CLOCKMAKERS IN EAST ANGLIA

A RURAL TRADE?

Clock face by John Halsey, circa 1730.

Normally when we think of rural industries we turn to things like farming and basket making, and not to a technically developed trade involving advanced skills in metalwork. Watchmaking and clockmaking started in London in a big way in the reign of James I and they spread to the provinces from there. It reached Norfolk in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. It wasn’t just the large towns of Norwich, Yarmouth and Kings Lynn that had their own horologists; every market town and even a few rural villages had one or more clockmakers or watchmakers among their citizens. Although certain components could be bought in (like the cast brass spandrels round the face), the majority of the work was done in the clockmaker’s remote workshop; the nature of cutting the escapements and pinions shows the advanced levels of mechanical attainment required.

It was becoming important for people to know the time of day, and for those too poor to afford a clock of their own churches were increasingly displaying the time, inside or out. I remember how hard it was to learn to tell the time as a child, but the common folk must have managed it? Sundials were the most reliable way of telling the time, but they only worked when the sun was out.

One of the earliest clocks known to have been made in Norfolk is dated 1610. In appearance it is very European. As it is engraved on the back ‘Jhone Smyt in Lynne wyt my hand’ its manufacture can be placed in Kings Lynn. This was about the most cosmopolitan town in the country, so the foreign nature of the clock is not surprising. This, and the early date, suggest that the clockmaking art was first introduced to Norfolk from abroad. The next Lynn clock we know was signed by Thomas Tue in 1646. This clock was built in the English tradition. Thomas Tue’s principal occupation was gunsmith, and many of the clocks he supplied and signed may have been bought in from London. Tue had a long life; he was twice churchwarden of St Margaret’s for which church he made the clock in 1681. He died in 1710 at the age of 97.

The town of Diss on the Norfolk/Suffolk border gained its first clockmaker when Benjamin Shuckforth set up in business around the end of the first decade of the 18th century He was an accomplished craftsman who had obviously completed an apprenticeship, although where is unknown. It would not have  been in Diss as there was no clockmaker in the town before Shuckforth. He took on an apprentice in 1730, one John Frost of Bury St Edmunds, who went on ply his trade elsewhere when his apprenticeship was over. Shuckforth ended up a wealthy man, although this had more to do with a fortunate marriage than with clockmaking itself; his spouse Dulicibella Dalton was related to the Longe family of Spixworth Park.  He died in 1760 and his shop was taken over by William Shaw, previously a clockmaker in Botesdale, a large village near Diss but in Suffolk.

By then Samuel Buxton was working in Diss. He was apprenticed to James Smyth in Saxmundham and had completed his apprenticeship in 1756. One of his earliest commissions was to build the turret clock which still gives out the time in St Mary’s church in Diss. He also produced the clock in nearby Banham church, which is dated 1768. His clocks were well made, but aimed at the oak cased clock market rather than at the buyers of high-end mahogany cased clocks. My parents were given a long case clock made by Sam Buxton for their wedding in 1935. They were married Thorpe St Andrew in Norfolk, so the clock had not travelled far from home in nearly two hundred years. It was a standard two-handed model with a chime.

The next clock (illustrated above) is by a much less well-known clockmaker. John Halsey was working in the middle years of the eighteenth century. In Norwich he took on an apprentice clockmaker (William Brightwell) in the summer of 1754; but a John Halsey had taken on an apprentice (John Gilbert of Walsingham) as a surveyor at Wells-Next-the-Sea on the 17th of March 1729. Rather than changing both his occupation and his place of residence during the following twenty years, it is likely that the earlier John Halsey was his father. It is certain that the son was already making clocks while still living in Wells, as this simple one-handed clock has his name and ‘Wells Norfolk’ engraved on the face.  Once established in Norwich he had his business in the St Andrews area of the City. Only the face remains of the clock he made in Wells, the case and movement having been lost many years ago. My mother-in-law left it to my family. She was born in Wells and it now belongs to my wife, who lives only twenty five miles away, and it seems that, like the Sam Buxton timepiece, this clock had not moved far in over 200 years either; indeed until about 75 years ago it had never ventured beyond its home town. It is a moot point whether he or Isaac Nickalls was the first clockmaker in Wells; Nickalls was building the church clock in Holt in the mid 1730s (he charged £36.15sh). He went on to build some very ornate high end longcase clocks. With that sort of competition to contend with a move to Norwich was a wise one.

Another local watchmaker was Johnson Jex of Letheringsett. He was brought up to inherit the family’s blacksmith business, but he was never apprenticed to a watchmaker, and was virtually self-taught. He was born in Billingford, and he played truant from school, preferring to stare through a watchmaker’s window in nearby Foulsham. He was fascinated by the intricate mechanism he saw taking shape before his eyes. As result he left school without learning to read or write, although he became a proficient watchmaker. His illiteracy he had to remedy as an adult, when he learnt not only English but French as well! He began working on watchmaking in the early years of the nineteenth century, when he acquired a state-of-the-art screw cutting lathe. The machine is still in existence. He produced a relatively small number of watches, with highly complicated and advanced mechanisms. Johnson Jex also worked on the Holt church clock (see above) as as a dial plate was discovered in 1995 with his name engraved on it. He never left Norfolk and seldom ventured outside his immediate locality. He died at the age of 74. He never married.

The earliest written reference to a clockmaker in Suffolk is in the will of Robert Sparke, dated 1648. No clock made by this maker is known. He worked in Cockfield, a village not far from Lavenham in central Suffolk. Unlike in Norfolk, the origin of the trade could not have been more rural. There were certainly clockmakers in Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich (Francis Colman was making clocks in the latter town by the early years of Charles II’s reign), but the villages of Suffolk were involved in the trade at at a very early date. A lantern clock was made in Bradfield St George (a village between Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham) some time before 1644. For those who wish to learn more I direct them to this essay by Brian Loomes.

For over 300 years the clockmaking trade was an important industry in East Anglia, culminating with the firm of Metamec in East Dereham, which was producing quartz clocks into the final quarter of the 20th century. At its peak the firm was producing 25,000 clocks a week and was the foremost clockmaker in the UK, with 750 employees. With the import of cheaper clocks from the Far East the business declined, going into receivership in 1984, and finally closing ten years later.

JOSEPH MASON

 joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA

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