Saturday, 5 December 2015

English Watch Work (BHI Exhibition, 1873)

An interesting, though small, Exhibition of English watch work has been on view during the past week, and will remain on view until the 22nd inst. Between the hours of 11 a.m. and 9 p.m., at 39 Northampton-square, the house of the British Horological Institute.  It is, perhaps, necessary to say that Northampton-square is in Clerkenwell, between St. John-street and the Goswell-road and a few minutes’ walk from the Farringdon-street station of the Metropolitan Railway.  The British Horological Institute is a society which has been formed for the purpose of maintaining the old pre-eminence of British watchmaking, and of assisting British watchmakers to hold their own against foreign competition.  It is under the presidency of Mr. E.B. Denison, Q.C., and its operations have been the establishment of a monthly horological journal, of classes for the technical education of apprentices to the trade, and of Exhibitions, of which the present is the first, of specimens of watch work of the highest quality.
Here, above, is the introduction to an article printed in The Times on 18 November 1873. 

The British Horological Institute had been founded fifteen years earlier.  Its purpose was primarily to support English makers in their endeavours to hold their own against the increasingly successful activities of ‘foreign competition’.  By the 1870s the situation had become dire.  In a context of extreme conservatism, the English trade had made no significant progress in improving productivity and cost effectiveness since the failure in 1845 of Pierre Frederic Ingold’s initiative to introduce ‘industrial’ manufacturing with the British Watch and Clockmaking Company.  Meanwhile, the Swiss and American makers had been taking more and more of the British market with their cheaper products. 

The exhibition was mounted as a demonstration of the excellence of English craft/workmanship.  This, in part, was intended as a counter-measure to the perceived marginalisation of the makers by the retailers in the commercial relationship with the paying consumer. 

A panel of judges – which included the eminent Swedish-born chronometer maker, Victor Kullberg - awarded a number of prizes/commendations to exhibiting craftsmen.  The article noted that several of the winners were in the employ of Mr David Glasgow, and here we may perhaps smell a rat.  Born in 1824, in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, Glasgow worked for Jose Losada in Regent Street, London, before founding his own business in Granville Square and, subsequently, in Myddleton Square.  He specialised in watches for the Spanish market. 

The rodent odour – not too pungent – would stem from the fact that Glasgow was Vice President of the BHI and thus may possibly have had influence with the judging panel.  He certainly had an influence on the Trade in a wider context.  In his book, ‘Watch and Clock Making’, London, Cassell & Co, 1885, and various pronouncements, Glasgow consistently discounted the English trade’s vulnerability to foreign competition and the consequent need to change its business model.  Typical of the Trade’s Establishment at the time, he believed that the imported watches were of poor quality and their success would be short lived.  He was especially critical of American timepieces.  Too much so, in fact, as this attracted a law suit for libel which an embarrassed Glasgow had to settle out of court.  Here, below, is a letter printed in The Times in September 1877, in which Glasgow's attitude towards imported watches is readily demonstrated by his rather sweeping phrase, 'worthless foreign watches':



  Sir,-The subject discussed in the meeting which you report under the above heading on Tuesday, the 11th inst, affects the general public as much as the English watch manufacturers.  It is not a question of guarantee to the British public (as Sir John Bennett puts it in your issue of Wednesday) that a Swiss-made case should be 18-carat gold; it is conceded by all who know anything of the matter that the Swiss mark certifying the quality of the gold in a watch case is as much to be relied on as the mark of the London Goldsmiths’ Company; but the grievances of the watchmaker lies in the fact that the public, as a rule, seeing the English mark upon the case, believe the watch to be of English manufacture, and consequently of greater value.
  Therefore the marking of watch cases by the Goldsmiths’ Company, originally intended to protect the manufacturer as well as the public, is at present made use of to the detriment of both.  It is well known that many of our best watchmakers have suffered much loss and annoyance by having their names forged upon inferior watches (principally Swiss), which were sent into the market and sold as of their make.  I have lately had evidence of worthless foreign watches, with the name of an English maker on them, being sold in Central America at four times their value, the fraud being greatly facilitated by the well known English Hall-mark on the cases.
  While many watch manufacturers consider the marking of foreign-made cases by the Goldsmith’s Company to be a grievance (as it is undoubtedly a misapplication of the powers originally vested in the Company), they do not see any practicable remedy to be attained by Act of Parliament, even should Parliament adopt such a retrograde policy.

  The evil may be lessened if the public understand that the Hall mark now certifies to nothing but the quality of the metal in the case of the watch.

  I am, Sir, your obedient servant, D. GLASGOW, Vice-President, British Horological Institute.  20, Myddleton-square.

In an article written by R.F. and R.W Carrington for Antiquarian Horology, reference is made to an 1885 ‘head in the sand’ quote by Glasgow: ‘. . . it is greatly to be questioned whether the introduction of the factory system and wholesale adoption of manufacturing machinery would at all benefit the Trade in this country . . .’ 

Elsewhere, others were proposing various solutions to the productivity/costs issues, notably Sir John Bennett; he endorsed the notion of employing women on the grounds of lower pay rates; (see my article, Alexander Watkins, Innovative Chronometer Maker).  The Times article, innocently Victorian, strays into a twenty-first century minefield with the following text: 

(Women) . . . are not found to possess the combination of steadiness and delicacy of hand which is required for giving the last finish to objects of extreme minuteness. 

First Prize, £5 and a silver medal were awarded to George Abbott for the best chronometer escapement.  This was ‘old’ George Abbott, cited by one source as ‘the most famous of all the late Victorian chronometer detent makers’.  Given the threat to the English trade from across the Atlantic, it is perhaps ironic that George picked up his tools and relocated to New York.  There he worked for the chronometer maker, John Bliss & Co, winning a medal in the Paris exhibition of 1900. 

Pocketing £3 for a lever escapement of great merit was Richard Bridgman.  Bridgman had some elite employers – McCabe, Charles Frodsham and Nicole Nielsen.  For the latter, circa 1890, he devised a half plate movement which featured a ‘hanging barrel’.  This involved pivoting of the mainspring barrel on the bottom plate only – allowing a further reduction in the overall depth of the movement/watch, an increasingly fashionable feature of the time; equally, it facilitated the incorporation of a wider/more resilient mainspring.  Examples of Bridgman’s Nicole Nielsen movements can be seen on David Penney’s excellent Antique Watch Store site:, item numbers: 11267, 16715 and 65624. 

Thinking further about the underlying issues challenging the Trade at the time, real significance can be attached to Bridgman’s work – his sort of innovation enabled English products to be made with more attractive appearance attributes and served as an embodiment of superior craft skills. 

William Borthwick Smith received an Honourable Mention.  He too is highly relevant to possible solutions to the English trade’s turmoil.  One such could have been for makers to diversify, utilising transferable precision expertise/skills in manufacturing other kinds of ‘technological’ products less vulnerable to foreign competition. 

In 1867 and 1869 Smith patented a number of watch and chronometer improvements.  He is recorded as a maker initially in Leamington Spa and, subsequently, (1870s), at Junction Street, Coventry.  While based in Coventry, Smith went into partnership with James Starley.  Trading as Smith, Starley & Co, they manufactured a line of acclaimed sewing machines, notable the Europa, Little Europa and Queen of Hearts models. 

The enterprise was initially successful, winning medals at international exhibitions in the early 1870s.  At the same time diversification into cycles and roller skates boosted profitability.  But, possibly, a lack of focus set in and in 1877 the company failed.  An excellent information resource on this business/industry can be found at: 

The Times article records some good intentions and provides us with the names of some highly accomplished craftsmen.  The malaise undermining the English trade, however, continued, unabated.  One hundred years later a similar degradation –and eventual eclipse – would affect the British motorcycle and car manufacturing industries.

(March 2016): Special thanks are due to David H Grace who has kindly pointed out that the attribution of direct employment by John Bliss of George Abbott is probably mistaken.  The confusion stems from Bliss’s practice of obtaining movements from Victor Kullberg for finalisation/sale by the American firm.  Abbott is well-known for the work he carried out for Kullberg in London.  Tony Mercer’s index note for Abbott in Chronometer Makers of the World reads: Abbott, George.  61 Sandforth Ave, Eldon Rd, Wood Green, N, 1870-1933.  Famous detent maker.  He worked for V. Kullberg and was awarded a bronze medal at the Paris exhibition in 1900 as a collaborator.  He also made complete chronometer escapements.

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