Thursday, 21 November 2019

Birchall Father and Son, Chronometer Makers


Peter Birchall was born in 1799.  It is thought that his parents were William and Ellen, then living in Widnes.  A record exists of the marriage of William Birchall to Ellen Yates at Prescot in September 1789.  There were multiple associations of the Birchall name with watch and clock making in North West England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  According to Britten’s, George Birchall was a Warrington watchmaker, c. 1793-1820, and he may have been the junior partner in a firm, Birchall & Son, 1770. Ed. Baillie, Ilbert and Clutton, Britten’s Old Clocks & Watches and their Makers, (London: Bloomsbury Books)  There was a William born in 1749 who died in 1820, but his sons were named William and Steven.  Another ‘possible William,’ a watchmaker of Wellington Street, St Lukes, died in 1842, but, again, a son named Peter does not appear in his will.One of the sons, James, also a watchmaker, committed suicide in February 1847  Holden’s Directory for 1802 lists a William Birchall, watchmaker, at 11 Kirby Street, Hatton Garden.  The location, Burton Crescent, a little to the east of Clerkenwell, near St Pancras, is also associated with the Birchall name in the 1820s.

There is no record of an apprenticeship having been served by Peter, and it is likely that he was trained by his father.  Whatever the facts of that, his horological ability was such that by 1840 he was confident enough to be submitting two of his chronometers to the Greenwich Trials.  Furthermore, one of them, #281, was good enough to be placed seventh of twenty-eight, and thus his work was out-performing that of such illustrious names as, Pennington, Parkinson & Frodsham and Santiago French.  This chronometer also did better than two made by R & H Molyneaux.  The latter business occupied premises at 30 Southampton Row, which, two years later, were taken over by Birchall and his friend/partner, Henry Appleton.  The 1841 Census shows Henry, then sixty three years old, living at 50, Myddleton Square with Peter, Peter’s wife, Winnie, and their son John, just one year old.  Appleton was renowned for the quality of his work, making him a key employee for several years in the Molyneaux firm.  Given this, and his twenty years seniority, he may well have played the role of a mentor and greatly contributed to the success achieved by Peter in the early Greenwich Trials which are summarised in the table below:

Fig.1. Peter Birchall’s Chronometers on Greenwich Trials

This chronometer, #880 is c.1865:

Fig.2. Chronometer #880  Courtesy of WorthPoint

Peter had married Winnie Hitch in 1826.  Their son, William Peter, was born in 1838, and he too would eventually make chronometers which would be proved excellent at Greenwich.  The couple had another son, John, who also worked in the family watchmaking business until his death in 1871.  The family’s means enabled the employment of a servant at each of the addresses recorded by successive censuses: 1851 – 6 Middle Brunswick Terrace; 1861 – 2 Amwell Terrace; 1871 and 1881 – 12a Stonefield Street.Amwell Terrace was merged with Great Percy St in the 1860s and the Birchall’s house became number 65 

Age twenty three in 1861, William Peter was described in the Census as a ‘watch maker’s finisher,’ (as was younger brother, John).  At this stage he had already begun to make a reputation of his own, having entered a chronometer - #1 – to the 1860 Greenwich Trial, and this was rated second only to the #642 of his father’s manufacture. The following year his #9 was rated 7th.  In 1862 he was elected to the Council of the Horological Institute.  As a further indication of qualified status, his own listing began to appear in directories in addition to those for his father.  William Peter’s Greenwich Trials results are summarised in the table below:

Fig.3. William Peter Birchall’s Chronometers on Greenwich Trials

William Peter married Eliza King in April 1864.  They lived with Peter and John at Stonefield Street, the 1871 Census recording them there together with their sons, Peter, Alfred and John.  (Another son, Herbert, was born in 1873.)  William Peter died, age forty, in 1878, from a subdural effusion of the brain, possibly a rare complication of meningitis.  His father, Peter, was considerably longer-lived, dying in October 1885.

Considering the success of both Peter’s and William Peter’s chronometers at the Greenwich Trials, it is notable that they figure only marginally in horological literature, and I have been unable to find any images of extant timepieces of their manufacture other than that of Peter’s #880, as seen above.  I would be very pleased to receive details of any in readers’ possession and/or photographs of them.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Thank You Omega

A couple of years ago Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO of Omega, kindly invited my eldest son and I to Bienne to visit the new Omega Museum and the production line. My health prevented me from taking up the invitation at that time, but, more recently, plans were put together for the trip from England to be made on 27 September.  In the event, medical advice was against my going after all, but Omega generously arranged for my second son to be accommodated in my place.

My boys had a great time and came away even more Omega brand-enthusiastic. I’m attaching a few of their photographs, but am mainly posting to record my appreciation of the exceptional generosity, friendliness and efficiency of Reynald and his PA, Alexandra Buraglio.  They represent a watch brand which manages to be very charismatic, yet accessible.  The company’s history is a highly interesting one, and the role of the Speedmaster in the NASA moon programmes has been a considerable feature in all the Apollo coverage in this year of the 50th anniversary of the live broadcast of this goose bumps-inducing dialogue:

“Engine arm is off. Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

“Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.”





Monday, 12 August 2019

The Wild West . . . in South East London


If you ever have reason to start looking into the Frodsham horological dynasty you may, as I did, become excited to happen upon Edward, of that ilk.  Whilst most of the family, from William James (b.1778) through to Parkinson & Frodsham, (surviving to 1947), remained London-based, establishing and developing watchmaking businesses of great repute, this Edward was to be found in the 1870s in Wyoming, U.S.  Described as a jeweller by trade, he apparently had a fearsome temper and was good with a gun.  A succinct pen portrait goes like this: Imprisoned for having shot dead a man who had been having an affair with his wife.  On release was soon in a gunfight at Laramie, killed another man, was arrested, then bailed, moved to Leadville, killed again, for which he was arrested and put into jail, from which he was seized by vigilantes . . . and lynched by them!

Meanwhile, back in England, George Frodsham was in 1876, if a little less extravagantly, also flouting the Law: he was summoned for travelling 2nd Class on the Great Eastern Railway with a 3rd Class ticket.

But if George’ delinquency was mild in comparison with Edward’s, one of his fellow London watchmakers, Nathaniel Wegg, would have been quite at home in the gun-toting Wild West.  In 1885 Nat shot a man attempting to break into his watch/jewellery shop in Deptford.  A little reminiscent of Dirty Harry’s line, ‘you've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?,’ Nat shouted to the wounded burglar, ‘How did you like it? . . . I have another ready for you.’  And while at the movies, Nat’s approach reminds me of Paul Kersey in Michael Winner’s Death Wish, not only for his liking to be tooled-up, but also as a one man judicial operation, as illustrated by this report in the Kentish Mercury, 14 May 1881:



Wegg is certainly proving to be an interesting subject and my article on his life and business is nearing completion.  However, examples of his work are very hard to find.  So, if you have a Wegg watch – or a photograph/description of one – I’d be very grateful to hear from you.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Another missed

Further to previous posts - 2019 and 2015 - another Alexander Hare Pocket Watch was included in the Jones & Horan sale, 2nd June, described:




The watch sold for $1,800. It's another that I feel I've 'missed,' (because I was overly-focused on the Alexander Watkins Chronometer in the same sale.) But I'm intent on acquiring a timepiece by Hare and will keep looking.  Meanwhile - courtesy of Jones & Horan - here are some photographs of #406:








Monday, 3 June 2019

Mr Watkins would not have been amused

Following up my March 2019 post, I was very surprised to find that the beautiful little Pocket Chronometer by Alexander Watkins made only $8,600 at auction on 2nd June.  Bearing in mind that it featured in the 1851 Great Exhibition and is a 'one-off'' piece of horological history, the £51,000 it sold for fifteen years ago seemed fairly modest, and how it can have achieved such a very much smaller hammer price now is a real mystery to me.  Someone has acquired for themselves a wonderful bargain!

In cataloging the Chronometer Jones & Horan made available some new images, including several of the cases, and courtesy of J&H, here is a selection:






And, surely, the presence of these accoutrements, should have supported a higher resale value?  I'm certain that Alexander, a notably proud man, would have expected so.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Rags to Riches to Rags

In researching nineteenth century watchmakers  I often find I'm looking at a family business characterised by a diligent, hard-working founder who built up reputation, turnover and capital value, and by sons/grandsons who seem to have taken things for granted and presided over commercial demise, sometimes to the point of bankruptcy.  One such 'story' concerns David Keys (born 1816), and his son, William (born 1856). My account of David's initial success and of William's failure is published in the April 2019 issue of Clocks Magazine

Today, discussion of business models is no longer something that takes place only in a high-powered management consultancy or financial institution.  With the recent attainment of the potential facilitation/cost effectiveness of marketing through digital channels, the working principles of all sorts of commercial enterprises, and the need for these principles to change, has become a frequently examined subject in media coverage of current affairs.  Notably, most people - whatever their own occupation/profession - are familiar with the travails of the retail sector, witnessing in our own high streets and malls the disappearance of stores whose names had been familiar (and loved/respected) throughout our lifetimes.

In the current volatile milieu it isn't just old, traditional businesses that have had to reconsider their business model - Apple, for instance, underpinned by vast revenues over recent decades and said to be the global number one brand, has just announced its strategic shift from relying on producing physical goods to an enterprise generating subscription income from a television platform which will integrate with other service provisions and transactional activities.

The commercial environment in the later years of the nineteenth century was similarly volatile. Industrialisation, transfer of the populace from rural to urban locations and improved communication/transportation resources were major factors in a time of great change.  The concept of readily available 'consumer goods' required that shops/stores should become proactive marketers and to survive they needed to find competitive edge.  That William Keys recognised this in the 1880s is to his credit, but that his resulting actions were so ineffective is sad - everything that David had built-up over forty years was dissipated by William within ten.

Marine Chronometer, 1892
Courtesy of Konrad Knirim

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Three Follow-ups

I posted about Alexander Watkins and his very fine 1851 Pocket Chronometer in April 2016. As noted in my Clocks Magazine article about Watkins, this watch changed hands in a Sotheby's sale in 2004 for £51,000 - this has always seemed to me a meagre amount for such an attractive and historically-significant timepiece.  So I shall be very interested to see what it makes when it comes up again this summer.  This will be Jones & Horan's sale on Sunday 2nd June - for further details see here. In my experience this is an auction house which really knows its stuff, and their team has in the past been very friendly and helpful to me in my horological researches.



More recently, Isaac Court's 'Patent Time Repeater' featured here.  Rich Newman kindly got in touch from Chicago to let me know about other applications of this fascinating invention - covered in his article:


I've done it again!  Back in November 2015 I was bemoaning missing out on an Alexander Hare pocket watch.  Even more regrettable this time, in the recent sale at Canterbury Auction Galleries.  This was a good example of how much value can be obtained in terms of character and complication if precious metal case material is not so important to a collector:

Courtesy of Canterbury Auction Galleries

To my eye this is a very attractive verge (#386), and not expensive at a hammer price of  £1,900; ah well.