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Cary 'RGS' Explorers Compass c.1900

Cary 'RGS' Explorers Compass c.1900

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A Francis Barker & Son ‘RGS’ type pocket compass, dating from c.1900. The compass card is marked with the retailers details: ‘Cary, London’. The compass has a nickel plated brass hunter case, and an aluminium card with a jewelled pivot. The card is hand painted in black, with the four cardinal points painted in red on the underside of the glass. The compass has an automatic transit lock, operated when the lid is closed. This is a well documented Barker design, which was supplied unsigned by the maker to Cary and several other well known London retailers (including J. H. Steward). The retailer would then add their own details to the compass card. Cary supplied scientific instruments such as this to explorers and military officers, and the company provided the compasses used by Ernest Shackleton and his team during the celebrated 1907-1909 British Antarctic Expedition

One of the Cary compasses used during the 1907-1909 expedition can be seen in a photographic plate facing p.342 of Volume Two of The Heart of the Antarctic, Shackleton’s classic account of the expedition (see photo). Shackleton took two Cary pocket compasses of this type with him on the expedition, one of which returned to the antarctic in 2008, carried by the explorer Henry Worsley, during the Shackleton Centenary Expedition.

Dating from c.1900-1910, this type of compass featured in many Barker catalogues and had been in production since the late 19th century, although it was not registered by the company until 1903. In the Barker catalogue for 1907 this design was described as the ‘R.G.S. Pattern’.

(Further details of this type of compass can be found in: Trade Mark London by Paul Crespel, and at the website. It is also featured on p.54-5 of Compass Chronicles (Schiffer, 2010) by Kornelia Takacs)


The compass is in very good condition, full working order and finds North well. The nickel plated brass case is in very good condition, with some mnor wear to the plating. The compass card and glass are in very good condition. The transit lock is fully functional.

Dimensions: 50mm diameter (75mm inc. loop)

Cary of London: William Cary (1759–1825) was an English scientific-instrument maker. He produced numerous scientific instruments including mechanical calculators, measuring instruments, telescopes, microscopes, navigation and survey equipment. William Cary had three brothers, the eldest George (c.1753 - 1830) was a haberdasher while the second brother John, was a mapmaker who also worked with William and the last, Francis (c.1756 - 1836) was an engraver. Cary learnt the skills for producing instruments as an apprentice of Jesse Ramsdan (1735-1800). After his death in 1825, the firm was taken over by Charles Gould, who may have trained briefly under William Cary. The company continued trading for almost 100 years, being run by various members of the Gould family, including Charlotte Hyde Gould (c.1797-1865). They became well known as retailers of globes and other scientific and mathematical instruments. Around 1900 Cary were trading from premises at 7 Pall Mall, London, their trade card describing the company as 'Opticians and Scientific Instrument Makers to the Admiralty'.

Francis Barker & Son: were established in London in 1848, as a maker of compasses and scientific instruments. Francis Barker produced a very wide range of compass designs over the years, supplying major retailers such as Negretti & Zambra, J. Lizars, C. W. Dixey, Dollond, Cary, and J. H. Steward. The company prospered until 1932, when it was taken over and became F. Barker & Son (1932). After WW2 the company changed hands several times and the name is now carried by Pyser-SGI. They continue to produce the renowned Barker M-73, widely acknowledged to be the world's finest prismatic compass.