Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Thomas Earnshaw 1749-c1914 (!)

Anyone who studies English watchmaking in the period 1750-1850 will soon come across multiple references to Thomas Earnshaw.  Though born in Lancashire, Earnshaw was for many years a prominent figure in London horological circles, noted both for technical brilliance and for a chaotic lifestyle, especially in regard to his finances.  He particularly came to my attention when I was researching the post here, A Watch to Die For, and for an article on George Margetts. 

Earnshaw is well known for his contribution to the refinement of Marine Chronometers with his spring detent escapement, (1783 patent in the name of Thomas Wright) and for his dispute with Arnold to which that invention gave rise.  Speculating on his disposition, the word ‘disgruntled’ comes to mind and not only with Arnold, but also with the Board of Longitude, (leading to his Appeal to the Public, 1808), and, persistently, with various creditors who , not unreasonably, sought his imprisonment on grounds of insolvency. 

The standard horological reference works – Baillie, Loomes, Mercer - tend to dwell on Thomas himself, 1749-1829, and his son, also Thomas, b1784.  Britten’s does go further, recording two more generations, but I believe that I have identified no less than five Thomas Earnshaw fathers-and-sons, born successively in 1749 – 1784 – 1809 or 1811 – 1835 – 1862. 

Thomas II (b1784) carried on the business at 119 High Holborn, according to the ‘brand’s’ current website, until 1854.  Mercer suggests that latterly he moved the business to 87 Fenchurch Street.  At the time of the 1851 Census he was living at 12 Union Road, Clapham.  Although there is some doubt about dates/locations, an important milestone is recorded around the years 1841-2.  In the 1820s/1830s the production of top quality Earnshaw chronometers declined.  Anthony Randall has observed that Thomas II possibly lacked his father’s technical ability and interest in chronometry and was content to be the maker of more ordinary watches, ‘for purely civil use’.1  The latest movement number with hallmark-verified date is #7131/1841.  The date is significant in that it was in 1842 that Thomas II’s name appeared on a list of Directors for the nascent British Watch and Clockmaking Company.  Although Thomas’s name – as did John Barwise’s and John Frodsham’s – lent credibility to the prospects of the industrial-model company, the traditional trade’s opposition won the day, and the business was defunct before it had ever really got going.2 

The third Thomas was born around 1810.  Whilst next to nothing is documented about his watchmaking, numerous pieces of paper were required to record the fecund nature of Thomas III’s marriage to Jane Cunningham: they had nine children, born across the years 1835 to 1848.  The first-born was Thomas IV.  The household must have been a lively, crowded milieu at the time of the 1851 Census since Thomas had two apprentices – James Dean and James Bacon – also living-in, at 48 St John’s Street, Clerkenwell. 

It’s a shame not more is known about this Thomas – he was, I suspect, a ‘colourful’ character.  When only 15 he was involved in a dispute over the affections for one Miss Dowler.  It was alleged that Thomas had issued to a rival a challenge to a duel, but this evidently was ultimately found to be a hoax. 

As noted above, Thomas IV grew up in a fully occupied dwelling from which the business was conducted in Clerkenwell, the traditional centre of the London watchmaking trade.  But, as the nineteenth century progressed into its second half, that Trade was in decline, watches from Switzerland and America taking ever higher market share.  Although there had been failure in London itself to introduce a more efficient/cost-competitive manufacturing model, semi-industrialisation was established in Lancashire and Coventry.  There was a degree of migration of watchmaking individuals and families from London to these areas.  Thus Thomas was to be found for the 1891 Census in Solihull and in Coventry for those of 1901 and 1911. 

The ‘last’ watchmaking Thomas Earnshaw, son of Thomas IV, was born in 1862.  He was still living at home with his father and mother, Annie, in 1891, but is untraceable after that date.  Thomas IV, though by then 75 years of age, was still recorded as working when the 1911 Census was conducted. 

For a good overview of extant Earnshaw timepieces, I’d recommend a visit to David Penney’s Antique Watch Store http://www.antiquewatchstore.com/search?controller=search&orderby=position&orderway=desc&search_query=earnshaw&submit_search=&p=2

1              A G Randall, Thomas Earnshaw’s Numbering Sequence, Antiquarian Horology, Vol17 No4,                 Summer 1988

2              Alun C Davies, The Ingold Episode Revisited, Antiquarian Horology, Vol31 No5, Sept 2009


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