This small book represents the result of more than twelve years research into Buckinghamshire clock and watchmaking. Despite this lengthy period of preparation I cannot claim that the work is complete. There are certain to be clockmakers whose names have yet to be recorded, particularly in the earlier part of the eighteenth century. I hope, therefore, that any reader who finds that his own favourite timepiece is not listed will write to me with further information. In this way a more complete history of clockmaking in the County may be produced at some future date.
I regret too that it is no longer possible, in a public work, to acknowledge the owners of all these beautiful clocks in the way I would wish. During the period in which I have worked, the value of these works of craftsmanship have increased a hundredfold and whilst they are even now undervalued compared with the cost of modern reproductions, they are attracting the attention of the criminal classes. Consequently all illustrations of privately owned clocks must remain anonymous.
This does not prevent me from acknowledging the extraordinary debt that I owe to a great many horological enthusiasts. Foremost among these is Dr. C.F.C. Beeson. His book on Oxfordshire clockmaking did much to arouse my interest in producing a similar volume for Buckinghamshire and over the years he has provided me with a great deal of information particularly regarding the clockmakers on the Oxfordshire border.
Secondly, Mr C.A. Osborne for placing all his notes on Buckinghamshire clockmakers at my disposal. Also Mr. E.J. Davis, the County Archivist, and Mr C.N. Gowing for the exceptional help they and their staff have given me. With regard to Aylesbury I must also mention Mr. J.R. Milburn who has taken a particular interest in this town and ensured that its clock and watchmakers are among the best documented in this book. Mr. and Mrs. M. Finnemore have also read the entire manuscript and made many useful suggestions for its improvement. In addition, I wish to acknowledge the help and assistance both great and small which I have received from the following: Robert Ayres, Mr. and Mrs. J. Brown, Mrs. J. Bates, P.E. Berry, A.F. Asket, B. Dawson, C.S. Daivy, Mrs. D.M. Eley, G.E. Edwards, J. Freshwater, Mrs. A. Heming, K. Holden, P.I. King, R. Kitchen, J. MacFarlane, Sir S.F. Markham, Major R. Mayor, J.S. McVay, E. Milligan, E.N. Mugleston, H. Parrot, Mrs. B. Philips, D.W. Rowell, M. Spencer, Mrs. D. Warren. Also from Charles Green and Newman Coles, both since deceased.
Any errors remaining in this work are however the sole responsibility of the author, who will be grateful to any reader who brings them to his notice.
29 July 1975
Despite the fact that clock and watchmaking has been known in Buckinghamshire for over five centuries, it is impossible even now, to write a complete account of the craft. Within this period, however, it is possible to discern three separate threads, but although they occasionally overlap, they never form a complete tapestry of horological history. Consequently I have found it better to consider each one on its own.
The longest strand is made up of the turret clockmakers. They first appear in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in the ill-defined territories between the village blacksmith's forge and the city workshop of the tinsmith, brazier and locksmith.
At present both documentary and material evidence is sparse, whilst names are practically unknown. Probably the first reference is to be found at Aylesbury, where in 1490 a certain John Stone gave an estate to the town to provide a clock and chimes for the church. As far as is known there is no earlier reference to turret clockmaking in the county, yet it seems likely that previous attempts must have been locally made to provide time measurement by mechanical means. London and Oxford were both within a day's walking distance of many parts of the county, and there were already many clocks in existence at both those places providing patterns and examples. Again, if Stone's gift is considered carefully, it would seem unlikely that a person would provide money for both clock and chimes if this was an unknown and untried machine in Buckinghamshire.
The next place for which we have any information is the village of Wing. Here the churchwarden's accounts in the early sixteenth century contain the steady repetitious "xxd payd to the clokemaker". By the middle of the century a few more churches had acquired their own turrett clocks though these probably had no outside dial to show their existence. Strangely too, some of these clocks were provided for very small settlements, and it must remain a matter for considerable speculation why such places as Cublington and Haddenham should have turret clocks before 1552. The only probable explanation would seem to have been that it was due to the influence and enthusiasm of a local vicar or rector who, having become accustomed to having clocks available when he was at college at Oxford or Cambridge, or even within one of the monasteries that had been closed earlier in the century, had decided to provide the same facilities for his parishioners.
By the seventeenth century, tower clocks had become comparatively common for they are known to have been in existence in at least thirty-three parishes by 1638. It would appear from the existing churchwardens' accounts that these clocks, although rather rough and ready, had an effective life of about one hundred years. Great Marlow's clock, for example, which is first mentioned in 1592, had to be replaced in 1643. The total cost for this new clock was £10 15s 0d. This timepiece saw service from then until 1738 when, in its turn, it was replaced by a third one costing thirty-one pounds.
As is apparent from the references above, most of the information for this period comes from the churchwardens' accounts. Consequently these particulars depend greatly on the energy, ability, or whimsy of the cleric or clerk who drew them up.
Names appear continually, but without any further description, and it is often difficult to separate the persons who wound the clock and occasionally oiled and regulated it, from the man who actually executed the repairs. The local blacksmith would often do minor repairs; hemp would be purchased in bulk and woven into a rope by one of the inhabitants of the parish; the verger would clean the mechanism; the curate would help with the minor replacements and, in at least one case, the book-keeper was involved himself.
"Item for myne owne work two daies more in the Church making of a Coope for the plumett of the Clock to come down in ijs".
Thus the carpenter at Great Marlow described his work of casing in the weight shaft. Even in the few instances where the name and place of residence is given, it is usually found in the seventeenth century that he seldom resided within the boundaries of Buckinghamshire. In 1534 the maintenance of the timepiece at Wing was entrusted to an unidentified clockmaker from London. The Wooburn accounts in the south of the county include the sum of sixpence paid to William Beck for going to Maidenhead to the man who made the clock, whilst the third clock at Great Marlow was supplied by a Mr. Davis of Windsor. It was not until the eighteenth century that the Bucks craftsmen were able to reverse the tide, as their workmanship became equal to those of other counties, or their prices became lower than those of their competitors. ln 1713, Vincent Smith of Pounden made the clock at St. Mary's church Ambrosden in Oxfordshire and the Packer family of Tingewick maintained the turret clock at Finmere for over fifty years.
During the nineteenth century this trade changed considerably. John Stone and John Packer were still both in business at the start of the century, but as time went on the effects of the industrial revolution became more noticeable and it became cheaper to buy a clock from one of the firms specialising in these clocks, such as Gillett & Co. of London, etc. Another fact which led to the replacement of locally made products was the employing of London based architects such as Street, White and G. Scott on the restoration of churches in the Victorian era. These men with the experience of their own journeys around the country tended to look more widely than the village builder for their craftsmen and materials. Consequently when called upon to supply a new clock, they would use the larger town firms who thought in like terms to themselves. These clocks would not have the charm of the locally-made product, nor the personal attention of the neighbouring clockmaker, but it cannot be denied that with their precision-made gearing and the use of the newly invented gravity escapement, they were considerably better timekeepers and required far less maintenance.
The second strand in Buckinghamshire clockmaking is made up of the group of youths who gained their entrée into the craft by apprenticeship in London within the Clockmakers Company. The ties between this group and the turret clockmakers are comparatively weak, as are its connections with the remaining section which includes all those who actually worked within the boundaries of Buckinghamshire.
The reasons for this can be seen by examining individual cases. On the face of it, this would seem to be an excellent entrance to a career in the trade. The raw Buckinghamshire youth would go to London, serve his seven years as an apprentice and become free of the Clockmakers Company and the City of London at the same time. He then served his master as a journeyman, polishing his art in the most fashionable and forward-looking place in England, and when he had saved enough money, either went into partnership or set up his own business.
The reality was vastly different for behind the bare facts that have so far been collected must have lain considerable heartbreak, drudgery and failure. Buckinghamshire sent thirty apprentices to London, but out of this number only eleven are known to have received their freedom at the end of their term. What happened to the other sixty-three per cent is as yet unknown. Some may have run away but a more likely explanation would be that many of them died. London had a very high mortality rate throughout this period. Deaths exceeded births and its population was only maintained by influxes from the villages and countryside. Lacking a proper sewerage system and with most of its water supplies polluted, it was a breeding ground for smallpox, fever of all sorts and cholera - the latter in the nineteenth century. The native-born Cockney would acquire a certain immunity to some of these diseases over the years, but country lads would be very vulnerable.
Even those apprentices who did manage to finish the course seem seldom to have carved out much of a career for themselves. None of them emulated Whittington even on a more modest scale. Despite a fairly careful examination of some of the London directories in the succeeding years after the termination of their apprenticeships, there has not yet come to light any case where these citizens achieved the independence and dignity of owning their own business. They seldom even became partners in their master's shops. Most of them can have seen nothing more than a lifetime of drudgery as servile journeymen.
The reasons for this are to be found in their apprenticeship indentures. Many of them were already orphans, apprenticed by the parish of their birth or settlement, to a London master so that they would no longer be a charge on the poor rate. The premiums paid were usually low, varying from three or four pounds up to ten pounds, from which the master had to provide food and clothing. The master wanted a return on these expenses and obtained it by keeping the conditions and training to the bare minimum. To this aim he was aided and abetted by the official of the parish from which the boy came, for after his apprenticeship their interest was minimal unless the boy ran away home.
In those cases where the boy was apprenticed by his parents, conditions were very different. The most outstanding example of this being the indenturing of John Stratford Collett for fifty pounds. John was a younger son of Robert Collett, a large landowner and Lord of the Manor of Wendover. Here the object would seem to have been to provide the son with an entrance into the world of commerce rather than to instruct him in a trade. This is also borne out by the Directories which describe his master, Thomas Headach as a tea dealer and grocer, which is far removed from clockmaking. Similarly with the Blinko brothers, it would seem unlikely that an apprenticeship with a fish salesman would lead to a career in clockmaking, and much the same is to be suspected about the youths who were bound to the Corn Chandler, the Draper and the Chairmaker.
Having sieved out the chaff from this extremely mixed group there remains but few who could have received first class tuition in a business with prospects. William Harper's apprenticeship to Aynsworth Thwaites in 1766 was one of these for Thwaites was one of the more enterprising makers in London at that time who eventually built up a very high reputation. The other was William Dutton who at length attained a partnership with Thomas Mudge in 1755.
Finally we come to the clock and watchmakers who lived and worked in the towns and villages of Buckinghamshire. Most of these lived in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth. Only a very few are earlier. Domestic clockmaking did not start in earnest until the seventeenth century even in London. In the countryside at that time there would be next to no demand at all, and where there is no demand there is no supply. Consequently the facts discovered so far are the expected ones.
The earliest clockmakers known within the county, the Knibbs, did most of their work in London and Oxford. It was not until they had virtually retired from active clockmaking that they renewed their links with the county by occupying their freehold lands at Hanslope. Most of the family history has been recorded in recent years by more competent hands than mine and consequently I have confined myself to a sketch of their life outside the county and a more detailed history of the Hanslope period.
The other characters of the seventeenth century are far more shadowy figures. Many must have escaped my net because the parish registers seldom give the occupations of the persons they record. Probably Aylesbury was the first centre for the trade. There was already a fairly large group of locksmiths in the town and this could have provided the nucleus for the newly emergent craft. Again as the largest town of the county with the Quarter Sessions, Assizes and the Archdeaconry Courts all held within its bounds, it provided a likely clientele in the landowners, lawyers and litigants who were in attendance there. Whatever the reasons, the result was a small group of clockmakers, residing there in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. As the century progressed the trade spread slowly, keeping in the main to the market towns. The county of Buckinghamshire was very much an agricultural county and with farmers becoming more prosperous they were the likeliest persons to buy clocks after the gentry and, indeed, more likely to buy the locally made product since the gentry had access to London. Consequently there were occasions when a cow or some sheep were brought to market and a longcase clock made the return journey. This trend of clockmaking being confined to the larger towns persisted throughout the nineteenth century and still exists today. Occasionally a trade would set up in a village, such as William Gardus of Whaddon or William Davison of Newton Blossomville, but the economics of the situation soon forced them out of business or made them move to a larger place.
Naturally during this long period the number of clock and watchmakers in any town did not remain static. It is difficult to establish any firm trend in this because the numbers are small, seldom exceeding three or four for any one town, but it would seem that although places such as Aylesbury and Buckingham were always popular, other towns had much wider variations. High Wycombe rises from one to six between 1798 and 1830 for example. The most interesting town of all was Olney. Here, in the late eighteenth century, a small industry was set up, making mostly watches, but also a few clocks. As a result the numbers rose considerably and by 1798 there were eight watchmakers compared with five at Aylesbury, the county town.
Clockmaking tended to be somewhat of a closed profession by this time and Olney in particular showed this trend to the highest extent. Many of the marriages were between established watchmaking families, such as the Abrahams and Aspreys, and there were also ties with Newport Pagnell and Stony Stratford. In much the same way there was an enclave at Buckingham and Tingewick, which helps to explain why that small village produced an abnormal number of clockmakers. The south of the county does not have this family relationship to the same extent however. Much of the influence in the south was due to the pull of London whilst the north looked to Oxford, Bedford and even Northampton. Unlike Oxfordshire, however, the Quaker families do not seem to have become so involved in the clock and watchmaking trades. As far as is known at present, only two clockmakers, Richard Coles and his son of the same name, are known to have been Quakers, although George Spur of Aylesbury had at least one friend of this denomination. Possibly more will come to light in due course, but despite the vast strength of the Friends in this county it cannot compare with the neighbouring county. Most of the other clockmakers appear to have belonged to the Established Church, where this fact is known, but at Buckingham there was one family that belonged to the Congregationalists and at Newport Pagnell one of the founders of the Methodist chapel was William Rose the Clockmaker. In politics too, the narrowness of the franchise in this period prevents any sweeping statements from being made, but from investigations conducted by R.W. Davis recently it had been shown that the clock and watchmakers who owned their own shop and did have the vote, tended to act independently of the outside influences and voted consistently for Whig and Liberal candidates.
Over such a long period of time as this the trade obviously changed considerably, but in the main it was similar to those found in neighbouring Oxfordshire. In the seventeenth century the clocks were made almost from start to finish within the local workshop, and this continued to be normal until the mid-eighteenth century. From that time onwards the influence of the manufacturers of parts in London was being felt in greater and greater force. John Stone of Aylesbury did a lot of trade with these firms, buying in the parts and finishing off the movements in his workshop. By the end of the century some of the makers were producing little more than the frames themselves. In the nineteenth century even this was given up and fully finished movements were purchased and attached to dials made by Finnemore, Walker and other Birmingham firms. Since these put their names on the back of the dials or the sub frame it is usually easy to see when this occurred.
The one exception to this was at Olney where complete manufacture persisted into the mid nineteenth century. The watch manufactory there, run by the Killingworths, existed until 1868 and Hollinghead retained their old wheel cutting machine and fusee engine until very recent years. These have now been presented to Aylesbury museum.
By this time, however, not only had the movements become factory made products, but the exteriors had become gross and ugly, with painted faces of very crude design. The days of the English clock were over and they were replaced by the cheap products of America and the Continent. For this reason this history terminates at 1850. No clock maker is included unless he was working before this date. Even so, there may be some listed here whose singular talent was the ability to paint their name on a dial but it is perhaps better to include these rather than omit the few craftsmen who still remained at that time.
(C. & W.) - Clock and Watchmaker
(W.) - Watchmaker
(T.C.) - Turret Clock
(C. & W.) Ebenezer Abraham, the son of Ebenezer and Elizabeth Abraham, was baptised at Olney church on the 17th February 1735. He established his own business in that town some time prior to 1773 and was still in business there in January 1787 for the Northampton Mercury of that date containts a reference to a robbery at his shop. He died at Olney in 1815 and his will was proved at Aylesbury on 20th July in the same year.
[We plan to add the clock and watchmakers listed in the book between Abraham, Ebenezer and Duncombe, Richard.]
Richard, the son of Edward Duncombe, a husbandman of Dunton, was apprenticed to Thomas Belcher of London on the 5th February 1760. The premium paid was £31 10s. and the term was seven years. He actually received his freedom on the 8th October 1770.
(W.) John Dumville, a watchmaker of Olney was included in the returns of the Posse Comitatus for Buckinghamshire in 1798. He married Mary Perry on 28th February l799.
William Dutton, the son of Matthew Dutton of Marston in Buckinghamshire, Gent., was apprenticed to George Graham on 5th January 1738. He received his freedom on 7th July 1746. He was a liveryman of the Clockmakers Company from 1766-94. He entered into a partnership with Thomas Mudge in 1755 and took over the business in 1771.
Newport Pagnell (1750-1757)
Edward Earle, the son of John Earle, a shoemaker of Newport Pagnell, deceased, was apprenticed to William Blackbourne on the 6th August 1750 for seven years. The premium paid was five pounds. He received his freedom on 7th November 1757.
Thomas East, the son of Robert East of Haddenham, Blacksmith, was apprenticed to Samuel Bennet of London for seven years. The premium paid was £10.
(C. & W.) Henry Elburn started his business in the High Street, Amersham, between 1830 and 1838. He was still in business in 1869. In 1842 he was also described as a gunmaker.
Ellson, William George
Great Marlow & Slough (1830-1847)
(C. & W.) William George Ellson had a business in the High Street, Great Marlow in 1830. By 1847 he moved to Slough but by 1854 he given up the business altogether.
(W.) James Emmerton is described as a watchmaker in deeds dated 21st December 1793 and 5th July 1802.
(W.) John Emmerton, the brother of James, is also described as a watchmaker in the deeds mentioned above.
(C. & W.) Engelsman was in partnership with Frederick Lepmann in New Road, Aylesbury in 1842. Within three years the partnership had been dissolved. Frederick Lepmann had moved to Market Square, Aylesbury and Engelsman is not mentioned again.
(C.) John Ettry of Horton made a longcase clock circa 1735, according to Baillie. A further longcase with a square brass dial without spandrels is now at Aylesbury museum. [Paul Succony has informed us that John Ettry came from Horton near Devizes.]
High Wycombe (1842-1847)
Joseph Fehrenbach had a shop in Easton Street in High Wycombe in between the years 1842 and 1847. He is said to have made a few Cuckoo clocks among his other wares.
London & Great Missenden (1753-1821)
(C.) Michael Ferron was apprenticed to his father Abraham on the 8th October 1753 for seven years. He received his freedom on the 3rd April 1769. He became a liveryman in 1793 and moved to Great Missenden before 1821.
Field, Thomas White
(C. & W.) Thomas White Field took over the business formerly run by Joseph Quartermaine in 1804, in the Market Square, Aylesbury, where he was a freeholder. He probably served his apprenticeship with Joseph Quartermaine or had a close business interest for an 8-day movement by Quartermaine has been found with T.W. Field, Maker, stamped on the inside of the mechanism.
Field, Thomas White
(C. & W.) Thomas White Field, the son of T.W. Field mentioned above, was born in Aylesbury in 1805. He was also a Silversmith, Engraver and Gunsmith and agent to the London Union Fire and Life and Mutual Life Assurance Company. He was also agent for the Oxford Journal and other newspapers. He was still in business in 1864 in the same premises at Aylesbury.
(W.) A watch made by Thomas Fitter of Eton is mentioned in 1764.
High Wycombe (1842)
(C. & W. and toydealer.) Charles Fontana had a shop in Paul's Row, High Wycombe in 1842. He was still at that address in 1847 but by 1853 he had moved to Church Street, High Wycombe. He describes his premises as being opposite the church and includes in his stock telescopes, chess boards, cricket bats and toothbrushes.
Aylesbury and Oxford (1682-1725)
(C. & W.) Son of William Ford, Cleric, late of Heyford, Oxfordshire, he was apprenticed to John Knibb of Oxford on the 28th April for eight years. He received the freedom of the City of Oxford on the 10th July 1691. He was still resident in Oxford in 1708 but by 1712 he had moved to Aylesbury where his daughter was born. He is described as insolvent in 1725. He is known to have made the following clocks: -
Longcase 8-day 10-inch square dial, with winged cherub corner pieces, signed John Ford, Bucks.
Longcase month clock in panelled marquetry, signed John Ford, Bucks.
See also Clockmaking in Oxfordshire, C.F.C. Beeson, p.98.
Newport Pagnell & London (1625-1670)
(C. & W.) Samuel Knibb, the third son of John Knibb, was baptised on 15th November 1625 and apparently set up business in Newport Pagnell some time prior to 1655. He moved to London about 1662 since he is included in a list dated 26th June of that year as being resident at Westminster. He became a member of the Clockmakers' Company of London by redemption in June 1663 and entered into partnership with Henry Sutton, the instrument maker. He is thought to have died about 1670. A full description of his clocks and other works is included in The Knibb Family - Lee. See also Clockmaking in Oxfordshire, Dr. F.C. Beeson, p.124.
High Wycombe (1767-1825)
(C. & W.) John Lee, the son of William Lee, a watch case maker of Gwynn Buildings, Islington, set up business in High Wycombe in 1767 as mentioned in the Reading Mercury. (According to the later bill heads, the business was established in 1775.) In 1798 he is returned by the Posse Comitatus as the only Watch and Clockmaker in the town. In 1823 the address of the shop is given as Paul's Row, High Wycombe, and in 1825 it was taken over by Thomas Strange. No clocks made by him are known at present, but in 1820 he supplied a turret clock to High Wycombe for which he was paid four guineas in November of that year, and a further £4. 11s. Od. in 1822.
Baillie mentions a John Lee at Great Marlow in the early 19th century. John Lee is also mentioned in the Churchwardens accounts in 1745 and 1750 as having cleaned and mended the church clock. He may be the same John Lee who lived at Cookham and was the father of Richard and William Lee.
Great Marlow (1768)
(C. & W.) Richard Lee was the son of John Lee of Cookham and was first mentioned in 1768. Two years later the business was taken over temporarily by his brother William Lee due to Richard's illness. A watch made by Richard is mentioned in the Public Advertiser in 1775.
(C. & W.) William Lee took over the business from his brother Richard in 1770. He is also mentioned in the Reading Mercury of 1771.
[We plan to add other clock and watchmakers listed in the book after Ford, John.]
This book was first published by the Bradwell Field Centre for the Study of Archaeology, Natural History & Environmental Studies as Occasional Paper No. 3 June 1976 by Edward Legg.
Legg.Edward of Fenny Stratford, passed away in Milton Keynes Hospital on March 20th 2008 aged 70 years, well known local historian. Service at St Martin's Church Fenny Stratford on Wednesday April 9th at 3 p.m. followed by interment at The Green Burial Ground, Olney. No flowers by request. Donations for Motor Neurone Disease Association may be sent to E Fennemore & Son,