not good and in 1944 he had a serious heart attack, followed by some small strokes, and this was the beginning of the end. He did make a slight recovery, sufficient to get him a one-year contract as Curator of Navigation at Greenwich, the 'inferior' appointee having retired. However, his health was not up to it and he resigned after a week. At this point the lease on Upper Hurdcott expired and he went with Grace to live at the house of a friend in Harbledown, Kent.

The most extraordinary thing then happened. It seems that Rupert had been on good terms with Muriel since the departure of Vivian Gurney, but that Muriel was jealous of Grace Ingram, and now Jocelyne set about effecting a reconciliation. Rupert went back to Muriel, but it was soon all over and he returned to Grace. By now he was partially paralysed and needed assistance with walking and bathing.

In 1947 his massive contribution to horology was recognised with the award of the Gold Medal of the British Horological Institute. In September 1948 he contracted severe pneumonia and died at Canterbury Hospital on 5 October; he was buried with Dodo at Ashtead. Grace died a few years later and Muriel remained alone for the rest of her life, dying in 1978.

There is no doubt that Rupert Gould was a genius, or close to it. There are many things that he could do which I have not mentioned for the sake of getting on with the story. And yet, until I browsed through a list of people on this website who might warrant an article, I had never heard of him - partly because he was just before my time, but I think the principal reason that he is not revered by history (except horological history) is that he never fulfilled his true potential, owing to mental fragility. Additionally, his reputation and opportunities were irreparably damaged by the publicity surrounding the judicial separation, revelations which would not have caused his downfall in modern times.

The restored grave of Dodo and Rupert in Ashtead Churchyard
The restored grave of Dodo and Rupert in Ashtead Churchyard.
Image courtesy of Brian Bouchard © 2013

The Latin inscription on the gravestone means 'I will not wholly die and the greater part of me will escape the grave'.

Cecil and Jocelyne

After Kingswood Cecil was sent to Westminster School and from there he studied at the Courtauld Institute. He served as an RAF Intelligence officer in the Second World and in 1946 took up employment at the National Gallery, ultimately becoming its Deputy Director. He was an acknowledged art expert, specialising in Renaissance painting, and wrote many books and articles. He was unmarried and after his retirement he went to live with Jocelyne in Thorncombe, Dorset, dying from a brain tumour on 7 April 1994. Jocelyne married Flight Lieutenant Frederick Stacey in 1943: they had two children and were subsequently divorced. She died in Dorset in 2002.

Linda Jackson
January 2013


Acknowledgement: Time Restored (The Harrison timekeepers and R T Gould, the man who knew [almost] everything) by Jonathan Betts -published by Oxford University Press and The National Maritime Museum 2006





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