FREE DELIVERY on all UK orders | Unconditional guarantee on every item
P. Orr & Sons Singer's Compass c.1880

P. Orr & Sons Singer's Compass c.1880

Price $206.00 Sale

A Francis Barker Singer's Patent-type compass, dating from c.1880. The mother of pearl compass card is hand painted in the classic Singer's design, and marked 'P. Orr & Sons, Madras'. The compass was made by Francis Barker of London and retailed by Orr of Madras. Although not signed by Barker, the compass case is stamped on the rear 'Made in England' in exactly the style and typeface used by Barker from the 1870s (see last photo, which shows the same stamp, used in exactly the same position, on another Barker compass dating from c.1875).

The compass has luminous paint markers at the North and South cardinal points. This type of luminous paint, most probably an early version of 'Balmain's Luminous Paint' was a compound of calcium sulphide. The paint was made luminous by exposure to sunlight or by burning a strip of magnesium ribbon near the compass card. It was patented in England by William Balmain, and was often used in compasses during the last quarter of the 19th century. The compass has a jewelled pivot, nickel-plated brass case and transit lock operated by a push button at the bow.

P. Orr & Sons, Madras: was founded in 1846, and is still trading, based in the city of Chennai in India. The company was started by Peter Orr, an expatriate watchmaker from Edinburgh. It became known as P. Orr & Sons in 1863. From 1873, the firm operated from premises in Mount Street, Madras, (Mount Street has since been renamed Anna Salai, and Madras is now called Chennai). Peter Orr’s son Robert Orr took over the business and later, he acquired Fred Emery as a business partner. The first showroom of P. Orr & Sons is today a heritage building and still in operation. The building was commissioned by Peter Orr, and designed by Robert Chisholm, consulting architect to the Government of Madras. It was inaugurated by Prince George, Duke of York, who later became King George V, and Princess Mary of Teck, who later became Queen Mary. The store initially sold diamonds, equipment, guns, silver goods, and later began selling mechanical watches and clocks. The firm made its reputation when three maharajas – the Gaekwar of Baroda, the Maharaja of Cohin and the Maharaja Holkar – commissioned Orr to make various gifts that were presented to the Prince of Wales during his visit to India in 1875-76. P. Orr & Sons specialised in what became known as ‘swami ware’ – ‘swami’ because of the decorative themes based on Hindu deities and the associated festival processions.

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, and many others. 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-Optics. They continue to produce the renowned Barker M-73, widely acknowledged to be the world's finest prismatic compass. Further details of Barker compasses can be found at, and also in Paul Crepsel's excellent book Trade Mark London (available to view online).

Samuel Berry Singer (1796 - c.1875) was a master mariner from Southampton when he patented his unique design in July 1861. Its high contrast design was intended to be much easier to read in low light than conventional compasses of the time. His design was widely adopted by scientific instrument makers, but Singer himnself did not benefit greatly from his invention, the patent lapsed in 1868, and he ended his days living in poverty in Kincardine on the Firth of Forth. Versions of his design continued to be made until the First World War.


The compass is in good condition. The nickel-plated brass case, bevelled glass, and mother of pearl compass card are all in good condition, with some minor scatches to the glass. There is some dust under the glass. The transit lock is working well. The compass card spins freely and finds North, but it can be slow to settle.

37mm (55mm including loop)