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Blog: Hand Made English Watches

First published: 24 May 2023, last updated 18 June 2024.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently, but because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages the changes are not very noticeable. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.

English hand made watches often bear the name of a person in a provincial town. It is natural to think of this person as being the “maker” of the watch, which is usually far from the truth. In the earliest days of watchmaking there were watchmakers such as Thomas Tompion (1639–1713) who made complete watches in their own workshops, with the help of a few assistants and journeymen, and signed them; but these are relatively rare. In the later eighteenth and during the nineteenth century, English watches were usually signed with the name of a retailer who ordered them to sell in his shop.

Traditional hand made English watches were not made by individuals, they were made by large communities of workers. Following the principle of “division of labour”, each one of these was a specialist in one particular aspect of the work. Rough movements were made in Prescot, Lancashire. These were then “finished”, turned into finished movements, by communities of individual specialists. These specialists usually worked in their own workshops and the work, partially finished watches, was carried from one to the next until the watch was finished. These communities were based in London, Coventry, and Liverpool; all large cities.

In the later nineteenth century, some English factories were adapted, notably Rotherham & Sons in Coventry, and others were set up from scratch to mass-produce parts by machine, but the traditional hand craft method or watchmaking outlined below continued in decreasing numbers into the twentieth century, at least until the First World War.

This entry is from the page about English Watchmaking.

As always, if you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

Division of Labour

Division of labour means the assignment of different parts of a manufacturing process or task to different people in order to improve efficiency. The watch industry was one of the first to make extensive use of division of labour, to breakdown the manufacture of a watch into steps that could be carried out efficiently.

Workmen (it was almost invariably men) trained for years on how to make a single part, and then made that part over and over again, every day for years on end. In this way they got very good and very quick at it, but almost invariably they couldn't make any of the other parts of a watch. For example; one person would fit jewel holes and do nothing else, and another person would attach and shape the balance spring and do nothing else. These two people were utterly incapable of doing each other's work.

Most workers were self employed, or employed only a handful of apprentices and workers, and tools were hand held, and usually hand or foot powered. There were at least a dozen major branches and each specialism was in turn further subdivided. The industry was well described by Aaron Dennison, the father of the American watch industry, in the following quote, but the structure of the English watch industry remained on the same lines from the late seventeenth century until the eve of the First World War and the same account could have been made at any time from then:

The party setting up as a manufacturer of watches bought his Lancashire movements - conglomeration of rough materials - and gave them out to A, B, C, D, to have them finished. A, B, C, and D gave out the job of pivoting certain wheels of the train to E, certain other parts to F, and the fusee cutting to G. Dial-making, jewelling, gilding, motioning, etc. to others, down almost the entire length of the alphabet; ...

The section of Rees's Cyclopaedia devoted to watches was published in Volume 37, Vermes – Waterloo, in 1817 or 1818. The section was written by Reverend Dr William Pearson (1767–1847), a Founder of the Royal Astronomical Society. He listed thirty four different principal crafts that were involved in the process of making a watch. Almost all of these were further subdivided, many into a large number of subdivisions.

The principal divisions of the craft were the making of the rough movement by a movement maker and the subsequent “finishing” of this movement by a watchmaker. Other important subsidiary components made by separate specialists were the watch case, the enamel dial and the hands. The following extract is from Volume 39 of Rees's Cyclopaedia, edited slightly for clarity.

The best watch-movements are made at Prescot, in Lancashire, by persons called movement-makers, who furnish the movement complete to the London watch-makers. The following is a list of the principal workmen employed in manufacturing a movement, previously to its coming into the hands of the London watch-maker.

  1. The frame-maker, who makes the frame; that is to say, the two plates, the bar, and the potence.
  2. The pillar-maker, who turns the pillars, and makes the stud for the stop-work.
  3. The cock-maker, who makes the cock and the stop-work.
  4. The barrel and fusee-maker, who makes the barrel, great wheel, fusee, and their component parts.
  5. The going fusee-maker, who makes the going fusee (maintaining power).
  6. The centre wheel and pinion-maker, who makes the same.
  7. The small pinion-maker, who makes from pinion wire the pinions of the third, fourth, and escapement wheels; and in the case of repeaters, the pinions of the repeating train.
  8. The small wheel-maker, who makes the third and fourth wheels, and the wheels of the repeating train for repeating movements, and rivets them to their pinions.
  9. The wheel-cutter, who cuts the wheels.
  10. The verge-maker, who makes the verge of vertical watches.
  11. The movement-finisher, who turns the wheels of a proper size previously to their being cut, forwards them to and receives them from the wheel-cutter, examines all the parts as they are made, to see that they are as they should be ; and finally completes the movement, and puts it together.
  12. The balance-maker, who makes the balance of steel or brass.
  13. The pinion wire-drawer who draws the pinion-wire.

The movement, in the state in which it is sent to the London watch-maker, consists of the frame, composed of two plates, connected together by four or five pillars, as the case may be, which pillars are riveted to one of the plates called the pillar-plate ; the wheels, consisting the great wheel attached to the fusee, the second or centre wheel, the third and fourth wheels, the fusee and barrel, potence and stop-work, which latter are attached to the upper plate, (so called in, contra-distinction to the pillar-plate,) but the potence screwed to it is between the plates; and lastly, the cock screwed to the outside of the upper plate.

The following is a list of the principal workmen employed on a watch to complete it from the state in which the movement is received from Prescot.

  1. The slide-maker, who makes the slide.
  2. The jeweller, who jewels the cock and potence, and, in a more forward state of the watch, any other holes that are required to be jewelled.
  3. The motion-maker, who makes the motion-wheels and pinions and the brass edge; and, after the case is made, joints and locks the watch into the case. (The brass edge separates the dial from the pillar plate and forms a recess that houses the motion work.)
  4. The wheel-cutter, who cuts the motion-wheels for the motion-maker.
  5. The cap-maker, who makes the cap.
  6. The dial-plate maker, who makes the dial.
  7. The painter, who paints the dial.
  8. The case-maker, who makes the case.
  9. The joint-finisher, who finishes the joint of the case.
  10. The pendant-maker, who makes the pendant.
  11. The engraver who engraves the name on the upper plate; and also engraves the cock and slide, or index, as the case may be.
  12. The piercer, who pierces the cock and slide.
  13. The escapement-maker, who makes the horizontal, duplex, or detached escapements; but the escapement of a vertical watch is made by the finisher.
  14. The spring-maker, who makes the mainspring.
  15. The chain-maker, who makes the fusee chain.
  16. The finisher, who completes the watch, and makes the balance spring, and adjusts it.
  17. The gilder, who gilds the watch.
  18. The fusee-cutter, who cuts the fusee to receive the chain.
  19. The hand-maker, who makes the hands.
  20. The glass-maker, who makes the glass.
  21. The wire-drawer, who draws the wire for the balance springs.

The springs of a hunting-case are made by a separate workman called a secret spring-maker. Single cases (not hunting-cases) are frequently made to open with springs; pairs of cases (the old-fashioned box and case) are sprung, lined, and polished by a workman called a springer and liner; the better description of single cases and hunting-cases are polished by a person simply called the polisher: this is sometimes done by women, particularly by the wives of some of the case makers; and this is the only branch of the trade, probably, in which women are employed in this country.

Many of these tasks involved the work of more than one person, or were further subdivided, especially as more machinery was introduced into the process. For example, the pillar plate had numerous holes bored through it and sunk into it, which would be done by different operators on separate machines.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.