Spring Meeting, St Fagans National Museum of History 2023
Three invited speakers addressed the meeting, and we held our AGM.
Dr James Nye spoke of his research into the life of Edmund Howard (1710-98). James described how the chance finding of a photograph of a turret clock, taken in Dent’s workshop in 1957, led to the manuscript autobiography of the Quaker gardener and clockmaker who made the clock in 1761, for installation at Chelsea Old Church. Edmund Howard was apprenticed as a gardener, and later acted as steward to Sir Hans Sloane in Chelsea. Taking over his brother John’s clock and watch business after his death, Edmund pursued a difficult life, trying to make ends meet for a growing family, gradually learning the craft of clockmaker, and succeeding in developing skills in forging and making. Only four turret clocks are presently thought to have survived, the locations of just two presently being known. A few remarkable insights emerge from Howard’s manuscript, including the costs of raw materials, but also his practice of recycling brass nails recovered from old coffins into cast parts for his clocks. He worked on better objects by daylight, whereas ‘coarse thirty-hour clocks’ only merited attention by candlelight.
James has arranged a transcription of the manuscript side-by-side with images of the original, which can be viewed or downloaded here:
Following our AGM and lunch, Mr Tony Bird told us a ‘Tale of Two Clocks’. Formerly of Bird Brothers Jewellers in Cardiff, he talked to us about his career in horology, his engagement with two well-known Cardiff clocks, the Cardiff Castle clock and the City Hall clock, and then went on to discuss some other tower clocks of interest.
His career in horology began as tea-boy for the workshop where he was apprenticed! The work carried out there was enormously varied, and included domestic and commercial clocks, tower clocks, various types of recording clocks, clocking-in clocks, pigeon racing clocks and many others. At the age of 20 he went to work in Switzerland for a year and on his return to Britain found employment repairing watches. After a couple of years, he and his brother set up a clock repairing business. Clocks were popular domestic items in the 1970s and the brothers entered the retail market, eventually running three shops, a large workshop and two smaller workshops.
And the Two Clocks in the title… Tony told us of his adventures in connection with silencing the striking at the commemoration of Armistice Day. On one occasion having to escape, after being locked into Cardiff Castle because of an administrative oversight, and of unfortunately having, shorty afterwards, been standing below the bells he had just silenced in the City Hall when the loud ‘bang’ of the firing of the salute caused a large flock of pigeons to evacuate, and flee the bell tower, in an instant!!
In his retirement he told us of his experiments in designing compound pendulums, necessary to enable small tower clocks to be run in a domestic setting, a fascinating conclusion to an interesting talk.
Much information is available about British clockmakers from the 17th century onwards. However, the establishment of clockmaking in London during the latter half of the 16th century is a subject about which rather less is known. Professor Adrian Finch, our last speaker of the day, told us of his research, using contemporary documentary records, to shine a light on this important period.
He believes that in the first half of the 16th Century, the British market for domestic clocks and mathematical instruments was largely met by immigrant makers, many of whom came from Rouen in France. This included the Royal Clock-keeper, Nicholas Oursian (1495-1575), active from 1535-1572. However, by the turn of the century, many British names appear in clockmaking, showing that a domestic industry had become established. He suggested that clocks and watches were initially valued as luxury items used to show status, rather than as simple timekeepers. He also produced evidence that Oursian trained a Yorkshireman, Bartholomew Newsam, who in 1572 took over from Oursian as clock-keeper to Elizabeth I.
Interestingly, early London makers included Welshmen, such as James Kynvin (c.1545-1617); who was free of the Merchant Taylors’ Company in London. Records show that Kynvin took his importer, Lawrence Overton, to court in 1599 over “clocks and other Germany wares” that did not meet his requirements, indicating that the domestic market was met, at least in part, by imported partially finished items that were engraved and decorated in London to meet British tastes. Other court documents show that the clockmaker Randolph Bull (c.1555-1617) travelled to France “about his necessary traffic”, perhaps bringing other design ideas, and possibly even French workers, back to this country.
Clearly, early London clockmakers interacted with their continental counterparts, and the domestic market built upon innovations and designs from France and the Netherlands, rather than evolving in isolation. It was fascinating to hear of this research from primary record sources.