Monday, 23 November 2015

It's Alright for Some

In April 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte was availing himself of two watches and a carriage-type clock from the workshop of Abraham-Louis Breguet.  One of the watches not only had repeating and calendar functions, but also an automatic winding movement – known as a perp√©tuelle at the time.  Although timekeeping accuracy was especially important to such an ambitious military commander, Boney was clearly indulging himself with these highly desirable goodies: money, presumably, was no object. 

That same month, in England, The Duties on Clocks & Watches Act, 1797, was repealed.  Although in force for such a short time, the Act had inflicted great hardship on the watchmaking trade and its repeal came too late for many craftsmen who had lost their livelihoods as a consequence of this ill-advised statute. 

The Duty was levied, (on all property, private or otherwise), as follows: 

Five shillings per clock

Two shillings and sixpence per base metal/silver pocket watch

Ten shillings per gold-cased pocket watch 


William Pitt was faced with an urgent need to raise tax revenues in the seventeen nineties to fund army and navy expenditures necessary to resist Napoleon’s military aggression. 

There had been no consultation about the introduction of the tax on clocks and watches and no apparent anticipation of its effect on the watchmaking trade: it was disastrous – as can be understood from the following report in The Times, 2 April 1798: 

The CASE of the DISTRESSED WATCH and CLOCK-MAKERS.  It is a melancholy fact, now established by authentic proof, that at least one-half of the whole Watch and Clock Trade for home consumption has failed for some months past.   The weekly allowance given to most of the poor families in Clerkenwell has been reduced much below that which the same class of persons used heretofore to receive, and also much below the allowance which is now customarily given in other parishes.  The poor, nevertheless, are unable to migrate to the parts of the town where the rates would be more adequate to their relief, the poor laws not permitting any one to burden a new parish until after he shall have rented in it a house for £10 a year.  Such indeed is the extent of the calamity of this parish in particular, that many persons in it, who once lived in credit, are now every day in the utmost peril of starving, the funds which have been raised in money being all expended, and many of the poor inhabitants not having among themselves the means of purchasing, even at the low price demanded, the soup which is made for them.   When notice was given that £100, granted by a Society for the redemption of pawns, was to be distributed, the applicants who appeared within four days after the notice, were found to bring with them no less than £1500 worth of pawnbrokers’ duplicates for articles pawned since July last, so that the redemption of only about one-fifteenth part of that sum was effected; and it is believed there are duplicates to as great an amount not yet brought in.  The number of Work-people out of employ who were visited at their houses by the Committee who distributed that fund, were: Workmen – 1102; Wives or Mothers – 885; Children – 1945; Apprentices – 301; Total - 4233 

Notice that the reduction in trade was apparently as much as 50% - a real collapse.

Twenty years later - perhaps in atonement - the legislature was intent on relieving the human hardship, although, ironically, this was apparently once again an initiative not founded on consultation; a point very evident in the notice below, published in The Times on 5 June 1818: 

(Advertisement) – COMPANY OF CLOCKMAKERS OF THE CITY OF LONDON. – The Bill lately brought into Parliament, entitled “A Bill for the more effectual prevention of frauds and abuses in the manufacture, exportation, and importation of sundry wares, and for the relief of distressed workmen brought up to practise the manufacture of clocks and watches,” which was read a first time, and its further consideration subsequently deferred to the next session, did not originate with the Company of Clockmakers, neither was the company consulted upon the subject.
Perhaps, that early in the new century there was hope that the English trade would return to sustained growth and increasing profitability.  Unfortunately, that was not to prove the case.  The Victorian era would not see English makers capitalising on the reputation for exquisite quality established during the later Georgian period.  Instead, first the Swiss, and then the Americans would ‘steal’ the British market while the indigenous makers either refused to recognise the need for change or failed to properly implement revised productivity-enhancing working practices, see, principally, The English Watchmaking Company (1843). 

Breguet is renowned for both his innovations and the quality of his workmanship.  The Breguet website,, is well worth a visit, the History/Timeline pages in particular. 

At within a good summary of the master watchmaker’s career and the development of his business, no less than 19 significant Breguet inventions are listed.  That a Frenchman became the prime watchmaking innovator rather than an Englishman was as much indicative of the London trade’s nineteenth century decline as the dwindling numbers of home-produced timepieces being sold in Great Britain.

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