MY AN­CES­TOR WAS A... WATCH AND CLOCK­MAKER

Adèle Emm ex­plores the com­plex craft that quite lit­er­ally kept things tick­ing

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Adèle Emm is the au­thor of Trac­ing Your Trade and Crafts­man An­ces­tors (Pen and Sword, 2015)

Adèle Emm ex­plores the com­plex craft that quite lit­er­ally kept things tick­ing

Un­til the on­set of the rail­ways, no­body cared about the time – af­ter all, agri­cul­tural labour­ers rose with the dawn and went to bed at sun­set. If there was one, the church clock rang the hours and bell ringers warned the con­gre­ga­tion when it was time for church.

The first clock to be in­stalled on a church in Eng­land was at Sal­is­bury Cathe­dral in 1386 and six years later at Wells (the mech­a­nism is in the Sci­ence Mu­seum, Lon­don). For El­iz­a­bethan the­atre­go­ers, a flag was hoisted above the stage when the play was about to be per­formed dur­ing the day.

It was only in the 19th cen­tury when rail­ways criss-crossed the coun­try ad­her­ing to timeta­bles and in­ter­con­nect­ing with other train ser­vices that na­tional time, rather than lo­cal, be­came vi­tal.

Any­one in the 16th cen­tury who owned a time­piece at home was ei­ther in­cred­i­bly rich, im­por­tant or both, hav­ing prob­a­bly im­ported their clocks from Ger­many or the Low Coun­tries – English crafts­men didn’t have the skills. Ac­cord­ing to The Book of English Trades and Li­brary of the Use­ful Arts, pub­lished in 1818 (and free to view at ar­chive.org), King Ed­ward III (1312-1377) is re­puted to have per­suaded three Delft clock­mak­ers to Eng­land to work and in­tro­duce clock­mak­ing to the coun­try. By the end of the 14th cen­tury, church clocks, at least, were rel­a­tively com­mon.

At first there were ver­bal (and oc­ca­sional phys­i­cal) fisticuffs be­tween black­smiths and clock­mak­ers over who had the rights to make them. Any­one

Un­til the on­set of the rail­ways, no­body cared about the time

with a back­ground in fid­dly metal work – lock­smiths, nee­dle-mak­ers and smiths – for in­stance, trav­elled from the provinces to Lon­don and at­tempted to ply their trade in clock and watch­mak­ing.

The Black­smiths’ Guild felt par­tic­u­lary threat­ened. By the 17th cen­tury, English-born clock­mak­ers were joined by im­mi­grant work­ers who were flee­ing religious per­se­cu­tion.

In Calvin­ist Geneva in 1556, gold­smiths were charged with idol­a­try and turned their hands from mak­ing jew­ellery to watches; the even­tual land of the cuckoo clock was born.

It wasn’t un­til 1631 that The Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Clock­mak­ers was granted a Char­ter by King Charles I (late for the foun­da­tion of a guild) and the orig­i­nal mas­ter, wardens and as­sis­tants are named on its web­site ( clock­mak­ers.org) to­gether with a raft of in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion.

Clock and watch­mak­ing is skilled, metic­u­lous and fid­dly, ex­plain­ing why nee­dle-mak­ers and jewellers took up the craft.

In the early days, watch and clock­mak­ers made their own tools and parts, but by 1818 they as­sem­bled clocks and watches from parts that were made and sup­plied else­where.

A watch­maker needed good eye­sight and utilised spe­cial mag­ni­fiers such as a loupe, the small mag­ni­fy­ing glass worn in the eye socket. It was a prof­itable trade with po­ten­tial to make good money.

Nat­u­rally, if a crafts­man could make a watch, he could also make a clock as, af­ter all, a clock is merely a watch on a larger scale. Thomas Tom­pion (1639-1713) is re­garded as the father of English clock­mak­ing. Ex­am­ples of his work are found and prized amongst mu­se­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tors.

His ap­pren­tices’ work, and there were many of them, is also col­lectible. He was a black­smith’s son and may have worked as a black­smith him­self be­fore be­ing ap­pren­ticed to a Lon­don clock­maker. A mas­ter of the Com­pany of Clock­mak­ers in 1704, his watches were among the ear­li­est to use bal­ance springs, mak­ing them ex­tremely ac­cu­rate and pop­u­lar among roy­alty, the aris­toc­racy and wealthy mer­chants.

So highly was he re­garded, that he was buried in West­min­ster Abbey shar­ing his grave with fel­low watch­maker Ge­orge Gra­ham, who had mar­ried his niece El­iz­a­beth.

Time­piece col­lec­tion

The Com­pany of Clock­mak­ers’ Mu­seum, which housed the largest col­lec­tion of clocks and watches in the world, has re­cently moved from Lon­don Guild­hall where it lived for nearly 200 years. The ma­jor­ity of its items date from circa 1600 to circa 1850 and is sched­uled to re­open in Oc­to­ber 2015 at the Sci­ence Mu­seum in Lon­don.

Un­til then, you can find in­for­ma­tion and pho­to­graphs cov­er­ing the Clock Mu­seum’s con­tents at www. bridge­man­im­ages.com/ en- GB/col­lec­tions/col­lec­tion/ wor­ship­ful-com­pany- of­clock­mak­ers.

In 1797, the un­pop­u­lar Watch and Clock Tax was im­posed on own­ers of watches and clocks; it nearly ru­ined the in­dus­try.

Thou­sands of watch and clock­mak­ers be­came un­em­ployed and the tax was re­pealed the fol­low­ing year. Two vol­umes of the orig­i­nal rolls for 19 Scot­tish coun­ties sur­vive. If your an­ces­tor is listed, you can dis­cover how many watches and clocks they owned and how much duty was paid via scot­land­splaces.gov.uk/ dig­i­tal-vol­umes/his­tor­i­cal-taxrolls/clock-and-watch-taxrolls-1797-1798.

Sur­viv­ing records for Eng­land and Wales are patchy and will be held at lo­cal record of­fices, for ex­am­ple, Ply­mouth and West Devon Record Of­fice holds Watch and Clock Tax records for the parish of Ug­bor­ough. You can search the cat­a­logue at dis­cov­ery. na­tional ar­chives. gov.uk to see if there are any records that might be rel­e­vant to your wealth­ier an­ces­tors.

French­man Claudius Sau­nier’s 1881 Watch­maker’s

Hand­book, trans­lated into English and found free on­line at ar­chive.org, sup­plies a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into some of the dan­gers of watch­mak­ing.

He warned of prob­lems with close-up work and the use of strong lenses re­sult­ing in con­junc­tivi­tis which, prior to the dis­cov­ery of an­tibi­otics, of­ten led in those days to blind­ness and the sub­se­quent loss of one’s liveli­hood. Rec­om­mend­ing green card­board lamp­shades to pro­tect eyes, he cau­tioned against gas lamps be­cause of the bright­ness of the light. He ad­vised that eyes should be bathed with cold wa­ter and rested by star­ing at large sta­tion­ary ob­jects.

He also warned against em­ploy­ing short-sighted ap­pren­tices as their eyes would suf­fer more strain un­der the de­tailed work. A watch­maker needs a steady hand so Sau­nier also warned against al­co­hol and to­bacco use and of­fered ad­vice on how high a work­bench should be. Ac­cord­ing to him, bad pos­ture caused bad tem­per!

As the job in­volved the use of highly toxic mer­cury in barom­e­ters and pen­du­lums, there was a risk of mer­cury poi­son­ing as well as bad burns from acid and smelt­ing me­tals.

By 1851, there were a to­tal of 19,159 watch and clock­mak­ers; 2,000 more 20 years later. Th­ese fig­ures may well in­clude the lo­cal jew­eller’s shop where it was com­mon for one man to fash­ion jew­ellery while an­other spe­cialised in mak­ing and re­pair­ing clocks and watches.

Suc­ces­sive cen­suses might de­scribe the busi­ness var­i­ously as ‘ jew­eller’, ‘watch­maker jew­eller’, ‘sil­ver­smith’ or ‘gold­smith’ and, in times of re­ces­sion, the busi­ness would change fo­cus in or­der to en­sure its sur­vival.

Isle of Man-based Roger W Smith makes watches from scratch. He makes 10 watches a year cost­ing up to £250,000 each and just 50 peo­ple in the

world own one.

Enoch Wood Perry’s

The Clock Doc­tor from 1871

An em­ployee from the Clock Hos­pi­tal re­pairs a time­piece in Lon­don

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