English WatchmakingCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 all rights reserved.
Don't assume that a name engraved onto the movement of an English watch indicates who made it; usually it doesn't.
Although in the eighteenth century there were individuals who made complete watches, by the nineteenth century a division of labour had occurred so that there were dozens of specialists involved in the making of a watch. The people who controlled the process were the closest thing to being called the maker, even though the often didn't make a single part themselves. But they didn't sell watches to the public. It was high street retailers who sold watches to the public, and they didn't want anyone's name other than their own on the watches that they sold. The practice in Britain until the mid-1920s was that it was the retailer's name that was engraved onto watches The terms ‘watchmaker and jeweller’ were commonly used to impress the public by high street retailers who never actually made watches or jewellery, terms which are still in use today for the same purpose.
The Beginnings of Watchmaking in England
From Southern Germany watchmaking gradually spread across Europe to the low countries and France. There was no watchmaking in England before 1570 and the English watchmaking industry most likely got started by clockmakers servicing or repairing German, Swiss or French watches, and then making watches of their own, training up apprentices who could do parts of the work and gradually building up workshops of skilled workers. There were probably makers like this in many provincial towns, but of course the greatest demand and concentration of skilled craftsmen was in the capital London.
There was an influx of Huguenot refugees into England from France following the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685) which revoked the Edict of Nantes and abolished all legal recognition of protestantism in France. Amongst these refugees were skilled watchmakers, which stimulated the nascent English watchmaking industry. In the seventeenth century, English watchmakers came to dominate the supply of fine quality watches and English watches were the best in the world, highly priced, much sort after and imitated.
Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), known as the father of English clockmaking, made very fine clocks and watches, and many of his apprentices went on to become important makers themselves. Tompion's associate George Graham continued this work after Tompion's death. One of George Graham's apprentices was Thomas Mudge, who invented the lever escapement around 1755.
Although the very first watches in the sixteenth century had been made by individuals or small teams, they were mechanically simple and not very good timekeepers. The introduction of the balance spring in 1675 transformed watches into useful timekeepers. By the end of the seventeenth century, individual workers had begun to specialise in certain aspects of the trade. This led to a rise in the number of people employed. By 1690 Tompion was employing up to 20 workmen at his workshop in Fleet Street, the "Dial and Three Crowns". In the section of Rees's Cyclopaedia devoted to Clocks, Watches and Chronometers published in 1807-1818, William Pearson listed thirty four different principal crafts that were involved in the process of making a watch, many of which were further subdivided.
Making or Finishing?
By the end of the eighteenth century watches were ‘made’ on the division of labour principle where dozens of specialists would each do one part of the work, the watch being passed round to each one in turn e.g. one man would fit jewel holes and do nothing else, where another would attach the balance spring and do nothing else. These two men would be incapable of doing the other's work. This was true for dozens of individual highly skilled but very specialised craftsmen who made all the individual parts of the watch, often in their own workshops. It was a highly complex web and could only exist in the few main centres of London, and later Liverpool and then Coventry, where there was a conglomeration of workers with the necessary skills.
In the nineteenth century, most English watches began as a collection of raw materials that had been machined close to finished sizes and were supplied assembled into rough movements called ‘frames’. A frame consisted of the top and bottom plate, separated by pillars, the mainspring barrel, fusee and the train wheels mounted on their arbors. There was no escapement or balance and balance spring, and no jewels; these were added later. For most of the nineteenth century the town of Prescot near to Liverpool had the monopoly on the supply of frames, but in the late nineteenth century frames began to bae made in Coventry.
The person who organised the work of ‘finishing’, purchasing the frame and then passing it out to the various specialists to gradually turn it, step by step, into a finished watch, was called the ‘watch maker’ although he might not have made a single part of the watch himself. He also almost never put his name onto the movements or finished watches. Most often the name of the retailer, the shop keeper who had ordered the watch to be made, was engraved as if they were the manufacturer.
Retailers liked to style themselves as ‘watchmakers’. Perhaps this goes back to a time when there had been someone who actually made watches and set up a shop to sell them, like Tompion and his shop in Fleet Street. But there were many more retailers who never made anything that they sold and just liked the grand sound of the title ‘Watchmaker’. This is still seen today where high street shops call themselves "Blah, Blah, and Co. Goldsmiths, Jewellers and Watchmakers" even though there is today no one in the organisation who has ever smithed any gold, set a jewel, or made a watch.
In England the verge remained the most used escapement until the nineteenth century when it was superseded by the lever escapement, invented by Thomas Mudge around 1755. On the continent the virgule and then the cylinder escapement were widely used, partly because they gave better timekeeping than the verge, and partly because they allowed a thinner, flatter, watch to be made, which was more fashionable.
The subsequent history of the lever escapement after its invention by Mudge is still subject to debate. It was not immediately taken up by English makers, although continental watchmakers such as Breguet did use it. Josiah Emery, a Swiss national who had set up business in London, made a watch with a lever escapement modelled on the Mudge design in 1782, and between then and 1785 made around 30 such watches. John Leroux, also working in London, created an improved lever escapement that included "draw". This is a safety feature that positively pulls the lever onto the banking pins, making the action of unlocking more certain at the expense of a slight increase in the energy required for unlocking. Leroux's escapement did not retain oil well on the escape wheel teeth and was abandoned.
In 1791 Peter Litherland of Liverpool was granted a patent for the rack lever escapement, which proved to be robust and popular and was made in large numbers, but was not a detached escapement.
The first really successful English attempt at a detached lever escapement was made by Edward Massey. Beginning around 1812 he developed a lever escapement having a roller on the balance staff with a projecting tooth or pin that that moved the lever on each swing. The design went through several versions before arriving at one with a jewelled impulse pin. By the 1820s this design had matured into the lever escapement with table roller, and a second smaller roller was added to separate the safety action from unlocking and impulse, giving the classic design of English lever that was used throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.
In the wake of Tompion, Graham and Mudge were many other fine watchmakers, and in the eighteenth century English watchmaking was pre-eminent. English watches were regarded as the finest available and much imitated and copied. At some stage in the mid-eighteenth century London makers stopped producing watches from scratch, and started to use rough watch movements (ébauches or "frames") made at Prescot, near to Liverpool. These were supplied in batches to watchmakers in the Clerkenwell district of London, the centre of British watchmaking, and in smaller numbers to watchmakers in other cities such as Coventry, Birmingham and Liverpool. These "watchmakers" finished the movement by arranging for the train to be planted and jewelled and fitted with the escapement, and added dials, hands and cases.
During the eighteenth century the industrial revolution had resulted in the increased use of labour-saving machinery and reduced the demand for manual labour. The Napoleonic Wars made the economic situation worse due to the government raising taxes to pay for the war (income tax was introduced as a "temporary measure"), rising food prices and unemployment caused by wartime trade restrictions. When the war ended in 1815 Britain was left deeply in debt and in a serious economic depression. In 1817 a select committee of the House of Commons investigated condition in the British watchmaking industry and found that it was in a terrible state.
Samuel Smith submitted the following evidence to the committee by letter: Since I last had the honour of seeing you in London, in October, 1815, I have travelled all through North and South Wales (three times since the double duty on plate licences) and I find the trade is getting much worse every journey, in consequence of the enormous duty on plate; for I find all through the country they are giving up their licences, for it will not answer to pay 4l.12s. per annum to sell but three or four watches in the course of the year; there are but few vendors of watches in the country through which I travel, who sell more than the above statement; and I, by getting orders from these different people, have for a number of years employed from thirty to forty men; at the present time, I do not employ ten, and I think the principal cause is owing to the duty on plate; I have formerly sold on this journey (which is about a thousand miles in circuit) more than five hundred watches, and that will regularly employ from fifty to sixty hands. If the duty on plate was reduced to its former amount, it would give great relief to our trade, and would ultimately bring in more to Government, for you will find by the number of people who will give up their licences, the duty will ultimately fall very short; I have not the least doubt, there will be as many as three out of four who will give them up. Smith goes on to list many towns in the Midlands and the North of England, and in Wales, and relates the terrible state of trade and high levels of unemployment in all of them.
This evidence is interesting because of its insight into how watches reached provincial retailers and the numbers of watches that they sold, many of them only three or four watches a year.
Watch design in England had improved significantly by the 1820s by which time English watchmakers developed a design of watch with a movement that had a detached double roller lever escapement. This became known as the "English lever" watch and it remained in production for over eighty years. At the time of its introduction it held a very high reputation, but it was not developed as time passed, and remained almost entirely hand made. Because of the fusee it was almost impossible to be made with keyless winding, and many were made that were key wound and set years after the introduction of the modern form of keyless winding and setting in the 1840s, which made the English lever watch appear increasingly old fashioned towards the end.
English makers continued to use the fusee, which had been abandoned by the Swiss in favour of the simpler going barrel and was never used in American factory production. The complexity of the fusee added substantially to the bulk and to the cost of making an ordinary watch without significantly improving its accuracy, although it was useful in watches and chronometers where very high accuracy was required. But English watchmakers clung to the fusee because they thought the public recognised it as the sign of a good watch, even though the public probably didn't have a clue what a fusee was or why it was important and were voting with their wallets and buying imported watches Swiss and American watches in increasing numbers.
The free trade movement led to a reduction in duties on imported watches. Up to 1840 import duty on watches was charged at 25% and huge numbers of watches were smuggled into the UK. In 1842 under Robert Peel the duty was reduced to 10% and the declared value of imported watches rose more than tenfold from £5,085 to £52,622. The lower duty meant that the cost and risks of smuggling were less financially viable and so watches were imported through normal channels. In 1860 Gladstone removed the duty on imported watches altogether. It is impossible to say whether the number of watches entering the country actually increased as some have said, or remained constant, with watches that previously would have been smuggled now being declared as imports.
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Pierre Frédéric Ingold and Watchmaking by Machinery
The first attempt to establish in England a factory where watches were made largely by machinery rather than hand craft work was made by Pierre Frédéric Ingold in 1842-43. This was resisted and finally defeated by conservative English watchmakers. Ingold and his supporters attempted to set up a company called the "British Watch and Clockmaking Company" but this ultimately failed with heavy financial losses to some of its backers.
The failure of the Ingold enterprise, and subsequently similar ventures in America which also failed due to the large amounts of capital required to set up a factory making watch parts by machine, caused British watchmakers to shy away from making watches by machinery, although ironically when Dennison was successful in America, the memory of Ingold was revived by some in an attempt to show that England had been first in the field.
Speaking in 1933, Mr W. E. Tucker, who had worked for Williamsons, remarked ‘The introduction of machinery in this country has been a matter of very great difficulty, largely because of the hostility of the old school of watchmakers. Mention of that takes me back to the time when there were serious disturbances in Clerk- enwell, sabotage and rioting were indulged in, and a good deal of antagonism was shown to firms who were progressive enough to want to instal machinery.’
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Mass Production : The Gauged and Interchangeable Principle
American watchmakers were the first to achieve mass production of watches. By using specially designed machines the American factories could produce almost every part of a watch mechanically, and those parts could be assembled into a working watch without further finishing. Swiss manufacturers recognised that this was a severe threat to their industry and adopted American machine methods of production, calling it the "American system", also referred to as the "gauged and interchangeable" principle.
The fundamental problem with making mass produced items is making the parts to such accuracy that any part will fit where it is intended to go without any further work. This gets more difficult as the parts get smaller and the allowable errors in the dimensions, called tolerances, get tighter. Automatic machines can be created to machine hundreds or thousands of parts that are ostensibly identical, but as the cutting tools wear the dimensions of the parts will vary. This is less of a problem today because tools are made from steel alloys or carbides that are very wear resistant, but in the nineteenth century tools were made from hardened carbon steel and wear was a severe problem.
In a watch the most demanding point of fitting is the pivots of the train wheel arbors in their bearings. The difference between a good fit and a poor one is measured in hundredths or even thousandths of a millimetre. When watches were made by hand, the fit was established by trial rather than measurement, the worker would turn down the pivot until it would nearly enter the hole, and then would remove small amounts by burnishing or polishing until it went fully in and "felt right". But this was not possible when machines were used to make parts automatically that needed to fit into other parts without any extra work.
To overcome the problem of tool wear producing batches of parts with differing sizes, accurate gauges were used to sort the parts into batches of the same nominal size. The parts could then be matched to the other items they were meant to fit. For instance, a machine would be set up to machine pivots of a certain size. As the tool wore the parts would be measured until a limit was reached when the machine would be stopped and re-set. The parts that were produced would be gauged and divided into batches, say, small, medium and large. These would then be matched with plates where as the drill the made the holes they were to go in wore down, the holes had gone from large diameter through medium to small.
This was not full interchangeability, but parts from the same batch and other batches that passed the same gauge could be interchanged. This is called "selective assembly", with production of the parts fully automatic. One of the consequences of this was that the serial numbers of the movements became important when spares were needed. Details of the movement were recorded and when an order came in for a replacement part, the serial number was checked and the records consulted, so that a part from the correct size range could be set out.
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The Decline of English Watchmaking
Before the Americans shook up the industry there was a sort of unwritten agreement between the English and Swiss. The Swiss mass produced cheap watches for the mass market by craft methods using low wage labour, often using low paid women and children. The English produced small numbers of expensive, high quality, watches by similar craft methods but using more expensive, time served and exclusively male, labour. From the middle of the nineteenth century, English watchmaking came under increasing competition from high quality American, and then Swiss, watches using mass produced machine made components and assembled by cheaper semi-skilled labour. Most English watchmakers were either reluctant or unable to adopt machinery and mass production methods of manufacturing. Large amounts of financial capital were required to purchase machinery, which took years to pay back on the investment, and the many smaller makers working on the craft system of ‘putting out’ simply did not have the sort of money or scale or operation necessary to make the investment.
Writing in 1887, David Glasgow, Vice President of the British Horological Institute, said I have seen, lately, watches made in Coventry, both by the splendid machinery of the Messrs. Rotherham and others made on the old system, and for quality and price they would compare favourably with any watches I have seen ; but on inquiring into the condition of the producers of the latter, it was quite evident a decent existence could not be maintained on their earnings : therefore, competition with foreigners under such circumstances is neither desirable nor possible. The ‘old system’ referred to by Glasgow was the method of putting out; sending round a partially completed watch to various specialists working in small workshops, often in their own homes, where operations were performed by hand, or on hand or foot operated machinery.
Those English manufacturers who were either unwilling or unable to modernise and carried on in the same way, came under increasing downward pressure on price from the mass produced competition from home as well as abroad but were trapped in an industry and way of work and life that was all they knew. In 1891 the Horological Journal reported that wages and prices were low in comparison to other trades and that really skilled watchmakers were doing ... beautiful work for prices that a bicycle repairer would have a good laugh at. In such circumstances, young people didn't follow their parents into the trade and found work in the new industries of the bicycle and motor car, and the old ways died with the retirement of their practitioners.
Only a few larger manufacturers such as Rotherhams were able to put up a fight, but even these ‘large scale’ English manufacturers were tiny operations compared to the massive integrated American factories, or the highly divided Swiss system where hundreds if not thousands of small manufacturers were tied together in a productive web of activity. Many towns in the Swiss Jura mountains were almost entirely dedicated to the production of watch parts and the assembly of these into finished watches. In Das Kapital, first published in 1867, Karl Marx described the very high division of labour in the Swiss watch industry and said that La Chaux-de-Fonds was a "huge factory-town" such was the extent that it seemed every part of the town was involved in the industry of making watches. Individual companies competed against each other to produce parts of the watch better or cheaper, producing economies of production due to specialisation and division of labour. Against the economies of scale of these competing systems the English factories could not remain profitable and, one by one, closed or changed direction into other areas of manufacturing.
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English watchmakers prided themselves on workmanship that but they could not compete with companies in Switzerland that added attractive extra features, known as "complications", to watches. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. English watchmakers were certainly capable of producing these complications if they put their minds to it, and had done so in the seventeenth century, but by the eighteenth century the capability had disappeared from England and English watches were being sent to Switzerland, most likely to an area that specialised in timepieces with complications called the Vallée de Joux.
In 1887 a Select Committee of the House of Commons took evidence about English watchmaking from Mr Joseph Usher, of the very highly renowned London company Usher and Cole. The answers Mr Cole gave to two questions are very illuminating.
Q: Now, with regard to the very high class of watch with split seconds, chronographic minute repeaters, perpetual calendars, and so on ; is it a fact that those watches cannot be made in England? Mr Cole: Not these complications; but the movements can be made in England, in fact, we make them now, with not more than 10 percent, of foreign work in them, minute repeaters.
Q: Will you explain to us what happens? Mr Cole: It is sent to have the repeating work put on it. The watch itself is made in England ; the movement is made in Lancashire ; we finish and escape the watch in Clerkenwell; and everything connected with it, the keyless work and all that is English, with the exception of the repeating work.
The Swiss were prepared to use cheaper labour, including women and children, for some tasks, whereas for their own watch industry, beginning in about 1850, the Americans turned to machine tools and mass production methods to cut costs. The Swiss became puzzled by a decrease in their export trade to America. At the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, held in Philadelphia from May to November was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, American watch manufacturers had proudly presented for the first time the results of their investments over the preceding 25 years in mechanical watch production. The Swiss representatives were shocked at what the Americans had achieved. By using specially designed machines the American factories could produce almost every part of a watch mechanically, and those parts could be assembled into a working watch without further finishing. Swiss manufacturers recognised that this was a severe threat to their industry and adopted American automatic machine methods of production, calling it the "American system".
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Watch Production in English Factories
Although the vast majority of English made watches were made by the system of putting out, there were some factories established that made watches entirely in house. In the Winter 1996 issue of Antiquarian Horology, D H Bacon estimated production for some of these factories between 1870 and 1930, when watchmaking in England had effectively ceased.
I have tabulated below the summaries of his data for machine production in factories. Note that the first date given is that when machine production began, although some of the companies, e.g. Rotherham & Sons, could trace their history a long way further back than this. The data was mainly inferred from serial numbers seen on watches rather than from factory records and therefore cannot be assumed to be absolutely accurate, but it gives an idea of the relative scale of the English watch factories.
|The Lancashire Watch Company||1888 — 1910||900,000|
|The English Watch Company||1871 — 1897||200,000|
|William Ehrhardt||1856 — 1923||775,000|
|Rotherham & Sons||1856 — 1930||425,000|
|J W Benson||1892 — 1941||Unknown|
|H Williamson Ltd.||1897 — 1931||600,000|
The scale of output of the English factories was much smaller than that of the Swiss or American. The American Watch Company of Waltham between 1852 and 1900 had produced around 10,000,000 watches, and by 1957 when production ceased had made around 35,000,000 watches.
A letter from a correspondent at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 gives an interesting list of what he regards as the leading English watch manufacturers of the time, and also perhaps a hint that the decline of English watchmaking had begun, at least in its reluctance to take on and compete with foreign competition.
The Paris Exhibition, 1878
THE English section is a favourite resort of all classes of foreign visitors, and to judge from the numerous comments to which I have listened from day to day, I am enabled to say that they are not only highly gratified, but often surprised, at the vast amount of skill and progress embodied in the exhibits of our country. I regret, however, that this eulogium does not apply to our watchmaking and jewellery display. Sir John Bennett, G. E. Frodsham, M. Riego, and V. Kullberg are the only representatives of the English watch trade. Either of the makers just mentioned are quite capable of sustaining the reputation which first-class English work enjoys ; but what we wanted was to show the world what English watch manufacturers can do for the million. Where is Coventry and Birmingham 1 Some time ago, one of the leading Swiss watch manufacturers told me that England would never be able to manufacture a watch suitable for the pocket and purse of the British workman. Fully anticipating that such makers as the English Watch Company, Wallen, Michael, Newsome and Yeomans, Rotherham, Cowen, Badgers, Hill, and others would be represented here, I promised to show him some work with the price and quality of which he would be astonished. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed : none of these firms have shown up, and my opponent is more than ever convinced of the truth of his assertion. Our representative watch manufacturers have no doubt valid reasons for absenting themselves from this magnificent show ; but I think it a great mistake. As it is, the British Horological Section is no where in comparison with France, Switzerland and America.
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English watchmaking began in London but later centres arose in Liverpool and Coventry. In the eighteenth century these were supplied with "frames" or rough movements for finishing by specialist manufacturers in Prescot in Lancashire. These frames included the plates, fusee, spring barrel and train wheels and other basic components, but they needed to be jeweled, fitted with escapements, and a lot of other finishing before they were ready to be sent to the retailers,
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Watchmaking in London became centred in Clerkenwell. At the end of the eighteenth century the annual output of watches from London was almost 200,000 pieces, but this declined steadily throughout the nineteenth century as competition from Switzerland and America took increasing market share.
The Clerkenwell watchmakers continued to use time-served skilled workers and traditional handcraft methods, with movements passing through the hands of twenty or more specialist trades, the working parts being hand fitted to each movement, plates engraved and gilded, etc. It was very rare for all these specialists to be brought together "under on roof", that is in a factory. It was more usual for each craftsman to have his own small workshop, often within or as an extension to his house. The part finished movements were sent from one workshop to another for the various stages to be completed. Craftsmen also rarely worked for only one watch finisher, so work from one had to wait its turn while a job for another was completed.
English movements often varied in size meaning that the cases had to be individually fitted to each one, unlike American watches that were from the start made in standard sizes and could have their cases interchanged, and were often fitted with a customer's choice of case by the retailer. Later standard sizes were adopted so that cases could be "made to blocks", pieces of metal the same outer size and shape as the finished movement.
Clerkenwell watches were almost entirely hand made using simple tools that hardly changed over centuries, using traditional hand skills passed down over the generations. For instance, theoretical epicycloidal principles, expounded on the continent by Camus, say that pinion leaves should have radial flanks to the dedendum with semicircular addenda while the wheel teeth should have mitre shaped acting profiles. An editor of an English edition of Camus' work that was published in 1842 received the following comment: In Lancashire they make the teeth of watch wheels of what is called bay-leaf pattern; they are formed altogether by the eye of the workmen; and they would stare at you for a simpleton to hear you talk about the epicycloidal curve.
Although the London watchmakers never adopted modern methods of working and gradually died out, there were sporadic attempts to introduce the American system into British watchmaking.
There were many people and companies involved in watchmaking in London and I won't attempt to list and discuss them all here, but I will add notes from time to time of companies that come to my attention for some reason.
The house of Kullberg became known in the nineteenth century as the producer of the finest English marine chronometers.
Many of Kullberg's chronometers are stamped "J.P" on the bottom plate for the frame maker Joseph Preston & Sons of Prescot, Lancashire, a company still in existence in the early 1950s. Their work was of the highest quality and they supplied many of the top London chronometer makers. Although Preston was far and away the largest supplier, Wycherley frames were also used. Kullberg's records survived. Each watch or chronometer made has a separate page detailing the cost of each component and processes involved in its production or finishing. The records are held by the London Metropolitan Archives, purchased at auction by the Clockmaker's Company from the library of David Torrens after his death, and deposited in the Guildhall Library in 1973.
J. W. Benson
J. W. Benson began as a partnership between the brothers Samuel Suckley and James William Benson in 1847. They purchased the businesses of several established companies in London at Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, from which they claimed a date of foundation of 1749. The partnership was dissolved on 27 January 1855 when James left to set up alone as J. W. Benson at 33 Ludgate Hill. He later acquired the adjoining premises at No. 34, and later two houses at the rear, which formed the stock rooms and workshops, where steam power was used and watches manufactured and repaired.
The first James William Benson died on 7 October 1878, aged 52, and his three sons James William junior, Arthur Henry and Alfred took over the running of the business.
The company had retail outlets at various addresses in London, and moved several times on Ludgate Hill. Around 1880 Benson moved the main premises to 62 and 64 Ludgate Hill, with the steam powered workshop adjoining at 38 Belle Sauvage Yard. Watches made there during the nineteenth and twentieth century were named Bank, Ludgate and Field, and often, perhaps always, engraved with Best London Make and By Warrant to HM The Queen. These names were used for different watches, e.g. Ludgate was used on old fashioned key wound and set watches as well as stem wound and set ‘keyless’ watches. In addition to their own make, Benson bought in watches from Nicole Nielson, especially repeater mechanisms, P & A Guye and others.
The Field watch was so named after the Hunting Editor of the Field magazine, Arundel, wrote I have used the watch for four months, and I have carried it hunting sometimes five days a week, and never less than three. For most weeks I have had one day, sometimes two, with hounds on foot ; and with this strong test I have found it an accurate timekeeper. I recommend Messrs. Benson's hunting watch as one that can be depended on. Field, 22 March 1893. One wonders why Arundel needed an accurate watch; he was hardly catching the train or going to meetings.
The company J. W. Benson and its subsidiary Hunt & Roskell, acquired in 1889, were converted into separate limited liability companies J. W. Benson Ltd. and Hunt & Roskell Ltd. in 1897.
In 1935, a visit to the factory observed the manufacture of watch movements. Manufacture of only one calibre was described,a ¾ plate movement with an English right angled lever escapement. It was said that various grades of movement were manufactured, the differences being in the jewelling and finish, with ruby jewels and diamond endstones in the higher grade movements, so it must be assumed that by 1935 Benson were making only this one calibre. Only high-class Venetian dials and hand-made hands were used in cases of solid construction in either gold or silver. This watch was by then very old fashioned, with an English style ratchet (pointed) tooth escape wheel, pallet stones inset into the lever and a single roller. It operated at 16,200 vibrations per hour, a low frequency compared to the then almost universal 18,000 vph. It was said that every part of the movement was made so as to be interchangeable and considerable expenditure had been incurred in acquiring the most up-to-date machines. The machines described were mainly presses used to blank out components from sheet, there was no mention of e.g. automatic lathes, which had been operating in American and Swiss factories since the nineteenth century.
Philip Priestley records that J. W. Benson had watch cases made by Benson Brothers of Liverpool, who were no relation. The sponsor's mark used on these cases, J.W.B, was entered at the London Assay Office by J. W. Benson. The Benson Brothers case making business was purchased by Dennison in the 1930s.
The premises at Belle Sauvage Yard were destroyed by bombing in 1941, including the company's records. Benson did not resume making watches after the war, carrying out only repair work.
J. W. Benson continued until 1973 when it appears that the name was sold to Garrard, and then subsequently to Mappin & Webb.
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Watchmaking in Coventry rose to prominence in the nineteenth century. It began with the finishing of rough movement or ‘frames’ from Prescot in Lancashire, supplied by companies such as Wycherley. The industry expanded and eventually all the parts of the watches, including the frames, were made in Coventry.
The origins of watchmaking in Coventry are obscure. In 1727 George Porter, watchmaker, was Mayor of Coventry, also in 1745 and 1753. Rotherhams, who became Coventry's biggest watchmaker, could trace their origins back to 1747. The trade gradually grew until in 1860 there were 90 manufacturers employing 1,250 men, 667 apprentices and 30 women. The industry was at its peak between about 1850 and 1890, when 100,000 watches were made during busy years, about twice as many as the London watchmaking district of Clerkenwell was then producing.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century there were several attempts in Coventry to change over from what was called the hand-made watch to the machine made watch, adopting the new methods of machine production known as "the American system". These were led by Rotherhams, who were initially successful in adopting the new manufacturing methods, and H. Williamson, Ltd. Coventry makers got their frames from Prescot until 1889 when the Lancashire Watch Company was founded and, fearing that their supply of frames would be cut off, Coventry watchmakers set up their own frame manufactory as the Coventry Watch Movement Company. Rather than simple frames, this company appears to have made complete movements ready to be cased, but soon found that Coventry's new bicycle and then motor industries were more profitable and diversified away from watchmaking and eventually amalgamated into the Coventry Gauge and Tool Company.
Watchmaking Areas of Coventry
Although Coventry had a long history of watchmaking it was on a small scale before the middle of the nineteenth century. Spon Street, a thoroughfare in the centre of Coventry that had been an industrial area since medieval times, was the first location in the city to harbour watchmakers. Rotherham & Sons and Newsome & Yeomans were on Spon Street, as were other smaller watchmakers and watch material suppliers. Rotherhams and Yeomans remained in Spon Street. The Coventry Watch Museum Project can be found on Spon Street today.
Newsome and Yeomans separated in 1878 and Newsome created Newsome & Company at 14/15 The Butts. The Butts was an area close to the city centre around Butts road that contained a number of watchmakers and ancillary works such as case makers. Newsome was not the first watchmaker in Butts Street: The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith of 5 June 1876 records the liquidation on 28 April of William Thomas Band of Butts Street, Coventry, watch manufacturer. In 1881 it was recorded that Messrs. Radges & Co., of Argyle Works, Butts, Coventry, and 53, Hatton-Garden, London, E.C. were making going barrel watches (i.e. without a fusee) on the interchangeable system in all sizes, both full and three-quarter plate, in gold and silver cases. Radges later relocated their London showrooms to Garfield Buildings, 4 Gray's Inn Road, Holborn, W.C. Radges had started as a watch manufacturer in 1865, and since 1876 been at his address in The Butts. After a downturn in trade in the 1890s, Radges was declared bankrupt in April 1894.
Hearsall Lane was the location of Smith and Sons, Watch Balance Manufacturers. Opposite their premises was the typical 'top shop' workshop of Philip Cohen's Watch Factory. Close by was the home and premises of Joseph White and the workshop of the Coventry Cooperative Watch Manufacturing Society (CCWMS). This was a cooperative of traditional watchmakers formed in 1876 to pool capital. The cooperative was initially successful, but refused to adopt machine methods and by 1895 were reported to be making only a few watches. They used Wycherley frames.
As watchmaking in Coventry increased during the nineteenth century, some watchmakers moved from the city centre to land released by Act of Parliament in 1845 to create a new suburb to the West of the city centre called Chapelfields.
Some Coventry watchmakers set up in a new satellite "garden" development at Earlsdon, on farmland purchased in 1852 by a Coventry housing association. This was separated from the city at the time by open country but today is a suburb.
In the late nineteenth century Coventry watchmakers were making twice as many watches as Clerkenwell in London. These were mainly for the cheaper end of the market, although about one third went overseas, particularly to India and Australasia where American and Swiss exports failed to dominate the markets in Britain's overseas territories. Some could aspire to the highest quality precision work. In 1889 a list of the 26 watches with the highest marks in the Kew Observatory trials included four Coventry watchmakers. Fridlander had four watches in the list, one of which gained 89 marks. There were three by Joseph White, two by Rotherham and Sons, and one by Newsome and Company.
At the peak there were around a hundred Coventry watch manufacturers, from large companies like Rotherhams down to very small operations, supported by three to four hundred smaller firms carrying out specialist operations, making parts and cases. The smaller companies were all working in the time honoured craft tradition in small workshops without power, or at home by piece work, performing operations by muscle power alone.
The Americans, followed by the Swiss, adopted machinery to carry out repetitive tasks quickly and cheaply. Most Coventry watch manufacturers and their suppliers were either unwilling or unable to modernise and carried on in the same way, under increasing downward pressure on price from the mass produced competition but trapped in an industry and way of work and life that was all they knew. In 1891 the Horological Journal reported that wages and prices were low in comparison to other trades and that really skilled watchmakers were doing ... beautiful work for prices that a bicycle repairer would have a good laugh at.
The formation of the Lancashire Watch Company in 1888, which took over many of the frame (rough movement) makers and had the object of becoming a manufacturer of complete watches, caused Coventry watch manufacturers concern that the supply of frames might be restricted or prices forced up. In 1889 the Coventry Watch Movement Manufacturing Company was established to produce frames in order to reduce reliance on supplies from Prescot. Although Rotherhams by then made every part of their watches, there were still a large number of enterprises in Coventry that depended on Prescot frames. The enterprise was not a great success and had to become, in part, a Coventry agency for the Lancashire Watch Co. By the end of the nineteenth century the writing was on the wall. Dwindling demand for rough movements and opportunities to supply parts to the bicycle, and later motor car, manufacturers meant that the company dropped the "Watch" part of its name and by 1914 was no longer making watch parts. Business was more successful in these new areas and the company continued until the 1970s.
By the eve of the Great War the number of Coventry watch manufacturers had dwindled to thirty, supported by around 120 specialists, mainly individual craftsmen working in workshops in their own houses. The adoption of the wristwatch by many men during the Great War was a change that small companies did not have the capital to invest in, and the depression of the 1920s that followed the short post-war boom finished the industry off completely.
Watchmaking in England continued to decline throughout the rest of the nineteenth century as Swiss and American imports took greater and greater market share. The spiral downwards was a mixture of a lack of investment which prevented modernisation, downwards pressure on prices as the Swiss and Americans increased the degree to which they could produce components by machine, resulting in low wages leading to few wanting to enter the industry.
The last few English watch manufacturers staggered on until the Great War of 1914 to 1918 gave rise to a new fashion for the wristwatch, which the English industry in general did not make, and could not afford to tool up to make, and so the last manufacturers closed down or diversified into making parts such as speedometers and petrol gauges for the new motor industry. For a while Rotherhams bucked the trend and made some wristwatches in the inter war period, but the writing was on the wall and they increasingly diversified into more profitable engineering activities. They appear to have ceased watch production in Coventry before WW2.
Rotherham & Sons
Rotherham & Sons, based at 26-28 Spon Street, Coventry, England, could trace its origins back to 1747. In the nineteenth century Rotherhams became the largest watch manufacturer in Coventry. In 1880 John Rotherham sent his works manager to America to buy watchmaking machinery machinery from the American Watch Tool Co. and the company began to mass produce watch parts.
There is a separate page about the company at Rotherham & Sons.
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H. Williamson Ltd.
The date of founding of the company H. Williamson is not known. A Henry Williamson is recorded as a dial maker in Coventry in 1872, and at 81 Farringdon Road, London, in 1892. H. Williamson Ltd. was incorporated as a private company in circa 1893. Shares in the company were offered to the public in 1898.
Williamson's watch factory in Coventry was set up by Charles Hutton Errington in the 1880's and acquired by H. Williamson Ltd. in circa 1896. Until the acquisition of Errington's watch company, Williamson made only clocks and acted as agents for other companies, notably the watchmaker P & A Guye. Errington is recorded as a watch movement maker in 1892, obtaining ‘frames’ from James Berry in Prescot to finish into watches. Errington worked for Williamsons until his retirement in 1910.
Because Errington finished frames sourced from James Berry, he had no machinery for the manufacture of watch plates or other parts. It is believed that Williamson acquired machinery for making plates and other parts from the failed English Watch Company in 1896.
In 1898 H. Williamson Ltd. acquired the Swiss watchmaking company Fritz Suter & Cie located in the Swiss town of Büren an der Aare in the canton of Bern. It appears that Williamson renamed this the Buren Watch Company. The reason for the acquisition was to supply watch parts to the Coventry factory.
Williamson did not make watch cases. Their watches are often seen in cases made by Dennison, but I have one sterling silver example that was made by Clarke & Ward: Thomas Samuel Clarke and Alfred Ward, trading as Clarke & Ward, are recorded at 55 Kensington Road, Coventry. They entered their details and registered a punch mark at the London Assay Office on 20 June 1910, and at the Chester Assay Office as ‘silver watchcase makers’ on 24 June 1910.
In November 1899 H. Williamson Ltd. were accused of breaching the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 by falsely applying to certain watches the description ‘English lever,’ and of exposing for sale certain watches falsely described as made in England. It was not disputed that the watches in question did contain several parts of foreign manufacture, or that they were sold as English lever watches with the English hallmark upon their cases. Williamsons admitted that in some watches the barrel arbor, the cap studs, the centre wheel and pinion, the third wheel and pinion, the fourth wheel and pinion, the pallets, the pallet staff, balance cock, main spring, balance spring, balance and barrel were made in Switzerland. They contended that the train and other foreign parts used in these watches were on the same footing as the main spring and balance spring, which were nearly always of foreign origin in English watches. They also contended that the foreign parts need not be considered in the description because they were imported in the rough and had to be shaped, polished and fitted in Coventry. These arguments were not accepted by Mr. Chapman, the magistrate who heard the evidence in the case, and in March 1900 Williamson were found guilty, fined £20 with £10 costs and the watches confiscated. This probably didn't come as a surprise to Williamsons because even during the case they had been importing Swiss machinery to be used at the Coventry factory to make the parts which were previously imported from Switzerland.
Astral Wristlet Advert from 1916
H. Williamson Ltd. was one of the first in the UK to recognise the important new market for wristwatches during the Great War. The 1916 Annual General Meeting of H. Williamson Ltd. was told that “ The public is buying the practical things of life. Nobody can truthfully contend that the watch is a luxury. In these days the watch is as necessary as a hat - more so, in fact. One can catch trains and keep appointments without a hat, but not without a watch. It is said that one soldier in every four wears a wristlet watch, and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can. Wristlet watches are not luxuries; wedding-rings are not luxuries. These are the two items jewellers have been selling in the greatest quantities for many months past.” (Emphasis added.)
The advert reproduced here for the Wristlet Astral dates to 1916. The watch is said to have a screw back and bezel case, which probably means that the case was made by Dennison. Although Williamson were clearly enthusiastic about the prospects for wristwatches, these are not common and I have never seen one.
Williamsons made clocks and watches with the name Astral and, in the 1920s, electrically wound car clocks with the name Empire. During the world-wide depression in the 1930s H. Williamson Ltd. became insolvent in August 1931. A branch of Williamsons trading as ‘English Clock and Watch Manufacturers’ was taken over by Smiths, who continued producing clocks with the name of Astral until 1955. The Büren factory was taken over by a Swiss group.
Alfred Emanuel Fridlander (1840 - 1928) was born in Birmingham and became one of Coventry's most distinguished watchmakers. By 1871 he was living in Coventry and gave his employment as a watchmaker employing 30 men and 6 boys. He is recorded at Holyhead Road Coventry.
The sponsor's mark of the initials AF in a rectangular shield with cut corners was entered at the London Assay Office by Alfred Fridlander. It appears to be one of three similar punches that Fridlander registered between 1872 and 1882. Fridlander's first registration at the London Assay Office was on 13 October 1868 with a similar mark differing only in that there was a pellet between the A and the F, like this: A•F.
Fridlander supplied many London retailers with watches. This included supplying S. Smith and Sons with many watches including their first non-magnetic watches, some of which were exhibited and awarded a gold medal and diploma at the 1892 Crystal Palace Electrical Exhibition. Fridlander also supplied movements for the Royal Geographical Society waterproof watches, often called traveller's or explorer's watches. Many Fridlander watches were tested at the Kew trials and received Class A and Especially Good certificates, often having Kaurrusel revolving escapements and cut bimetallic temperature compensating balances.
Fridlander became a wealthy man having diversified, like many Coventry manufacturers, into the bicycle and motorcycle business, where he became a director of the Triumph Cycle Co, the Auto Machinery Co. and Leigh Mills Co. These companies were set up in Coventry to use the skills the local workforce had gained in watchmaking that became available as watchmaking in the city declined and the workers looked for other employment. Fridlander became a town councillor and Justice of the Peace (J.P.), and he served in that role for 28 years.
Alfred Fridlander: London 1883 / 1884 Hallmarks
British made movement and case
London hallmarks 1883/84 on 18 carat gold. Click image to enlarge.
Fridlander movement. Click image to enlarge.
These are London hallmarks in an 18 carat gold case. The sponsor's mark was entered at the London Assay Office by Alfred Fridlander, a watchmaker of Coventry. It is likely that the movement was finished in Coventry from a "frame" made in Prescot, and that the case was made in Coventry in Fridlander's factory.
Reading from the top the marks are:
- The sponsor's mark "AF" in a square shield — the registered mark of Alfred Fridlander.
- In the centre: a crown above an 18 — the standard mark of 18 carat gold from 1798.
- To the left the date letter "H" — the date letter of the London hallmarking year 1883 to 1884, see the note below about the date letter shield shape.
- To the right the leopard's head, and no other town mark — indicating the London Assay Office.
If you click on the image you should get a bigger view.
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Newsome & Yeomans, Newsome & Co. and Samuel Yeomans
Newsome & Co. and Samuel Yeomans are regarded as leading English watchmaking companies of the late nineteenth century, but there is frustratingly little written about them. Their reputation is based on the high quality of the watches they produced and their results in the watch trials at Kew rather than making large quantities of watches, although they did make use of machinery and the gauge principle to reduce manufacturing costs.
Newsome & Yeomans of Spon Street, Coventry, advertised in the Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith in the 1870s as "Wholesale Watch Manufacturers ... Silver English Lever Watches of every description; also gold lever watches, three-quarter and full plate; Three-quarter Plate Keyless Centre Seconds Stop Watches in Gold and Silver. The Performance of every Watch guaranteed for a number of Years."
On 29 Aug 1874 Samuel Yeomans entered his details and an "SY" cameo punch at the Chester Assay Office as a Watchcase & Watch Manufacturer.
In December 1875 the Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith reported that Messrs. Newsome and Yeomans had opened a new factory in Coventry. The address is not stated but it must be Spon Street, Coventry, because Newsome and Yeomans adverts continued to give this address until 1878, and Yeomans continued on Spon Street after the partnership had ended. The main workshop on the first floor, where it was well supplied with daylight, was 120 feet in length and accommodated over fifty workmen. On the ground floor was another workshop about forty five feet in length, along with a heated cloakroom, and a tea room. The report said that "Altogether the factory is certainly one of the most complete, although not the largest, which we have inspected."
Newsome and Yeomans Separation, June 1878.
The report said that "Their watches are all made by the aid of machinery to gauges, a system having many decided advantages, the chief of which is, that in the event of any wheel or pinion being broken or lost, it may easily be replaced without sending the entire watch. One special branch of their extensive business is the manufacture of the higher class gold ¾ plate, centre seconds, keyless, watches." The remark that spare parts could be sent out is somewhat puzzling because, in common with most English watchmakers, Newsome rarely put their name on the watches they made. The visible name, usually the only name, was almost always that of the retailer. In which case, how a watch repairer would know to contact Newsome to ask for parts is something of a mystery.
Newsome and Yeomans separated in 1878, as evidenced by the separate adverts for Newsome & Co. and S. Yeomans reproduced here from June 1878. Samuel Yeomans remained in Spon Street, Newsome moved to 14, Butts, Coventry. The partnership of Isaac Jabez Theo Newsome and Samuel Yeomans was recorded as formally dissolved on 5th February 1879.
Newsome & Co.
On 7 February 1878 Jabez Newsome entered his details and a "JN" cameo punch at the Chester Assay Office as a Watchcase & Watch Manufacturer. This suggests that the dissolution of the partnership of Newsome and Yeomans was in the air in early 1878.
Newsome, 14 Butts. Image courtesy of Bygone Spon End, Chapelfields and Nauls Mill.
The address quoted by Ridgway and Priestley for the 1878 cameo punch mark is 14 & 15, Butts, Coventry, but this is an error. The earliest adverts by Newsome & Co. such as the one reproduced here were for 14 Butts, only later was 15 included.
Newsome and Co. advertised from the address 14 & 15, Butts, Coventry, in the Watchmaker, Jeweller & Silversmith in the 1880s as watch and chronometer makers. This is puzzling as English streets normally have even numbers on one side of the road and odd numbers on the other side. Today number 15 Butts Coventry is occupied by Chicko's Café & Restaurant, flanked by The Mint Restaurant at number 13 and Istanbul Restaurant at number 17. However, information kindly provided by Robert Witts at the Coventry Archives and Culture Coventry is that a 1905 trade directory indicates that postal addresses at that time were numbered consecutively, so 14 and 15 were next to each other, and on the opposite, North, side of the road to the current number 15. A 1905 OS map shows the watch factory between York Street and Thomas Street (which no longer exists), opposite to today's number 15 and where the West side of the multi storey car park of the Ramada Hotel is today. According to the 1905 trade directory, the right side of the Butts (including Newsomes) runs from number 1 to 70, and the left hand side runs from number 71 to about 100. This was before extensive slum clearance and redevelopment took place from the 1930s onwards and the current, more usual, numbering scheme was adopted.
In 1888 Newsome & Co. patented a "safety wheel" to guard against breakage of the mainspring in movements with goings barrels. This arrangement consists of a compound wheel, intermediary between the barrel and the centre pinion and gearing with both. The barrel teeth are cut on the middle of the barrel rim, which distributes the friction equally on both ends of the barrel arbor. The first of the compound wheels gears with the barrel, while the second gears with the centre pinion as the barrel would normally. Between the two wheels are a click and ratchet, similar to those in the going fusee. When the mainspring is driving the train of wheels, the click takes into the ratchet and the compound wheel acts as one wheel, but should the action of the barrel be reversed, as it would were the mainspring to break, the top wheel will simply ratchet the click round preventing any further damage taking place.
In 1890 a new chronograph was manufactured by Newsome and Co. for registering one-sixtieth part of a second. The patentee and inventor was Mr. Robert Turner of 53 Princess Street, Bury. The escape-wheel arbor was fitted with a second wheel of forty eight teeth, which geared with a pinion of eight teeth that carried a hand on its axis round a small auxiliary dial divided into 60ths seconds. The result being that, with the ordinary chronograph train of 18,000, the small hand makes a complete revolution per second. The rest of the train was as normal and there was also a centre-seconds hand on the large dial.
In March 1891 the death of Mr. I. J. T. Newsome was announced. The business was carried on as usual by the surviving partners, I. K. and S. T. Newsome, presumably sons. The first must be Jabez Kerby Newsome of 14 and 15 The Butts, Watch Manufacturer, who in 1896 was granted a patent for "Improvements in the Means and Method of Securing Bows to Keyless Watches." The letter "J" is a relatively recent addition to the alphabet and was often rendered as an "I" at the time. The second was Samuel Theo Newsome (1868-1930) died on 4 January 1930 aged 61.
By 1894 Newsome and Co. had a London office at 94 Hatton Garden, EC, and were advertising as "Wholesale Watch Manufacturers. All kinds of English Lever Watches in Stock. Sole Makers of Patent Safety Wheel for Going Barrels. Keyless Work a Specialité with or without the Kew Certificate in "A," 46B," or "C" class... Illustrated catalogue on application." The firm's London agent was listed in 1897 as J. M. Joseph. By the time the London office had moved to 70 Hatton Garden, Joseph had been replaced by Charles Louis Ebeling.
When the Lancashire Watch Company was founded in 1888, Coventry watchmakers were concerned that the supply of "frames", movements for finishing, from Prescot would cease, so they founded the Coventry Watch Movement Company. Samuel Yeomans was its first chairman. The company was initially under capitalised and struggled. When additional capital was introduced and automatic machinery purchased it found that the demands from Coventry watchmakers were too small to keep the machinery fully occupied so it diversified into the manufacture of bicycle and parts for the motor and aviation industries.
I. J. T. N: Isaac Jabez Theo Newsome, Newsome & Company.
IJTN: Newsome and Company, London 1886 / 1887 Hallmarks
IJTN: Newsome and Company, Chester 1888 / 1889 Hallmarks.
The hallmarks in the two cases shown here both have the same sponsor's mark, I.J.T.N in cameo within a rectangular surround. Punches with this mark were entered at the Chester Assay Office on 7 November 1884 and at the London Assay Office on 21 November 1884 and 22 April 1886 by Isaac Jabez Theo Newsome with the address 14/15 The Butts, Coventry, giving his occupation as watchmaker and watchcase maker. Another punch with the came initials in cameo but with a diamond shaped surround was also entered at the Chester Assay Office on 7 November 1884.
Reading from the top and then left to right the marks are:
- The lion passant or walking lion, the standard mark for sterling silver.
- The town marks of (1) the Chester Assay Office, an upright sword between three wheatsheaves, and (2) the leopard's head of the London Assay Office. Note that when the leopard's head is struck with no other town mark it signifies the London Assay Office, but some other assay offices struck the leopard's head as a standard mark in addition to their own town mark.
- The Chester hallmark has assayer's mark or date letter "E" for the year 1888 to 1889. The London hallmarks has the date letter "L" for the year 1886 to 1887. Remember that hallmark date letters span two calendar years, for brevity only the first year is shown in most references. Jackson's is the only reference that shows the correct two year span.
- The sponsor's mark I.J.T.N in cameo within a rectangular surround. NB: Philip Priestley has the London punch as being entered by Newsome & Yeomans but this is incorrect. All the I.J.T.N punches were entered by Newsome after Newsome and Yeomans had parted company in 1878.
Notice how the three assay office hallmarks are arranged in a regular triangle formation, whereas the sponsor's mark can be at a random angle. This is because the sponsor's mark was struck with a single punch before the case was sent to the assay office, but the three assay office marks were made by a "press punch". This is one punch that carries all three marks which was applied to the case and driven home by a fly press. This method of marking was used to speed up the process of marking the large numbers of gold and silver watch cases submitted for hallmarking. This is another feature that can be used to detect fake hallmarks in watch cases if they are not punched in a regular triangle pattern.
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In the first part of the eighteenth century, watches were made in and around Prescot by individual watchmakers as they were in many towns and cities around the UK. By the end of the eighteenth century the practice of individuals making entire watches had been replaced by the system of ‘division of labour’, where individual workmen specialised in the making of a single part or a small number of parts, and watches were the end result of the work of many of these specialists.
Prescot in South West Lancashire near to Liverpool became a centre of manufacture for horological tools and "frames", collections of parts that constituted a rough movement, that were sent to Clerkenwell in London to be ‘finished’. Frames were also sent from Prescot to Liverpool and to Coventry to be finished. Presot was mainly a supplier of raw materials and partially complete movements; there were no finishers who produced complete watches.
In 1866 John Wycherley set up a factory in Warrington Road, Prescot, with three floors and steam power, to produce rough movements or "frames" (a collection of watch plates and other parts) by machinery. Wycherley stated that all the plates of a specific type of movement would be the same size, so cases could be made that would fit, and that the parts were interchangeable. Wycherley also introduced a system of uniform movement making with defined movement sizes, so that cases and dials could be ordered without having to send the movement for them to be made to fit.
Wycherley seems to have been very successful, but was a long way from producing complete watches. At first it made just plates, and train wheels and pinions, little more than a collection of raw materials machined into their initial form that required a lot more work to become a watch. The plates were not even drilled for the train pivots. The watch finisher arranged to have the wheels "planted", which means drilling holes in the plates for the pivots. The frame then went to the jeweller, escapement maker, engraver, gilder, dial maker, and many other specialists before the watch was finished.
Frames made in Wycherley's factory were stamped "JW" on the dial plate, one is shown here. The number 7673 on the watch movement is Wycherley's serial number for the movement. The 12 followed by an 0 over a 3 gives the size or "calliper" of the movement, the size being the diameter of the bottom (dial) plate measured by a pair of callipers. This calliper size is called the Lancashire gauge for determining watch sizes. A diameter of 1" plus 5/30 inches for the mounting flange was taken as the base size and called zero (0) size. Each 1/30 inch increased in diameter increments the size one number. The 12 on this movement indicates that it is 1 and 17/30 inches diameter. The 0 over 3 indicates the pillar height, the distance separating the two plates of the movement. Standard pillar height was taken 1/8" indicated as 0/0, with increments indicated above the line and decrements below in 1/144". For more about this see watch sizes.
In 1882 Wycherley sold his business to Thomas P. Hewitt and it was renamed Wycherley, Hewitt & Co. Hewitt was later instrumental in founding the Lancashire Watch Company.
The Lancashire Watch Company
At the end of the nineteenth century an attempt was made to produce finished watches in Prescot by machine mass production in a factory. A company called the Lancashire Watch Company was formed in 1889, bringing together Wycherley, Hewitt & Co., Isaac Hunt & Co., E. Beesley & Sons, H. Dagnall & Son, together with Wood & Morton of Prescot, J. Watkinson and Ralph Greenall of St. Helen's and J. Basnett of Coventry. A number of machines were purchased in America.
The Lancashire Watch Company started producing watches around 1890. The company was initially successful, but it suffered from making too many models and poor marketing. One of its largest customers was J. G. Graves, the Sheffield pioneer of mail-order selling, who is estimated at one period to have taken 70% of the factory's output. Stocks of unsold watches and debts mounted. The company ran out of capital and failed in 1910. Closure of the factory was announced in January 1911, and an auction was held in March to liquidate the remaining stock and the tools, machinery and factory fittings.
The watch illustrated here encapsulates many of the problems that beset the Lancashire Watch Company. It has an English lever movement that is key wound from the back, and the time is set from the front by opening the bezel and applying a key to a square boss on the minute hand. The case has Chester Assay Office hallmarks for sterling silver, the date letter "Q" is for 1899 to 1900. The sponsor's mark is TPH in cameo within a rectangular surround, which was entered at the Chester Assay Office in May 1899 by Thomas Peter Hewitt of the Lancashire Watch Company, Prescot.
The dial has ‘English Watch Co. Birmingham’ on it, referring to a company of that name operating in Birmingham at the time, described at English Watch Co.. John Platt has written a very comprehensive history of the Lancashire Watch Company. In there I found on page 288 two LWC watches with 'English Watch Co.' and 'Famous Premier' on their dials that are virtually identical, with silver cases hallmarked 1899 and 1900 with the same TPH sponsor's mark. This watch was made and cased by the Lancashire Watch Company in Prescot and sold to the English Watch Co., who then presumably sold it on to a jeweller for retail.
The problems for the company that this watch sums up are (1) old fashioned products and (2) lack of marketing. A watch that was key wound and set, and not even set from the back but by opening the bezel and applying the key to the minute hand, was looking very old fashioned by 1900, when stem wound and set watches were pouring into the country from Switzerland and America. I mentioned that J. G. Graves took up to 70% of the output of the factory. Graves was very successful in selling by mail order, part of which success came from holding prices down. He advertised an English lever watch in a silver case at 50 shillings, which could be paid for in five installments of 10 shillings. This was much cheaper than such watches were usually sold. Taking such a large proportion of the output of the Presot factory meant that Graves could drive them down on price. The fact that the Lancashire Watch Company also sold watches to other manufacturers such as the English Watch Company in Birmingham shows that they had a lack of marketing and sales channels. Simply creating a factory that could mass produce watches was not a recipe for success, the products needed to be sold to retailers, which required a marketing and sales operation that the Lancashire Watch Company did not possess. Hans Wilsdorf of Rolex showed only a few years later how a successful watch business could be created. He ordered watches from existing companies and created a demand for them by advertising. Wilsdorf and Rolex didn't own any of the factories that they bought watches from.
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Liverpool was an important centre of watch finishing with a large export trade to the Americas. Well known Liverpool watch manufacturers included Litherland in various combinations, Roskell and Russell.
Peter Litherland was born in 1756 in Warrington, a town just inside North Cheshire on the banks of the River Mersey, 20 miles east of Liverpool. He became a watchmaker and in 1791 was granted a patent for the rack lever escapement. This is similar to the detached lever escapement except that the lever is geared by a curved toothed rack to a pinion on the balance staff.
Liverpool never had an assay office, so most gold and silver watch cases made in Liverpool were sent to the Chester Assay Office for assay and hallmarking. In evidence to the Select Committee on Gold and Silver Wares in 1856 Mr Ralph Samuel, the largest manufacturer of gold and silver watch cases in Liverpool, said that it cost 9d (nine old English pence) each way to send watch cases to Chester by the railway. When asked if he insured the goods, he said that he didn't; he had on occasion sent parcels of watch cases worth £800 or £900 and they were delivered to the assay office by the railway porter.
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Birmingham was a large industrial city in the West Midlands with an extensive jewellery manufacturing industry. Rather strangely for such an important centre of manufacturing it had very little in the way of watch makers.
One significant company was the Dennison Watch Case Company, which has its own page that you can access via the link. Two Birmingham based watch manufacturer were the companies of William Ehrhardt and the English Watch Co., which are described below.
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William Ehrhardt: Watch Manufacturer
William Ehrhardt (1831-1897) was born in Germany and served an apprenticeship in watchmaking there. He came to England in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. He worked for a time with Upjohn & Bright watchmakers in London
In 1856 Ehrhardt set up a company in Birmingham to make watches by machinery. This was before John Wycherly set up his factory in 1866 in Prescot, Lancashire, and before Aaron Dennison formed the Anglo-American Watch Company in 1871 in Birmingham, so Ehrhardt was one of the pioneers of watchmaking by machinery in England. Ehrhardt was not in England at the time of Ingold's doomed venture in the 1840s, and perhaps would not have been swayed by it anyway.
Ehrhardt chose Birmingham because it was away from the traditional centres of English watch manufacturing where watches were made by hand using craft skills and factory methods would be opposed, as Ingold had been. Ehrhardt wanted machine operators for his factory, not traditional watchmakers.
From 1856 to 1863 Ehrhardt operated from addresses in Paradise Street and Augusta Street in Birmingham. In 1864 he moved to Great Hampton Street, and an advert with this address in 1872 says that he has ... constructed machinery to make his patent keyless movement on the interchangeable system. In 1874 he built a new factory, Time Works, in Barr Street to increase production. It is thought that by this time Ehrhardt had produced 200,000 watches.
Ehrhardt was granted a patent, No. 6406 dated 1894, for improvements in the hand setting mechanism of keyless watches.
When William Ehrhardt died in 1897 his sons William and Gustav Victor carried on the business. In the obituary notice it was said that 500 watches were made per week with 400 personnel. Production peaked around 1900 when 250 persons were employed, including many girls who attended the machines, and 600 to 700 watches were made per week. The lower number of employees but greater number of watches made per week imply that Ehrhardt's sons had increased the productivity of the workforce by increased use of specialised machinery.
From around 1920 the company used the name "British Watch Company Ltd." on some of its watches, most likely hoping to gain patriotic support in the face of growing imports, a sign of the pressure on the few remaining English watch manufacturers.
The company survived until some time after 1924 so was one of the very last English watch manufacturers. By 1926 the Barr Street address was being used in adverts promoting Gustav Victor as a watch cleaner and repairer, but with no mention of watch manufacture.
The company used the two trademarks shown here. The winged arrow was registered on on 4 February 1878 and sometimes varies from the exact shape shown here. The tree was registered on 4 August 1911 and was used on watches that carry the British Watch Company name.
Hallmarks - click image to enlarge
Movement - click image to enlarge
Thanks to Ken in the USA for the pictures.
William Ehrhardt, Birmingham 1909/10 Hallmarks
British made case
These hallmarks are in the British made cases of watches made by the company of William Ehrhardt Ltd. of Birmingham, England.
Reading from the top and then left to right the hallmarks are:
- The lion passant or walking lion with raised right forepaw, the mark for sterling silver.
- An anchor: the town mark of the Birmingham Assay Office.
- The date letter in the picture of the full case back is a capital "k" in a rectangular shield with curly base: the date letter of the Birmingham hallmarking year 1909 to 1910. The date letter in the cropped picture is in the face "Black letter small" and is the "o" of 1888 to 1889. Note that the Birmingham Assay Office used unique shield shapes like this one for date letters on watch cases in the nineteenth century that are not shown in any published table I am aware of.
- In the picture of the full case back the sponsor's mark is "W.E" in an oval shield, the registered mark of William Ehrhardt. This mark was first entered in February 1907. The cropped picture shows the earliest mark entered by Ehrhardt at the Birmingham Assay Office, the intials "W.E" punched incuse in November 1867. Several other forms of marks were entered by Ehrhardt over the years between these two marks.
William Ehrhardt first entered a sponsor's mark at the Birmingham Assay Office on 14 November 1867. The specific punch used on the watch case shown here was registered on 20 February 1907 by William Ehrhardt Ltd.
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The English Watch Company
The first user of machinery in England to produce watches in any significant quantity was most probably Aaron Dennison, although John Wycherly and William Ehrhardt were also among the earliest British users of machinery for watchmaking, starting earlier than Dennison but using machinery in a less integrated and more piecemeal way.
Dennison left the American Watch Company of Waltham in 1861 after financial problems that led to the failure of the first company and disagreements with the subsequent owners. He came to England in late 1863 as an agent selling patented American machinery to the iron trade in Birmingham, England. On a trip to America in 1864 in conjunction with this agency he was approached by A. O. Bigelow to help set up a new watchmaking company in Tremont, USA. Bigelow's idea was to make watch plates and barrels by machine, and import the other parts from Switzerland. This was successful and the company moved to a new factory in Melrose, USA, with the intention of making all the parts of the watches and producing 100 per week. In this the company overreached itself and it failed in 1868. Dennison was asked to find a buyer and after much searching found investors in Birmingham, England.
The Anglo-American Watch Company was formed in October 1871 at 45 Villa Street, Birmingham, with Dennison as manager and also owning rights in the machines. This was well before Rotherhams, the most successful and therefore best known of the English mechanised manufacturers, bought their first machines from the American Watch Tool Company in 1880.
Notice of liquidation
The initial products, uncased movements, were sent to America for sale but there was little demand because of over supply. Cutmore says that the company was wound up "late in 1874" and sold for £5,500 to William Bragge, who "renamed it the English Watch Company". However, Priestley records a special resolution of the Anglo-American Watch Company passed on 11 February 1874 that changed the name to English Watch Company, and another special resolution passed on 9 June 1875 proposed the voluntary winding up and sale of the company. The date of 1874 given by Cutmore seems to be wrong.
The London Gazette report reproduced here shows that The English Watch Company Limited of Villa Street, Aston-juxta-Birmingham, was wound up voluntarily in June 1875. The initial resolution was made on 9 June. This was confirmed at a second Extraordinary General Meeting on 24 June when Liquidators were appointed. It seems likely that Bragge purchased the company, which was already named The English Watch Company Limited, from these liquidators. The notice to creditors posted by the liquidators required all claims to be submitted before 1 August 1875. When the assets were sold to Bragge is not recorded but Cutmore may well be right with his "late" in the year remark, i.e. the sale to Bragge being "late in 1875" rather than 1874.
It seems that Bragge did not buy the whole company but bought only the buildings and machinery from the liquidators, creating a new company called "The English Watch Company". This was not a limited company and explains Cutmore's remark that he changed the name, the name being changed from The English Watch Company Limited to The English Watch Company, which was also a different legal entity.
An Extraordinary General Meeting of The English Watch Company Limited was held on 20 December 1881 for the purposes of hearing from the liquidators how the winding up had been conducted and assets of the company disposed of. That was the final end of the first "The English Watch Company Limited".
The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith reported in February 1882 that the The English Watch Company of Birmingham was to become a limited company, The English Watch Company Limited. The capital of the Limited Company was £50,000 in £10 shares, although it appears that only half the amount was called up in the first applications. The freehold buildings, plant, machinery, stock in trade, goodwill, patents and trademarks had been valued on a going concern basis at £21,000. This was the second "The English Watch Company Limited".
The works at Nos. 41 to 49 Villa Street, Lozells, Birmingham, were said to have been in active operation under the present management for "about six years", which would imply from late 1875 or early 1876. The workshops had been planned for the purpose of watchmaking by steam machinery, the lighting being especially good with windows on both sides of each workshop looking out onto gardens. The watches made were exclusively English levers and "the several parts of the same sizes [of movements] are interchangeable". Large orders were flowing in from the Indian, Colonial and Home markets with the "revival in trade" after the depression of the 1870s.
The English Watch Company continued to use the Melrose machinery for making plates and barrels, but was still dependent on the import of parts from Switzerland. In 1880 it was reported that that 200 men were employed and the machinery was little improved, the escapement and much of the material still came from Switzerland. William Bragge ran the company until about 1883 after which his son Robert took over. In 1885 at the 4th Annual General Meeting the shareholders were told of the death of the 'founder' William Bragge, an enlargement of the workshop costing £950 and a new and more powerful steam engine by which a 50% increase in production could be obtained.
A patent was purchased from Mr Douglas of Stourbridge for his double chronograph and his stock of finished and unfinished movements and materials. The patent was probably No 4,164 of 27 September 1881 which allows the fitting of a centre seconds hand and minute counter to a normal watch, either on the conventional dial at the front or a back dial. The chronograph part was operated by a three-push button. The English Watch Company proposed to produce a combined repeating and chronograph watch known as the 'Chrono-micrometer' and one was exhibited at the 1885 Inventions Exhibition in South Kensington. The watch was a minute repeater with the chronograph showing minutes, seconds and fifths. This was an ambitious project in a different class of watchmaking to those previously made.
In 1886 the company was reported to be very busy and in 1890 Robert Bragge and the company took patent 2,856 for 'Improvements in Chronographic watches'.
The good times didn't last and on 11 February 1895 an Extraordinary General Meeting of The English Watch Company Limited passed a resolution that the company should enter voluntary liquidation. This time it was not resurrected. It is thought that Williamsons of Coventry bought some of the machinery.
English Watch Co. Birmingham 1878 / 1879 Hallmarks
British made case
These hallmarks are in the British made case of a watch made by the English Watch Co. of Coventry.
Reading from the top and then left to right the marks are:
- The lion passant or walking lion with raised right forepaw, the mark for sterling silver.
- The anchor: the town mark of the Birmingham Assay Office.
- The date letter "d" in an old English script font: the date letter of the Birmingham hallmarking year 1878 to 1879.
- Below the these upper three hallmarks is the trademark of the English Watch Company.
- Finally the sponsor's mark "R·B" in a rectangular shield, the registered mark of Robert Bragge.
If you click on the images to the right, you should get a bigger view.
Note that the shields in this hallmark around the Birmingham Assay Office town mark and the date letter cameos are not the same shape as shown in the published tables but instead have a point at the base and flat top. This was a shape that the Birmingham Assay Office reserved for watch cases.
According to Priestley there are two candidates for the sponsor's mark "R·B" in a rectangular shield; Richard Baker of Coventry who registered this mark in 1838, and Robert Bragge of the English Watch Co. who registered an apparently identical mark in 1878. This shouldn't happen, but record keeping was not as efficient then as now and it could be that Baker had ceased work in the intervening 40 years between his registration and Bragge's. The trademark of the English Watch Co. clearly shows that this particular mark is Robert Bragge's.
The name on the movement, William Philcox, 83 High Street, Wandsworth, is that of the retailer, not the maker; it was common practice at the time for the retailer to have their name engraved on the movement by the manufacturer.
The square boss in the middle of the barrel bridge, between "High St." and "Wandsworth" is where a key was applied to wind the watch. This square is on the end of the barrel arbor and winds the watch mainspring directly. This was because the machinery on which the plates were made was designed for the American market, where the use of a going barrel which drove the train directly was the norm while English watchmakers were still clinging to the use of the fusee. In an English watch with a fusee the key was applied to the fusee arbor and wound anticlockwise, so later versions of English Watch Co. watches were made with an extra gear to replicate this direction of winding for the comfort of English customers, although the watches remained driven by a going barrel and not a fusee.
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Early English watches developed from watches imported from the continent or made in England by migrants from the continent. They used spring driven verge movements that were derived from small spring driven table clocks. The timekeeping of the first spring driven timepieces was found to be strongly affected by the strength of the impulse to the balance so in the fifteenth century devices were invented to even out the power of the spring and deliver constant force to the balance. There were two devices, the stackfreed and the fusee. The stackfreed consisted of a spring with a roller on its end that bore on a cam attached to the mainspring barrel. This operated by opposing the power of the spring during the first half of its unwinding and then assisting it during the second half. It was used for a relatively short period. The fusee was a cone shaped pulley that was connected to the mainspring barrel by a gut line or chain. This operated by the chain pulling on a small diameter section of the cone when the spring was fully wound, and then on progressively larger diameters as the spring unwound. The fusee continued to be made in English watches into the twentieth century. The next significant step forward in watch technology after the fusee was the application in 1675 of a fine spiral spring to the balance to give it a natural frequency.
The layout of a fusee verge watch is to a large extent determined by its technology. There are two plates between which most of the moving parts are fitted. The verge staff extends through the top plate where it carries the balance. The top pivot of the verge turns in the balance cock, the lower pivot in the potence, a bracket that hangs down from the top plate and also supports the inner end of the escapement or crown wheel. The outer end of the crown wheel is supported by the counter-potence. These design factors mean that a verge watch pretty well has to be a "full plate" design, which means that the upper plate is the same size as the bottom or pillar plate.
The first photograph here shows a low grade fusee verge movement. You can see that the top plate is a full round plate with a small additional plate above the mainspring barrel. The balance cock that supports the top pivot of the verge staff is pierced and engraved, this one pretty crudely, more expensive watches had better quality work. The round head of the cock is slightly larger than the balance itself and protects it from clumsy fingers, or the key when the watch is being wound. The large foot is located by two steady pins and secured to the plate by a single screw. A strange detail is that one side of the foot of the cock has been cut away to clear one of the pillars that separate the two plates.
The plate over the barrel is engraved "Jno Head, Binham" with the serial number 29858. Brian Loomes' "Watchmakers and clockmakers of the world" tells us that there were two John Heads, father and son, in Binham, a small village in Norfolk. Binham Priory Churchyard records show that John Head senior was born 23 March 1753 and died 9 March 1816. A second John Head is recorded in the Binham records without dates, but Loomes records that the son John Head was born 1787 and died 1847, so there was quite a range of dates when this watch could have been made. It was, however, not made by either of the Heads. In common with most English watches it was engraved with the name and location of the person who was going to sell it. The engraving of the marks next to the regulator scale, with a pattern of four arrows all facing one central point, indicates that the watch was finished in Coventry, and the serial number is that of the manufacturer. It does not show that the Head family sold nearly 30,000 watches in one small Norfolk village!
Even though this is a low grade and "relatively" cheap watch it would still have been an expensive purchase at the time. This movement is rather dull and dirty because it has been hanging about without a case for a long time, which indicates that it originally had a gold case that has since been melted down for its bullion value. The brass parts of the movement were gold plated by a method called "fire gilding". Gold was dissolved in boiling mercury to form a putty like amalgam that was spread onto the brass parts. These were then heated so that the mercury evaporated and left a layer of gold on the surface. Fire gilding produces a beautiful effect that modern electroplating does not really replicate, but of course the mercury fumes were deadly and this method of gilding has not been used for a long time. The balance cock has also been elaborately pierced and chased by hand.
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Around 1764 Jean-Antoine Lépine of Paris designed a new layout for the pocket watch that was much thinner than had been made previously. He replaced the vertical verge staff and crown escape wheel with horizontal escapements such as the cylinder or virgule, which allowed him to move the balance from outside the top plate to between the plates so that it was in the same plane as the train wheels, with its bottom pivot in the bottom plate. He also dispensed with the fusee and used a going barrel. To make his thinner movements easier to construct and maintain, instead of a full top plate Lépine used separate bridges to support the top pivots of the arbors, a design called a bar movement by English makers. Continental watchmakers followed Lépine's lead and the modern watch was born.
Although the cylinder escapement had been invented in England and patented by Edward Barlow, William Houghton and Thomas Tompion in 1695 and improved by George Graham, most English watchmakers continued to make watches with verge escapements. Those that were interested in improving watches thought that the cylinder, with its constant friction, was not much of an improvement over the verge and so cast around for other, better, designs with less friction. Thomas Mudge invented the detached lever escapement in 1754 but it took nearly 75 years for the lever escapement to sweep all other movements off the board, at least as far as English watchmakers were concerned.
Around 1825 the fully developed form of the English fusee lever escapement emerged into English watchmaking. It was not patented, and its inventor (if it had a single inventor) is not known. To begin with it looked very much like the fusee verge movement that it superseded, with a full top plate and the balance above the plate, pivoted in a large balance cock screwed to the plate. So similar was the layout of the two movements that fusee verge movements could be converted to lever escapements with little trouble.
The photograph here shows one of these full plate English lever movements. You can see that the overall construction has changed little from the fusee verge movement, with the exception that the balance cock is much smaller and plain, and it now carries the regulator.
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The “English lever” watch
Between about 1814 and 1826, English watchmakers developed and brought to perfection a type of watch escapement that was to remain in production for over eighty years until it was made uneconomic by machine made watches. Its manufacture was unique to England and it enjoyed almost legendary status. The term “English lever watch” was understood throughout the world in the way people now understand “Rolls Royce”. It was a hand made watch that defied attempts to mechanise its manufacture. It was almost impossible to apply keyless winding, which made it very old fashioned towards the end.
The “English Lever” has three main identifying features.
- The English lever escapement. The lever escapement was invented in England by Thomas Mudge in 1770. Mudge made only two watches with this escapement. Developments slowly followed until the final form was achieved in the eighteenth century. The English lever escapement consists of a jewel pin on a roller on the balance staff, the lever itself with two pallets, and the escape wheel. The pivots of these three are laid out at right angles. As the balance swings back and forth the pin on the roller enters a fork on the end of the lever and knocks the lever from one side to the other, and each time this happens a tooth of the escape wheel is released. The escape wheel teeth are pointed, the pallets have concealed jewels, usually rubies.
- The Fusee and Chain. This ancient device keeps the acting force of the mainspring constant as the watch runs down. The spring is contained in a barrel. A fine chain connects the barrel to the cone shaped fusee. When the watch is run down all the chain is wrapped round the barrel. As the watch is wound, by using a key to turn the fusee, the chain is drawn off the barrel onto the fusee. It first fills the largest diameter groove at the base of the fusee, then filling the grooves to the smallest diameter at the top until a stop finger is lifted into the path of the stop piece. As the watch unwinds the force exerted by the spring decreases, but the acting radius of the fusee increases, keeping the force on the wheel train constant. The bottom of the fusee incorporates maintaining power invented by John Harrison in 1753.
- The case with fixed inner dome. The watch is wound through the dome after opening the case back. The movement is accessible from the front with a hinge at 12 o’clock and a nail-catch at six, as shown at English Lever Case. The dustcover can be released by sliding the crescent-shaped locking piece. Support the weight of the movement while doing this.
In the image of the partly dismantled English Lever movement here is annotated to show the steel lever, impulse notch and the pallets. As the balance (not shown) oscillates through the neutral position, the impulse pin on the roller mounted on the balance staff enters the impulse notch and moves the lever. This causes the locking pallet to disengage from the escape wheel, allowing one tooth of the escape wheel to pass before the other pallet locks the wheel again. The English Lever escapement is called "right angled" because the pivots of the escape wheel, lever and balance form a right angle.
English lever rose diamond endstone
The internal parts of an English watch movement were also beautifully finished. The photograph here of the wheels in the train of the English lever watch shown above, dated by the hallmark in its case to 1833, gives an idea of the workmanship that was deployed. The steel pinions are superbly finished and polished, even on the ends of the leaves and with dished and polished centres. This finish was purely for decoration that only another watchmaker or watch repairer would ever see. This would have added considerably to the cost of the watch with no benefit to the purchaser in timekeeping or external appearance and I must admit that I am always amazed by it. Tradition and pride in workmanship was a feature of English watchmaking, the flip side of which was conservatism and resistance to change, and also to making economies so that watches could be cheaper. The English watch was always expensive, and remained so even when cheaper competitors arose and eventually stole its market.
Watch jewelling was also pioneered and brought to a high art by English watchmakers. The picture here is of a balance staff endstone from the same 1833 English lever watch. The setting is blued steel. The jewel is a rose diamond, a hemispherical diamond with the curved upper part cut in triangular facets. This was purely for decoration, the working face of the stone was the flat base. The diamond was brazed to the steel setting and the two were polished on the underside together. There is more about watch jewelling at jewels.
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Making watch cases was one of the most difficult tasks to mechanise or automate, partly because cases were usually made from silver or gold and the amount of metal in the case had to be kept down if the case was to be affordable. Today cases are pressed from stainless steel by hydraulic machines, but the material is worth only pence at most so economy of use and reduction of waste is of no concern.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were many specialist trades involved in making a watch case including case maker, joint maker, pendant maker, bow maker, springer, boxer-in, engine turner and polisher. Although in smaller workshops some of these trades would have been carried out by one person, increasing specialisation since the seventeenth century mean that watch cases were made by small teams rather than one individual. The hinges on watch cases are called "joints" for some unknown reason, and making them was a skilled craft that one man dedicated himself to.
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Identifying the "Maker"
Most English watches have the name of the retailer who sold the watch in his shop engraved on a removable plate over the barrel. This plate was originally introduced to make it easy to remove the mainspring barrel without dismantling the whole movement so that a broken spring could be replaced, but it soon became the usual place to engrave the retailer's name.
If the engraving was not done at the time the watch was being made, it was sent out with the barrel plate blank so that the retailer could add his own name, or his customer's name later. Sometimes it is obvious that this has been done because the engraving cuts through the gilding, or the plate has been re-gilded and is a different colour to the rest of the movement. Sometimes the plate was left blank and the watch carries no name.
It is very rare to find on an English watch the name of the person who actually ‘made’ it. One of the reasons for this is the way that English watches were made, which meant that there was no one maker in the traditionally understood meaning of the word; it was more of a team effort.
English watches were almost all made entirely using craft methods, hand tools and simple hand powered machines, and the system of "putting out". Each part was made or finished by an individual craftsman working in his own home or small workshop, often working for several different customers.
By the nineteenth century the movements usually began as "frames", consisting of the plates and a few parts of the mechanism such as the spring barrel, fusee and train wheels on their arbors. These frames were made at Prescot in Lancashire, many by John Wycherley, an English pioneer of mass production, until Coventry started to make frames in the late nineteenth century.
The frames were sent from Prescot to the traditional watchmaking centres of London, Coventry and Birmingham to be "finished" into working movements and then fitted with dials, hands and cases. Sometimes this was done by someone who directly employed journeymen and apprentices to do the finishing, but many watches were made by the process of "putting out" - sending the part finished watch to various specialists working in their own homes or small workshops to have each stage of the work completed. This person might have considered themself to be the manufacturer, even though their role was organising the work rather than actually making any of the parts.
Most often the name of the retailer, the shop keeper who had ordered the watch to be made, was engraved as if they were the manufacturer. In the days before mass advertising, a local retailer was someone well known and trusted by customers in the local area, whereas they would never have heard of the. The name was usually engraved on the barrel bar, a small plate above the mainspring barrel that could be easily removed for this work. Often watches were sent out with the barrel bar blank so that a retailer could have his, or his customer's, name engraved on it.
Most English watches have a serial number on the top plate. It is not possible to work backwards from the serial number to discover who was the manufacturer. Unless you know who made the watch, and have access to the factory records (which is unlikely), you cannot discover anything from the serial number alone.
Mr R. E. Tucker, 1933
Some of the best known London makers did establish a sufficient reputation for their name to be valuable and be put onto the movement or dial, but many of the hundreds, or even thousands, of small "makers" are unknown. Even the best English makers did not always put their name on their work, the retailers preferring that if any name appeared it should be theirs. Appearing in 1887 before a Select Committee considering amendments to the 1862 Merchandise Marks Act, Mr Joseph Usher, of the very renowned London watchmaking company Usher and Cole, said that ... it is very seldom that our names appear on the watches that we make. Speaking in an interview in 1933, Mr R. E. Tucker, who had worked at Williamsons, attributed this to the attitude of British retailers, who wanted to put their own name on the watches that they sold.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century a few English watch manufacturers, the best known being Rotherhams of Coventry, introduced mechanical methods of manufacture and produced enough watches to be known by name, but their production quantities were small compared to the American factories, and they suffered from too little investment too late, being unable to keep up with changing fashions and finally swept away by Swiss imports and the wristwatch.
This makes it all rather difficult if you decide you want to collect English watches and pursue a theme to the collection — say if you wanted to make a collection of Rotherhams watches to see how the styles and technology changed over the years. Unless the vendor recognises the movement as being made by Rotherhams, they will list the watch under the retailers name. Sometimes a search on ebay for "Rotherham" can have surprising results, such as a watch listed as "Mint Silver Fusee Rotherham Massey 1 Pocket Watch 1828" which turned out to be signed "William Farnill Rotherham" who turned out to be a retailer in Rotherham. In "Reminiscences of Rotherham", Alderman George Gummer, J.P., records that on the High Street in Rotherham was "... the shop of an eccentric old man named William Farnill, who carried on a mixed business, dealing in confectionery, toys, watches and jewellery - a curious combination. This shop, always popular with the younger generation, had in it a proprietor who was a greater curiosity than his wares." Needless to say, this watch has nothing to do with Rotherhams the Coventry watch manufacturer, and neither was it "made" by William Farnill, whose name was engraved on it by the anonymous finisher.
When English watches were exported to America, the name of the eventual retailer was not known so fictitious names were made up. In an article in Antiquarian Horology June 2009, Alan Treherne wrote about George Clerke, a London manufacturer who supplied watches to provincial watchmakers and jewellers and also exported many watches to America. Clerke gave evidence to a Parliamentary Committee in 1817 about the practice of putting fictitious names on clocks and watches. Clerke used fictitious names such as Fairplay, Fondling and Hicks on watches he exported to America - an invoice to Demilts of New York USA was reproduced in the article showing these names on watches supplied by Clerke. English made cases were expensive and so many "bare" movements, that is they were without a case, were sent to America and cased there.
So collecting English watches looks a bit like pot-luck. But you can improve your chances of getting what you want by leaning the characteristics of the watches you are after, the layout of the top plates and the sponsor's marks of the watch case makers for silver and gold cases. But even then, finding something specific is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.
So Who Did Make my English Watch?
If you have an English watch that does have a name on the dial or engraved on the plates and it is not the name of one of the small number of well known English watchmakers that can be easily researched, then it is most likely to be the name of the retailer who ordered the watch to be made and sold it in their shop, or sometimes the name of the customer who bought the watch. This is the case for the vast majority of English made watches.
Many retailers called themselves "watchmakers" although they were not watch manufacturers and did not actually ‘make’ the watches that they sold. The term watchmaker undoubtedly originally meant someone who made watches, but by the eighteenth century the trade of watchmaking had been divided into many separate branches and no one person made a whole watch, although someone who had completed an apprenticeship should, in theory, have been capable of making all the parts of a watch. People who made parts for or repaired watches started called themselves watchmakers, and then also those who only serviced watches, and finally jewellers who simply ordered watches from the manufacturers started calling themselves watchmakers.
Sometimes it is possible to discover who made the "frame" or rough movement by looking for initials on the bottom or pillar plate, the plate underneath the dial. An example of these are the initials JW for John Wycherley of Prescot, an English pioneer of mass produced frames. Click this link to see a watch with a Wycherley frame. If you have the watch serviced, which you certainly should do if you intend to use it, then ask your watchmaker to take a photograph of the plate for you.
If there is no name on the dial or engraved on the movement, then the watch was "made" by one of the small "makers" whose name was not sufficiently well known or celebrated to be worth the expense of engraving it onto the plate, and the retailer didn't have his name engraved, probably for reasons of cost.
If there is a serial number on the watch, that will almost always be a number put on by the watch "maker" rather than by the retailer.
Who Made the Watch Case
It is often easy to find out who was responsible for making the watch case, because for hallmarking purposes a sponsor's mark had to entered at the assay office and each case punched with this mark before it was submitted for hallmarking. Sometimes this can lead to the name of the watch manufacturer if they were large enough to have a case making department, such as Rotherhams of Coventry. But often it only gives you the name of an independent watch case maker, working on his own account for anyone who cared to place an order with him.
The term "maker" is loaded with misunderstanding. Watch case making had its own specialists and a case maker would employ many journeyman workers: the case maker who made the basic structure of the case, soldering together the band and case back, the joint maker who made the "joints" (hinges of the case), the springer, the pendant maker, the polisher, and the "boxer in". So each case was the result of a team of specialists rather than the product of a single "maker", and the owner of the enterprise probably never laid his hands on a case day to day. The use of the term "maker's mark" in the context of hallmarking has contributed to this misunderstanding over many years, which is why the term "sponsor's mark" is preferred.
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Smiths English Watches
S. Smith and Son of Trafalgar Sq, London, described themselves as watch and instrument makers. The business was founded in 1851 by Samuel Smith. By the end of the nineteenth century they were recorded as "watchmakers to the Admiralty", selling high-class watches with certificates from the Royal Observatory, Kew. However, it is not clear that they actually manufactured any watches themselves at this time. It seems more likely that they were purchasing watches from English wholesale manufacturers such as P. & A. Guye, Ltd. and Nicole Nielsen & Co., and retailing them under their own name. Towards the end of the second world war, the British government persuaded Smiths to begin manufacture of watches for strategic reasons. High quality pocket and wrist watches were produced in a factory in Cheltenham, but the enterprise was never very profitable and withered, eventually being closed down. The modern Smiths Group is descended from the original company.
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Dutch Fakes or Dutch Forgeries
Arcaded minute track: click to enlarge
Geneva "bridge": click to enlarge
London hallmarks 1768/69: click to enlarge
The watch in the images here is of a class commonly known as Dutch fakes or Dutch forgeries. The dial has an arcaded minute track that was popular in Holland at the time and hence such watches were once thought to have been made there. Typically they have a continental movement with a bridge rather than a cock for the upper balance pivot, they are engraved with an English sounding name and "London", and have a sterling silver case with English hallmarks. However, it seems that these watches were made from movements that were brought into England from Geneva, possibly finished in England, and then cased in English made cases.
The case of this particular watch contains a watch paper with the town name of Oldenzaal, a city in the eastern province of Overijssel in the Netherlands, so it is possible that this watch was "made" in Holland by fitting a Swiss movement into a hallmarked English case, although by the time this watch was made, around 1768, the export of English cases was against the law. In 1698 an Act of William III made it illegal to export from England watch cases without movements, justifying this by saying that great quantities of empty cases had been exported to foreign countries where they had been fitted with bad movements carrying the names of London makers and the watches sold as English. So it appears that this probably did happen before 1698, but whether it continued after the export of empty watch cases had been made illegal must be doubtful.
The same Act of William III said that because counterfeit names, and also the names of the best known London makers, had been put onto bad watches in England, anyone making or causing to be made a watch should put on it their own name and place of abode, and made it an offence to put on any other name.
The dial has an "arcaded" minute track, where the pattern of lines with bars across that looks rather like a railway track is formed into outward sweeping curves between the minute numbers. This is reminiscent of an arcade, a covered passage with arches along one or both sides. The hands are gold or gilded and a fancy shape which was more used on continental watches than English.
The balance staff arbor is pivoted in a bridge rather than a cock. The bridge is secured to the top plate with two screws, rather than the cantilevered balance cock with a single securing screw that was more usually used by English makers. The shape of the balance bridge of this movement looks like an ébauche made by Japy of Beaucourt in France, near to the Swiss border. In the eighteenth century Japy set up a factory to mass produce movements for clocks and watches and supplied these to to Swiss finishers to be made into watches. The balance bridge was used occasionally by English makers but English work is finer than this.
The balance staff of the watch in the pictures is pivoted in a plain bearing in the bridge. Sometimes these movements have a steel plate to take the end thrust of the balance staff, although this one doesn't. An English watch would usually have a jewel bearing and diamond end stone for the balance staff. The use of jewels by English watchmakers during the eighteenth century was one of the areas where they were ahead of continental makers, for more details about this see my section watchmovement jewels.
The movement is engraved "John Worke London". This could be a fictitious name or it might be a genuine London watchmaker. Loomes "Watchmakers and Clockmakers of the World" lists a "John Worke London 1760-85" which is the correct date range for this watch. A search of the web revealed several examples of watches signed John Worke London, all with the same continental style balance bridge. One auction house even says "John Worke was active from 1760-85 making Dutch style watches".
The hallmarks in the case are genuine London Assay Office marks. The lion passant is correct for sterling silver and the leopard's head is a design that was introduced in 1756. The date letter is the "black letter capital N" of 1768 to 1769. The sponsor's mark "HT" is not recorded in most reference books because the London Assay Office Register of 1739 to 1758 when this mark must have been entered is missing. The consensus of opinion seems to be that it is probably the mark of Henry Cleaver Taylor, free of the clockmaker's company in 1746, although it might possibly be Henry Teague.
It is likely that this is an English made case rather than an imported case. The cases of watches like this sometimes have the sponsor's mark of someone who is no known to be working as a watch case maker. It is most likely that these cases were made by someone who was not a member of the goldsmiths' guild, who asked a guild member to submit the work for assay and hallmarking under their own registered mark. The practice was called "colouring" by the Goldsmiths' Company and any guild member found guilty of it would be fined heavily. However, it did happen.
On the basis that the Act of William III of 1698 made it illegal to export empty cases, it seems likely that the sterling silver case was made, assayed and hallmarked in London. From the information in Loomes it seems likely that the name John Worke and London are genuine. It thus appears that Worke was importing ébauches from France / Switzerland and finishing them in London, and having them cased by a London case maker. These watches were probably exported to Holland and other countries where English watches were known better by name than appearance.
Watches with this type of movement are also seen in silver or gold cases without British hallmarks. These were most likely made, finished and cased in Switzerland / France.
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The Term "Chronometer"
In the HJ for January 1994 on page 250 is an article describing the purchase by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich of watch No. 36 made by John Arnold in 1778. This watch was the first to have a bimetallic temperature compensation balance. It was tried at the Royal Geographical Observatory from 1 February 1779 to 6 July 1780 and its performance was exceptionally good.
The HJ article is entitled ‘First Chronometer for Greenwich’ and says that the watch's performance was so extraordinary that a new term ‘chronometer’ was coined, probably by the cartographer and hydrographer Dalrymple, to describe this sort of high precision timekeeper. Arnold's No. 36 is said to be the first watch that this term was applied to and was therefore the first chronometer.
Given the simple and rather obvious derivation from the Greek "chronos", meaning time, and the English "meter", meaning to measure, it seemed unlikely that a compound word meaning to measure time would have such an origin. I decided to look into this further.
The source of the attribution to Alexander Dalrymple is ‘Some Useful Notes Useful to those who have Chronometers at Sea’ (London, circa 1780). Now this would be a strange title for a book if the word was indeed new. If no one until the time this book was published had used the name chronometer for a timepiece, then how would those at sea owning things that were not yet called chronometers know that the book was about the thing that they owned but which they did not know was called a chronometer?
In ‘Alexander Dalrymple and the Expansion of British Trade’, Howard T. Fry advances a more plausible explanation. He says that although the term chronometer was in use for pendulum time keepers as early as 1715, it was Dalrymple who first suggested applying the term to balance controlled time keepers used for measuring time at sea.
In The Marine Chronometer (TMC), Commander Gould writes "Throughout the following pages the word "chronometer" has been used in its accepted English significance that of a machine specifically designed for the purpose of keeping accurate time at sea, and fitted with the spring-detent, or "chronometer" escapement. On the Continent the word is used indifferently to describe machines fitted with either the chronometer or the lever escapement."
Gould's definition is rather circular: "A chronometer is a device fitted with a chronometer escapement, which is a spring-detent escapement, that is called a chronometer escapement because it is fitted to a chronometer." Rather amusingly, this definition would also mean that Arnold's No. 36, supposedly the watch for which the term chronometer was coined, is not a chronometer, because it is fitted with a pivoted rather than spring detent escapement. However, Gould ignores his own definition and refers to No. 36 as "a pocket chronometer".
In an editorial note in the new edition of TMC Gould wrote Just before the outbreak of war in 1939, the Continental watch-trade pulled every string it could to get the trade in this country to adopt a definition of "chronometer" which would cover a good lever-watch also. One or two in the B.H.I. itself favoured this — but a small ad hoc sub-committee (of which I was Chairman) dug their heels in, & defined "chronometer" as "a timekeeper fitted with the spring-detent escapement". Unfortunately the Admiralty had "sold the pass" years before when they started calling deck-watches — which today are all levers — "chronometer watches" RTG 27.X.40.
This struck me as rather ridiculous. Even the mighty Oxford English Dictionary does not claim to define words, only to document their meaning from evidence of how they are used. However, the "definition" seems to have stuck in some quarters.
In the HJ September 2012 p392 D E Bryan FBHI questioned the use of the word chronometer by Adrian van der Meijden in an article about IWC Pocket Watches. Mr Bryan said "... in England a chronometer is a mechanism fitted with a detent escapement. As it happens, I have a copy of a ‘Kew A Certificate’ issued by the NPL and it clearly talks about taking the chronometer out of its gimbals. As I understand it in England, a chronometer was a chronometer, before, during and after testing, even if it failed the test. Chronometers were not tested for positional errors because they were hopeless in any other position but the horizontal. That is why, of course, they were suspended in gimbals. The implication is that a chronometer not only has to have a detent escapement but it also must be suspended in gimbals. However, it is interesting to note that Arnold's watch, the so-called "first chronometer", was not suspended in gimbals, it was cased as a pocket watch and was regularly worn by the trial judges.
The DLC Technician Grade Version 1 – Introduction – Page 20 contains the following definition:
|Chronometer||1. An instrument having a detent escapement for measuring time accurately.|
|2. A marine chronometer: used by navigating officers when determining a ship’s longitude.|
|3. A high quality wrist watch.|
Item 1 contains a non-sequitur; a detent escapement does not itself measure time accurately, and an instrument having a detent escapement might measure time accurately or it might not. The sentence makes no sense. Item 2 is fine, but item 3 is so vague that it could mean anything.
In the Oxford English Dictionary a chronometer is defined as:
An instrument for measuring time.
Etymology: Greek χρόνος time + meter. Compare French chronomètre (1701).
Quote: "1714, W. Derham Physico-theology. (ed. 2) i. iv. 28 According to my own Observations made with ... a very accurate Pendulum Chronometer."
Derham Physico Theology
William Derham was Rector at Upminster, Essex, from 1689 to 1735. His book Physico-theology, subtitled a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from His Works of Creation, contained the substance of 16 sermons he preached in St. Mary le Bow Church in London between 1711 and 1712. The subject of the book allowed Derham to indulge his interest in natural philosophy and he ranged over an astonishingly wide range subjects. The figure here is from a chapter about light in the fourth edition dated 1716. It describes measuring the speed of a "bullet" fired from one of Queen Anne's Sakers, a medium sized cannon firing a round shot weighing 5.25 lb (2.4 kg). Derham used "a very accurate Pendulum Chronometer" beating half seconds to time the flight.
So the term "chronometer" was not invented in 1780 to describe Arnold's watch. It was in use in France by 1701 and in England by 1714.
Horologists should stop pretending that they can define how words are used. If some wish to think that a chronometer must have a spring detent escapement they are, of course, free to do so; but they should also recognise that this will never be sufficiently widely used by the English speaking peoples to be documented by the OED.
I suggest that the definitions in the DLC be modified as follows:
|Chronometer||1. An instrument for measuring time.|
|2. A marine chronometer: used by navigating officers when determining a ship’s longitude.|
|3. A accurate watch: sometimes tested and certified to meet defined standards of accuracy.|
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2019 all rights reserved. This page updated April 2019. W3CMVS.