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English Watchmaking

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Don't assume that a name engraved onto the movement of an English watch indicates who made it; usually it doesn't.

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.

During the eighteenth century, increasing specialisation resulted in a division of labour, which meant that there were dozens of specialists involved in the making of a watch, many of them working on their own separate workshops. Making a watch was divided broadly into two responsibilities, the movement maker, who made the rough movement, and the watchmaker, who controlled the process of finishing the rough movement and fitting it with dial, hands and case, turning it into a finished watch.

Although Tompion and his contemporary watchmakers sold watches from their own shops, which were also their workshops, the rise of pure retailers meant that by the end of the eighteenth century, English watchmakers didn't sell watches directly to the public; they sold them to high street retailers, who sold them to the public. Retailers didn't want anyone's name other than their own on the watches that they sold. English watchmakers usually quite small operations, so the retailer had the stronger hand. If one watchmaker didn't want to put the retailer's name on the watches he made, the retailer could go to another who would. There were a few exceptions to this rule, well known prestigious watchmakers whose highly finished, often complicated and always highly priced watches were in demand.

The same considerations applied to imported watches. The general practice in Britain until the mid-1920s was that it was the retailer's name that was put onto watches. For more details about this, see Names on the Dial.


The term “watchmaker” must be one of the most abused in the English language. Most people would assume that someone who described themselves as a watchmaker actually made watches. Nothing could be further from the truth. From as soon as there were shops that sold watches and jewellery, the terms “watchmaker and jeweller” were commonly used by high street retailers. The vast majority of these establishments never actually made watches or jewellery, the terms were used solely to impress the public. The same terms are still used today by high street retailers for the same purpose.

In traditional English watchmaking, the work of manufacturing a watch was divided into two broad specialisms; movement maker and watchmaker. Rather strangely to most people's ideas, neither of these actually made watches. A movement maker made the basic parts of watch movements, which a watchmaker then “finished”. The end product was a watch, but no one person or establishment could be said to have made it; it was the end product of a long and complicated process.

A movement maker, such as John Wycherley in Prescot, bought raw materials, brass and steel, and produced “rough movements” consisting of “frames”, the main plates and pillars, and other parts such as the fusee, mainspring barrel and train wheels and their arbors. A watchmaker bought rough movements from a movement maker and “finished” them by sending them out to various individual specialists who fitted the escapement, jewels, engraved and gilded the movement, and then fitted the dial and hands. The finished movement was put into a case made by another set of specialists working for a case maker. There was a good reason for the division between movement makers and watchmakers; roughing out parts from raw materials required heavy machinery and was dirty work, whereas the processes of finishing were more delicate, requiring concentration, and were better done away from heavy machinery.

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 began with 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 seventeenth century watches were “made” on the division of labour principle, where separate specialists would each do one part of the work, the watch being passed round to each one in turn. 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.

This was also 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. Some specialised in aspects of finishing the movement: jewelling, engraving, gilding etc. Others made ancillary parts such as the case (which on its own a required a team of individual specialists), the dial, the hands etc.

This was a highly complex interlocking web of craftspeople that 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 eighteenth and nineteenth century, most English watches began as a collection of raw materials that had been machined close to the finished sizes and were supplied as rough movements, consisting of the “frame”, the top and bottom plates separated by the pillars, together with the mainspring barrel, the fusee and the train wheels mounted on their arbors. There was no escapement, balance and balance spring, and no jewels; these were added during the finishing process. For many years the town of Prescot near to Liverpool had a monopoly on the supply of rough movements, but in the late nineteenth century rough movements began to be made in Coventry.

The person who organised the work of “finishing”, purchasing the rough movement and passing it out to the various specialists who gradually turned 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.

Rees on Watchmaker
Rees' “Cyclopædia” on the term Watchmaker c1820 Click image to enlarge.

Retailers liked to style themselves as “watchmakers”. Perhaps this harked back to a time when there had been someone in the business who actually made watches and set up a shop to sell them, like Tompion and his shop in Fleet Street in the seventeenth century. 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 the case today, when 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.

In Rees' “Cyclopædia”, The Cyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, published in the years leading up to 1820, William Pearson discusses the term “watchmaker” as shown in the image here. The text looks a little odd to modern readers because it uses the long form of the letter "s", ſ, which looks like an f without the crossbar, at the start and in the middle of words, as was the practice at the time, with the normal form of s used at the ends of words.

The mention of the evidence presented to a committee of the House of Commons, that materials costing less than sixpence in their raw state were manufactured into watches worth £100 and more, was the reason that a tax on watches and clocks that had been introduced in July 1797 was repealed in March 1798.

The Craft Method of Watchmaking

Traditional English watches were not made by individuals, they were made by large communities of workers, each of which 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; most of the work was in the finishing. These communities were based in London, Coventry, Liverpool and Birmingham; all large cities.

Identifying the "Maker"

In an attempt to prevent forgeries and counterfeits, a statute William III, 1697-8, An Act for the exporting Watches Sword-hilts and other Manufactures of Silver, required that from 24 June 1698 all clocks and watches should have engraved on them the name and place of abode of the person who made them, or who caused them to be made. If the maker was well known, such as Tompion, then their name on the piece would add to its value. But if the maker was not well known, the allowance that the person who caused a clock or watch to be made could put their name put on it allowed a retailer, who would be better known to his customers than a little known maker in a far off town, to have his name put on.

The vast majority of English made watches of the nineteenth century do not carry the name of the person who made them; instead the name of the retailer who ordered the watch and sold it in his shop was engraved on the movement, and sometimes enamelled onto the dial. The exceptions to this rule are a few well-known makers whose reputation for high quality work added to the value of the watch. These are easily identified. If a watch carries an unknown name, one that is not associated with a well known watchmaker, then the name is almost certainly that of the retailer.

In the nineteenth century trade the term the trade was broadly divided into movement makers, who made rough movements, and watchmakers, who organised the finishing of a watch from a rough movement and other parts such as hands, dial and case, into a complete watch. Their names almost never appeared on the finished watch.

In the earliest times the name of the retailer was engraved directly onto the movement top plate. Later it was engraved onto a removable plate that was fixed to the top plate over the mainspring barrel. This barrel plate was originally introduced to make it easy to remove the mainspring barrel without dismantling the whole movement so that a broken mainspring could be replaced. It soon became the usual place to engrave the retailer's name, because that could easily be done at a late stage in the making of the watch or even after the watch was complete.

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 cost of engraving was not justified; the barrel 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 watches usually began as rough movements, consisting of the frame, the main plates separated by pillars, and a few other parts such as the spring barrel, fusee and train wheels on their arbors. These were mostly made at Prescot in Lancashire by a number of specialised companies, many by John Wycherley, an English pioneer of mass production, until Coventry started to make rough movements in the late nineteenth century.

The rough movements 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. This is often the watchmaker's serial number, although some retailers had their own serial numbers engraved on the top plate, with the watchmaker's serial number being marked on a part of the movement not seen by the customer. The origin and purpose of serial numbers on English watches is not known. Thomas Tompion was one of the first to put serial numbers on his clocks and watches, and since he was regarded as the father of English watchmaking perhaps others simply followed his practice.

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 the identity of the movement maker who made the 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 rough movements. Click this link to see a watch with a Wycherley movement. 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 something about the making of a 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 the name of an independent watch case maker, working on his own account for anyone who cared to place an order with him. Sometimes it can be completely misleading, because manufacturers would punch the sponsor's mark of someone who had nothing to do with making the items, such as a retailer.

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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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. 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 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 rougn movements) 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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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 learning 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 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, but the structure of the English watch industry remained on the lines evolved in the late seventeenth century and the same account could have been made at any time from then until the eve of the Great War:

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; ...

In the section of Rees's Cyclopaedia devoted to Watches and Chronometers, published in 1819-1820, William Pearson, the author of the section, 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 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.
  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.

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Watchmaking in 1893

In the Horological Journal of April 1894 are the questions for the 1893 City and Guilds Institute examinations in watch and clock making, to which Mr T D Wright of the BHI added such answers as appeared likely to satisfy the Examiner. One of Mr Wright's answers gives an insight into the processes of English watchmaking that were very old fashioned by 1893. Although some English manufacturers had adopted mass production by automatic machinery before 1893, there were still many small businesses where the traditional methods of turning a rough moment into a finished watch by the out-work of individual specialists which Mr Wright describes were still being practised.

Question 4. Enumerate the successive stages in the “manufacture” of a key-winding ¾-plate watch. State them in the order in which they would be most conveniently accomplished.

The stages listed by Mr Wright in his specimen answer below are those carried out by the “watch maker” after the rough movement was received from the movement maker. These may be compared with the specialist occupations listed above from Rees's Cyclopaedia, published more than 70 years earlier.

Mr Wright's specimen answer to question 4. The rough movement is examined to see that all the necessary parts are complete and correct, the [serial] number given to it stamped on the plates and cock; the holes in the pillar plate for the dial feet are drilled (if not already made by the movement maker) in such positions that the feet shall not be in the way of other pieces ; the dial is then made to fit the pillar plate; the balance cock is then lowered, if necessary, to the proper height, and the balance holes are jewelled. In the meantime the balance may be made, a suitable pair of pallets and escape wheel selected, and the escape pinion carefully sectored to the fourth wheel to see that it is of a proper size. These parts are now given to the escapement maker, together with the pillar plate, cocks, bars, and dial. He first marks the position of the escape wheel, noting particularly the correct position of the seconds hole, and has the escape wheel holes jewelled. He then makes the escapement and has the pallets holes jewelled. The finished escapement is now removed from the frame and carefully placed in a separate box, and the two plates, with balance cock and dial, are given to the case maker. When the case is made, the frame and case are given to the motion maker, who supplies and plants the motion wheels and set-hand arbor, and fixes the movement to the case, with a bolt and joint if a double bottom case, with a joint and pin if a dome case. While the motion maker is doing this the index may be made to the balance cock and the mainspring made to the barrel, and the movement is now ready for the finisher, whose duties are more numerous than any of his predecessors. He has to thin and true the train wheels, have them gilt or polish them, pivot and finish the pinions, run them in, i.e. plant them in their proper positions, pivot and finish the fusee, have it cut and fit the chain, fit the mainspring and do the barrel work, finish and fit the stop work, make the balance-spring-stud and collet, drill and finish the index, polish the bolt, motion wheels, set square and cannon-pinion ; harden, temper, and polish all the screws ; have any jewelling done that is required for the train wheels, have the engraving done and get all the brass work gilt. In the meantime the case can be sprung and polished, and, if necessary, engine turned or engraved; if the watch has a gold dial this can also be engraved. All the parts are now given to the examiner, who goes carefully through all the work that has been done, making the final corrections that are always necessary to bring the separate processes into harmonious adjustment, fits the hands, shortens and polishes the squares, opens the winding holes in case, fixes the movement in the case, poises the balance, applies the balance spring, regulates the watch, and gives all those final touches required before the watch is ready for the wearer's pocket.

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Springing and Timing

At the end of the process was the person who made and fitted the balance spring and brought the watch to rate, adjusting it for equal rate in different positions and temperatures. This person was called the “springer and timer” and it was the most difficult and skilled job of the lot, effectively turning what was a simple gearbox and escapement into a working and accurate timepiece. It was more of an art than a science, even today the dynamics of the balance spring have not been fully analysed. It is an extremely complex four dimensional system that is difficult to model. The men who fitted and adjusted balance springs learnt their trade and practised it by long hours of trial and error.

Springing and timing was the longest stage in the production of a chronometer; making an adjustment to the spring, observing the rate over 24 hours, making another adjustment, observing the rate again, over and over again until the machine was perfect. One can imagine this going on for day, weeks, months even. Sometimes troublesome machines were put to one side and returned to months later.

Chamberlain relates meeting the son of James Ferguson Cole, who said that he could not afford to be a watchmaker like his father but instead confined himself to ... the more lucrative branch of springing and timing. Judging from the description of his house it must have been very lucrative work. I was struck by the contrast between the obvious wealth of Cole junior and that of Dicky Doke, who was said to have cut practically all the wheels for English chronometers over 50 years. The image in “Mercer Chronometers” of Doke after his retirement smoking a pipe does not imply wealth.

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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.

A machine that mass produced parts would be set up by a tool setter to make the parts the right size, and then the parts produced checked against accurate gauges. Once tool wear resulted in the parts going out of the allowed tolerance on the size, the machine would be stopped and reset. Any parts that were the wrong size were simply scrapped.

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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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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.

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.

CompanyApproximate DatesProduction
The Lancashire Watch Company1888 – 1910900,000
The English Watch Company1871 – 1897200,000
William Ehrhardt1856 – 1923775,000
Rotherham & Sons1856 – 1930425,000
J W Benson1892 – 1941Unknown
H Williamson Ltd.1897 – 1931600,000

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.

Paris Exhibition 1878

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? 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.

Sir John Bennett

John Bennett was horn in Greenwich in 1814, the son of a watchmaker. He took over the family business when his father died in 1830. Several years later he transferred his trading activities to the City of London, firstly in Cornhill and later in Cheapside.

Although trained as a practical watchmaker, Bennett's business at 65 Cheapside was a high street retailer of watches made by English and Swiss watch manufacturers. In The Daily News of 10 December 1859 it was announced that the adjoining house at 64 Cheapside had been acquired for the jewellery department. In 1892 the shop front at number 65 was remodelled and number 64 vacated, being let to Messrs. Eugene Rimmel Limited, the cosmetics company.

A watch with “Bennett 65 & 64 Cheapside” on the dial has been seen with London Assay Office hallmarks for 1864 to 1865 in the case. The sponsor's mark JN incuse was entered at the London Assay Office on 28 April 1862 by James Neale of Ryley Street, Coventry, showing that the watch was made in Coventry.

The business was sold to J. W. Benson in 1889 and that company continued it until 1941.

John Bennett's strong campaigning in the 1850s for Britain to adopt many of the new techniques being used by the Swiss horological industry was not well received and was one of the things which led to the foundation of the British Horological Institute in 1858. Knighted in 1872, Sir John Bennett died in July, 1897.

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Watchmaking Centres

English watchmaking began in London but later centres arose in Liverpool and Coventry. In the eighteenth century these were supplied with rough movements for finishing by specialist manufacturers in Prescot in Lancashire. The rough movement included the plates, pillars, fusee, spring barrel and train wheels and other basic components, but they needed to be jewelled, fitted with escapements, engraved, gilded, fitted with dials and hands and put into watch cases 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. This, however, is at odds with a statement by Professor D. S. Torrens that the first tooth cutters of true epicycloidal form were made by the Prescot clockmaker and toolmaker, Thomas Leyland, about the year 1800. These were made on the orders of William Hardy to epicycloidal patterns that Hardy had created.

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 movement 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 Joseph Preston was far and away their largest supplier, Wycherley rough movements 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 Benson and James William Benson in 1847. The company became a prestigious London retailer of jewellery, diamonds, silver and gold wares, and watches and clocks.

The Benson brothers purchased the businesses of several established companies in London at Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, from one of which they claimed a date of foundation of 1749. Watches were sold under the name SS & JW Benson.

The partnership was dissolved on 27 January 1855. The notice published in the London Gazette shows that Samuel took charge of winding up the affairs of the partnership, calling in any money owed, paying off debts and liquidating the accounts held by the company. In 1857 the Electoral Register showed that Samuel had retained the shop at 63 Cornhill.

James 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. It is said that watches were made there during the nineteenth and twentieth century. This seems unlikely, it might have been an assembly operation where watch movements and parts were assembled, cased and tested. Bensons did not make watch cases but ordered them from watch case makers who stamped them with Bensons’ own sponsor’s mark for hallmarking. The movements, dials, hands and cases would have to be brought together somewhere and the completed watch tested, and Bensons could well have wanted to do this themselves for the watches they were to retail.

Ranges of pocket watches sold by Bensons 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 types of watches, e.g. Ludgate was used on old fashioned key wound and set watches as well as stem wound and set “keyless” watches. Benson bought in movements or watches from Nicole, Nielson & Co, especially repeaters, P & A Guye, Kullberg and others. Marine box chronometers were obtained from Usher & Cole, signed J W Benson.

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.

J W Benson also imported Swiss watches. To give comfort to customers who might have been reluctant to buy a Swiss watch, these were marked “Inspected by J W Benson.” In common with other British retailers, Bensons did not allow the names of foreign manufacturers to appear on the dials.

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 “J. W. Benson's London Watch Factory” observed the manufacture of watch movements. Whether this was definitely the Benson Steam Factory at Belle Sauvage Yard or one of the factories that supplied Benson, such as P & A Guye or Nicole, Nielsen & Co, is not clear.

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 not relations. 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 the Dennison Watch Case Company in the 1930s.

The factory at Belle Sauvage Yard was destroyed by bombing in 1941, including 12,000 watches in stock at the time and the company's records. Benson did not resume making watches after the war, carrying out only repair work. Sometimes this event is erroneously said to have taken place during the Great War.

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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P & A Guye

P & A Guye were a London company set up to make watches by machinery, and said to be the first in England to make watches with parts that were interchangeable throughout.

In 1884 it was said that one large American watch factory can turn out 1,100 watches in a day, whereas Messrs. Guye will take two or three months to produce the same number. If this was taken as roughly 11 weeks, then Guye's rate of production would be 100 per week.

The address of P & A Guye at 77 Farringdon Road is interesting, because Grace's Guide lists H. Williamson's address in 1922 as 77-81 Farringdon Road.

Guye made an 0 size movement which they said was smaller than any English hand made movement.

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Nicole, Nielsen & Company

This company was started by Swiss born watchmakers Charles Victor Adolphe Nicole and Jules Philippe Capt in 1839. It initially traded as Nicole & Capt from 80B Dean Street, Soho, London. By 1858 the company had relocated to larger premises at 14 Soho Square, where it remained until it finally closed in 1934. They made movements for E. J. Dent, Charles Frodsham and others. Robert Roskell & Co Ltd of Liverpool was an important customer.

In 1844, Adolphe Nicole was granted patent No 10,348 for keyless work for fusee watches. Also included in the patent were details of chronograph work, including a heart shaped cam that allowed the seconds hand to be returned to zero by a push of a button, the flyback mechanism still used today. Unlike earlier centre seconds chronograph watches, which stopped keeping time when the chronograph function was used, in Nicole's invention the chronograph train was independent of the time train. This was the first really useful chronograph and Nicole is regarded as the inventor of modern chronograph and split seconds chronograph watches. In 1862, Nicole was granted patent No 1,461 for an improved chronograph with a castle ratchet. During a lecture delivered to the Manchester and North of England Horological Society, Charles Guignard said that the first chronographs were exhibited at the London Exhibition of 1862, and again in Paris in 1867. They were made by Henri Piguet and had the were constructed with the chronograph mechanism under the dial. By about 1870 the first minute recorder was added and the chronograph mechanism moved to above the top plate.

Around 1870, Danish born Sophus Emil Nielsen joined Adolphe Nicole as a partner and the name of the company was changed to Nicole, Nielsen & Co.

In 1876 the company under the name Nicole, Nielsen & Co, London was given an award for watches at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. In 1881, Nicole, Nielsen & Co, London, was give a second class award at the Melbourne International Exhibition for pocket watches and chronometers.

In 1890, in a lecture on recent progress in watch and clockmaking, Julien Tripplin remarked that “In the important matter of watchmaking by machinery we have, during the past ten years, vigorously pushed ourselves to the front rank in quality and organisation, for, besides the large factory of Messrs. Rotherham, we have in London those of Messrs. Guye and Company, and Nicole, Nielsen, and Company.”

Nicole, Nielsen & co. were half way between a traditional craft watchmaker and a machine based mass-production factory. They made their own movements, rather than buying them in from a movement maker. Their machines were initially powered by foot or hand in the traditional way, but at the Soho factory an Otto gas engine was installed in the basement and drove line shafting. Parts were made to gauged sizes so that they were interchangeable. The factory differed from a typical mass-production factory where large numbers of identical parts were turned out by automatic machinery. In the Nicole, Nielsen factory, watches were customised for each customer so that they had their own unique design. This meant that different jigs and dies were required for each customer and consequently fewer parts were made in each batch. Adding to the difficulty was that in addition to simple time-only watches, minute recording chronographs, split seconds chronographs and a variety of other complicated watches were produced.

“This firm did not desire any notice of the merits of their tools and machinery given to the world, as they did not wish their watches to be known as machine made, their business being of a select and aristocratic character.”

When Adolphe Nicole retired, the company was run as a partnership by Sophus Emil Nielsen, who had married Adolphe Nicole's daughter Harriet Victoire, and Adolphe Nicole's two other children Charles and Zelia Louise. In July 1885, it was announced that the partnership had been dissolved by mutual consent on 31 December 1884 and that Charles and Zelia had left. The business was continued by Sophus Emil and Harriet Victoire Nielsen.

In 1888 the firm was sold by Sophus Emil and Harriet Victoire Nielson to Robert Benson North. The business was converted into a limited liability company under the title Nicole, Nielsen & Co Ltd. Sophus Emil Nielson died shortly afterwards, after a long illness, in June 1899. In his obituary it was said that “under his guidance the machine system of manufacture was introduced”.

In 1891, at the Kew watch trials, a watch entered by Nicole, Nielsen & Co, London, came 10th of the 27 watches that obtained the highest marks during the year with 82.7 marks. The watch had the serial number 10115 and had a duo-in-uno balance spring, a double roller and a going barrel. It gained 31.8 out of 40 marks (79.5% of the possible total) for daily variation of rate, 36.2 out of 40 marks (90.5%) for change of rate with change of position and 14.7 out of 20 marks (73.5%) for temperature compensation. This was a respectable result because the watch had the complications of a minute and split seconds chronograph, which were more difficult to achieve high accuracy with than a simple time-only watch.

In 1901, Robert Benson North, trading as Nicole, Nielsen & Co, Watch Manufacturer, 14 Soho Square, entered a sponsor's mark of the initials RN in cameo within a rectangular surround at the London Assay Office.

In March 1903, Robert Benson North was granted Patent No 6,737 for “Improvements in Revolving Escapements for Watches and other Portable Timekeepers”. This was a type of slow-moving tourbillion or Karrusel, where the escapement revolves around a fixed train wheel.

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Dent was a very well known London manufacturer of high quality clocks and watches. Several other companies used the name Dent in order to trade off this reputation, so one has to be careful of watches carrying the name Dent.

Edward John Dent (1790-1853) began making watches in 1814. Dent became one of London's greatest and best known chronometer makers.

Dent and John Roger Arnold, son of the chronometer maker John Arnold, were in business together as Arnold & Dent from 1830-1840 at 84 Strand, London. In September 1840 Dent and Arnold separated and Dent continued in business under his own name Edward Dent until his death, when others continued the firm under various names and at various addresses. Charles Frodsham took over Arnold’s business after Arnold’s death in 1843.

Dent experimented with glass balance springs for marine chronometers to overcome the problem of rust. These worked well and were surprisingly robust; in a chronometer that was accidentally dropped to the floor, which broke the balance staff pivots, the glass balance spring was unharmed. However, the glass springs suffered from an acceleration in rate which continued for several years, so were ultimately not satisfactory.

In 1842 Dent published an explanation of the cause of Middle Temperature Error, after which it was often referred to as “Dent's Error”.

The Dent company built the Great Clock for the Palace of Westminster, which strikes the hours on the bell called Big Ben. Edward John Dent was alive when the company was awarded the contract for the clock, but he did not live to see it completed.

Dent's two stepsons each inherited half of the business on his death. Both died within a few years and the two businesses were continued separately under similar names. The one run by Dent's widow Elizabeth was called Dent & Co., the other run by one of the stepson's widow Marianna Frederica was called M F Dent.

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Kendal & Dent

The name Kendal & Dent is often seen on low grade watches, for example key wound and set watches with cylinder escapement movements and no train jewels, inscribed “Makers to the Admiralty, Kendal and Dent London, Swiss made”. This puzzled me until David Penney told me that the impressive sounding name and byline have nothing to do with any of the great Dent firms, and that the company were London retailers who mostly sold cheap Swiss and English made watches.

The company didn't actually make watches. None of their watches are fakes as such, but many were poor quality and their watches have acquired a poor reputation among watch collectors as a result. If you want a good quality watch that can be serviced and used, avoid the ones with cylinder escapement movements. However, a small proportion of Kendal & Dent watches are better quality; English made, with jewelled lever escapement movements.

Kendal & Dent was established in 1871 at 106 Cheapside, London, EC.

The J Dent of Kendal & Dent was not related to the famous Dent family of watchmakers.

On 22 March 1883, James Francis Kendal, trading as Kendal & Dent, Watchmakers & Importers, 106 Cheapside EC, entered a sponsor's mark at the London Assay Office, JK in cameo with a rectangular surround with cut corners.

In the Greenwich trials of box chronometers that concluded in March 1889, two chronometers entered by Kendal & Dent were placed at 29 and 39 in the results of the unusually large number of 47 entries. The Admiralty usually purchased as many of the highest rated chronometers as were needed, and this year bought the first 13, and also number 18 by Usher and Cole for some special reason that is not recorded.

On 29th January 1889, James Kendal and M. Laval, London, applied for a patent for "A night-light Timepiece".

In April 1889, a deck watch entered by Kendal & Dent came seventeenth in the deck watch trials at Greenwich and was purchased by the Admiralty. After this, Kendal & Dent advertised as “Watchmakers to the Admiralty”. A second watch entered in the same trials came in twenty fifth place and was not purchased.

In the trial of deck watches at Greenwich, from 25 October 1890 to 14 February 1891, two watches entered by Kendal & Dent were numbers 28 and 29 out of 31 entered. The Horological Journal commented that “The tail end of the deck watch trial is shockingly bad ...” A box chronometer entered by Kendal & Dent in the 1890 chronometer trial was number 29 out of 38. The first fifteen were purchased by the Admiralty.

In the Greenwich chronometer trial of 1891-92, two box chronometers entered by Kendal & Dent were placed at 27 and 44 out of 51. The serial numbers of these instruments, 2/6588 and 2/6587, suggest that they were made by Usher & Cole, who had chronometers placed at 24 and 42 with numbers 2/6536 and 2/6537.

On 18 May 1921, three punches with K&D for Kendal & Dent were entered at the London Assay Office. These were followed by a dozen similar punches entered over the years until 1934. James Francis Kendal died in 1911 aged 67. The K&D sponsor's marks were entered by Florence Emma Coad and Boyd Lakeman Langman, who had presumably taken over the business.

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J. B. Dent

Very little is known about this company, even whether or not John Bryant Dent was a real person. A company trading as John Bryant Dent or J. B. Dent appears to have used the name Dent to associate their business with that of the more famous Dent company. Vaudrey Mercer states that Thomas Buckney of the real Dent & Company complained in a letter to J. B. Dent for referring to themselves as "Dent & Co." in a catalogue. They also used an image of the Westminster Great Clock in some of their adverts although the clock was nothing to do with them.

J. B. Dent appears to have been a retailer of clocks and watches, possibly with shops at at Blackfriars Road, London, from circa 1883 and 74 Imperial Buildings Ludgate Circus in circa 1885. Specimens of watches carrying their name and logos include English fusee lever watches and Swiss watches with cylinder escapements.

Although J. B. Dent watches often carry "Watch and Chronometer Makers to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and the British Government, London" engraved on the dome, there is no evidence to support this claim. The name J. B. Dent does not appear in any published results of watch trials at Greenwich or Kew and is not mentioned in any issue of the Horological Journal.

An entry in a 1905 trade directory records "J. B. Dent & Sons, British Empire, London and Provincial Watch Manufactory, 189 Blackfriars Road, London" which seems to be just as much puffery as the engraving on the dome. The notice includes "No connection with any other House in the Trade" so Buckney's letter had an effect.

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S. Smith & Son

S. Smith and Son of Trafalgar Square, 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, Smiths did not actually manufacture any watches themselves at this time. In his book A Long Time in Making; The History of Smiths, Dr James Nye explains

Having set the scene, we can dispel a long-standing myth. The older and younger Samuel Smith did not make watches, but they did add their names to the dials. Few survive with the Newington Causeway address, but thousands still bear the address No. 9 Strand, or Trafalgar Buildings. Of these, large numbers are actually Swiss imports, but badged for Smiths. Many of these are high-quality objects, made by firms such as Heuer or Jeanerret.

Smiths were not unaware of the importance for many customers to wear an 'English Made' product, and although we will encounter an interesting tension in the definition of what is English made or not, it is clear Smiths could also turn to a handful of large scale producers of English watches. These notably included Rotherham's and Williamson's, both of Coventry, each with outlets in Clerkenwell, allowing for easy access to the West End shops of their customers, such as Smiths. J. H. Seager, originally of Williamson's, wrote many years later, 'as a lad it was part of my job to take messages or parcels from my firm in Clerkenwell to Mr Samuel Smith in the Strand'.

All these suppliers, whether English or Swiss, could provide finished watches, showing 'S. Smith & Sons, 9 Strand' on the dial and indeed the firm's name engraved into the decorative and shiny back-plates of the watches. This was standard business practice, and Smiths former neighbours, Frodsham's, along with other famous names such as Dent, and Benson (probably Smiths' main competitor), were all engaged in exactly the same practice-essentially that of retailer, not manufacturer.

In addition to watches made in Coventry, Smiths no doubt purchased watches from high quality London wholesale manufacturers such as P. & A. Guye, Ltd. and Nicole Nielsen & Company.

Towards the end of the second world war, the British government persuaded Smiths to begin manufacture of watches for strategic reasons. High quality jewelled lever pocket and wristwatches were produced in a factory in Cheltenham, and cheaper pin lever watches from a factory in Wales, 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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Watchmaking in Coventry rose to prominence in the nineteenth century. It began with the finishing of rough movement from Prescot in Lancashire, supplied by companies such as Wycherley. The industry expanded and eventually all the parts of the watches, including the rough movements, 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. Many Coventry watchmakers got their rough movements from Prescot until 1889 when the Lancashire Watch Company was founded.

Fearing that their supply of rough movements would be cut off, in March 1889 some Coventry watchmakers set up their own movement manufacturing company called the Coventry Watch Movement Company or Coventry Watch Movement Manufacturing Company. The first ordinary meeting was held in May 1889. Shareholders present were Samuel Yeomans (chairman of directors), I. J. T. Newsome, Charles Read, Rowland Hill, T. Kinder, J. Hawley, jun., J. Hewitt, R. Waddington (retiring directors), Masser (solicitor), E. F. Peirson (secretary), E. Adkins, T. J. Mercer, E. Denny, C. Shufflebotham, R. J. Pike, T. Gardner, W. Flowers and A. H. Marston. Rather than just rough movements for others to finish, this company appears to have made finished 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.

In the nineteenth century the centre of Coventry was overcrowded and unhealthy, so as watchmaking in Coventry increased in importance and prosperity, some watchmakers moved away from the city centre to other areas. In order of their development, these were:

Coventry Production

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 movement makers and had the object of becoming a manufacturer of complete watches, caused Coventry watch manufacturers concern that the supply of rough movements might be restricted or prices forced up. In 1889 the Coventry Watch Movement Manufacturing Company was established to produce movements 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 rough movements from Prescot. 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.

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Coventry Watchmakers

In this section I have gathered information about a number of Coventry watchmakers. This is by no means exhaustive, more a collected set of notes and jottings which I add to from time-to-time as I find out more.

Newsome and Yeomans separated in 1878 and Newsome created Newsome & Company at 14/15 The Butts.Newsome was not the first watchmaker in the Butts: 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. 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 rough movements.

When the Lancashire Watch Company was founded in 1888, Coventry watchmakers were concerned that the supply of rough movements for finishing from Prescot would cease, so they founded the Coventry Watch Movement Company in the Hillcross area of the city.

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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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Charles Huton Errington

Charles Huton Errington was born at Matlock, Derbyshire, in July 1853. His father, Miller Errington, a miller by trade, moved the family to Coventry where he worked for Robbins and Powers of City Flour Mills, Coventry, for many years. In the 1920s, Robbins and Powers developed a pre-packed flour which they called Homepride.

Charles Errington went to King Street British School, Coventry, and afterwards was apprenticed to Franks and Ball, watch engravers. The 1871 census records Charles and his older brother William Miller Errington living as lodgers with the Dunn family on Peter Street. Charles is 17 and his occupation is watchmaker's engraver, William is 23 and his occupation is a miller's stone dresser. He would have cut the radial grooves in millstones that scissored the corn. In later censuses and trade directories, William is recorded as a watchmaker in various locations in Staffordshire.

When Charles Errington completed his apprenticeship as an engraver in 1874, he was sworn in as a freeman and admitted to the freedom of the city of Coventry. He then set up as a watch engraver on the upper floor at 2B Holyhead Road. He shared the space with some watch trade workers and, from them, began to learn about the watch industry.

The 1881 census lists Charles H. Errington, living at home with his parents, as a Watch Engraver. Cutmore says Errington is shown in Kelly's directories in 1875 and 1887 as a watch case engraver and in 1892 as a movement maker.

Some time later, Charles Errington moved to a workshop in the Plough Yard, where he developed a trade as a manufacturer of parts of watches with eight employees. He then began to buy rough movements from James Berry, a movement maker in Prescot, to finish.

Charles Errington was granted a number of patents for improvements in watches, which give an idea not only of his technical capabilities but also what areas of movement manufacturing he was involved in at the time.

18811,433 Method of setting hands from the pendant
18815,636 Centre-seconds stop watch
18916,617 Device for raising the barrel ratchet click and readily letting down the mainspring
189210,356Watch bolt and spring in one piece
189218,766An arrangement to prevent the barrel ratchet when removed from damaging the centre wheel
Watchmakers' Cottages Lower Holyhead Road
Watchmakers' Cottages Lower Holyhead Road from Google Maps: Click image to enlarge

In 1890 Charles Errington purchased land at the rear of a row of watchmakers' cottages on Holyhead Road, and erected a factory for making watches by machinery. At the time, this was the northern edge of the Coventry watchmaking quarter, which grew up between 1800 and 1840 and extended southwards to the Butts Road. Errington intended to bring the front of his factory right up to Holyhead Road, but he was unable to buy the cottages.

The cottages still stand today on what is now Lower Holyhead Road, next to the ring road. The workshops or “topshops” were on the top floor and the large windows that admitted lots of light onto the work benches are still in place. These are the oldest surviving watchmakers' workshops in Coventry, dating from around 1820. A plaque recording the location of Errington's factory is attached to the cottage on the left of the image.

The 1891 census records Charles Errington living at Northfields Farm, Allesley, with his wife Harriet. His occupation is give as “Watch Movement Maker & Farmer”. In the terminology of the time, a watch movement maker made rough movements, which were passed on to watchmakers who finished them by fitting the escapement, balance and balance spring, engraving, jewelling, gilding etc.

The Horological Journal November 1895 announced that H. Williamson, Limited, of Farringdon Road, London had taken over the watch manufacturing concern of Charles H. Errington, Holyhead Road, Coventry, remarking that “Although his establishment is of considerable extent, Mr. Errington was probably but little known outside of Coventry, except to the factors with whom he did business.”

Charles Errington remained on as general manager of the factory, which retained the name of the Errington Watch Factory, and he continued in that position till 1910. The factory was much expanded, and at one time employed between 700 and 800 hands.

Manager's House Lower Holyhead Road
Manager's House Lower Holyhead Road from Google Maps: Click image to enlarge

The second image of the Lower Holyhead Road shows, on the left, a double-fronted house that, after 1894, appears to have been used as the manager's house, and possibly the company's office, for the Errington watch factory.

Charles Errington had considerable interests in property, land and buildings. He played an important part in the development of the upper Holyhead Road district. He created Melville Road and Waveley Road, building 28 houses on the left-hand side of the Melville Road and several villas on the Birmingham Road.

Charles Errington disposed of all his properties, including a row of tenements on the Stoney Stanton Road, and retired to Ilfracombe, where he died in October 1926.

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H. Williamson

H. Williamson was established in 1865 in Coventry by Henry Williamson as a dealer in, and later manufacturer of, jet jewellery. Jet is a hard black fossilized wood that can be carved and highly polished. Queen Victoria wore jet from Whitby as part of her mourning dress after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and it became extremely fashionable. When jet went out of fashion in the 1880s the company diversified into other areas.

The firm grew rapidly to become a huge wholesale business. The head office and show room was at 81 Farringdon Road, London. In 1892 the firm was incorporated as a limited liability company as H. Williamson Ltd. Henry Williamson went into semi-retirement due to poor health and failing eyesight in 1906, and died in 1914.

Guye and Williamson
Guye and Williamson: click image to enlarge

The advertisement reproduced here from The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith of June 1893 says that H. Williamson, Ltd., 81 Farringdon Road, London are the sole agent for the United Kingdom for P & A Guye's movements in London made cases. Culme shows that two punch marks “HW” in cameo within an oval surround were entered at the London Assay Office in 1888 by Henry Williamson. A sterling silver watch case with one of these HW sponsor's marks and the date letter “R” for 1892 to 1893 has been seen. This suggests that H. Williamson were having watch cases made for them in London, hallmarked under their own registered sponsor's mark (which was a common practice) and fitting them with movements such as those from P & A Guye.

The address of P & A Guye at 77 Farringdon Road is interesting, because Grace's Guide lists H. Williamson's address in 1922 as 77-81 Farringdon Road. The same guide lists Williamson factories in Birmingham and Coventry, and branches in Manchester, Auckland, Calcutta, Johannesburg and Sydney.

Williamson and Errington

In November 1895, it was announced that H. Williamson had taken over the watch manufacturing concern of Mr. Charles H. Errington, Holyhead Road, Coventry. Although little known outside Coventry, Errington's establishment was said to be of considerable extent. Before the acquisition of the Errington watch company, Williamson had made only clocks at a factory in Salisbury and acted as agents for other companies, notably the watchmaker P & A Guye but also quite likely Errington, which would be how they became interested in the factory. For twenty years Errington had devoted himself to the production of low cost watches, being granted a number of patents for improvements in watch movements.

In announcing the acquisition of the Errington Watch Factory, a name that was continued, H Williamson said that it possessed “the most perfect system of Machinery in this Country for the Manufacture of High Class Watches, Keyless and Key-Winding, ¾ and full-plate.

Cutmore says that because Errington had finished rough movements made by James Berry of Prescot, when H. Williamson acquired the factory there was no machinery for the manufacture of the watch plates or other basic parts. It is believed that Williamson acquired machinery for making plates and other parts in 1896 from the failed English Watch Company. However, this is rather contradicted by the statement made by Williamson's on taking over the Errington factory.

In 1898 H. Williamson's main premises at 81 Farringdon Road London was said to be extensive and imposing, with commodious offices at the front and a very large shipping department at the back, with warehouses, workrooms, a large packing department and numerous departments handling gem stones, jewellery, items of silver plate and electro plate, and a large clock, optical and watch department. “There were many excellent lines of Swiss watches . . . the majority of which are manufactured exclusively for the company.”

The building at 11 Spencer Street, Birmingham, with a factory and offices, had been built for the Reading family of jewellers circa 1871. It was acquired in 1899 by H. Williamson Ltd., who used the offices and made electroplated silver wares in the factory.

In May 1909, a fire completely destroyed the Salisbury clock factory, which covered nearly an acre of ground, in little more than one hour, and the whole of the stock, plant, and machinery, including tools, models, plans, drawings, calculation lists, and everything connected with the factory, were completely destroyed. A new factory for making clocks was set up in Coventry under the direction of Charles Errington who pulled off an extraordinary achievement in getting together a complete plant, machinery, tools, etc. in a few months, designing a completely new clock movement, the first “Astral”, which met with exceptional praise from experts and others who examined it. Charles Errington continued working for H. Williamson as manager of the Coventry watch factory until his retirement in June 1910.

Williamson and Büren

In 1898 Williamson purchased the Swiss company of Fritz Suter & Co, watch manufacturers in the town of Büren an der Aare in the canton of Bern, Switzerland, and in 1899 the factory of Albert Montandon in la Chaux-de-Fonds. The factory in Büren was acquired specifically to supply parts such as the train wheels and pinions, mainspring barrels and arbors, and escapement parts, to the watch factory in Coventry. These parts were incorporated into watches of English appearance, with plates that were made in Coventry. These watches were advertised as “English Lever” and “Keyless English Lever” watches.

In 1899 the Lancashire Watch Company, who had previously supplied watches to Williamson before they started making their own movements with imported Swiss parts, took out a prosecution under the Merchandise Marks Act (1887). Williamson were found guilty of applying a false trade description to watches with Swiss train wheels and other Swiss made parts. As a result of this, Williamson purchased Swiss machinery so that they could make the parts in Coventry, which meant that the Swiss factories were no longer needed for this purpose.

Rather than close or sell off the Swiss factories, Williamson began making complete watches there and importing them under the brand name Büren.

W.H.S sponsor's mark for imported watch cases

Imports of watches from the Büren factory no doubt increased as the demand for expensive English made watches decreased. Swiss watches in gold and silver cases with Swiss hallmarks were imported without any problems until 1907. Then in 1907 the British authorities woke up to the fact that this was against the law, and required that all imported gold and silver watches be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. This caused a scramble amongst watch importers such as Williamson to service the requirements of hallmarking, which meant that they had to have a sponsor's mark registered with one or more assay offices.

As major manufactures and wholesalers of gold and silver Williamson already had sponsor's marks registered with the London Assay Office. Henry Williamson had first registered his mark H.W as gold worker on 4 February 1887, and various H.W.Ltd marks were registered after the company had become limited, but a different sponsor's mark was registered specifically for use on imported watch case, the mark W.H.S within a shield with angled ends shown here.

The first sponsor's mark punches with this mark were entered at the London Assay Office on 22 June 1907 by William Henry Sparrow, described as an importer of gold and silver watches, 11 Spencer Street, Birmingham. Two additional punches with the same mark were registered on 4 July 1907, and two further punches with the same mark on 3 May 1909.

These simple registration details conceal an interesting story. Philip Priestley records that Sparrow was “possibly” Manager of the Errington Watch Company Case Department, so it would make sense that when Errington was acquired by Williamson in 1895, Sparrow continued in charge of the manufacture of watch cases. When the law changed to require imported watch cases be hallmarked, he was the obvious person to enter a sponsor's mark for that purpose.

Merchandise Marks Act Prosecution

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.

Williamson contended that the train and other foreign parts used in these watches were on the same footing as the balance and spring mainspring, which were nearly always of foreign origin in all 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.

An article in the Horological Journal in 1948 said that a result of the trial was that a new Merchandise Marks Act precluded any British watch or clock factory from using more than sixpennyworth of material, which the article said “just covered the cost of a hairspring”. In fact, it covered more than that as can be seen from the Williamson Astral pocket watch shown in the next section, which has a Swiss made balance, balance spring and mainspring, and the jewels are also almost certainly Swiss made, which is why it has only 7 jewels. At the time, jewels were mass produced in Switzerland by automatic machinery, but in England they were shaped and formed by hand, which made them much more expensive than the Swiss. The Williamson movement would be better, longer lasting, with 15 jewels, but the number was probably kept to seven to stay under the sixpennyworth limit on Swiss materials.

The judgement in the case 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 parts which were previously imported from Switzerland. After losing the court case, Williamson extended the Coventry factory so that they could make all of the parts there instead of importing them, although they continued to use Swiss balances, balance springs, mainsprings and jewels. The Swiss Büren factory remained owned by Williamson, but now made complete watches marked “Swiss Made” for sale in the UK and elsewhere.

Williamson Astral

Williamson Astral Face

Williamson Astral Face. Click image to enlarge.

Williamson Astral Perret Spring
Williamson Astral Paul Perret Balance and Spring. Click image to enlarge
Williamson Astral Movement
Williamson Astral Movement. Click image to enlarge

The pocket watch shown here is a Williamson Astral in a gold plated Dennison Star grade case. The movement with its exposed winding wheels looks Swiss, but it was made actually in Coventry by H. Williamson Ltd. in around 1910. The reason for the Swiss appearance is that Williamson had been assembling movements in its Coventry factory using parts made at its Swiss factory in Buren, but this was found to be illegal after Williamson were prosecuted under the British 1887 Merchandise Marks Act.

Warranted English

After the Court case over the Merchandise Marks Act, Williamson started to mark the movements made in the Errington Watch Factory with “Warranted English”, either on the top plate or on the ratchet wheel as shown here.

As a result of the loss of the court case, they had imported Swiss machinery so that they could make almost all of the parts in Coventry, but the movements retained a characteristic Swiss appearance, with exposed winding wheels and a straight line lever escapement. After the Court case and the increase in the use of parts made in Coventry, Williamson issued a guarantee with each watch that said it was “guaranteed to be a genuine English Lever, the whole of its parts being of English Manufacture with the exception of a trifling amount of Foreign material which does not exceed the value of 6d.”

Although the movements and their component parts were then mainly made in Coventry, there were still some Swiss parts. At the time, English watchmakers routinely used Swiss mainsprings, balance spring and jewels. This movement has only 7 jewels, but it has a Swiss balance and balance spring, and not just ordinary ones. They are in fact a Paul Perret nickel steel compensation balance spring and an uncut monometallic balance made of a nickel alloy. The photograph shows the uncut balance and white metal alloy balance spring. Perhaps the absence of train jewels was in order to keep the cost of imported materials to below sixpence.

John Troup & Sons

This company was established in the early 1840s by John Troup at 36 Hatton Garden, in London's jewellery quarter, as a watch and clock maker and jeweller. Troup was joined in the business by his sons Alexander James and Frederick William, when the business was named John Troup & Sons. In 1870 the business was described as a wholesale jeweller. The premises has a small street frontage but stretches back a long way and today houses 18 independently owned jewellers booths. It seems likely that the front of premises was used as a retail shop with a wholesale business at the back. In 1903 a branch was opened at 105 Spencer Street, Birmingham. In 1907 the business and stock was sold to H. Williamson for £35,000.

Williamson Wristwatches

Astral Wristlet
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; these were made by the Dennison Watch Case Co.. Although Williamson were clearly enthusiastic about the prospects for wristwatches, Astral wristwatches are not common.

The movement was stamped “Warranted English”, but without this it would 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, I am sure they were much more expensive than a Swiss made watch with a better 15 jewel movement. It is no wonder they are rare!

H. Williamson Liquidation

Following the financial crash of 1929 and the subsequent world-wide depression in the 1930s, H. Williamson Ltd. became insolvent in August 1931. The business continued to operate as before while the liquidators attempted to sell the assets.

A joint-stock company "Büren Watch Company SA" was formed in Büren an der Aare on 15 July 1932 for the purpose of acquiring the watch factory "H. Williamson Ltd. Buren Watch Co" and all its assets and goodwill. The purchase agreement was dated 19 July 1932. The board of directors were appointed at a constitutive general assembly on 23 August 1932. The directors included William Edward Tucker, ex joint managing director of H. Williamson. Tucker was appointed sales manager and by 1934 had travelled three time round the world selling Büren watches. The Swiss company was bought by the American Hamilton watch company in 1966.

The Coventry company Rotherham & Sons became the British agents for watches made by the Büren Watch Company SA in September 1932.

Williamsons made clocks and watches with the name Astral and, in the 1920s, electrically wound car clocks with the name Empire. 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.

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Alfred Fridlander

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 1883/84 gold
London hallmarks 1883/84 on 18 carat gold. Click image to enlarge. Fridlander
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 rough movement made in Prescot, and that the case was made in Coventry in Fridlander's factory.

Reading from the top the marks are:

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.
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.

Newsome, 14 Butts.
Newsome, 14 Butts. Image courtesy of Bygone Spon End, Chapelfields and Nauls Mill.

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.

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 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.

Newsome & Co. Advert 1894.
Newsome & Co. Advert 1894. Click image to enlarge.

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 Spécialité with or without the Kew Certificate in “A,” “B,” or “C” class... Illustrated catalogue on application.

The “Keyless Work a Spécialité ...” is particularly nice sophistication, as is the statement “Appro parcels sent out at 1 Minute's Notice”; these are parcels of goods sent out for approval and subsequent payment or return. How the orders for such rapid parcels were communicated is not clear, since no telegraph or telephone details are given.

The firm's London agent was listed in 1897 as J. M. Joseph. The London office subsequently moved to 70 Hatton Garden, and Joseph was succeeded by Charles Louis Ebeling.

Patents used in Newsome watches

On 3 March 1886, Albert John Morcom of St. Austell, Cornwall, was granted British patent 3005 for a “Safety Mechanism for preventing damage to the movements of Watches and Clocks on the breaking of the mainspring” to guard against damage caused by breakage of the mainspring in movements with goings barrels. The safety mechanism consists of two separate wheels on one axis, placed between the barrel wheel and the centre pinion. Between the two wheels of the safety wheel are a click and ratchet. The barrel wheel teeth are cut on the middle of the barrel, which has the additional benefit of distributing friction equally on both ends of the barrel arbor. The upper wheel of the safety mechanism engages with the barrel wheel and the lower wheel engages with the centre pinion, as the barrel would normally. When the mainspring is driving the train of wheels, the click and ratchet enables the upper wheel to drive the lower wheel. Should the action of the barrel be reversed, as it is when the mainspring breaks, the top wheel reverses on the ratchet, preventing any further damage from taking place.

In 1890 a new type of chronograph was manufactured by Newsome and Co. for registering one-sixtieth part of a second. The inventor was Mr. Robert Turner of 53 Princess Street, Bury, who was granted a patent for this invention in 1889. The escape-wheel arbor of an ordinary chronograph train of 18,000 vph was fitted with an additional wheel of forty eight teeth, which engage with a pinion of eight leaves that carried a hand on a small auxiliary dial divided into 60ths seconds. The result being that the small hand makes a complete revolution each second. The rest of the train was as normal and there was also a centre-seconds hand on the large dial.

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 two sets of hallmarks shown here both have the same sponsor's mark, the initials I.J.T.N in cameo within a rectangular surround.

Punches with this mark were first 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:

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. If the assay office hallmarks are not punched in a regular triangle pattern, this can indicate a fake hallmark in a watch case.

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Bahne Bonniksen (1859-1935) served an apprenticeship with a watchmaker in Copenhagen and spent two years working there before moving to England in 1882. In Denmark his master had shown him a Jürgensen watch which inspired his interest in precision timekeeping. He initially worked in London, attracted by its horological reputation, for the company of R.G. Webster. In 1887 he took a job as a lecturer at the Coventry Technical Institute. He also started work part time as a watch springer and timer, and eventually gave up teaching to become a full-time as a watchmaker.

In 1892 Bonniksen invented a simpler form of tourbillon which he called a “Karrusel”. The principle of the Karrusel is that a rotating cage, called the Karrusel, is driven off the pinion of the third wheel. The Karrusel is pivoted on the pillar plate coaxial with the fourth wheel. The fourth wheel sits inside the Karrusel with its pinion projecting below the Karrusel to engage with the third wheel as normal. The balance and balance spring, lever and escape wheel are mounted on the Karrusel carriage, together with two cocks, one of which bears the upper pivot of the fourth wheel and the lower pivot of the balance staff, the other bears the top pivot of the balance staff. The lower pivots of the lever and escape wheel are formed in the Karrusel, with a separate cock for their upper pivots. The right angle English lever is the ideal layout for the design.

Bonniksen's house at 16 Norfolk Street in Coventry still exists and bears a blue plaque commissioned by the Coventry Watch Museum Project with the words “Residence and Workshop of Bahne Bonniksen Watch manufacturer and inventor of the Karussel Movement for watches and chronometers 1894”. Number 16 is a single fronted terraced house which does not look large enough to contain both a home and a substantial workshop, but Bonniksen said that all Karrusel movements were made there.

Bonniksen is almost certainly referring to the production of rough movements consisting of the main plates and train wheels, including the Karrusel carriage. Components would have been sourced from separate specialist suppliers and assembled into rough movements. Some of these were no doubt finished on the premises, but Bonniksen also supplied supplied other watchmakers with rough movements for finishing.

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Coventry Cooperative Watch Manufacturing Society

The Coventry Cooperative Watch Manufacturing Society was a group of previously independent traditional Coventry hand-craft watch finishers who banded together in 1876 to gain the benefits of the combined resources and purchasing power of a larger entity.

They finished watch movements obtained from Prescot, principally if not exclusively from the Prescot firm of John Wycherley. It is thought that all of these were going barrel movements, that is without fusees.

The venture was fairly successful for about 10 years and then went into decline because the company refused to modernise and continued in the old fashioned way finishing rough movements made by others.

Trademark: The letters CCWMS on a Maltese cross. The letters CCWM are on the arms of the cross, the letter S is entwined about the cross.

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Coventry Watch Movement Company

When the Lancashire Watch Company was founded in 1888, Coventry watchmakers were concerned that the supply from Prescot of rough movements for finishing would cease, so in 1889 they founded the Coventry Watch Movement Company, sometimes referred to as the Coventry Watch Movement Manufacturing Company, in the Hillcross area of the city. Samuel Yeomans was its first chairman. C H Errington attended an early meeting.

Charles Scarisbrick, a watch movement manufacturer of Prescot, was recruited as manager. In 1881 Scarisbrick had been listed as a watch movement manufacturer at West Street, Prescot, employing five men and four boys. The first batch of Coventry movements was completed in April 1889. Scarisbrick reported that considerable orders were in hand.

The association of Scarisbrick with the company didn't last long. In November 1891 it was reported that “Mr W Jeffs of Fleet Street, Coventry, has formed a partnership with Mr. Charles Scarisbrick, late manager of the Coventry Watch Manufacturing Company. The firm will take up movement manufacturing in Meadow Street, Coventry.”

The company was initially under capitalised and struggled for some years. 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 bicycles, and parts for the motor and aviation industries. In 1912 the reference to watches was dropped from the name and it became the Coventry Movement Company Limited.

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S. Alexander & Son

One of the older watchmaking companies in Coventry was S. Alexander & Son, Wholesale Watch Manufacturers at 61 Allesley Old Road. The company was founded in 1860 and celebrated its centenary in 1960.

In advertisements, the company said it was Makers to the Admiralty, Contractors to the War Office and the Royal Aircraft Factory. High class hand-made gold presentation watches were a speciality.

In May 1937 it was announced that a limited company, S. Alexander & Son (Coventry), Ltd, with Capital of £1,000, had been formed to acquire the business of a watchmaker and jeweller carried on by Samuel Alexander as " S. Alexander & Son," at 61, Allesley Old Road, Coventry. The directors are: Samuel Alexander and Valentine S. Alexander. Registered office: 61, Allesley Old Road Coventry.

Watches supplied to the Admiralty had to marked with their maker's name, so some deck watches manufactured by the company are known. However, the company appears to have never entered a sponsor's mark at an assay office or signed the movements of watches they made.

Virtually nothing else seems to have been recorded about this company.

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Prescot, Lancashire

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 collections of parts that constituted rough movements that were sent to Clerkenwell in London to be “finished”. Rough movements were also sent from Prescot to Liverpool and to Coventry to be finished.

John Wycherley

Wycherley Movement: Click image to enlarge.
Thanks to Alan for the picture.

In 1866 John Wycherley set up a factory in Warrington Road, Prescot, with three floors and steam power, to produce rough movements by machinery. Wycherley stated that all the plates of a specific type of movement would be the same size and that the parts were interchangeable. Wycherley also introduced a system of 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 his business made just plates, 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 rough movement was then sent to the jeweller, escapement maker, engraver, gilder, dial maker, and many other specialists before it was finally cased and the watch was finished.

Rough movements 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.

Details of Wycherley's 1867 Patent

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.

NB: Sometimes the name is spelt without the final “e” as Wycherly. There are many mentions of John Wycherley / Wycherly in the Horological Journal in the nineteenth century. I counted 182 spelt Wycherley and 65 spelt Wycherly. I found three earlier instances, but the latter spelling seems to have become common from 1886 in the name of Wycherley, Hewitt & Company, which was more often (~61 times) printed in the HJ as Wycherly, Hewitt & Co. than the correct Wycherley, Hewitt & Co. (only 24 times).

The Lancashire Watch Company

Lancashire Watch Co Ltd: Click to enlarge.

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 and into one factory a number of separate businesses.

The core businesses were Wycherley and Hewitt & Co., both owned at the time by Thomas P. Hewitt. Other businesses that were persuaded to go in with the venture were Isaac Hunt & Co., E. Beesley & Sons, H. Dagnall & Son, and 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. 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. Another large customer was H. Samuel.

Steel mainsprings are prone to break and in a going barrel watch this can result in serious damage to the wheel train and jewels. One method of preventing damage was to fix the centre pinion to the centre arbor with a left hand thread. When the watch was working normally this thread was held tight, but if the mainspring broke the sudden reversal of force would cause the thread to unscrew. This was known as a ‘safety pinion’ in American watches and a ‘reversing pinion’ in Lancashire Watch Company movements, which are stamped with this on the top plate, presumably to impress customers or to warn watch repairers that the centre pinion was loose on the arbor.

An alternative safety device, which also reverses the direction of winding, was a small wheel on a hinged arm between the barrel and centre pinion. Normally this wheel was held in place between the barrel and pinion by the force of the mainspring, but if the mainspring broke and the force reversed the small wheel would jump out of mesh. Hewitt was granted British patent No. 21,412 for this invention in 1895. Lancashire Watch Company movements with this feature are marked ‘Patent Trip Action’.

The Lancashire Watch company never quite achieved success. It suffered from making too many models of very similar watches, and poor marketing. 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. During the Great War the factory building on Albany Road in Prescot was used as a barracks for the Lancashire ‘Pals’ regiment, accommodating hundreds of soldiers from Prescot and the surrounding area. The 1st City Battalion K.L.R (King's Liverpool Regiment) was the first of all the Pals Battalions, raised by Lord Derby at the old watch factory on the 29th of August 1914. The Grade-II listed building, built in 1889, has now been converted into apartments.

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.

LWCo. Watch Face: Click image to enlarge.

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.

LWCo. Hallmarks: Click image to enlarge.

The mail order company 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 instalments of 10 shillings. This was much cheaper than such watches were usually sold. Taking such a large proportion of the output of the Prescot factory meant that Graves could drive them down on price.

The fact that the Lancashire Watch Company also sold completed watches to other manufacturers, such as the English Watch Company in Birmingham as shown by the watch illustrated here, 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.

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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 Thomas 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 connected by a curved toothed rack to a pinion on the balance staff.

Thomas Russell

Thomas Russell had a partner Henry Stuart at 170 Park Lane, Liverpool, where they were listed as watch and clock manufacturers, but this partnership was dissolved on 28 January 1844. Thomas Russell went on to become a very well known Liverpool watch (manufacturer importer wholesaler retailer ????) at 12 Church Street. The business of Henry Stuart continued under various names and appears to have ceased trading in circa 1882.

Ralph Samuel: Case Maker

In 1856 Mr Ralph Samuel gave evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons that was investigating the hallmarking of gold and silver wares. He had been in the trade of manufacturing gold and silver watch cases for about 25 years and his business manufactured an average of 600 gold watch cases a month and 800 silver. Samuel said that his business made more cases than the rest of the Liverpool manufacturers and was probably the largest watch case manufacturer in the world, making up to 200 gold and 400 silver watch cases in a week. At the time there were 100 men and boys employed, although it had been considerably more at one time and was likely to increase again in the future.

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. Ralph Samuel 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.

Ralph Samuel died in February 1860 and his widow Mary took over the running of the business. The 1861 Census describes Mary's occupation as “Gold case maker employing 40 men and 20 boys.”

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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

William Ehrhardt (1831-1897) was born in Germany and served an apprenticeship as a watchmaker there. He came to England in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. He worked for a time with Upjohn & Bright watchmakers in London before settling in Birmingham.

In 1856 Ehrhardt set up a company at 30 Paradise Street, Birmingham. It seems his intention was to make watches by machinery. This was before John Wycherley 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, but perhaps he was influenced by the reason for its failure, which was principally due to opposition from established English watchmakers. 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's company operated from addresses in Paradise Street and Augusta Street in Birmingham. In 1864 the factory was moved to Great Hampton Street, and an advert with this address in 1872 says that the company had ... constructed machinery to make his patent keyless movement on the interchangeable system.

William Ehrhardt entered a sponsor's mark at the Birmingham Assay Office on 14 November 1867. This meant that he could send in watch cases to be assayed and hallmarked. It was usual for watch cases to be made by specialist watch case makers, of which there were many in the watchmaking areas of London, Coventry and Liverpool. However, Birmingham did not have such a conglomeration of independent specialists supporting watch movement finishers, which suggests that Ehrhardt's company made watch cases as well as movements, and probably dials and hands as well, so that unlike most English watch manufacturers, all the parts of a watch could be made and finished in the Ehrhardt factory.

In 1873 Ehrhardt was naturalised as a British citizen. In 1874 he built a new factory called “Time Works” in Barr Street to increase production. It is thought that by this time Ehrhardt's company had produced 200,000 watches.

Ehrhardt was granted a patent, No. 6406 dated 1894, for improvements in the hand setting mechanism of keyless watches. The invention was a mechanism that allowed the keyless mechanism to be put into hand set mode by pulling the crown outwards away from the case. This is the way that watches are set today so it seems very familiar, but there were hundreds if not thousands of different mechanisms patented in the nineteenth century to effect this before the sliding pinion design invented by Adrien Philippe in 1845 was eventually adopted pretty well universally.

Ehrhardt trademarks
Ehrhardt trademarks

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. In 1898 the business was incorporated as William Ehrhardt Limited with 250 employees.

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 William Ehrhardt Ltd. was liquidated in 1923, by which date it was one of the very last English watch manufacturers. From 1923 until 1927 the Barr Street address was being used in adverts promoting a new company “G. V. Ehrhardt & Hereward Ltd.” as watch cleaners and repairers, but with no mention of watch manufacture.

Sponsor's Marks and Trademarks

W.E Cameo Sponsor's Mark

W.E Incuse Sponsor's Mark

The company used the two trademarks shown in the image above. The winged arrow trademark was registered on on 4 February 1878 and sometimes varies from the shape shown here with simpler and less detailed wings. The fir tree trademark was registered on 4 August 1911 and was used on watches that carry the British Watch Company name.

The sponsor's mark “W.E” incuse was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office on 14 November 1867 by William Ehrhardt, and also at the London Assay Office.

After the first incuse punch, further punches with “WE” and “W.E” in cameo within oval and rectangular shields were registered between 1880 and 1914.

The punch mark shown here with “W.E” in cameo within an oval surround was made by one of three punches registered between 1907 and 1914.


The watches manufactured appear to have been initially full plate key wound with going barrels, with anticlockwise winding to simulate the presence of a fusee. Early models had English right angle lever escapements with pointed escape wheel teeth and the frames pinned together, later models had Swiss straight line lever escapements with club tooth escape wheels with the frames screwed together. The patent granted to Ehrhardt in 1894 shows that he was interested in keyless winding by that date, and later production included three quarter plate movements with keyless winding.

In an article in Antiquarian Horology Winter 1996 D. H. Bacon estimated the total output of Ehrhardt watches from the 1874 founding of the Time Works factory as 775,000 watches. This works out very approximately as about fifteen and a half thousand watches a year or 300 a week over 50 years. The rate was lower than this in the beginning and towards the end, and higher in the good years between 1885 and 1910.

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William Ehrhardt Sponsor's Mark and Hallmarks

Hallmarks - click image to enlarge

Movement - click image to enlarge
Thanks to Ken in the USA for the pictures.

Ehrhardt Birmingham 1888/89 Hallmarks: Click image to enlarge. Thanks to Darren in Auckland for the picture.

Two sets of hallmarks are shown here from cases of watches made by the company of William Ehrhardt Ltd. of Birmingham, England. William Ehrhardt first entered a sponsor's mark at the Birmingham Assay Office on 14 November 1867.

Starting with the images from Ken in USA, reading from the top and then left to right the hallmarks are:

The cropped picture from Darren W. in Auckland shows the earliest sponsor's mark entered by Ehrhardt at the Birmingham Assay Office in November 1867, the initials "W.E" incuse without surround. Several other forms of marks were entered by the Ehrhardt company over the years.

The hallmarks in Darren's image are an anchor, the Birmingham Assay Office town mark, a lion passant, the standard mark of sterling silver, and the date letter "o" in Black Letter Small face for 1888 to 1889.

Note that the Birmingham Assay Office used unique shield shapes for date letters specifically on watch cases in the nineteenth century that are not shown in any published tables.

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The Anglo-American and English Watch Company

The history of the Anglo-American and English Watch Company is a story of one factory under two sets of management and two different names.

The Anglo-American Watch Company Limited was set up by Aaron Dennison and a group of investors in Birmingham in 1871. After the company failed to achieve sufficient sales of its watches in America, Dennison left in 1874 and the company was renamed the English Watch Company. In 1875 the board of directors decided that the company was not viable and it was liquidated. The factory and machinery was sold to William Bragge who ran it under the same name of the English Watch Company, although this had no legal connection with the dissolved limited company of the same name. Bragge's company was itself incorporated and became the second English Watch Company Limited in 1882.

Anglo-American Watch Company

The Anglo-American Watch Company was one of the first companies in England to use mass production machinery to manufacture finished watches in any significant quantity. William Ehrhardt set up a company in Birmingham in 1856 to make finished watches by machinery. John Wycherley also started earlier, in 1866, but made only rough movements sold to watch finishers in London, Liverpool and Coventry.

Aaron Dennison left the American Watch Company of Waltham in 1861 after a disagreements with Royal E. Robbins. 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. Bigelow's idea was to make the larger parts of the movement such as the plates and barrels in America by machine, and import the small fine parts, such as the train wheels, balance and escapement from Switzerland, where wages were lower than in America. Bigelow and Dennison founded the Tremont Watch Company in Boston, and Dennison went to Zurich to supervise the ordering and delivery of parts to America.

The strategy was initially successful. In 1866 the company relocated to Melrose, Massachusetts, and was renamed the Melrose Watch Company. At the same time, Bigelow decided to make all the parts of the movements, and to increase production to 100 watches per week. Dennison disagreed with this and left the company. The new strategy was not a success; the Melrose Watch Company ran out of money and failed in 1868. Dennison returned to Boston and tried to form a new company to purchase the machinery and factory but failed.

After failing to find a buyer for the Melrose machinery, Dennison decided to take it on himself; he had previously given up his shares for an interest in the Melrose factory machinery and work-in-progress. He found investors in Birmingham who were prepared to give financial backing to the venture and a limited liability company called the Anglo-American Watch Company Limited was formed in October 1871. The Melrose machinery was brought to Birmingham and erected at 45 Villa Street, Aston-juxta-Birmingham, which later became known as Hockley.

The articles of agreement between the Anglo-American Watch Company Limited and Dennison, dated 1 January 1872, state that he was to be manager at a salary of £350 per year, subject to dismissal on three months’ notice. At the end of five years Dennison was to receive shares in the company, and a share of the profits if they exceeded 5 per cent for the first year, 10 per cent for the second, 15 per cent for the third, 20 per cent for the fourth, and 25 per cent for the fifth year.

First Liquidation and Sale

Notice of English Watch Company Limited liquidation: Click image to enlarge

The initial products of the Anglo-American Watch Company, uncased movements, were sent to America for sale, but there was little demand because of severe economic depression after the financial crisis of 1873 and the market was over supplied.

In Watches: 1850-1980, Cutmore says that the Anglo-American Watch Company was wound up “late in 1874” and sold for £5,500 to William Bragge, who “renamed it the English Watch Company.” However, this date is wrong, and the name of the company had already been changed to the English Watch Company before it went into liquidation.

In his history of Aaron Dennison and the Dennison watch case company, Philip Priestley records a special resolution of the Anglo-American Watch Company passed on 11 February 1874 that changed the name of the company to the English Watch Company. It appears that Dennison left the company at this time, probably because the investors had become disillusioned due to his inability to turn his ideas into profits. The change of name was in recognition that its watches had not sold well in America and that the company was shifting its focus to the home market, adopting a name that would be more appealing to British buyers.

Unfortunately, the change of focus did not succeed and, less than a year and a half later, another special resolution initiated the voluntary winding up and sale of the English Watch Company. The London Gazette report reproduced here shows that the initial resolution that the English Watch Company Limited of Villa Street, Aston-juxta-Birmingham, be wound up voluntarily was made on 9 June 1875. This resolution was confirmed at a second Extraordinary General Meeting on 24 June when Liquidators were appointed. This shows that the date of 1874 given by Cutmore is wrong.

The notice to creditors posted by the liquidators in the London Gazette on 9 July 1875 required all creditors claims to be submitted before 1 August 1875. When the assets were sold is not recorded, but the liquidators would have wished to dispose of the assets as quickly as possible, so probably in the second half of 1875.

Purchase by Bragge

The assets of the company were sold to William Bragge, a son of a Birmingham jeweller, born in Birmingham on 31 May 1823, who had become a wealthy engineer. At the time of the purchase, William Bragge was manager at the works of John Brown and Co in Sheffield, which had a profitable line in the manufacture of armour-plate.

A sponsor's mark R.B in cameo was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office on 19 January 1876 for Robert Bragge, William Bragge's brother. The details in the register show that he was “Trading as English Watch Company, 45 Villa Street, Hockley, Birmingham & Rosherville Place, Heathfield Road, Birmingham.” This shows that the assets were bought from the liquidators some time after 1 August 1875 and before 19 January 1876. The entry of Robert Bragge's sponsor's mark at the Birmingham Assay Office implies that the company was preparing to send watch cases for hallmarking under the new ownership in January 1876, and the registration of Robert as the responsible person indicates that he was hands-on in the day to day running of the company.

William Bragge did not buy or take over the existing limited company, which went liquidation taking its debts and liabilities with it. Bragge purchased the buildings, machinery and stock-in-trade from the liquidators, in the process creating a new private company which was also called the English Watch Company. This was not a limited company, which might explain Cutmore's remark that he changed the name, it changing from the English Watch Company Limited to the English Watch Company, which was a different legal entity although ostensibly sharing the same name.

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 the assets of the company disposed of. The meeting marked the end of the first English Watch Company, although the name would have remained on the register at Companies House for some time after before it was struck off.

Bragge's English Watch Company

After the takeover by Bragge, 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 200 men were employed and the machinery was little improved, the escapement and much of the material still being imported from Switzerland.

Second Limited Company

In February 1882, the Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith reported that 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 "English Watch Company Limited", a completely separate legal entity from the first limited company.

The works at Nos. 41 to 49 Villa Street, Lozells, Birmingham, were reported to have been in active operation under the present management for about six years, which would imply from late 1875 or early 1876. This ties in with the date of December 1875 to January 1876 for the purchase of the assets of the company by Bragge from the liquidators as discussed above. The works manager was Charles Haseler.

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. It was said that in addition to making parts by costly high-class and automatic machinery, “the several parts of the same sizes are interchangeable.” Large orders were flowing in from the Indian, Colonial and Home markets with a revival in trade after the depression of the 1870s.

EWCo. Production and Trademark : Antiquarian Horology Winter 1996
EWCo. Production and Trademark : Antiquarian Horology Winter 1996: Click image to enlarge

The prospectus for the share sale in 1882 said that the watches made were exclusively English levers. This might have been taken, might even have been intended, to imply that all the components were of English manufacture, suggesting a change from the earlier imported Swiss club tooth escape wheels to local manufacture of the pointed tooth escape wheels of an English lever escapement. However, that was not the case. Evidence from watches shows that the use of club tooth escape wheels continued for a number of years.

English Watch Company Production

The chart of English Watch Co. production from Antiquarian Horology Winter 1996 shows movements divided into three broad types or “zones”. Zone 1 are the oldest styles with clockwise winding. Zone 2 have anticlockwise winding, with an extra wheel inserted to make the movement wind in the same direction as a fusee movement although it had a going barrel.

Zones 1 and 2 have Swiss club tooth escape wheels whereas zone 3 have English pointed tooth escape wheels. Zone 3 begins around 1888, which suggests that the change to pointed tooth escape wheels might have been due to the Merchandise Marks Act 1887, which sought to eliminate the use of foreign parts in watches described as being of English make.

William Bragge died at his home in Handsworth on 7 June 1884. In 1885 at the 4th Annual General Meeting the shareholders were told of the death of the “founder”, 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.

In 1886 the company was reported to be very busy.

Sponsor's Marks

E.W.Co English Watch Company
E.W.Co English Watch Company: Click image to enlarge

R B: Robert Bragge. Click image to enlarge.

EWCo. trademark

R·B: Robert Bragge

Robert Bragge of the English Watch Company registered the mark R•B in cameo within a rectangular surround with the Birmingham Assay Office in 1878.

The trademark of the English Watch Co. is reproduced here from Cutmore. The larger image with this trademark is from a watch case that has Birmingham Assay Office hallmarks for sterling silver with the date letter "d" for 1878 to 1879. The sponsor's mark R and B in separate cameos must therefore be RB for Robert Bragge, but the mark with the letters separated like this is not recorded in Priestley.

The sponsor's mark E.W.Co in cameo within a rectangular surround was entered at the Birmingham Assay Office on 16 Mar 1885 by the English Watch Company Limited. The case has Birmingham Assay Office (anchor) hallmarks for sterling silver (walking lion). The date letter is the "i" of the Birmingham hallmarking year from July 1885 to June 1886. Assay office date letter punches were changed when new wardens were elected, which took place in Birmingham at the end of June, so each date letter was used over two calendar years.


The words “Haseler's Patent” on the dial plate or “Patent” on the ratchet wheel click refer to Patent No. 646 granted to Charles Haseler on 16 February 1877 for a recoiling click. In Haseler's design the click has a slot in it which, at the end of winding, allows a small reversal of the barrel to relax the mainspring spring tension slightly. This prevents the excessive balance amplitude which is caused if the spring is left tightly wound at the end of winding and removes the need for stop work on the barrel.

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 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 1890, on 22 Februrary, Robert Bragge was granted British patent 2,856 for 'Improvements in chrono-micrometer watches'.

Second Liquidation

Despite the promising reports, all was not well with the company's production.

In September 1888 it was reported rather ominously that, for the third year in succession, the English Watch Company was unable to pay a dividend. Mr. Haseler, who had been manager for some time, resigned his position.

In April 1889 it was reported that the London Watchmakers' Protection Society had prosecuted Kendal & Dent, of Cheapside, under the Merchandise Marks Act for selling a watch marked as English manufacture, some of the parts of which were of foreign production. The watch had been manufactured by the English Watch Company. This would have been a serious blow to the company's strategy of appealing to the British market. Faced with the possibility of further such prosecutions, they had to either cease describing their watches as being of English make, or invest in the capacity to make more of their parts in England.

Notice of English Watch Company Limited liquidation: Click image to enlarge

The data reported in Antiquarian Horology Winter 1996 about the Zone 2 watches with pointed tooth escape wheels suggests that the company might have started to make more of the parts locally, and that perhaps the watch that Kendal & Dent were prosecuted over was from older stock. The absence of a dividend for three years in a row together with expensive investment in the capability to manufacture more parts of the movement was not a happy story for the share holders.

However, it was reported in 1891 that the workmen of the English Watch Company dined together, at the White Horse Hotel, Birmingham, on Saturday, January 10th, under the presidency of Mr. J. J. Gardner [sic, actually F J Gardner], the manager. In the course of the evening reference was made to a contemplated enlargement of the premises of the Company, to meet increasing demand.

On 11 February 1895, meeting in the very splendid setting of the Grand Hotel on Colmore Row in Birmingham, an Extraordinary General Meeting of the English Watch Company Limited passed a resolution that the company should be wound up voluntarily. This time it was not resurrected. In December 1897 a General Meeting of the English Watch Company Limited was was called for 25 January 1898 for the purposes of hearing from the liquidators how the winding up had been conducted and the assets of the company disposed of.

Bacon estimated that the total output of the English Watch Company, in all its guises, was circa 200,000 watches. That is roughly 40,000 watches for each year of the company's approximately 25 years of existence, or about 800 per week. This was a large output for an English manufacturer, but during the same period, the American Watch Company of Waltham was producing about half a million watches each year.

The company H Williamson of Coventry bought some of the assets, including the machinery to make watch movement plates.

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English Watch Co. Birmingham 1878 / 1879 Hallmarks

British made case

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge
Thanks to Jerry for the pictures

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:

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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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.

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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

English lever 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, 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 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.

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Centre Seconds Chronographs

Centre Seconds Chronograph: Click image to enlarge.

In the late nineteenth century, centre seconds chronograph watches became quite popular in Britain.

These watches had a slide on the case band that caused a strip of metal to press against the balance staff, stopping the balance. This caused the watch to stop keeping time when the chronograph function was used. There was no means of setting the seconds hand to zero, or recording more than one minute, which made them rather inconvenient to actually use as stopwatch. They were probably popular because people liked the appearance of the dial, with its large, sweeping, centre seconds hand, rather than because they wanted to use them as chronographs (much like the enthusiasm for chronograph wristwatches today).

The movements of these watches were designed with the second wheel, which is usually the centre wheel, offset, so that the fourth wheel could be planted in the centre of the movement. The fourth wheel rotates once a minute and, in a movement with a conventional layout, it carries the small sub-seconds hand. By moving the fourth wheel to the centre of the movement, the seconds hand could be made longer to sweep the full radius of the dial rather than a small sub-dial. If the watch is key wound and the hands are set from the back, it is easy to see that the second wheel is offset because the set hands square for the key is offset, or the opening for the key is not in the centre of the dome.

When arbor of the fourth wheel carries a centre seconds hand, the movement is called a “direct” centre seconds. This arrangement avoids the fluttering of the seconds hand of an indirect centre seconds arrangement. It is sometimes said that direct centre seconds was a twentieth century Swiss innovation, but that is wrong.

The dials of early chronographs of this type were marked out with a track of 240 divisions around the edge, such as the one in the photograph here of a watch with a sterling silver case with London Assay Office hallmarks for 1878 to 1879. The use of 240 divisions was because the movement has a 14,400 vph escapement which ticked four times per second or 240 time per minute. The elapsed time could therefore in theory be read to an accuracy of ¼ of a second. The 14,400 vph escapement was an old design, but the newer type of escapement operating at 16,200 vph made 4.5 ticks per second and 270 per minute, which was obviously inconvenient for a chronograph and does not appear to have been used.

Observations suggest that chronographs with 14,400 vph escapements and 240 divisions on the dial were based on traditional English movements with fusees, and that chronographs with 18,000 vph escapements and 300 divisions on the dial were based on going barrel movements.

Lecomber's Decimal Chronograph

On 13 Sept 1875, John Lecomber, a wholesale watch manufacturer of Liverpool, registered under the Merchandise Marks Act (1862) a “Decimal Chronograph” having a dial with a track around its outer edge marked out in 300 divisions. This dial was to be used with a movement having an 18,000 vph train, which ticks five times per second or 300 times per minute, hence the 300 divisions of the outer track.

An 18,000 vph movement usually has an escape wheel with 15 teeth. During one full revolution of the escape wheel, each tooth must pass both the entry and the exit pallet, meaning that 30 ticks are required to complete one revolution. Thirty ticks at five ticks per second takes six seconds, so the escape wheel revolves once every six seconds. Lecomber claimed as part of his design an escape wheel pinion with 6 leaves working with a fourth wheel having 60 teeth, giving a 10:1 gearing ratio. This results in the fourth wheel turning once in 60 seconds, taking 300 steps. Six leaves on the escape wheel pinion and 60 teeth on the fourth wheel are unusual, seven leaves and 70 teeth are the usual counts.

Watches made by Lecomber have “Decimal Chronograph Registered 13 Sept 1875” on the dial, and usually have Lecomber's name on the movement and his sponsor's mark of the initials JL incuse on a hallmarked case. Lecomber said the invention had been very profitable to him. He chose the name “Decimal Chronograph” because instead of the 16,200 vph movement, which made nine ticks in two seconds, the 18,000 vph movement he used made 10 ticks in two seconds. After the passing of the Trade Marks Act of 1875, Lecomber registered “Decimal Chronograph 13th September 1875” as a trademark on 31 May 1876.

In 1883 Lecomber spotted, in the window of Mrs. Samuel’s shop in Market Street, Manchester, a watch not made by him which had “Decimal Chronograph” on the dial. Mrs. Samuel was Harriet Samuel who founded the chain of high street shops today called H. Samuel. Lecomber had a friend purchase the watch and then took legal action against Mrs. Samuel, which was stayed after she paid Lecomber £115, a lot of money in 1883.

Lecomber discovered that the watch in question had been made by Edwin John Hollins, a Coventry watch manufacturer, using a movement made by Joseph Preston of Prescot. However, it was Hollins who was making watches with the words Decimal Chronograph on the dials so Lecomber indicted him under the 1862 Merchandise Marks Act for the misdemeanour of issuing a false trade mark with intent to defraud, which carried a penalty of a fine or up to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.

The case of Lecomber v. Hollins was first heard on 27 June 1883 by the city magistrates of Coventry. A witness by the name of Williams, from the town of Bury in Lancashire, stated that since 1879 he had paid Lecomber a royalty of half-a-crown a watch to use the name decimal chronograph on his own “Improved Decimal Chronograph” watches. However, William Payne, Joseph Flint and Joseph Franklin, all watch dial makers of Coventry, stated that the names Patent Chronograph, Decimal Chronograph and Marine Chronograph were widely used on the dials of watches made in Coventry, and had been for many years. In defence, Hollins' lawyer said that the words “decimal chronograph” were merely a description which could not form the subject of a trade mark, and quoted a case under the Trade Marks Registration Act, 1875, in which the Master of the Rolls held that words which simply described something could not be registered.

The case created quite a stir in the trade. On the 3rd of July 1883 a meeting of about 50 watch manufacturers was held at Coventry, under the chairmanship of Mr. J. Radges, of the Butts, and a resolution was passed that those present sympathised with Mr. Hollins and resolve to assist him in defraying the expenses for his defence. The case was reported in the Horological Journal of August.

The case eventually ended up at the Warwickshire Summer Assizes on the 2nd of August 1883 before Mr. Justice A. L. Smith, where the judge and jury agreed with the reasoning that the words “Decimal Chronograph” were purely descriptive and that, since the dial had also carried the name H. Samuel, there had been no intention to defraud. The action against Hollins was dismissed without the case for the defence even being heard.

Regestered [sic] Aug. 4th 1885

Watches are sometimes seen with the wording “Decimal Chronograph” and “Regestered [sic] Prov'ly Aug. 4th 1885”. This is a bit of a mystery, there can hardly have been anyone in the trade that did not know about Lecomber v. Hollins. There was also no such thing as a provisional registration; under the Merchandise Marks and Trade Mark Acts something was either registered or it was not. The wording probably means that an application for registration had been submitted but, given the prior events, it most likely would have failed to be accepted.

Swiss Chronographs

Some nineteenth century pocket watches are seen with the words “Patent Chronograph” on the dial and movements which have cylinder escapements, which means that they are of Swiss origin. It appears that one or more Swiss manufacturers decided to cash in on the interest in Britain in chronograph movements. These are almost certainly not the subject of a patent and the wording on the dial is false. Perhaps the Lecomber v. Hollins court case persuaded them that it was acceptable to apply this wording, although it is most likely a false description.

An 18,000 vph chronograph watch with London Assay Office hallmarks for 1887 to 1888 in the case and “Swiss Made” on the movement has been seen with a right angle lever escapement. The three quarter plate movement looks very much like an English made watch, without the Swiss Made mark it could easily be mistaken for an English watch.

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Dutch Forgeries

Arcaded minute track: click to enlarge
Geneva balance bridge: click to enlarge
London hallmarks 1768/69: click to enlarge

The watch in the images here is of a class commonly called 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 secured by two screws rather than a cock secured by a single screw for the upper balance pivot, they are engraved with an English sounding name and London, and have a sterling silver case with English hallmarks.

It is now thought that these watches were made from ébauches (movements) that were brought into England from Geneva. The ébauches might have been imported in a rough state and finished in England, in much the same way as later rough movements from Prescot were finished in London, Coventry and Liverpool. Although the watch cases often carry English hallmarks, it is not known whether they were made in England or imported.

The case of the watch shown in the images 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 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". Other names used on Dutch forgeries include Wilter, Tarts, Walker, Potter and May.

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 possible 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 not 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 chronometer 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 know that the book was about the thing that they had if they did not know it 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 small ad-hoc sub-committee "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:

Chronometer1. 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 is illogical. 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 (chronos - 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:

Chronometer1. 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.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated February 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.