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Rotherham & Sons

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.

The firm of Rotherham & Sons could trace its origins back to a company started in Coventry by Samuel Vale. There is a blue plaque in Coventry that says this was in 1750, some sources say 1747. By 1754 this company was operating as the partnership Vale, Howlette & Carr. In 1776 Samuel Vale leased premises in Spon Street for a factory.

Richard Kevitt Rotherham joined the company as an apprentice, and in 1790 he was listed as a partner. In 1810 the partnership was listed as Samuel Vale (son of the founder), George Howlette, John Carr and John Rotherham. Howlette and Carr subsequently left or retired and the partnership became Vale & Rotherham.

The date of formation of Vale & Rotherham is not currently known. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry has a pocket watch in a gold case with an engraved bust of Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, on the inner back cover. The case is hallmarked 1819/20 and carries Vale & Rotherham's sponsor mark. The image here shows a watch case with Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for sterling silver. The date letter is the "K" of 1848 to 1849. The sponsor's mark V•R in cameo within an oval shield was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office on 6 February 1822 by Vale and Rotherham.


Vale & Rotherham V•R Sponsor's Mark
Birmingham hallmarks for 1848 to 1849

From 1842 the company was listed as Richard Kevitt Rotherham & Sons, and simply Rotherham & Sons from 1850. In 1858 Charles Dickens visited the factory and was presented with a gold watch to mark the occasion.

In the early days watches, were assembled by traditional English hand finishing methods from components supplied by outworkers. Later frames (collections of parts assembled as rough movements) were bought in from John Wycherley in Prescot, Lancashire, and finished in the factory.

Rotherham & Sons head office and factory were on Spon Street in Coventry, Warwickshire. Although Coventry had a long history of watchmaking it was on a small scale before the middle of the nineteenth century. Spon Street was a thoroughfare in the centre of Coventry that had been an industrial area since medieval times, and the location of Rotherhams on Spon Street attests to the company's long history. As watchmaking in Coventry increased during the middle of the nineteenth century, some watchmakers moved from the city centre to land released by Act of Parliament in 1845 to create a new suburb Chapelfields, and later some to a new satellite "garden" development at Earlsdon on farmland purchased in 1852 by a Coventry housing association, but Rotherhams remained in Spon Street.

A report of the Great Exhibition of 1851 said that "Messrs. Rotherham & Sons, of Coventry, whose establishment was the only one of the kind in England in which machinery impelled by steam power was employed for performing many of the processes in the completion of a watch, exhibited the various parts of a lever watch in the progressive stages of manufacture. All were shown as roughly cast, then as formed into proper shapes, and lastly, as finished. Several movements were also shown, and a beautiful display of 137 watches of all kinds, from the plainest silver watch, to the most elaborately finished and ornamental gold watch."

This reference to steam powered machinery is very interesting because the manufacture of watches "by mechanical means" in England is generally accepted to have started at a later date. I think here the difference is between conventional machines such as lathes and milling machines operated by a skilled person, and automatic machines that operated themselves and just needed to be tended by semi skilled operators.

Rotherham's Factory in 1888
Advertisement showing Rotherham's Factory in 1888. Click image to enlarge.

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 (1838 - 1905) was sent to the United States as a traveller to promote Rotherhams and 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. He discovered that Coventry made watches had gained a poor reputation in America and returned determined to alter this.

In 1876 Mr Gooding was appointed works manager. In 1880 he was sent to America by John Rotherham to purchase watchmaking machinery from the American Watch Tool Co. In the 1880s Rotherhams were operating on a very large scale by British standards. In 1890 they were reported to be making 100 watches per day with 400 to 500 employees plus about 200 out-workers active in the production of both movements and cases and the extensive use of machinery, although the figure of 100 per day seems to be an indication of potential rather than actual output.

The advert reproduced here includes an image of the Rotherham's Factory in 1888. The only part that survives today is the three storey building in the top left corner which fronts onto Spon Street. This contained the offices of Rotherham & Sons and now carries a blue plaque erected 1 January 2000 that was commissioned by the Coventry Watch Museum Project. The view shown in the advert is of the back of this building and the workshops that stretched away from it. These were long narrow buildings with lots of windows to admit plenty of natural light.

The two images below show aerial views of the same part of Coventry to the South of Spon Street. The plan is from an Ordnance Survey taken in 1903/4, the satellite view is how the area is now.

The buildings that I have outlined in red on the plan correspond very well with those shown in the view of the factory in the 1888 advert above. The long lines of workshops with their connecting buildings are clearly visible. It is not clear where the Southern boundary of the site was, but following enclosing lines on the OS plan gives the area outlined in green, which might have been the extent of the factory buildings by 1903/04.

The buildings outlined in red on the aerial view are all that that remains today, basically just the offices that fronted onto Spon Street. The building is now home to IDP Group specialising in architecture and landscape.

Although they remained based in Coventry, some time before 1890 the company also opened offices at 1 Holborn Circus, London, and after this some of their watches were signed Rotherhams, London. This was later to become the company head office.

After the turn of the century in circa 1905 Rotherham started to diversify into also making parts for the Coventry bicycle and motor industry. In 1914 they advertised in Whitakers Red Book as Manufacturers of watches and expanding bracelets; cycle and motor accessories; gas and electrical appliances.

During the Great War (WW1) Rotherham & Sons went entirely over to war work.

After the war Rotherham returned to watch making and produced wristwatches as well as pocket watches. They also carried on making clocks, and imported watches from Switzerland. Cutmore in "Watches 1850-1980" states that reports of British Industry Fairs show that in 1920 and 1921 Rotherhams showed at trade exhibitions cases for movements made in "their own factory in Switzerland". Cutmore suggests that this could possibly be the Rode Watch Company of La Chaux de Fonds, whose watches Rotherhams marketed, but D. H. Bacon says that they became British agents for Rode only in circa 1930.

Rotherhams also continued with their diverse engineering work, also entering the market for aircraft accessories.

In 1932 after the collapse of H. Williamson Ltd., another Coventry watch manufacturer, Rotherhams took on the British agency for Buren, and later became agents for Ulysee Nardin.

Rotherham & Sons stopped making watches in Coventry some time before WW2, probably in the 1930s. The company passed out of Rotherham family control in 1958 to Corner Croft Engineering and was subsequently bought by Bimec Industries.

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Rotherham Sponsor's Marks and Trademarks

R&S Mark
R&S: Rotherham & Sons Ltd

JR: John Rotherham

The first mark entered by John Rotherham for Rotherham & Sons at the Birmingham Assay Office on 7 April 1841 was the intials R&S in cameo within a rectangular shield, address given as 4 Spon Street, Coventry. This remained the only R&S punch registered at Birmingham until a punch with the same initials in cameo within a diamond shaped shield was registered in 1912, and then three similar punches were registered in 1917. These last entries seem strange because it is said that Rotherhams produced only arms components, mainly fuses, for the duration of the Great War, but I believe these punches were used on the cases of imported Swiss watches.

A mark of the initials JR in a serif face in cameo within a diamond shield was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office, together with the same initials in a sans-serif face in cameo within a rectangular shield as shown here, on 15 July 1886 by John Rotherham, as watch & case makers trading as Rotherham & Sons of 4 Spon Street, Coventry. Similar punches were registered in 1888, 1901 and 1908.

Rotherhams also imported watches as well as making them. The second image shows hallmarks in an imported Borgel watch. The sponsor's mark of the initials R&S in a rectangular shield with cut corners entered at the London Assay Office is shown alongside London import hallmarks.

R&S Mark
R&S in cameo within Diamond

Rotherham Registered Trademarks
R&S Swiss movement
RS with Trident on Swiss movement
R&S Swiss movement
R&S on Swiss movement

Philip Priestly lists punches that made the mark with rectangular shield as being registered at Birmingham in 1841 and in London between 1907 and 1919, and the R&S mark with diamond shield as being registered in Birmingham between 1912 and 1917. The Birmingham assay office would be the nearest office to mark watches made in Coventry, whereas the London assay office would be a more natural choice for watches imported from Switzerland, which would come in by ship through the port of London, and a large proportion would then be retailed in London.

The British Trade Mark Registration Act 1875 came into effect on 1 January 1876 and many British manufacturers registered trademarks. The image here shows a trademark registered by John Rotherham on behalf of Rotherham & Sons on 9 February 1880. A virtually identical mark was registered in May 1915 with the central serpent wrapped around a trident as shown in the upper right corner.

Swiss movements imported by Rotherhams sometimes carry trademarks on the movements such as the initials RS either side of a trident or the initials R&S in an oval such as the ones shown here.

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Coventry Factory Production

Rotherham Production
Rotherham Production.

An article by D. H . Bacon, "Watch Production in English Factories" in the Winter 1996 edition of Antiquarian Horology discussed Rotherhams' output of watches. Data gathered by the author from serial numbers and case hallmark dates indicated that Rotherham restarted their numbering sequence in circa 1880. This was perhaps as a result of beginning mass production of selectively interchangeable parts, when a knowledge of the select group into which a movement fell would enable spare parts to be supplied from stock.

The figure here reproduced from the article shows a plot of movement serial numbers against case hallmark dates. The lowest and highest serial numbers were 13,806 and 401,197, although for some reason not explained the highest number was not plotted. Bacon calculated that the output was about 240 watches per week between 1883 and 1913, rather lower than the 100 watches per day reported in the press. This was probably a difference between a capability of making up to 100 watches per day and what was actually produced to fulfil orders.

Rotherham stopped making watches in Coventry some time before WW2, probably in the 1930s.

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Rotherham & Sons and Electa

1926 notice
10 August 1926 transfer of trademarks
1927 notice
July 1927 notice

In 1926 the Electa watch movement factory and its contents were purchased from Gallet by Rotherham and Sons. The notice reproduced here dated 10 August 1926 records the transfer of the trademark names Eureka and Electa to "Rotherham and Sons, Overseas Limited" based in London with a branch in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The notice also says "fabrication, La Chaux-de-Fonds". This implies that there was a factory, so it seems possible that Rotherham's bought the Electa factory as well as the name.

The notice reproduced here from a Swiss trade journal of July 1927 advises that the trademarks Eureka and Electa are the exclusive property of Rotherham and Sons Overseas Limited and that they will pursue judgement against anyone who uses these marks without their authorisation.

My records show that the involvement of Rotherhams with Electa goes back to before the Great War. I have seen two wristwatches with Electa movements in sterling silver cases with Birmingham Assay Office import hallmarks for 1914 to 1915 and John Rotherham's registered sponsor's mark. During the war Rotherhams were entirely taken up with the production of war materials, mainly fuses for which they gained a high reputation for their accuracy.

It seems that not only did Rotherhams cease manufacture of watches at their factory in Coventry for the duration of the war, they also stopped importing Electa watches. I have only seen two Electa wristwatches with London Assay Office import marks and and John Rotherham's registered sponsor's mark, but then all of the other wristwatches with Electa movements in sterling silver cases that I have seen with hallmarks from the war years 1914 to 1918 have London Assay Office import hallmarks and the sponsor's mark A•G•R for Robert Pringle and Sons.

There is a gap in my Electa records from 1918/19 to 1924/25, but I have seen Swiss watches with Rotherham's sponsor's mark and import hallmarks for 1918/19, so it seems that they started importing Swiss watches again soon after the war finished.

My records of Electa wristwatches with Rotherham and Sons R&S sponsor's mark continue with Chester Assay Office import hallmarks for the years 1925/26 to 1926/27. These dates include watches that were imported by Rotherham and Sons in the period between the Electa factory being offered for sale or rent and the liquidation sale in 1926. It seems likely that Rotherhams rented the factory in 1923 and continued production of Electa watches until the dispersal sale, when they acquired the factory and contents.

The latest wristwatch with an Electa movement in sterling silver case that I have records for has Glasgow Assay Office import hallmarks and Rotherham and Sons R&S sponsor's mark. The date letter is "i" for 1931 to 1932.

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An English Wristwatch

Rotherham & Sons were one of the few English companies to make wristwatches. They could not compete on scale or price with American or Swiss manufacturers so these wristwatches are not seen very often. Rotherhams also imported Swiss watches so not every watch with a Rotherhams mark on it was made in England.

Rotherhams English Wristwatch 1914
English Wristwatch Dial. Click image to enlarge
Rotherhams English Wristwatch 1914
English Wristwatch by Rotherhams. Click image to enlarge

The images here show a wristwatch manufactured by Rotherham & Sons in Coventry. The case has London Assay Office hallmarks for a sterling silver item made in Britain with the date letter "t" for 1914 to 1915 and the R&S sponsor's mark entered by John Rotherham.

The serial number on the movement is 253272. I have added this to the graph in the Coventry Factory Production section as a red bar spanning 1914 and 1915 indicating the actual period when the case could have been hallmarked, remembering that hallmark date letters span two calendar years. The red bar falls well below the main sequence of movement serial numbers, which suggests that the savonnette movement had been in stock for some time before it was cased up as a wristwatch.

This wristwatch was most likely ordered made to fulfil the demands of officers leaving for the front during the first year of the Great War who were expected to supply their own wristwatches. This was one of the last watches made by Rotherhams at the time, during the war the factory was entirely devoted to war work, making mainly fuses for artillery shells. The dial is not luminised, a feature that quickly became a requirement during the war for watches intended for military service.

Rotherhams English Wristwatch 1914
English Wristwatch Movement. Click image to enlarge
Rotherhams English Wristwatch 1914
English Wristwatch Opened. Click image to enlarge

The watch case was made along traditional lines for an English lever watch. Unlike key wound watches there is no opening back, the single case back or bottom is rigidly fixed to the band, the middle part of the case, and does not open. The case is 34.6mm diameter excluding the lugs and crown, a good size for a man's wristwatch.

The view of the dial with the bezel open shows the traditional English method of fixing the movement to the case. At the top there is a joint above the twelve o'clock, with the two outer silver knuckles fixed to the case band and a central brass knuckle fixed to the movement bottom plate. At the bottom, below the six o'clock position, there is a catch that can be released to allow the movement to be swung out from the case, as shown in the picture of the watch opened. Even in the second half of the nineteenth century this looked old fashioned, but it didn't inconvenience the wearer.

The three quarter plate movement measures 29.25mm across the dial plate which makes it an "0" size on the Lancashire Watch gauge, or 13 lignes on the Swiss system. The mainspring is housed in a "going barrel" and drives the train directly, teeth on the outside of the barrel drive the pinion of the centre wheel. English manufacturers had gradually given up on their love affair with the fusee that made watches bulky and was almost impossible to make keyless wound.

The movement shows Rotherhams' typical high level of finish with gilded plates and cocks, polished and blued screws and bright polished steel parts. The ruby jewels are set in chatons and, in addition to the balance wheel, the escape wheel and lever pivots have cap jewels or end stones. The jewel count is not stated but is most likely 19, the 15 jewels usually found in a lever escapement movement jewelled to the third wheel, plus the extra end stones for both the lever and escape wheel.

The escapement is an English right angle lever with pointed tooth escape wheel. The English right angle lever brings the escape wheel closer to the balance staff than does a Swiss straight line lever, which is why the escape wheel is set down below the rim of the balance. The balance has a cut bimetallic rim for temperature compensation, and gold screws for timing and poising. The balance spring has a Breguet overcoil. The regulator lever has a bevelled slot at the end so that its position against the graduated scale can be read off without parallax error.

The top plate is engraved with the name of the retailer, The Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company, 112 Regent St. London.

Rotherhams English Wristwatch 1914
English Wristwatch Buckle. Click image to enlarge
Rotherhams English Wristwatch 1914
English Wristwatch Case. Click image to enlarge

The view of the case shows at the top the two knuckles attached to the band, and also shows Rotherhams' peculiar design of stem winding. The short case stem has a bevel gear on its inner end. The crown is secured to the case stem by a hollow round nut with a slot that is shown in the inserted detail in the top right of the image.

When the movement is locked into the case, the bevel gear on the case stem engages with a bevel gear in the movement. This is visible in the picture of the movement between the plates, below the "smiths" part of the engraved name. Turning the crown normally winds the mainspring, there is a small olivette on the outside of the case just below the crown with a pin that is pressed in to shift the keyless work into hand setting mode.

The watchstrap buckle has Rotherham and Sons' R&S sponsor's mark. The hallmarks stamped by the London Assay Office are difficult to read because they have been double stamped with an initial shallow stamp overstamped by a second deeper set of marks. The remains of the first set of marks are arranged and spaced exactly the same as the second set of marks showing that they were made by a single combined punch that carried all three part marks, the lion, the leopard's head, and the date letter. Combined punches were also used for stamping the hallmarks in the backs of watch cases, which placed them in a regular pattern. They were pressed into the case by a manually operated fly press. I have examined the marks carefully and I am pretty sure that the date letter is the "n" for 1908 to 1909.


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 June 2017. W3CMVS.