Introduction Harrison and the Longitude Problem What we learnt about Barrow in Harrison’s time What we learnt about the Humber Putting ourselves in their shoes People, places and things Further information Harrison! the play script Questions for Andrew King Better Barrow home page

The script of the children’s play: Harrison!


  • Elizabeth Harrison
  • James Harrison
  • John Harrison
  • Mother
  • Narrator
  • Nevil Maskelyne
  • William Harrison

Minor Parts

  • Admiral
  • Beachcomber
  • Captain Cook
  • Captain Digges
  • Captain Proctor
  • Captain Wills
  • Clergyman
  • Cloudesley Shovell
  • Dog
  • Edmund Halley
  • Inventor 1
  • Inventor 2
  • King George III
  • Prime Minister
  • Questioner
  • Sir Charles Pelham
  • Sir Kenelm Digby

Groups of about five

  • Board of Longitude
  • Ship holders
  • Sailors (including Look-out)
  • Politicians

Groups of three

  • Friends
  • Ships’ officers

With the exception of John and William Harrison, Nevil Maskelyne and the Narrator, parts can be doubled or tripled. The Questioner could be played as if a pupil or a member of the audience.


Backdrop: a large map of the world with the lines of latitude and longitude. Underneath will be a large image of H4, which will be uncovered when Harrison sends it on the West Indies sea trial.
To show time passing dates are announced using silent placards at strategic points.
Scene 1
The Board of Longitude (astronomers, naval captains etc.) enter
BoL (In unison, or divided between cast)
Typical ignorance!
BoL 1 He didn’t invent it –we all knew about it for hundreds of years.
BoL 2 We just couldn’t measure it accurately.
Maskelyne I still say I could have measured it if it hadn’t been for that uppity clockmaker.
BoL 1 Quiet Maskelyne, we’ll come to that later.
Questioner I don’t understand.
Enter Ship holders with cut-out ships
BoL 2 (using map and cut-out ships to demonstrate)
Right! Pay attention. This is latitude. These are imaginary lines which go from east to west. These lines measure longitude. They go up and down, from north to south. Are you with me?
Questioner Just about.
BoL 2 Imagine these lines are real and that by working out where they would be, you can tell where you are when you are in the middle of the ocean.
Questioner So what was the problem?
BoL 2 We are all right with latitude... The distance between the lines remains the same so we can work out where we were using the fixed patterns of the stars and the sun.
Longitude is a bit more difficult.
Now listen - I am only saying this once.
We know that for every 15 degrees of longitude there will be an hour’s difference in time, because that’s the way the world goes round.
If we can measure the time between when we set off and where we are now, we can work out where we are. Simple!
Maskelyne And we can calculate that from the moon, the stars.
Ship holder 1 Up to a point. If the weather is bad, or a ship is in a storm we can’t even see the stars. And frankly the clocks we had can’t keep good time.
Ship holder 2 They got damp or too hot and a pendulum can’t work at sea.
Ship holder 3 Often we didn’t have a clue where the stars were.
Ship holder 1 Or where we were.
Questioner So why did that matter?
BoL 1 (remarks illustrated by cast members)
Trade ships with silks, jewels and spices tended to keep to the routes they knew, so it was easy for pirates to lie in wait.
BoL 2 If a ship was caught in a storm, it found it very difficult to get back on track – men could starve to death, lost at sea. Or even worse…
(Exit BoL)
Drawing 1
Scene 2
Narrator In 1707 a warship with Admiral Sir Clowdesly Shovell on board returned from battle with the French.
Sailor 1 He led a fleet of four warships. There were over 2000 sailors on those ships.
Sailor 2 We won some battles too.
Sailor 1 And lost some.
Sailor 3 And now we’re going home
All cheer
Cloudesley Shovell Silence or I will have you flogged!
Sailor 3 That’s him. Admiral Cloudesley Shovell. No, I don’t know how to spell it either.
Grey gauze drawn across stage; sailors try to peep over it.
Narrator Thick fog engulfed them. They could no longer see to navigate by the sun, moon and stars.
Sailors with telescopes, quadrants (mimed or made) look in all directions.
Sailor 4 (Quietly makes notes and consults charts.)
Narrator Confusion ran through the ship.
CS brings his officers round him
CS (Consult the charts) By my reckoning we are here! All is well.
Officers (Look at each other doubtfully then nod vigorously)
Yes indeed. We agree, Captain.
Sailor 4 (approaches)
With respect Sir, do you know where we are?
Everyone freezes
CS What? Yes, of course I do!
S4 I think we are heading for the Scillies.
All whisper ‘The Scilly Isles’ in horror.
Ship holders Tiny islands. A row of jagged teeth ready to rip a ship’s hull apart.
The graveyard of many a good ship
And of many a brave sailor.
CS How dare you question me? You know that is against all the rules! Men, throw him over board.
Sailors hold S4.
S4 We are too far west!
CS Clear the decks ready for this man to be thrown overboard!
All Aye Aye, captain.
S4 is thrown over board.
S4 (As he drifts off)
But I was right…….
Narrator It was a painful death. Over 2000 sailors died, only 26 people survived.
Ship holders disintegrate and turn into beach-combers; sailors drown. Music.
Beach-combers rake amongst the bodies.
CS groans and moves as beach-comber carrying shovel comes up to him. She lifts his hand to look at the ring. He groans - obviously alive.
Beachcomber Hmm. Nice ring.
(She hits him on the head with her shovel)
Good job I’ve got my shovel with me. Very nice ring indeed. You don’t need it any more. I’ll take that to market and sell it.
Narrator That’s just one example. There were so many other tragedies too.
Drawing 2
Scene 3
Enter Admirals / Merchants
Merchant There seemed to be no answer. We were losing cargoes.
Admiral We were losing ships!
Sailors We were dying.
All So, in 1714 we went to Parliament to DEMAND ACTION.
Enter Politicians
All apart from Politicians You have got to solve the problem of longitude.
Politicians go into a grumbly huddle
Politicians We’ll form a committee and report back next year.
All the others No! ACTION! NOW!
Politicians back in huddle
P1 How can we solve it?
P2 We could have a competition.
P1 What do you think?
P3 My wig is itchy.
P2 (Pushes it down)
Concentrate, will you!
P3 I can’t see now. What is longitude anyway?
P2 Don’t you ever listen?
More mumbling
P1 Right! I have been told that we should have a competition and we should open it up to everyone in the land, not just the astronomers.
Maskelyne No we should not!
Everyone else yes we should!
Short burst of argument
P1 Order! The competition will be to create a clock. It must be practical, useful and accurate to within 3 seconds a day.
P2 We will create a board of longitude to judge the competition. It will be contain scientists, naval officers and Government officials. The astronomer royal will lead it
Maskelyne (mutters)
P2 There will be a reward of £20, 000.
All £20,000!
P3 (Aside to audience)
That’s over a million pounds in today’s money!
Maskelyne No one can make such a clock. The answer is in the stars
Scene 4
Narrator For a long time, it looked as if the astronomers were right. There were many attempts. .
Inventors come before the BoL
Inventor 1 I will place ships at each point of longitude. They will stay there and each one will fire cannon at noon. Ships will hear the cannon’s boom and know it is noon!
BoL Next!
Inventor 2 I will divide the sky into 125 million squares which sailors will learn by heart ….
BoL Next!
Sir Kenelm Digby Sir Kenelm Digby at your service. You’re going to love this (He whistles and Assistant enters with dog)
Sir K (He presents his case like a magician)
I have here my miraculous Powder of Sympathy, with which I have solved your problem.
(Produces knife)
Dog I don’t like the sound of this!
Sir K Wound the Dog precisely as the ship sails at noon.
Dog (Howls)
Ouch! That hurt!
Sir K I simply introduce my wonderful sympathetic powder to the wound. This powder heals at a distance. I will sprinkle the powder onto the knife every day at noon and wherever the dog is, it will feel the sting of its healing power, and yelp. Everyone will know when it is noon back home, because the dog will cry out, and then they can work out their longitude. Of course, the wound needs to be kept open…
Dog Ugh, gross. I’m off.
(Drags assistant off with him)
BoL Get this idiot out of here! Next!
Picture 3
Scene 5
Q This is all very interesting, but what about Harrison?
Narrator I was coming to that. Let’s go back in time and meet the Harrison family.
In a swift sequence, the family members enter one by one making a still image. Placards give dates. Narration can be done by family members or separate narrators).
Mother (With baby in arms)
Elizabeth Harrison. Mother and housewife. Married to Henry Harrison. I gave birth to five children. Four survived. John, Mary, Henry James. John, the eldest was born in 1693.
(Children add themselves into picture)
Narrator as Henry Henry Harrison. Carpenter by trade. Moved to Barrow about 1697, when my son John was about 4 years old.
Narrator As a child John Harrison helped his father with the woodwork.
Mother John go and helps your father and James. Stop tinkering around with that.
Narrator We don’t know very much about him, but stories tell us that he was very curious and would take things apart to understand how they worked and then put them back together perfectly.
Mother You’ll break it!
John No, I won’t.
Narrator And he never did. There was no school in Barrow, but he learned to read and write and had to be good at arithmetic to do carpentry and joinery.
He grew up to be a good carpenter, making farm equipment, wheels and helping his brother James make the frames for the huge heavy bells which rang in the church steeples.
Mother He loved music and played the viol, a larger version of the violin. He even led the local choir.
Narrator He had no scientific education at all, but when he was a teenager a clergyman came to visit and noticed him.
Clergyman You seem very keen on learning how things work. Let me give you this book. I think you will find it interesting.
John Lectures on Mechanics and Natural philosophy delivered by Nicholas Saunderson, Mathematician of Cambridge University. I cannot thank you enough. I will treasure this all my life.
He is so engrossed in the book he barely notices the clergy man say goodbye and leave).
James John, JOHN! Can you help me make these bell frames? I really need them finished. We need to balance them properly. Put the book down!
A bell frame image is created by bodies of family etc. John looks at it.
John The bells need balancing in the same way a clock pendulum does. Interesting.
Narrator No one knows what prompted John to make a clock. Some say it’s because a pocket watch under his pillow comforted him as a sick child. Others think that living by the river Humber he would have known about the longitude problem and been thinking about it already.
He made his first clocks for family and friends. These clocks were made almost entirely from wood. He worked with precision the clocks kept very good time.
F1 Can you make me a clock?
(Placards 1713)
F2 Can you make me and my sister a clock?
F3 Can I have a nice clock for my mantelpiece?
John in his workshop. James and his mother come to see what he is doing.
James What are you making John?
John James, I’m making plans.
Mother You always are, John. You always are.
Picture 4
Scene 6
Narrator Word got round in Lincolnshire. John Harrison’s clocks kept the best time. One day he had a visitor.
1722 placard /John in workshop
Sir Charles Pelham Good day John Harrison. I hear you make the best clocks in the area.
John I believe I do
Sir Charles I own Brocklesby Park. I need a new clock for the tower of my stable block. I want it to keep good time and I don’t want it to stop. Is that too much to ask?
John Not at all. I expect my clocks to run for at least 200 years, if they are cared for.
The following to be accompanied with images /props to create the clock.
Narrator John Harrison used the Brocklesby Clock to try out new ideas and techniques. From then on he revolutionised clock making.
Remember, John was a carpenter. His mind was practical as well as inventive.
He used lignum vitae. This wood contains its own oils. It never needs oiling.
He knew the strongest parts of wood. He made wooden cogs that fitted exactly, from the strongest parts of the timber.
He invented a small metal contraption to help the pendulum move without slipping. He called it the grasshopper escapement.
The pendulums on his clocks were made of steel and brass. Using the two metals meant the pendulum did not shrink or expand when hot or cold, so the clocks kept good time.
His brother James helped him.
James We tested the accuracy of our grid-iron grasshopper clocks against the movement of the stars. We used our neighbours’ window as a grid.
Elizabeth & William And what about us? We helped too.
Narrator Who are you?
Elizabeth His wife. Did he forget to tell you he was married by now? Typical!
William His son. We come into story too.
Narrator By 1726 John Harrison, country tradesman and local choir master had made a clock that lost only one second a month. The best time keeper in the entire world. And he had heard about the Longitude Prize.
Elizabeth what are you doing John?
John I’m making plans.
All What plans now?
John My clock keeps excellent time, but still has a pendulum. That’s useless at sea. I am going to make a clock without a pendulum that will work on a ship in all conditions. Hot, cold, calm or stormy. I am going to win the Longitude Prize.
It’s time.
Elizabeth Time for what?
John Time to go to present our ideas to the board of Longitude. Time to meet the Astronomer Royal. Time to go to London!
All exit
Picture 5
Scene 7
Family centre stage, looking round.
Busy London scene - calls from the cast seated around the sides.
Watch where you’re going!
Make way, coach coming through!
Any spare change, Guv?
Fresh fruit here!
Buy my violets, penny a bunch!
This ale’s been watered down!
Stop, thief!
Laces and ribbons!
Brick dust to sharpen your knives!

Two or three cast members cross stage, too busy to stop.
Family try to ask them the way to the Astronomer Royal, but no avail.
John Stop! I demand to see the Astronomer Royal.
Halley That would be me - Edmond Halley at your service. What can I do for you?
Narrator John Harrison showed his plans to the astronomer royal. Halley was impressed.
Halley I’m impressed. But you know, the Board of Longitude won’t like it. We believe the answer lies in mapping the heavens. Before you meet them, I’d like you to see a friend of mine, George Graham. The finest clockmaker in London.
Narrator They met at 10 o’clock in the morning. At first John was reluctant to show George Graham his plans. He was scared he would steal them. That changed.
George Graham I am amazed. These are revolutionary designs. You need money to develop your ideas, I will lend you the money to make this clock. (pause) Goodness, it’s after 8 o’clock! You must stay to dinner…
Picture 6
Scene 8
Narrator John Harrison returned to Barrow to make his first sea clock.
His brother James helped him.
Placard: Four Years Later
H1 clock parts /people put into place on stage. Tableau of family gathered round clock.
William Right, I think it’s complete. Ready?
John Come on, James. We need to test our first sea clock on the Humber.
Cast create Humber, clock rocking in the water. Family checking time against the sun.
James It is still keeping time to one second a month..
William Back to London?
John Yes. This time we will ask for a trial at sea.
Picture 7
Scene 9
Narrator It took John Harrison a year to get permission for the sea trial. The voyage was to Lisbon, not the West Indies.
Captain Proctor Captain Proctor at your service. Welcome aboard the Centurion. I will do everything I can to help, but I fear what you are trying to do is impossible. The shocks and movement of the ship will make it too difficult for your clock to keep time.
Cast form the clock and ship; the ship casts off. The sea is calm, but gets rougher. JH is very sea sick.)
Captain Proctor stands firm throughout.
Captain Proctor Mr Harrison. It seems that your clock can cope better with the roll of the ship than you can!
Harrison groans
Narrator The return journey took place four days later with Captain Wills. He wasn’t impressed to have Harrison’s clock on board.
Captain Wills I don’t think I will need your clock to guide me.
John We’ll see.
Narrator The crossing was rough. Gales and storms meant navigation was difficult.
Captain Wills Ah, we are nearing home at last by my calculations we are on course for Dartmouth.
John Going by my sea clock we are 60 miles west by the Lizard and in danger of the rocks there. We need to change course.
Captain Wills Don’t be ridiculous. I am the captain of this ship and I give the orders.
Sailor Land ahoy!!
Captain Wills What do you see?
Sailor Looks Like the Lizard, Sir. Sorry sir.
Captain Wills Oh. (pause) Well, John Harrison. I doubted you, but I admit I was wrong. Your clock has proved its worth. I will certainly write to tell the Board of Longitude.
They shake hands and part.
Picture 8
Scene 10
The Board of Longitude.
Placard: 1737
BoL 1 Well Mr Harrison, you appear to have proved something with your strange clock. The Admirals are very pleased with the results.
John That’s as maybe but I think I can do better. I already have ideas to improve my time keeper. Give me the money and I will give you a better clock.
BoL look at each other.
BoL 2 We are prepared to continue to finance your work, but you must understand that what you produce belongs to us.
BoL 3 After your second clock has made its sea trial, you will hand over the clocks to us.
William enters.
William So we stayed in London and I helped my father with his work. Sometimes I envied my uncle James, who stayed in Lincolnshire.
Placard: more time passes…
BoL Well? What about the second clock?
John I want to make another one I need more money. I know I can still improve how the sea clock works
William Is the clock to go to sea, Father?
John No, William.
William But the Royal Society tested it and found it accurate. It took us five years to make!
John But… it’s not perfect. Now we must get back to work on one more clock.
Freeze as Maskelyne enters and looks at them.
Maskelyne This man is no scientist. He is not even educated. I and my fellow astronomers have worked for years to make a map of the moon and the stars to guide sailors home. It is nearing completion. How can this carpenter expect to compete with our centuries of knowledge? He will never finish his work. I will win the Longitude Prize.
Narrator That’s Nevil Maskelyne. In his own way, he was as passionate about solving the longitude problem as Harrison, and as determined to win the prize, using the lunar method. Meanwhile both men continued their work.
Picture 9
Scene 11
William You could say I grew up with the third clock. We spent nearly twenty years on it. My father called it his curious machine.
He reduced the clock design to a manageable size.
He got rid of any sort of pendulum and he dealt with the problem of temperature by using a strip made of two metals…
Narrator That invention still works today. We still use the bimetallic strips John Harrison invented to regulate the temperature in our kettles and other machines.
William He was never satisfied. Even before the third clock was finished he had started on a completely new version. This time he based it on a pocket watch.
The fourth clock was really a big pocket watch: not too large, easy to carry around, with all the workings safely tucked up inside the watch casing. It was beautiful.
BoL gather to look at the watch.
BoL 1 We agree to try this watch on a voyage to the West Indies.
BoL 2 It must be under the strictest conditions.
BoL 3 It will be placed in box with four locks
BoL 1 William Harrison will have one key
BoL 2 The governor designate of the West Indies will have the second key.
BoL 3 The ship’s captain, Dudley Diggs, will have the third and his first lieutenant will have the fourth.
BoL 2 Two astronomers will check the time of departure and arrival at each port.
BoL 1 That way there can be no funny business.
William and John look offended.
Scene 12
Narrator The voyage took place in 1761 on the HMS Deptford. John was getting older then, so it was William who sailed.
Dudley Digges Welcome aboard ship, William Harrison. I can’t see how that oversize watch is going to help us, but let’s get going.
Cast sing a verse or two of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ while sailors come on board and the ship sets off.
Sailors drink – but the beer is bad – appropriate reactions.
Sailors We can’t drink this!
Dudley Digges Well, drink the water.
Sailors The water is disgusting. We need something we can drink.
Dudley Digges Don’t you dare question my orders. We are far from land. You will have to put up with it, or I will consider it mutiny.
William Actually, Captain Digges, we aren’t that far. By my reckoning we can put in at Madeira tomorrow and pick up new provisions.
Dudley Digges (Looks at sailors)
Do you hear that men? According to our experienced navigator with his new watch, we are going to be fine. Very well Mr Harrison, we will follow the course you recommend. Put your money where your mouth is. I bet you we don’t make Madeira, or any way near it. And it won’t be my fault.
Group tableau. Sailors look at Will, then out to sea, apart from one who is Look Out. Dudley Digges looks smug. Cast ‘tick tock ‘. Sailors start to lean into to William, looking angry.
Look-out Port ahead!
Sailors cheer. William is very relieved. Dudley Digges is astonished and then shakes his hand.
Dudley Digges Mr Harrison. I am an honourable man. Not only have you won our bet handsomely, but I would like to buy one of your time keepers as soon as they become available.
Narrator When the ship returned to Britain the watch had kept excellent time. Over 4 months, through heat waves and raging storms, it had lost less than two minutes.
And you would think that our story would end there, with John Harrison receiving the prize for his life’s work. But…
William stays on stage and John joins him. They are excited; they think they have won.
Scene 13
BoL 1 We need three more mathematicians to check your calculations and readings.
BoL 2 As we thought. Insufficient readings.
BoL 3 Did you measure the longitude of Jamaica by the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons?
BoL 1 No? Oh Dear. You were meant to do that
William You didn’t ask me to!
Maskelyne And I have completed my lunar tables, The British Mariners’ guide. Any claim for the prize must be measured against those calculations.
BoL 3 You will just have to do it all again. After all, it may just have been a fluke.
Scene 14
Narrator In 1764 William and a friend took the watch on a second sea trial to the West Indies. They landed in Barbados.
William We need to find the astronomers to compare our calculations. Ah! There’s the observatory they’ve set up.
Maskelyne enters - Friend sees him.
Friend Um, William, I don’t know how to put this…
William What! How is that allowed? You can’t possibly judge my calculations fairly.
Maskelyne Don’t you dare talk to me like that. I have every right to be here. Now if you don’t mind. I have readings to take. I suggest you do the same.
Friend watches Maskelyne take readings.
Friend I wouldn’t worry William. I think he’s a bit flustered. I think he’s made a mistake.
Picture 10
Scene 15
John and William wait for BoL.
John Finally. It’s been months.
BoL arrive
BoL 1 You tell him.
BoL 2 No, you do.
BoL 1 It is the unanimous decision that the time keeper has kept its time with sufficient correctness. BUT you will be given only half the prize money.
BoL 2 The other half will be given to you after you have handed over all the sea clocks their designs and plans and made two more copies of H4 , to prove to us that the design can be duplicated.
John Not as long as I have a drop of blood in my body! This is outrageous!
Come on William.
William I want to speak to the Astronomer Royal.
Maskelyne Yes, Mr Harrison? Here I am.
William I might have known!
Narrator In the end John had to give in. He dismantled his beautiful watch to show everyone how it was done and handed over the clocks. Nevil Maskelyne supervised the procedure himself.
John I don’t want to watch.
Maskelyne I will test them at the Greenwich observatory (sound of crashes) OOPs!
Scene 16
Narrator Arguments between the Harrisons and The Board of Longitude rumbled on. Harrison did make one duplicate, as precise and accurate as H4.
Maskelyne If this watch is to be useful at all, other people must be able to able to make it. I have asked Larcum Kendall to make a copy using John Harrison’s designs.
Larcum Kendall enters.
John I respect your work , Mr Kendall. There is no one I would rather make a copy of my watch. I am 79 years old. I do not think I will make another.
William I have had enough of this. I am writing to the King.
All exit except William. King George joins him.
William So you see Your Majesty, my father has made this his life’s work – and he has been successful, but is denied his reward.
King These people have been cruelly treated. By God, Harrison! I will see you righted. Let me test the watch.
Parliamentary noises from all cast. Prime Minister takes stage.
King (to Politicians) I have tested this watch with my personal scientists And can confirm that it is accurate. I request justice for this gentleman.
John I am an old man. I have devoted my life to solving the problem of longitude. I have had success which has been recognised by sailors. I wish to claim the rest of my prize, for my own efforts and for my family.
Prime Minister Parliament has voted to present John Harrison with £8750, in recognition of his efforts to solve the longitude problem.
All Hear! Hear!
Narrator John Harrison never quite won the Longitude Prize as such. The money was awarded by the benevolence of parliament. The prize itself was never won.
Larcum Kendall’s copy of H4 was tested by Captain Cook and taken on all his voyages.
John Harrison died in 1776, but not before he knew that Captain Cook had said.
Captain Cook It would not be doing justice to Mr Harrison and Mr Kendall if I did not own that we have received very great assistance from this useful and valuable timepiece. Our trusty friend, our never failing guide, the Watch!
The End