Every clock has its own story to tell. Sometimes though, getting them to talk proves challenging. Take this one – clues galore it would seem, but before I strike lucky, before I can tick boxes in its time line, it stops. I need the help of some ancestry detectives.
There is such a nostalgia surrounding clocks. Just the look of this one takes me back to my grandparents’ terraced house in Leicester. They too had a mantel clock with barley twist pillars. There, above the open fire on the tall wooden mantelpiece it stood, chaperoned by horse-brasses and a clutter of incongruous glassware and pottery. It took pride of place and, I recall, it too had a little brass plaque marking my grandfather’s time served as a bespoke tailor.
So when I saw this clock at a Devon auction house, it was hard to resist.
It was in a sorry state, grubby and unkempt. One of the feet had fallen off. The movement teetered precariously on its rickety wooden platform and rattled ominously inside the case. The clock showed no signs of life.
I didn’t mind. To be fair, that excited me all the more. I dismantled and examined it. There was nothing much wrong with it that a modest investment of care and a good clean wouldn’t put right.
All the time I was working on it, the case sat on my workbench and the plaque glinted and beckoned alluringly, with its irresistible mystery.
“Presented to G W H PICK On the occasion of his marriage Dec 15th 1923 By his friends at BABWORTH and AUCHNAFREE”
I manage to track down some wedding details.
If I have the right one, he went by the name of Walter and his new wife’s maiden name was Atkins. They married in the parish of Williton in Somerset.
Initially, I thought that Babworth and Auchnafree must have been a manufacturing business. It sounded a bit like an engineering company.
The past is a foreign country
It makes sense that his work colleagues would pool their resources to buy him a wedding gift. Odd, perhaps, that they would use only his initials and offer the gift to him alone and not jointly to the happy couple. But protocols change. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.
What of Babworth and Auchnafree? A quick Google search links the two. The correspondence address for Auchnafree Estate Company is Babworth Hall in Retford, Nottinghamshire.
And it quickly becomes apparent that my initial surmise is off the mark.
Engineering company my foot! It seems they own a fair bit of Scotland. Was Walter a Nottinghamshire lad, a young estate worker? Did he meet a girl from Somerset and marry in her parish?
I email the company secretary but receive no reply.
When researching history, perhaps the best idea is to start as near to the present as possible and work backwards.
On the inside of the clock case door there is a sticker, modern-ish, which references David Cooper. It bills him as a watchmaker of Sidwell Street in Exeter. That would link Walter’s clock with a man who married in the South West and who perhaps stayed there. Maybe they raised a family?
I am guessing that Coopers either resold the clock or, more likely, carried out some work on it. Possibly, from the handwritten reference number on the printed label, that was back in the year 2000.
I discover that David Cooper is still in business so email the business which has a retail and repair shop at the same Exeter address. Two months on, I have still heard nothing.
So, for now, the trail goes cold.
I’ll cope. As I’ve mentioned before, working with clocks has taught me to play the long game and learn the art of patience. Time will deliver, I am sure. In the meantime, it keeps perfect time and strikes with satisfyingly deep resonance on the half hour and the hour. It is good company.
Calling all ancestry detectives
But it would be such a joy to reunite the timepiece with descendants of GWH Pick who might treasure its sentimental value as an heirloom, albeit one with little monetary worth. For now though, I have no idea who they might be.
So if anyone who has time on their hands and fancies themselves as an ancestry detective wants to take up the challenge, please feel free to join in the search. You now have as much information to work with as I do. Let me know how you get on. I’ll be happy to be told I am entirely wrong.
The yes-no interlude
And once again, writing about the clock and its plaque takes me back to my own warm memories of my grandparents’ house where, in the early 1960s, through the comforting fog of Ogden’s St Bruno Flake, we all huddled round a rented 405-line black and white TV. Beneath the ticking clock we thrilled to contestants playing the Yes-no game and we screamed at the players to ‘open the box’ or ‘take the money’ while Michael Miles invited contestants – in what seems now like an alarmingly cheap and primitive game show – to ‘Take Your Pick’.
There comes a time when you have to take the plunge. It is that worrying moment of no return.
There it is. Exposed, out of its case, separated from its hands and face. One plate is removed and everything is just about holding in place, for now. Thankfully you have remembered to let down the power on the springs so that all that pent up energy contained in their wound coils has been released. That way, as you start to dismantle the mechanism, it won’t come to bite you back.
And they are all there, all the bits that go together to make something which is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Now is the time to take things apart, mindfully dismantle, inspect, resolve flaws, clean and nurture. There will undoubtedly be a point when all those components sit on the workbench, a puzzling array of disparate bits, and the fear kicks in that you will simply never remember how they all go back together.
One of life’s simple pleasures
Another time I’ll write about how dismantling and reassembling clocks has taught me the art of patience – of quite literally ‘taking time’. But here, suffice to say that one of the beauties of clocks is that they comprise elements all of which have their rightful place. With applied patience, they do fit together, they connect, perfectly. The sense of achievement at the point at which those wheels once again interlock and turn each other in turn is one of life’s simple euphoric pleasures.
And as with so many things in life, by gently, sensitively taking them apart with care – inspecting, refreshing and reassembling – you get a better understanding of what makes them tick.
To see the clock whose movement is pictured above, click here
What started as a walk with friends on the fringes of the Yorkshire Moors developed into a thrilling encounter with an early 19th century clock and the inevitable meeting with a mid-20th century mantel clock. Serendipity, or more?
I love clocks, but ever since before I can even remember I have loved words too.
When I was younger the word I most enjoyed was ‘serendipity’. Later, I favoured ‘curmudgeonly’. Both have such a mellifluous resonance. But this is a clock story built on another word – reciprocity – with some signs of serendipity but not a hint of the curmudgeon about it.
Serendipity – unexpected good fortune. I loved the idea of that, and the sound of the word too, strangely onomatopoeic for an abstract concept. But the more I progress through life, the more I think that chance good fortune isn’t so unexpected after all. It comes from an attitude, a frame of mind, an outlook, an openness to opportunity.
And that’s what happened. Towards the end of our stroll we met a lone walker, Gary, out exercising his dog. He lives in the village on the Western edge of the Yorkshire Moors and owns a letting holiday home in a North Yorkshire coastal village of Staithes. It’s called Johnny Reb Cottage and it’s five star rated. Check it out.
We chatted for a good while, and I gave him my card so he could send us a link to his holiday cottage. I thought nothing more about it.
It was several months later that Gary and partner Sonia made contact again. They had a clock. Gary wondered if I could do anything with it. He feared it was beyond repair. It had been in his garage for five years. Before that it had stood ornamentally in a relative’s hallway. It had not worked for forty years.
Send pictures I said, and he did.
Here it is. A classic example of a northern longcase clock from the first half of the 19th century. They are derided as ‘vulgar’ by some clock purists, for their squat appearance and wide trunk, inelegant stubby door and sometimes garish, sometimes sentimental painted dials. They have seldom been in favour. But to their pre-Victorian owners, probably rising middle class tradespeople or farmers, they will have represented status and wealth. And I love them.
I took a guess at 1820-30 as a date for this one. I’ll happily stand corrected if anyone provides evidence to the contrary.
And another thing…
I said I would love to pop over and take a look at it, to see what state it was in and whether it was retrievable. And before I could fix a date Gary came back to me with the inevitable. “While you’re at it, I have another clock,” he said. “It’s a mantel clock and it doesn’t work. Here’s a picture.”
Eventually, we meet – and I take away the mantel clock in its entirety. Of the longcase clock, I take just the movement and dial, on the seat board, with two weights and what’s left of the pendulum rod and a solitary pulley wheel. I also take with me plenty of encased dirt and grime, and a growing sense of excitement.
Back in the growlery, I remove the hands, separate the movement from the dial and set aside the longcase clock.
Fit to grace any lounge
Instead I focus first on the mantel clock, removing it from its case to see it is a Hamburg American Clock Company (HAC) movement which, provided it was made before the takeover by Junghans, dates it to pre-1930.
The case is jaded. The movement is grubby but intact and, with a little TLC and minor adjustment, soon back to keeping perfect time. Some liquid case restorer quickly removes the layer of grime and restores to the case an easy sheen, fit to grace any lounge from the 1930s to the present day. And that’s where it sits now, providing pleasure whilst awaiting its return to its owner.
Monetarily, it is worth nothing much. But it has a history and it has its own period style and, almost 100 years since it was made, it does the job it was designed to do, without a fuss. Everyone’s Nan had one – every current day home should too.
So, back to the longcase
Assuming the dial is original to the movement, and there is nothing to suggest it isn’t, the clock was made by Robinson of Bishop Auckland, in the north east of England. For now, I have not managed to find out more about the maker. There is the suggestion of a Joseph Robinson, clockmaker, trading in Bishop Auckland in the early 19th century but no detail. There is a William Robinson, clockmaker, trading in Bondgate, Darlington in 1827/8. In the same year, a Joseph Robson, clockmaker, is trading from Far Bondgate in Bishop Auckland. But this, as with restoring the clock to full working order, is currently work in progress.
Careful dismantling of the movement suggests there are few major flaws, just a lot of dirt from years of neglect. The crutch arm is broken with signs of some bad soldering from a previous repair, since which the last two inches of the arm, with the sleeve for the suspension spring, are nowhere to be found.
Some good specialist cleaning fluid, and an afternoon of gently abrasive brushing with an old toothbrush interspersed with time in the ultrasonic tank sees the dirt removed and the return of a brass lustre to the plates, pillars and wheels. The movement reassembles with surprising ease. With everything comfortably in place, both going and strike trains turn as smoothly as the day they were made.
There’s a long way to go – this is decidedly work in progress – but so far it feels good. I’ll report further on the trickier aspects of restoration still to come, once they are sorted.
Chance good fortune, or something more?
But meanwhile, where is the ‘beyond-serendipity’ and the reciprocity? Had it not been for a friendly encounter, an openness to conversation with a stranger after two hard years of lockdown, Gary and I would never have exchanged cards, the connections would never have been made.
We engaged. Gary and Sonia get their lovely clocks fixed, hopefully! I get the pleasure of working on two clocks I would not otherwise have encountered. They offer me, my wife and our two walking companions, free accommodation in their beautiful cottage in Staithes. I am touched by their kindness. Everybody has gained something.
Call it chance good fortune if you like. I think it is something more, and it starts with an open mind. Curmudgeons take note!
I wonder whether in fifty years’ time anyone will be writing nostalgically about their relationship with their Automatic Employee Hours Trackers App. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, clock on to this – it seems that using contemporary technology to monitor workforce behaviour is nothing new.
Gledhill-Brook Time Recorder Clock in the entrance lobby at Stanley Harrison House, York.
I’m of an age to remember old-fashioned clocking in at work. I didn’t do it using an elegantly oak-cased machine like those produced by the legendary Gledhill-Brook Ltd of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire.
Instead I registered my attendance via a more prosaic battered bland grey box of an electric clock which clung unceremoniously to the wall of the factory workers’ entrance to Robirch. I’ve no idea whether office staff were subject to the same scrutiny.
Not heaven scent
Robirch was a sausage and meat pie company. Its factory was behind the railway station in Burton-on-Trent. As they travelled from Sheffield and Derby to Birmingham, train passengers would reluctantly imbibe the clingingly sour tang of Robirch with its on-site abattoir. Often the smell was strong enough to overpower even the stench from the neighbouring Bovril factory. Or the noxious rubber bouquet of the Pirelli tyre works. Or the heady scent of the brewery maltings. In the late 60s and 1970s, Burton-on-Trent had so much to offer.
You can imagine what an olfactory relief I felt when I eventually moved to York with its sweet aroma from two chocolate factories filling the summer air.
I’ve always been a meticulous timekeeper so I actually enjoyed the disciplined certainty of clocking in – firmly pressing the card which featured my name and roll number into the slot at the front of the clock then sliding it, printed, into the adjacent rack. Then heading off for another day making skinless sausages.
Skinless sausage sabotage
For the record, this was a process so brain-achingly dull that, two weeks into the role, I began deliberately breaking, in turn, each one of the three machines I operated to see if I could still keep up the required production rate using just two whilst simultaneously mending the machine I’d sabotaged. I wasn’t quite a Luddite machine wrecker but the spirit was there!
Payday for Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Clocking in was a part of life, an accurate way of logging attendance, if not productivity. It was the starting point for the process by which those little brown envelopes, dispensed from a low-sided wooden tray, could be relied upon to deliver exactly the right number of neatly folded one, five and ten pound notes and handful of balancing coins, each Friday afternoon. Such simple pleasures – such instant gratification!
But to achieve that level of time-recording accuracy in a pre-digital age required well-made, reliable mechanical clocks.
Night watchman’s clocks, or ‘tell-tale clocks’ as they were often known, were used in the 18th and early 19th
century. They monitored whether night watchmen had diligently completed their rounds by clocking in at set points on their inspection route.
But these were watchman-specific, not for wider factory use. So in the late 19th century, enter Mr Brook – and soon afterwards, Mr Gledhill.
Checking in? Check it out
Frank Brook was a weaver in a cloth mill in Huddersfield during the 1880s. Workers there would check in by throwing their check – a disc bearing their name or number – through the open window of the timekeeper’s office. Disputes arose frequently as the timekeeper was accused of opening the window only for his friends, but not for those with whom he was not on good terms. During heated discussions with the managers, Frank Brook, who ran a small watch repair business on the side, said that an impartial mechanical means of monitoring attendance would work better. He was invited by the mill owners to source one. He did and, working with Swiss clockmaker Ulrich Feicher, provided the first time-recording clock for the mill in 1889.
You might expect his fellow workers to hail him as a hero in the pursuit of justice. Far from it. The clocking-in clock was hugely unpopular with many workers. And so was Frank. So he left the mill to concentrate on his time-keeping clock-making endeavours. He achieved his first patent in 1893 and set up his own company in 1896 to make and market The Paragon time checker machine.
But time ran out for him just three years later and his business folded.
He remained undeterred. After a couple more unsuccessful partnerships, in 1912 he teamed up with thriving cash register manufacturer Arthur Gledhill. And the rest is industrial history. The Gledhill-Brook Time Recorders Company, based in Huddersfield, continued supplying high quality fusee clocks, with the addition of a time recording mechanism, to companies across the UK and beyond until 1964 when it was sold to Massachusetts company Simplex Time Recorder Company which itself closed in 1975.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – a Raleighing cry!
In the 1960 film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (always worth revisiting, heralding as it did the era of the working class kitchen sink drama) watch Arthur Seaton arguing with workmates as he clocks out of his shift at the cycle factory in Nottingham where he is a frustrated lathe operator. You will see the Gledhill-Brook Time Recorder in the background. The scenes were filmed at the Raleigh Cycle factory in the city, clocking-in clocks a standard part of life there and in factories across the country. They had become an integral feature of our industrial heritage, and they are still around today, collectors’ items for the connoisseur.
It’s not Terry’s – it’s time
A Gledhill-Brook identical to that in the film is currently installed in the entrance hallway at Stanley Harrison House in York. It graces the stylish space – strong, elegant, forthright. It serves as a reminder of the building’s past. And it keeps perfect time. It is only for show though – a relieved Harrison staff aren’t required to clock in these days.
That building has its own place in the history of time. Now HQ to S Harrison Developments, the 1920/30s two-storey structure was originally called The Time Office. It was a key part of the famous chocolate maker Terry’s of York’s site. In the chocolate factory’s heyday, literally thousands of clock cards would be processed daily there.
Clock history – on the move again
And just yards from the Gledhill-Brook in Harrison’s hallway, one more piece of industrial history is on the move.
The landmark clock in the clock tower at the Terry’s site has been still and silent since 2005. Now it is being given a new lease of life.
In keeping with the times, the Terry’s site, formerly workplace for thousands of Yorkies, is now mostly given over to luxury apartments. The PJ Livesey Group, which converted the original main factory building into residences, is now converting the clock tower into new homes. In the process, they commissioned experts from Smith of Derby to bring the clock back into working order.
In 2018 the four restored clock faces, each etched with the words ‘Terry York’, were re-instated. It was a complex engineering operation. Now the intricate working mechanism is ready to get the giant hands moving once again.
The movement itself is a rare Waiting Train Clock, made by Gents of Leicester and powered by an electrical impulse from a master clock. It was a visionary concept, well ahead of its time, but by the 1940s had already started to fall out of use.
According to an excellent report by Maxine Gordon in the York Press, Smith of Derby, who were charged with restoring the clock, faced huge challenges. When they came to remove the clock they discovered that the actual mechanism was not there. Despite extensive inquiries it could not be found so they set about sourcing original parts to recreate it.
This search involved speaking to horologists all over the country, chasing tip-offs and poring over auction house catalogues. Eventually the team succeeded in sourcing the majority of the parts needed. The movement is now ready to be reinstalled and once again mark time for the city.
Sadly the heady chocolate aroma that once emanated so sweetly from the Terry’s site is less likely to make a comeback any time soon. With Terry’s gone, the locals rely on Nestle – which many still insist on calling Rowntrees – for their daily aromatic fix.
Please use the form below to share your comments about time and the workplace – or to put me right on any factual errors.
This is not a post about buying someone a clock for Christmas – although that’s not such a bad idea. It is about giving the gift of time in a different way.
Charity begins at home – which is all very well if you have one. For the homeless or rough sleepers, winter must bring a renewed sense of dread. And when someone who you know – who was recently a fully paid-up member of society with a home, job and family – turns up at a street kitchen looking lost and broken, the stark reality really hits home.
The homeless are not wasters who need to be told to sort themselves out and get a job. They are another version of you and me, but struggling and failing to make sense of a world which seems to have forsaken them.
My wife, Jayne, helps to run a local charity called HOPING Street Kitchen. Staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers, it provides nourishing hot meals to the homeless and others in need in York. HOPING receives no government funding. It relies for its survival entirely on donations – from businesses, other charities and the public.
On Sunday nights Jayne joins fellow volunteers in the heart of the city. As they dispense hot drinks and gourmet hot meals to those who need them, she chats with the homeless. But more than that, she listens.
Give them the time and the patience and they all have stories to tell. These are people who have lost everything. Some freely admit to being complicit in their own downfall. Others are puzzled at the circumstances of fate that have seen them helplessly lose family, friends, jobs, homes – everything they held dear.
Many have drug or alcohol issues – sometimes the cause, sometimes the effect of their current plight. Many have been the subject of sexual abuse or domestic violence. In an age where mental welfare is taken more seriously than it ever was, almost all are facing very real mental health issues of their own. There is nothing snowflake here – other than the bitter snow-bearing winds which scour the city on wintry December nights.
During the 2021 lockdown, HOPING delivered hot meals to the hotels and temporary homes where rough sleepers were accommodated as part of the ‘everyone in’ programme. But council traffic rule changes meant the charity couldn’t get back to its old city centre pitch once lockdown ended.
The University of York stepped in and generously provided space in the grounds of the historic King’s Manor just 400 yards from the Minster. Local businesses and the York Vikings Rotary Club gave funds for food and equipment. By November, HOPING Street Kitchen was back on the street.
Listening – the telling difference
A letter from a local councillor, in support of a successful grant application to the excellent Arnold Clark Community Fund, brilliantly highlights the message that it is not just the donation of food, but the generous gift of time, that makes the telling difference. Here are some extracts from Councillor Michael Pavlovic’s letter of endorsement –
In my role as spokesperson for the formal opposition on City of York Council on Housing and Safer Communities, and in my career working with homeless people with multiple and complex needs, I am able to see the difference that Hoping Street Kitchen have made to the lives and the well-being of some of the most vulnerable people.
We often see people who are sleeping on the streets as faces, often dishevelled, dirty begging for money but rarely stop to think of the person, the human being in front of us, often lost, without hope, resigned to their situation but each with their own story, their need for acknowledgement, for love, for their perspective to be understood and this is what Hoping York volunteers give to them.
Users of their street kitchen and their food bank are accepted, listened to, cared about and treated with respect and with care as individuals, not just their circumstances. I speak with many of the people who genuinely see the food and the support given by Hoping Street Kitchen as a lifeline and an escape from their situation, for a few minutes a week.
Hoping Street Kitchen do what statutory organisations cannot, they offer their support unconditionally and that is why they need to have our support and why fundraising is vital.
It is, as Cllr. Pavlovic points out, the gift of taking the time to listen, to empathise and genuinely to hear their stories with compassion and care, that makes the real difference.
Pride and shame – the paradox
I am in awe of the work of the HOPING volunteers.
And, for me, there is that terrible paradox – I feel a sense of immense pride that society has within it people like the volunteers at HOPING in York who give their time and their effort to help those in need on the streets. And I feel a sense of utter shame that we live in a society where that need should ever arise.
Here is wishing you, and those who matter to you, health and happiness and a warm home this Christmas. And, of course, thanks for taking the time to listen.
Some homeless facts:
There are more than 280,000 homeless people in England
Being homeless doesn’t just mean sleeping on the streets
The average amount of time spent in temporary accommodation is 199 days
The average age of death for a homeless person is between 43 and 45
Rough sleepers are 17 times more likely to be violently abused
Suicide is nine times more common in homeless people than the general population
80% of homeless people have mental health issues
75% of homeless people have physical health condition issues
Nine in 10 Britons think homelessness is a major issue
The good people of West Yorkshire had come seeking truth. But history continues to defy reason. And the search for the elusive Neddey Wells of Shepley leaves us with more questions than answers. * Where to start with this story? I fell in love with the simple but beautiful longcase clock the moment I saw it, a decade ago. Little did I know then that it would take me to The British Museum, to the wilds of West Yorkshire and on a virtual trip around the globe in search of the man whose exquisite craftsmanship had won my heart.
The clock is a 30 hour longcase clock in the Yorkshire style of the late 18th century. It has a brass dial, runs on a single weight and strikes on the hour. It has a silvered chapter ring, a moonshaped date aperture and some ornate engraving in the centre of the dial. Signed Neddey Wells, Shepley, it is missing its finials. But, apart from the base skirt which looks newer than the rest, it is all authentically original right down to the ridged and bubbled glass in the door of the hood.
Daunting – believe it or not
When I visited the library in the village of Shepley near Huddersfield to see what more I could find about the man Neddey Wells, the team there were so helpful and interested that I offered to bring the clock along and display it. Instead, they invited me to give a talk – Neddey Wells, clockmaker, Shepley.
The prospect was daunting. The invitation came from the Yorkshire Studies Group who clearly knew more about both Shepley and its former inhabitants than me. Part-way through my address I discovered that David Billington, author of the definitive book about the village ‘Shepley, believe it or not’ was in the audience, attentively examining my every claim. (His book is an absolute treasure trove of interesting facts by the way. It is much sought-after but currently out of print. If you can track down a copy, seize it!)
I’m not an historian but I tried to apply a scientific logic to my research. Let’s start with the horologists, I thought. They should know about a man who clearly took sufficient pride in his work to sign his name so elegantly on his clock dials. But until the middle of the 20th century, I fear those experts consistently got it wrong.
In truth, even local author David Billington could reveal little about Neddey Wells, the man or the craftsman. He describes Edward Wells (1720 – 1780) who was known as Neddey (or Neddy) as a longcase clockmaker in Shepley. There is a clock made by him still working in a house in the village (its owner was on the front row for my talk) and one in the British Museum, he reports.
In his book Clockmakers of Northern England, Brian Loomes describes Neddey making clocks mostly between 1750 and 1780 but explains that there was one dating back to 1720, so either there were two Neddey Wells or he had a long working life.
Happiness is a good clock collection
The contradictions abound. I visited the British Museum in London. Not on public display, the collection of provincial 18th century clocks given to the museum by private collector Michael Grange is housed in a warehouse in Hackney. It includes one signed by Neddey Wells.
The clock curator and I glove up and carefully lift the movement from its case. We inspect the components, taking particular note of the way the brass dial had been cast. The areas hidden by the chapter ring were left hollow to save on the expensive material (you have to admire the frugality of the Yorkshire clockmakers!).
Using elements of the clock that represent changing fashions – the style of the hands, the spandrels, the markings on the chapter ring for example – the museum dates theirs, similar to mine, to be made around 1750. But I am suspicious. Their cataloguing, beautifully detailed, also refers to crossbanding on the hood.
But what looks like crossbanding isn’t – it is simply making parts of the clock hood out of off-cuts of oak, glued together with the grain vertical but on no base, presumably again to save money. And that date feels wrong. Why?
Child prodigy or suspect data?
Local records of births marriages and deaths indicate that our man Neddey Wells was the fifth child of William and Maria Wells (nee Hobson). He was born in 1742. Brilliant clockmaker he may be, but child prodigy? He would have been no older than eight when he completed the museum’s clock, if the museum’s 1750 date is right.
Neddey’s grandfather, John, we know was a blacksmith – and that fits; often clockmakers had a pedigree connected with blacksmithery, although local records suggest that his father was merely a labourer.
The family appears to have been religious. His brothers and sisters bore biblical names – Elihu, Grace, Tamar – and named their own children likewise. His father and grandfather are buried in the same grave in All Hallows Church, Kirkburton, just down the road from Shepley. But there is no record of the marriage or the death of Neddey.
So what we know about him has to come from his clocks. Using them we can then place him in the history of provincial clockmaking to try to build up a picture of the elusive Neddey Wells of Shepley.
My clock is modest in its presentation. The case is plain oak with a broken swan neck pediment typical of Yorkshire clocks of the late eighteenth century. The chapter ring has fleur-de-lys symbols on the half hour and markings showing the quarter hours. Hands are of a design typical of the 1770s.
There were only ever 30 styles of spandrels designed for long case clocks. The ones on my clock were popular in the provinces in 1770.
A quaker diversion
As an aside, Quakers were still barred from entering the professions in the 18th century so had to turn their hand to other employment. Clock making and, famously, chocolate making are amongst them. Quakers clockmakers, of which there were many in Yorkshire, often didn’t feature spandrels on their clock dials. They disapproved of the portrayal of images and many spandrels had angels depicted within them. In their place they would sometimes put bible verses instead.
The engraving is ornate and features Neddey’s name and his place of work. That suggests that he had a good reputation. Often, local guilds protected their own local tradesmen by refusing outsiders the right to sell into their ‘patch’. So clockmakers wanting to sell to big markets like Huddersfield or Manchester or Leeds might leave their clocks unsigned. Of course, by definition we don’t know if there are unsigned Neddey Wells clocks out there. But it is hard to imagine that a village like Shepley would alone provide a sufficient market for Neddey’s business to thrive.
If Neddey was, as I believe, making his clocks in the 1770s and 1780s, he was at the peak in every sense – in his 30s and 40s, probably having served a seven year apprenticeship; perhaps he would have inherited his wheel cutter and other specialist equipment from his grandfather who lived to the ripe old age of 90, dying when Neddey was nineteen.
The North South divide
And he was working around the peak of Yorkshire longcase clock making too. By the 1770s, London fashion was moving away from longcase clocks towards the more versatile bracket clocks – portable, decorative, ornate. But the Yorkshire middle classes were accruing wealth through their own industry and, keen to have the status symbol of clocks to show off their success, longcase clocks maintained their appeal.
The move away from the land to the towns as the industrial revolution gathered steam (did I really write that?!) meant that accurate time-keeping mattered more. And clocks made by the likes of Neddey Wells and more famous clockmakers across the county, including the Halifax school, were reliable and required little maintenance.
Painted dial clocks quickly became the go-to fashion item after their introduction in 1772. But for now, Neddey and his brass dialled 30 hour clocks were in the ascendancy, probably made to order from a limited catalogue of styles to suit his growing clientele. It is likely that he didn’t make his own cases but employed local woodworking craftsmen – often these were coffin-makers – to craft the cases for him.
Under-priced and over here – the Americans are coming
Move forward a century and it is sobering to know that by 1870 virtually no longcase clocks were being made in Yorkshire, or elsewhere. The 1830s witnessed a huge influx of factory made clocks from the US and
Europe. With their cheap mass-produced Ogee clocks – selling for $1.50 a piece – the Americans flooded the UK market. Despite the huge demand for clocks, the English craft of clockmaking was virtually wiped out.
Time runs out
There is no record in village archives of where Neddey’s workshop might have been located. There is no evidence of Neddey having children who would have come into his clockmaking business and who would have suffered as a result of the English industry’s terminal decline.
So he stands alone, an enigma, represented by a handful of surviving longcase clocks – one in my house, one in a lady’s home in Shepley and one in a British Museum storeroom in Hackney. There are others out there, but how many I simply don’t know.
I fear that the patient audience of amateur historians in Shepley who came eager for knowledge went away from my talk disappointed at the lack of real information and the absence of reliable facts.
But the intrigue of his story continues. Neddey’s younger brother, John, presents a whole new chapter to explore. In 1788 John’s wife died. Records show him as living in Bottany Bay. A criminal, shipped to Australia in the first fleet of eleven vessels? Part of a piece of social engineering that would see over 50,000 people transported across the world, often for as small a misdemeanour as stealing some cheese? Perhaps. But then again…Botany Bay isn’t all it seems. The Yorkshire Studies Group is already on the case!
Think it’s all over? Think again!
And the irrepressible David Billington contacts me the day after my talk to point me towards another clockmaker – Edward Shepley – who was making clocks in nearby Manchester between 1785 and 1780. Someone trading off Neddey Wells’s reputation? Neddey’s son or nephew perhaps, setting out to make a name for himself in a bigger marketplace? Or merely a pure coincidence?
And there’s the rub. History continues to enthral us with its possibilities but frustrate us with its gaps, its blind alleys and its contradictions. Perhaps that elusiveness is what makes it so addictive. For me, the story is just beginning.
Sometimes Neddy, sometimes Neddey – his name ornately engraved – always an enigma.
With huge thanks to the members of the Yorkshire Studies Group, the horology team at The British Museum and the team at Craven Museum for their help in sourcing the information for this blog post.
Patina – a word much loved by antique dealers and hopeful sellers on Ebay. But is it simply just another dirty word for… well, dirt?
As regular readers know, I love a good old clock. The dirtier the clock when it arrives on my workbench, the better. It is the pleasure of the challenge, of turning something that’s utterly neglected – a sad reject – into something that has all the potential to be treasured – to go from the broken to the functional and perhaps even end up being a thing of beauty.
But how far is it right to go in ‘making good’? If you believe some antique dealers, it is actually the patina that gives the item its value, reaffirms its heritage, embodies its character. Take away the patina and the magic, the mystery and the value is gone.
The brilliant Nova Scotia clock-blogger, Ron Joiner, (if you haven’t read him, you should) takes the opposite view. Patina, he says, is just another word for dirt. And it needs removing. Look at the restoration work that he carries out on many of the clocks in his collection and you will see that he has a point. He can turn a tragic no-hoper of a clock case into something fit to grace any room.
I’m torn. Let’s explore.
Taking the shine off patina?
What about that word – Patina? What does it actually mean? Even that is not easy to pin down. Put aside the scientific definition – ‘a blue green layer that forms on copper, brass or bronze’. Concentrate instead on the way the layman uses it. The Cambridge Dictionary will tell you it is ‘a thin surface layer that develops on something because of use, age or chemical action’.
Collins gets tighter – ‘The patina on an old object is an attractive soft shine that has developed on its surface, usually because it has been used a lot.’
But the Cambridge Dictionary also offers a more sinister take, adding a new dimension to the concept – ‘patina is something that makes someone or something seem to be something that they are not’.
Is the visible layer of age so beloved of many actually trying to make the item something it is not – less a layer of valuable history, more a façade, a ruse to inflate the price of an object for gain?
Solving the dilemma
These two American Ansonia Tunis clock movements illustrate the two sides of the argument. Look at one. It is pristine after a thorough ultrasonic clean in specialist clock cleaning chemicals and reassembled to work perfectly. It is as good, almost, as it was when it was first sold, around 120 years ago.
Then look at the other – so caked in an abrasive mixture of oil and dirt that it would be risky to keep it running, even though, surprisingly, it runs very well. Perhaps not quite as well as the day it was bought – precisely 128 years, 10 months and 15 days ago as I write this blog.
There is – and I’m with Ron on this – an irrefutable argument for cleaning it. Clocks deserve to be running, and to keep them running they need to be clean. Otherwise the mix of oil and dust works as a grinding paste. This causes the steel pivots to wear the brass pivot holes from round to oval. That puts all of the wheels in the clock out of alignment, leading it to stop. Part of the process of rectifying the problem is called re-bushing – making oval holes round again.
Case for the defence
The case is blackened too from decades, one would guess, sitting on a mantelpiece above an open coal fire. The label on the back, indicating it is an eight day Tunis clock by The Ansonia Clock Company of New York, is flaked and charred. Is that patina, or just dirt needing to be removed to show the glory of the clock that John Millar bought on 31st December in 1892?
Hold on a minute though? How do I know that the clock was sold and bought on that specific day?
I know because on the inside of the case door, it says so. He bought it at Bridge Street in Sunderland from a Mr Ronnison. As it happens, it was a Saturday – I’ve checked.
And John Millar took the trouble to write that on the inside of the door too.
Anything more than a superficial cleaning of the case would risk erasing that inscription and would almost certainly lose the last vestiges of the label which must have so impressed him on purchase. Something of the clock – something of its intrinsic and unique character – would be lost. It would no longer be the clock it became. Here is a case, literally, where patina has its place.
I’m lucky. I have two Ansonia Tunis mantel clocks. And whilst the movement from John Millar’s clock gets the ultrasonic treatment, the case of the other might just get a thoroughly good brushing down and a coating of shellac, hopefully with some expert guidance from Ron Joiner.
Look at the top of the case. The pediment, now removed to expose the original surface, shows just how faded by time and damaged by sunlight and water spills the exposed surface has become. Does that ‘patina’ add character or take away some of the clock’s appeal?
And how can I possibly return the rest of the case to that fine tone and gloss without it looking faked?
What do you think? All advice gratefully received.
I really love going to auctions. Not the fancy ones with ‘priceless’ artworks. It is the downbeat drama of the provincial saleroom, its cast of dubious characters and ramshackle artefacts that excites me.But has the pandemic finally put the traditional auction house not just under the hammer but under the cosh? *
“Unwanted items, like orphans or stray dogs, looking longingly for a new home…”
The pandemic has kept me well away from even the sterilised cleanliness of the supermarket. So the idea of venturing into the fetid miasma of a local auction house saleroom with its cast of misfits and grifters and a pervading scent of decay is not something on which I would take a punt right now.
But I do miss its low-key, downbeat excitement, that sense of unlikely potential and the wonderfully entertaining theatre of it all.
The morning of the sale – ‘antiques and collectables’ or just the ‘general household’ – always has a buzz about it. That hour or so before the auction starts sees a last-minute frantic flurry of scrabbling in boxes under makeshift trestle tables in the unlikely hope of spotting something everyone else has missed. The suspicious glances at potential rival bidders as I try desperately not to look too interested in the clock I am inspecting. What is it that makes trailing between aisles of discarded and meritless furniture an interesting way to spend a Saturday morning? Why do battered Dinky Toys have such allure?
I bypass the corner packed with lawnmowers and garden tools, the old bikes and occasional Motability scooter and the exercise equipment still in its box. Instead, I take my seat towards the back of the room on one of a row of random chairs that will, once the old carpets and rugs have gone under the hammer, be the last lots on the day’s list. The auctioneer calls the bidders to order. His moment of theatre, his improvised fortnightly performance, begins.
Chilled out entertainers?
A good auctioneer makes all the difference. Like stand-ups, a great one engages his audience, controls the room, builds atmosphere, moves things at pace, injects some humour, never misses a bid, keeps the discontented dealers under control.
You can tell the dealers from the casual punter. The amateur bargain hunters smile, look excited, engaged. Often in couples, for them it is a treat of a day out with perhaps lunch and all the promise of bidding success. In contrast, many of the dealers huddle in disgruntled groups, look unhappy, mutter at prices, talk intrusively while the auctioneer sells lots in which they have no interest. Instead of waving their bidding numbers, they make ludicrous furtive nodding or eye-glancing gestures as if somehow believing that secrecy gives them a bidding edge. Occasionally, one will wander to the front of the room to pick up and ostentatiously inspect an up-coming lot before contemptuously, disdainfully discarding it then moving to the side of the room where they stand self-consciously – a bizarrely incongruous act of attention-seeking.
But I love the dustiness of it all. The saleroom has its own patina. And its own aroma too, the scent of so many unwanted items, like orphans or stray dogs, looking longingly for a new home – to be loved again and cherished.
I have my limits. I could not think to buy jewellery second hand. Could you? There is something too personal about a ring, bought specifically by one person for another, worn so intimately for perhaps a lifetime. Of course, dealers buy rings based not on style or sentiment but on carat and weight, a once personal treasure ruthlessly destined to be melted down for cash.
Who will start me?
My heart begins racing five lots before the one I’ve earmarked is due. Sensibly I have set an upper limit on my bidding, factoring in the addition of commission. Lot 271 – and the auctioneer describes it in brief while his colleague, brown overalled as if in a time warp, holds it aloft and its image shows on the TV screen to his left.
Who’ll start me at £100? Tension. Silence.
£50? He pauses again. £20 surely, to get me started? His tone is one of incredulity verging on admonishment. He is playing the crowd.
It works, and we’re off, bidding in fives initially, rapidly reaching the 50 everyone had shunned just seconds ago. At 80 I bid, my self-imposed ceiling. Someone bids 90. Do I go 100? My heart says yes. My head says no. The hammer goes down. It has taken less than thirty seconds for my hopes to be lifted and dashed. And I am left with the anguish of ‘what if?’
I console myself. If I had bid 100 the other guy would have bid 110 so I have lost nothing, I insist. But what if…?
What the Dickens!
I’ve had triumphs. I have had disasters. I have bought a complete set of The Works of Dickens for a bargain price, only to discover that the box of Dickens’ was actually one of seven boxes of books I hadn’t spotted. The remaining six were piled high with obsolete nurse training manuals. Even the local charity shop declined to take them off me.
But auctions were changing even before the pandemic, and not for the better. The advent of the internet, and live online bidding, slowed the pace of auctions dramatically. It caused them to lose much of their intensity and drama.
The quiet resentment of a roomful of people, reduced to mere onlookers, forced to watch while two on-line bidders fight for an item on screen, is tangible. Being there, while those who aren’t outbid you, creates a sense of exclusion. What is the point of being in the room if faceless internet bidders are going to dominate proceedings? Online bidding is not a great spectator sport. You might as well stay at home.
And with the pandemic, that shift has accelerated, understandably.
So when do we reach the point where the internet bidder, from anywhere in the world, takes over? When do auction houses realise that they don’t need salerooms at all – that those hopeful, and the hopeless, punters who wander round salerooms are actually surplus to the process of making money from selling other people’s rejects? How soon does the final curtain fall?
Ups and downs
Of course, there are upsides to online buying. You don’t have to travel or feel the pressure to buy just because you have gone to the time and trouble of being there and it would be a waste to come away empty-handed. Instead you can sit in the warmth of your lounge, tuning in to the auction only as the lots you are interested in approach.
And there are downsides too. The worst purchases I have made have been in absentia – commission or internet bids based on flattering pictures and scanty descriptions, even when I have asked for a condition report. And buying online attracts a bigger commission charge and sometimes disproportionately high shipping costs, especially on low priced lots.
But mostly what is lost, forever I fear, is the atmosphere, the theatre, the sheer live drama and the sense of being a part of it, even as the scenery is dismantled and the room empties as the sale draws to a weary close. You may have been only a momentary bit-part player but your name is there somewhere in the credits at the end of the show.
The big ‘reveal’ tells us so much about values. Where do you sit?
On the Antiques Roadshow it is all about price – ‘I suppose you want to know what it’s worth?’ the expert teases. And the item’s owner salivates at the prospect.
The Repair Shop has a different reveal and it’s all about sentiment – retrieving moments of joy from the past. Money is never, ever mentioned.
It won’t surprise you that I link to a number of amateur clock interest forums on social media. They are a mixed bag. But when newcomers arrive and put up their first post, it usually contains the phrase ‘Can anyone tell me what it’s worth?’
It is a perfectly reasonable question. Often it meets with wildly differing answers.
There are those old-stagers who post replies almost immediately, frequently disparagingly too. They are quick to point out that the clock pictured is probably a Chinese copy or a hopeless marriage and certainly worthless.
Alternatively, some go the other way. They had a clock quite like it (but theirs was always so much better of course) and they sold it for a near fortune – with the convenient admission, often, that prices have plummeted since then.
Thankfully, amidst it all are plenty of genuinely helpful folk who try to apply some meaningful evidence to support their carefully caveated suggestions. In terms of value, those people are worth their weight in gold.
Passport to untold riches?
I guess those newcomers, who usually preface their comment with an admission that they know nothing about clocks, have come by their timepiece perhaps as a gift or a bequest. Understandably they want to know if it is their passport to untold riches. Old things often look as if they should really have great monetary value. More often than not they don’t. And they are not that old either.
And that’s where the nub of the question really comes into play. How much is it worth?
Well it depends how you calculate value. In monetary terms, the only good answer is ‘it is worth what someone is willing to pay for it – nothing more, nothing less.’
But real ‘worth’ is measured in so much more than pounds or dollars. Let me explain. For insurance purposes I did once seek a professional valuation on a clock that had been gifted to me by a client when I retired from my day job.
I was truly shocked by the significant amount for which it was suggested I insure it. But its true value to me is in the thought that had gone into researching it as the ideal gift for me and then taking the trouble to source it. That is what is really so precious about it.
It is beautiful. I have loved tracing its history. I take huge pleasure in looking at its ornately stylish intricacy and listening to the loud insistent tick of its original 18th century verge escapement. I revel in its artistry and engineering. But as I do, mostly I treasure the sentiment and consideration that went into locating it and presenting it to me. Its every tick makes my heart beat more strongly.
Elsewhere on the blog I have written about my Waltham pocket watch, a family heirloom. The face is damaged, the gold plating is just that – not gold but wafer-thin gold plating – and very worn. Monetarily it is worth virtually nothing (I suspect – I have never checked). To me, it being my late grandfather’s, and the only physical item of his I possess, it is priceless.
That, I guess, is the secret behind the phenomenal success of the BBC’s The Repair Shop. The items restored rarely have any significant monetary value. Certainly no one could financially justify the time and effort that the expert team puts into restoring them. In terms of return on investment for work undertaken, it simply doesn’t stack up.
The things owners bring to The Repair Shop for restoration matter because of what they signify to the bringers and their families. Ultimately, whether it is a clock or a watch, a piece of furniture, a picture, a teddy bear or an old bike, that’s where its worth lies.
The programme has provided a calming balm of slightly schmaltzy sentimentality in the distressing time of Covid, when so many people have found themselves reassessing what, deep down, matters to them. It has helped people understand the real value of ‘things’.
And, for what it’s worth, there are those who would say you simply can’t put a price on that.
I’ve seen them before, but always only fleetingly in the semi-darkness of dusk. This is different. In the brightness of a sharp spring morning, against vivid blue skies, not only time but sound also stands still and the eternal moment is pure poetry. * Forget Four Weddings and a Funeral. Replace it with Four Lapwings and a Barn Owl. The call to ‘stop all the clocks’ ceases to be Auden’s lament for a lost lover and becomes the mystical silent imperative of a barn owl in flight.
A little peace of haven
April in Northumberland. In the eastern foothills of the Cheviots the River Breamish meanders its way through a gorse-peppered verdant landscape littered with the spring of new lambs and the warm snuffle of inquisitive calves. At times little more than a stream, beyond Powburn – which passes for metropolis in this remote part of the no man’s land between England and Scotland – the river provides the babbling artery to a separate world. In this stretch it is flanked in its flood plain by former gravel workings, now sensitively managed by the Hedgeley Estate to look every inch a natural part of the landscape, and a haven for birdlife.
In this, our first freedom from the latest lockdown, we park up the motorhome at Harry’s farm and meet friends, still coping with the strange sensation of keeping safe distance. And each morning, while the others sleep, I arise early and walk across the frost-crisp glistening grass, tiptoeing over the neatly tended gravel pathway so as not to disturb the sleepers, past the stone cottages and down through the gate into the valley, the sun already bright against the clearest of blue skies.
Yellowhammers in abundance
What happens next risks becoming a twitcher’s list – the flicker of sand martins contouring the river bank; the lone dipper feeding where the water tumbles over barely submerged gravel; the flopping flap of lapwing with their casually chaotic tumbling and turning, flashes of white underwing against the dazzling brightness of the morning; an abundance of chaffinch busy in the trees that at first flank the stream, and the cornucopia of teal, tufted ducks, moorhens and coot that share the mini-lakes with greylag, with the ubiquitous mallard, with mute swans and noisy Canada geese. The inevitable grey heron on the opposite bank, hunched in thought, spots me and, with what appears mild irritation, takes languid flight, brief and low, moving resentfully a hundred yards or so downstream.
But it is the yellowhammers I have come to see. Spectacularly bright, like countryside canaries, and always showmen, they pose proud atop the vibrant bushes looking, in their startling plumage, every inch an added sprig of flowering gorse. I am surrounded by them and, at that moment, it seems the day is complete.
It is two miles in, just as I make to cross the river and head back to base along the opposite bank, that we meet – a lone hunting barn owl and me.
I had stopped to focus the binoculars on a nearby yellowhammer, to assimilate every detail of its plumage, its elegance, its vibrancy. Behind, in soft focus, at first sighting just a smudge, I see him. Wings wide, surprisingly so when outstretched, the barn owl keeps a steady course perhaps eight feet off the rough grass ground. He flies towards me, above the unkempt stretch of land which borders the small plantation of dark conifers beyond. He looks at first white, but as he flies towards me his soft brown-ness becomes clearer and his hallmark disc of a face, fixed in concentration, comes clearly into view.
Colour then becomes indefinable. Somehow, the owl is translucent, supernatural, a mirage, an apparition, yet at the same time more real than anything else I can recall.
My magical moment
He turns, his head facing downwards, scanning the rough undergrowth for prey. Then he is away, first to the far end of the plantation, then back, then disappearing soundlessly into the trees. That, I think, is it – my magical moment. I wait in the stillness, reliving the experience, trying to comprehend the pleasure of sharing that special moment with a bird in flight, simply appreciative of having witnessed it.
And then he is there again, materialising out of the conifers and flying low towards me, repeating his hunting cycle, concentrating, oblivious to my awestruck presence. For timeless minutes he hunts, resting once on a nearby fencepost, plunging occasionally to ground then taking off again and masterfully repeating the process.
Mesmerised I watch, but I am not merely a witness – in my stillness, in my total absorption, I am in nature, partof nature, totally at one with it. The world has both stopped and continued. And I am struck by the powerful silence of an owl in flight – an echoing presence that, in its depth, drowns out the sound of anything else. Only if I concentrate hard can I hear the tuneful thrush behind me and the robin singing just feet to my left.
The resounding, haunting silence of the hunting owl is infinitely, captivatingly louder. While the barn owl hunts, all time and sound stands still. Momentarily. Eternally.
Five and twenty past seven. Nearly half past ten. Just gone quarter to eight. These are some words you won’t typically hear in a digital age. And I for one think we have lost something as a result.
Really, who actually needs a clock or a watch these days? And especially analogue ones?
After all, your computer constantly gives you the correct time with irritatingly unnerving precision. And we all know we waste too much time staring at the screen where the time constantly displays in the bottom right hand corner, more often than not ticking off hours and minutes that could be so much better spent.
And even there, I am showing my age. I recognise that nowadays people spend more time on their ‘mobile devices’ (how soulless a title is that?) than on their desktops. And the time is there too, in fabulous digital accuracy – 07.25, 22.29, 07.47 – always readily accessible.
Even bus-stops now feature a digital display showing the current time and, with pinpoint precision, the exact time the next bus will arrive. No more glances at frantically tapped wristwatches and anxious over-acted peering down an empty street with the fearful worry that the bus might not turn up at all. Some of the excitement and frisson of travel by public transport has been lost as a result!
Back to the future
Digital displays tell you absolutely what time it is and – don’t get me wrong – I am the first to acknowledge how useful that can be.
But what they don’t tell you is what time it has been, or what time it is going to be.
Don’t do the maths
My meeting is at half past ten. I glance at my analogue clock which tells me it has just gone five past ten. I can see in an instant how long before the meeting starts. It is there in almost half a dial of the clock. I don’t have to do any mental mathematics – additions or subtractions – to know how many minutes I have left to prepare (which for Zoom sessions mostly involves making a cup of tea) before the meeting starts. I can see at a glance. I know more than merely what time it is now – I know what time it is going to be.
I do still remember the era – the 1980s I guess – when filling stations started selling digital watches at £1.99 each – garish metal bracelets, ugly rectangular faces, time and date set by prodding the point of a pin into a dimpled recessed button in the side repeatedly in a process of trial and error. The whole device served its utilitarian purpose quite gracelessly before being thrown away in a matter of weeks or months, once the battery failed.
The device was functional, but much of the romance around the concept of time was lost at that point.
The romance of time
The old fashioned analogue clock face shows you the whole day – all twelve hours of it – and tells you the time in that context. Its hands point you to where you are in the overall shape of the day. Stare long and hard at the minute hand and you will see it moving through time – not flipping at the end of each minute into the next, but edging inexorably forwards towards what time it is going to be in the future.
Holding the past – promising the future
And timepieces help to hold onto the past and promise to shape a future too. No-one will hand on their latest smartphone, as an heirloom or keepsake, to their children or grandchildren. They hold no sentimental attraction. They speak nothing of the people who have owned them.
But often, snugly in my pocket, I carry the watch that once belonged to my grandfather, and another pocket watch that my children bought me collectively for a recent birthday. They both have a timeless appeal and I treasure them.
They tell me what time it is, they tell me what time it has been since long before I was born. As importantly, they hold the tantalising promise of a long and lasting future to be passed on to the next generations.
My grandfather died in 1968. His pocket watch is the only memento of him I have. It is an American Waltham Traveler, of which around 285,000 were produced. Many are still in circulation and are doubtless treasured by their owners. My grandfather’s was probably made in 1903.
I’ll do a separate post telling its story as best I can. Meanwhile, almost 120 years on, it still keeps perfect time.
A story about one brilliant marketing idea that changed everything for the 400-day clock.
I didn’t used to like them but I do now.
I still struggle to say those words without smiling to myself about a story told to me by a former colleague. An old school-friend of hers with a dubious reputation had explained to her, by way of self-justification, how she had changed. ‘I didn’t used to be a virgin but I am now,’ she insisted. Well that’s Derbyshire for you!
Out of fashion
But I digress. 400-day clocks. I didn’t used to like them but I do now.
You may recognise them. They are pretty much out of fashion at the moment. Indeed, even when they first appeared they were pretty much out of fashion too. It was only when an American importer came up with a brilliant marketing idea that everything changed.
Yes – for modern day tastes there is something a bit garish about 400-day clocks. Faux marble pillars, glass domes, sometimes over-elaborate and rather twee decoration on the enamelled chapter rings. But there is also something mesmerising about that rotating pendulum with its slow lazy insistent motion. And fashions change. What goes around comes around. Don’t write them off just yet.
Almost inevitably on 400-day clocks that have been moved around the suspension wire will be bent or broken. With care they are easy to replace.
For the technically minded, I can explain that the 400-day clock features a torsion spring. What makes it exceptional is its rotating rather than swinging pendulum and the fact that it can run for 400 days on a single winding.
In Germany the 400-day clock is credited to Anton Harder of Ransen. But as ever with history, the truth is shrouded in conflicting stories. One says he was a simple farmer who got the idea as he watched a steam boiler hanging from a chain.
Another claims he was a nobleman who watched a chandelier rotating after the lamplighter had twisted it round to reach the last candle and then released it. He spotted that although the rotation reduced, the time between rotations remained constant even as the energy dissipated.
The story remains confusing. There is no German patent held by Harder, as far as we know. But on December 12th 1882, he covered himself in the US with patent No269052. He started manufacturing at his Jahresuhrenfabrik (Year Clock Factory). In 1882 he delivered his first clocks into the US. Originally The New Haven Clock Company was his sole US agent.
Despite some extravagant claims, the clocks didn’t perform well.
In 1884 he sold his patent to an FAL de Gruyter of Amsterdam who became the sole US agent and distributor of the clocks made at the German factory. Maybe they still weren’t selling well. Perhaps he just forgot. But in 1887 deGruyter failed to pay the patent renewal fee and the patent was cancelled.
By far the most successful importer to the US was the Ohio based Bowler & Burdick and it was their stroke of marketing genius that gave the clock its lasting appeal. In a lightbulb moment they dreamed up and copyrighted a trade mark for their imported clock. Just one word changed its fortunes.
A clock that needs winding only once a year? Brilliant. Call it an anniversary clock and it becomes the perfect gift or memento for any occasion that can be marked annually – wind it annually on birthdays, wedding anniversaries, christenings and the rest. The idea caught on and they sold in their tens of thousands.
Admittedly, during the two world wars sales virtually stopped – German goods were not in high demand in the US and, besides, German factories had been converted to support the war effort. But the anniversary clock had another heyday in the early 1950s, tapping into a time of post-war prosperity and sentimentality.
Price isn’t everything
Riding the 1950s wave, one New York and Philadelphia department store made a single order for 75,000 clocks, confident that if the price was cheap enough they would sell.
There’s another marketing lesson here. Price isn’t everything in the fickle world of sentimentality. Sadly, the cheapness of the clock detracted from its appeal and ruined the market for others. The store closed, the manufacturer filed for bankruptcy and the popularity of the anniversary clock went into steep decline.
For the swinging sixties and beyond, the old romance of the anniversary clock had largely lost its appeal. By the mid-1980s there were only three manufacturers of key-wind anniversary clocks.
But these days there are still lots of them around – hardly surprising since an estimated 15 million were manufactured during the 20th century.
Nostalgia – year after year
They frequently turn up in auction rooms across the UK in various states of neglect and disrepair. You can almost guarantee that the suspension spring – individual to each maker and model – will be broken and need replacing. The gilded metal base will be worn and tarnished.
But properly serviced and carefully restored, they carry a nostalgic appeal, year after year. I didn’t used to like them, but having worked on them, I do now.
The clock in the pictures
It is a German movement, by a maker called Kieninger and Obergfell. The brand name, Kundo, comprises the K of Kieninger und the O of Obergfell. It was made between 1920 and 1945 – the style of numbering on the dial would suggest perhaps the late 1920s or 1930s. Kundo did not put serial numbers on their clocks after WW2 so that fixes the latest date it could have been made. The glass dome is made of a single piece and is intact.
There are all sorts of forums to help you identify the maker, age and even value of your anniversary clock. If you want to start a dialogue with the dedicated aficionados, look here.