Blog: H. Williamson Wristwatches
Date: 14 July 2023Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 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.
A wristwatch is an obvious thing to make. As David Landes pointed out in Revolution in Time, as soon as spring-driven clocks became small enough to be carried about and worn as an ornament, which happened in the sixteenth century, it was inevitable that someone would make one into a wristwatch, and there was never a patent granted for the invention of the wristwatch, because patents are not granted for inventions that are obvious. The earliest wristwatches were made in the 16th century, but it wasn't until the twentieth century that men started widely to wear wristwatches.
There are many reasons for this reluctance on the part of civilian men to wear wristwatches, but they principally revolved around appearance. In the 1880s, British military officers realised that watches were then cheap and robust enough to be used on manoeuvres, and not being concerned about appearance in the field, strapped watches to their wrists in leather holders called wristlets. Civilian ladies took up this idea, and soon watch manufacturers were offering purpose-made wristwatches to the general public. But even when purpose made wristwatches were available, the leather wristlets that allowed a pocket watch to be worn on the wrist continued to sell in large numbers, and continued selling right up to World War Two, indicating the preference for at least some men for a bulky, masculine, looking wristwatch.
The very first wristwatches were made as exotic jewellery for aristocratic ladies and had fancy metal bracelets, which definitely didn't appeal to men. The bulky leather wristlets were more acceptable to men, but they were not suitable to wear with formal attire such as a suit. A way to make wristwatches that were less bulky but appeared less feminine than those with metal bracelets was to attach a leather strap directly to the case. Although it seems blindingly obvious to us now, it seems to have taken wristwatch manufacturers a while to come up with this idea.
The company H. Williamson Ltd in Coventry, England, were one of the earliest manufacturers to come up with the idea of attaching lugs to the case of a watch to take a leather wrist strap. This was done for a British officer during the Boer War (1899 to 1902) and H. Williamson registered the design in 1901.
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H. Williamson Wristwatches
Although wristwatches had been used by British military officers since the 1880s, these were usually in the form of small pocket watches in leather holders called wristlets. H. Williamson Ltd. was one of the first manufacturers to make a wristwatch with a leather strap attached directly to the watch case, and then later to recognise the important new market for wristwatches that arose during World War One.
Mr Tucker, managing director of the firm of H. Williamson Ltd., had an interesting claim about the origin of the wristwatch. In an interview in 1954 he said:
During the Boer War we received a 12 size watch belonging to an officer in South Africa. He said he wanted to wear it on his wrist. I suggested putting loops on the case and sewing straps on to them. This was done, and we were struck with the idea and had it registered. It was some time before the idea took on, but eventually it became extremely popular.
As Mr Tucker stated, the design was indeed registered with the Board of Trade in 1901, which makes it one of the earliest examples of wristwatch with a leather wrist strap attached directly to the case for which there is indisputable evidence. The registered number of the design is 383942.
The exact date of registration is not recorded, but the volume in which it was recorded is dated from 21 September to 12 December 1901. If the 4,157 designs that were registered over the 83 days covered by the volume came in at a steady rate, that would put the date of registration at 1 December 1901.
The strap is a two-piece open ended design with the open ends sewn together to attach it, as described by Mr Tucker. There is one feature of the registered design that is immediately notable; the strap is not attached directly to the wire lugs of the case but to an oval loop of wire that is itself coupled to the wire lugs on the case by a flattened metal tube. Unlike patents, registered designs have no accompanying text description; the only only thing that is recorded is a representation, one or more illustrations of the design, so there is no explanation given of the reason for this feature.
The registered design shows that the lugs project horizontally from the case; they don't droop down as is the case for lugs designed to take a one-piece pull thorough strap. It might be speculated that the strange design of the lugs, with the attached flattened metal tube and oval loop of wire, was to form a hinge to relieve bending strain from the strap when tightened around the wrist. But a strap stitched directly to the projecting metal lugs would hardly put any bending strain onto the lugs and this explanation seems implausible. It might be that a simpler design with the strap directly attached to the lugs would be so obvious that it could not be registered, so this more complicated design was conceived purely to allow a registration of a design to be secured. The fact of registration, evidenced by the registered design number, could be used to warn other manufacturers off, and the lack of any textual description would make it difficult for them to mount a challenge.
It appears that Williamson did not immediately begin to manufacture in volume wristwatches with leather straps in 1901. The first known advertisement by Williamson for wristwatches with leather straps was published in December 1905, as shown here.
World War One
The first World War resulted in large numbers of new officers being commissioned. Each of these needed to buy a wristwatch when he was buying his outfit, as well as a uniform, sword, revolver, field glasses, etc. This on its own created a huge demand for wristwatches. Then officers were seen wearing wristwatches by the large numbers of new recruits who joined the army during the war, who quickly coined the term ‘a proper wristwatch’ for a smartly dressed officer and many of whom decided that they too would like to wear a wristwatch. This added to the demand for wristwatches.
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; these cases were made by the Dennison Watch Case Co.. Although Williamson were clearly enthusiastic about the prospects for wristwatches, English made Astral wristwatches are not common.
The movement was stamped “Warranted English”, but without this it could easily be taken for a Swiss made movement. It is essentially a Swiss watch made in England using Swiss machinery, with a Swiss straight-line lever escapement and exposed winding wheels, Swiss mainspring, balance spring, balance and jewels. It had only seven jewels in the escapement, no doubt to keep the cost of the imported components beneath the sixpennyworth limit the train bearings were not jewelled.
It would be interesting to know what these retailed for, they were probably more expensive than a Swiss made wristwatch with a 15 jewel movement. It is no wonder they are rare!
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated August 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.