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English watchmaking

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.

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. 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".

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, and so on 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, Coventry and Liverpool where there was a conglomeration of workers with the necessary skills.

The person who organised this, 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. Retailers also liked to style themselves as "watchmakers". Perhaps at some time 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 who just liked the sound of the title and adopted it. This is still seen today where high street shops call themselves "Blah, Blah, and Co. Goldsmiths, Jewellers and Watchmakers" even though there is no one in the organisation who has ever smithed any gold, set a jewel, or made a watch.

Technical developments

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. 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 serious attempt at an English detached lever escapement similar to the one invented by Thomas Mudge was made by Edward Massey. Beginning around 1812 he developed a detached lever escapement having a roller on the balance staff with a tooth or pin that that went through several versions before arriving at one with a jewelled impulse pin. This was developed into the table roller, and later a second roller was added to separate the safety action from unlocking and impulse.

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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Swiss complications

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.

Well known London retailers such as S. Smith and Sons, Frodsham, Dent and others were supplied with the finest quality watches and chronometers by companies based in Clerkenwell such as Usher and Cole. Other prominent makers of fine quality watches whose names rarely appeared on them were Golay, Bonniksen and Nicole Nielsen & Co. of Soho Square. At the end of the eighteenth century the annual output of watches from Clerkenwell was almost 200,000 pieces, but this declined steadily throughout the nineteenth century as competition from Switzerland and America took increasing market share.

The Swiss were prepared to use cheaper labour, including women and children, for some tasks, whereas 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 machine methods of production, calling it the "American system".

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. English movements varied in size and the cases had to be individually fitted to each one, unlike American watches that were made in standard sizes and could have their cases interchanged, and were often fitted with a customer's choice of case by the retailer.

English 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 your 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. In 1866 John Wycherley set up a steam-powered factory in Prescot to produce movements, or at least parts of movements, by machinery. This factory seems to have been very successful, but it was a long way from producing complete watches.

Watchmaking in Coventry started in the nineteenth century with the finishing of frames supplied by Prescot companies such as Wycherley. The industry expanded and eventually all the parts of the watches, including the frames, were made in Coventry.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there were three separate attempts in Coventry to adopt the new methods of machine watch production known as "the American system". These were by the The Coventry Movement Company, who soon found that Coventry's new bicycle and then motor industries were more profitable and diversified away from watchmaking; Rotherhams, who were initially successful in adopting the new manufacturing methods, and H. Williamson, Ltd.

Rotherham & Sons, based at 26-28 Spon Street, Coventry, England, which could trace its origins back to 1747, were one firm affected by American mass production. In the first half of the nineteenth century about half of Rotherhams' production had been exported, of which more than half went to America, but this had been declining. In 1856 John Rotherham was sent to the United States to try to find out why Rotherhams exports had fallen. This fall wasn't due to American mass production of watches by machine, which was only just getting under way at the time. John Rotherham's account of his trip illustrated clearly the reason for the decline: I called on the large merchants in New York, and they showed me drawer after drawer of Coventry watches, not one of which would go. They had been sent out with insufficient care, and the cost of repairing them out there was so great that they simply lay there, and the people who bought them were disgusted, and so was I. John Rotherham returned determined to put into effect the lessons that he had learned in America. In 1880 he sent his manager to America to buy watchmaking machinery machinery from the American Watch Tool Co. and began to mass produce watch parts.

In the late nineteenth century Coventry watchmakers were making twice as many watches as Clerkenwell in London, mainly for the cheaper end of the market although some could aspire to precision work. In 1889 a list of the 26 watches with the highest marks in the Kew Observatory trials included four several 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, supported by three to four hundred smaller firms carrying out specialist operations, making parts and cases. These were all working in the time honoured craft tradition in small workshops without power, 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.

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.

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Mass production

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 called 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.

English watches

Fusee verge movement - click image to enlarge

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.

Design developments

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.

Full plate movement - click image to enlarge

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

Mallory movement
An English lever movement. Click image to enlarge.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. The dustcover can be released by sliding the crescent-shaped locking piece. Support the weight of the movement while doing this.

English lever wheels - click image to enlarge
Diamond endstone
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.

Case making

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"

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. In the nineteenth century the movements often began "in the rough" as "frames", consisting of the plates and a few parts of the mechanism such as the spring barrel, fusee and train wheels. In the nineteenth century many if not most of these frames were made at Prescot in Lancashire, many by John Wycherley, an English pioneer of mass production.

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 watch manufacturer 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, who was termed an établisseur by the French and Swiss, there doesn't seem to be an English equivalent, perhaps might have been thought of as the manufacturer, even though their part of the process was more pulling everything together than actually making all the parts. Because the controller of the process, who could be an individual or a small company, often did not produce enough watches for their names to become known, it was not worth going to the expense of having it engraved on the plate, a craft process that was done by hand by a skilled craftsman and was therefore not cheap.

Most often the name of the retailer, the shop keeper who had ordered the watch to be made, was engraved as if they were in fact the manufacturer, even though ordering the watch from the wholesaler was their only involvement in its actual manufacture. 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, for reasons explained below in the section on numbers. I seem to remember reading that English makers were compelled by law or regulation to apply a unique number to each movement they made, but I am not certain of this; Thomas Tompion began numbering his watches in series in c.1681, seemingly of his own volition, so my memory might be in error. However, it remains the fact that unless you already know who made the watch, and have access to his factory records (which is unlikely), you cannot discover anything from the serial number alone.

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.

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 of 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.

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.

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, 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. But even here the term "maker" is loaded with misunderstanding. Watch case making had its own specialists, the case maker who made the basic structure of the case, soldering together the band and case back; but then there was also the joint maker, 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". 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.

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" so that if the watch comes back from the retailer with a fault he could look through his records and identify the workman responsible for the faulty part, and no doubt get him to remake it for free.

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Dutch fakes and 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 and hence such watches were once thought to have been made there. Typically they have a continental movement engraved with an English sounding name and "London", and a sterling silver case with English hallmarks.

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 that an English silversmith has arranged to have hallmarked, although that could happen — the practice was called "colouring" by the Goldsmiths' Company and any guild member found guilty of it was heavily fined.

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.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page. Back to the top of the page.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated January 2017. W3CMVS.