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Brian & Joy Loomes

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks Blacksmiths' Iron Lantern Clocks

The 'art' of clockmaking, as it was usually called, began somewhere in that no-man's land between the work of the blacksmith and the goldsmith. The origin of clocks was closer to the former, that of watches to the latter. Since the beginning of the Iron Age blacksmiths had developed the almost magical skill of crushing and smelting mere rocks and beating the result into iron objects, often of great beauty and amazing strength and durability. By the mid seventeenth century, the time when clockmaking began in earnest, when learned and scientifically-minded people still divined fruitlessly for buried treasure in Westminster Abbey and elsewhere, and when alchemists still failed to find the Philosopher's Stone and the secret of turning base metals into gold, the blacksmith's ability to change crumbled stone into the strongest metal known to man was only a short step behind, was already three thousand years old, and, what is more, was successful.

Blacksmiths made mostly heavy-duty metal goods, from iron gates to plough shares, selling their finished work 'in the black' as it was termed, which meant painted or japanned black for the sake of preservation and appearance. Hence the origin of their professional name, which has nothing to do with the worker becoming blackened from furnace smoke but derives from the 'black' iron goods they made. Smaller, finer ironware goods were made by those blacksmiths, who specialised more in this particular branch and who were known as 'whitesmiths'. This is a term now obsolete and virtually forgotten, not in the modern dictionary even, but which meant (black)smiths who sold their more delicate wares 'in the white', that is as brightly-polished iron. The term 'clocksmith' was coined in the mid seventeenth century to indicate a blacksmith or whitesmith, who gradually extended his output into what was then a new-fangled skill, the making of clocks. Sometimes the word 'smith' stood alone, and that might include a smith of the black, white or clock type. A smith of whichever type would probably turn his hand to all of these skills as need arose.

Clockmakers who worked in the cities, of which London was far larger than all the rest put together, often learned their clockmaking skills by apprenticeship, initially to workers in fine metals, but by the mid seventeenth century to those who were specialist makers of clocks. In the provincial countryside the clockmaking craft was usually handed down, progressing from a blacksmith father, to a whitesmith/clocksmith son, to a clockmaking grandson. Blacksmiths had traditionally worked in rural areas, often isolated spots, alongside the major travelling routes, which at this time could barely be called roads. There they could service passing travellers who needed horses shoeing or carriage springs mending.

Unsigned blacksmith-made lantern clock probably dating from the 1670s or 1680s. View of the top plate of the blacksmith-made lantern clock
1. Unsigned blacksmith-made lantern clock probably dating from the 1670s or 1680s.
Click for closer view.
2. View of the top plate of the lantern clock, showing holes where the hammer once fitted on the right.
Click for closer view.

An example of this progression from clocksmith to clockmaker is typified by the father and son makers, the two Jonas Barbers of Winster in Westmoreland. When Jonas Barber senior (born in 1688 and descended from a family which included blacksmiths) made his will in 1758, he described himself as a clocksmith. When his son, Jonas Barber junior (born 1718, died 1802) made his will in 1799, he called himself a clockmaker. Yet both spent almost their entire lives making clocks. These self-taught rural clocksmiths, like Jonas Barber senior, were proud of the fact they had not served an apprenticeship, but had learned everything they knew since they left the cradle by the simple 'hands-on' method. One clocksmith, Thomas Peirce of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, who died in 1665, has an epitaph on his tombstone in the churchyard which runs:

'Here lyeth Thomas Peirce whom no man taught,
Yet he iron, brass and silver wrought;
He jacks, and clocks, and watches (with art) made
And mended too, when others' work did fade,
Of Berkeley five times Maior (Mayor) this Artist was,
And yet this Maior, this Artist was but Grasse,
When his owne watch was Downe on the last DAY .
He that made watches had not made a KEY
To winde it Up, but Uselesse it must lie
Untill he Rise a Gaine no more to die.

Presumably the Gloucestershire accent of the mid seventeenth century pronounced 'key' as 'kay', which is needed to make the rhyme. In his will, however, he called himself a 'watchmaker'! I know of no surviving clock by Thomas Peirce, though I hope there are some, and I would love to see one.

Clockmaking got under way in the mid seventeenth century in provincial England. In Scotland and Wales nothing was made this early, as the only known domestic clockwork from this period in those countries came from England or overseas. Hardly any domestic clockwork from rural provincial England survives from before the 1670s or 1680s, and precious little even then. There were lantern clocks made in the larger provincial cities such as York and Bristol, often by makers trained in, or connected with, London and these were made with a large proportion of brasswork in the London manner. Extraordinarily few clocks from this time survive in the rural blacksmith/whitesmith/clocksmith tradition, but in those that do we can see the centuries-old skill of the smith, forcing hammered iron to perform those more delicate functions, which city clockmakers performed in brass.

Brass was the engineer's gold, and like gold it lasted, if not quite for ever, then as near as made little difference when compared to the human life span. This shiny indestructibility came at a price, for worked brass was ten times more costly than worked iron - ten old pence a pound weight against six pence a pound for pewter and one penny a pound for iron. The rural clocksmith could not afford to work in this luxurious metal called brass, as it priced his product out of the range of modest country pockets. Therefore he worked as much as he possibly could in iron even though it was a much harder metal to work, being far less yielding to the hand. But the country smith had hammered iron into obedience for generations and accepted the fact that it was harder to work, because it was blessed with a low price. Iron was more prone to degenerate with time, but if kept brightly polished would see a few generations out. Sometimes the non-moving iron parts of some early clocks were japanned or painted black to prevent rust, and this has helped preserve a few to this day.

The dials of these clocks, both city and rural, needed to be in polished brass, despite the cost, for the dial was the most important part the customer saw and a good dial was what sold the clock - and still is! So these clocks are of lantern clock construction in principle, but sometimes have all-iron movements more like those of a hook-and-spike wall clock, hiding behind a dial which looks as near as possible to a lantern clock. Just occasionally a clocksmith might decide to use pewter to make his dial, because it looked rather like polished and silvered brass but came cheaper. In fact pewter dials are a bit soft and easily get damaged, and pewter dials are seldom found on British clocks. One clocksmith in Cornwall, John Belling senior of Bodmin, is said to have used Cornish tin to make the spandrels for his dials, almost certainly for cheapness - and because it was available locally and the nearest brass had to be shipped from Bristol. I have sometimes seen clock dial spandrels made of lead for cheapness by certain early Oxfordshire Quaker clockmakers, even though it is ridiculously soft and lead will easily tear.

The first household clocks in the land were lantern clocks, known in London from as early as 1600 but more usually from the 1620s, in the larger provincial cities from the 1640s, but in the rural provinces not till perhaps the 1660s or 1670s. From these earliest times rural clocksmiths would sometimes make hanging wall clocks we know as hook-and-spike clocks, which were usually non-striking alarm clocks and would normally have square brass dials. These were the cheapest type of all.

Lantern clocks however, even the blacksmith made ones described here, were higher up the social tree than mere hanging alarms. When seventeenth century blacksmiths' iron lantern clocks survive then, they are lantern clocks in appearance, or clocks of that general nature based on the concept of the lantern clock. Only a handful survive. I think I have seen less than a dozen in my life. They are not usually signed - we do not know why. We can guess that it may have been because they sold their clocks in the markets of local towns, where as non-locals they were unwelcome as traders, blacklisted by the native traders by means of by-laws, which forbade outsiders to sell in a market they regarded as their own. The makers of unsigned clocks who broke these bylaws were difficult to track down and even more difficult to prosecute. Early Quakers included metal workers amongst their numbers, who would sometimes leave their clocks unsigned because, it is said, to sign them was an indication of vanity. There might be some truth in that, but the difficulty of tracking down the maker of an unsigned clock might have been as much a boon to Quakers selling in towns illicitly as it was to others.

John Baxter was a mid-seventeenth century blacksmith who worked at the hamlet of Conderton in Worcestershire, which was then a tiny place with only twenty or so houses not far from Tewkesbury. His name is known only through a single lantern clock. This came to light in an auction only recently - at what was then Phillips's in London in 1994. The clock is extraordinary in several respects. Most importantly it is dated in two places with the year of its making (1670) and signed by its maker, again in two places, who also proudly announces his trade as 'blacksmith'. Dated clocks are exceptionally unusual. One or two other lantern clocks exist made by men who were known to be blacksmiths, but so far as I know no other lantern clock is signed with the actual wording as being made by a blacksmith.

movement of the blacksmith lantern clock from the right movement of the blacksmith lantern clock from the left
3. View of the movement of the blacksmith lantern clock seen from the right.
Click for closer view.
4. View of the movement from the left. Iron structural parts were often painted black, as here.
Click for closer view.

John Baxter's clock is a true lantern clock based on London concepts. He knew what he was making, perhaps having seen or repaired one, but his style is completely unlearned and 'wrong' when compared to a London example of the same period. His dial engraving is charmingly naïve, with Father Time measuring with his hourglass, Death in the form of a skeleton peeping out from behind a tree, a moon face below XII and garlands of daisies and thistles - all very unlike the themes on London lantern dials. The chapter rings marks half and quarter hours, but again in a way unlike any London clock. So he clearly knew what he was doing, and did it making full use of brass, but its style tells us that he is on unfamiliar ground.

Another rustic clockmaker by whom a solitary lantern clock has been in the possession of Leicester Museums for many years now, was made about 1700 by Christopher Carter of Galby, a village in Leicestershire about ten miles from Leicester and of only about twenty houses at that time. This was the only known clock by this maker - until another similar one turned up at auction in 1990. Both these Carter lantern clocks are true lantern clocks with brass external 'cases', as is that by John Baxter, though with some primitive features, not least the engraving. They are based on the London concept, though with a charming rustic interpretation. Such clocks are wonderful, near-unique items, but are still variants of a recognised form. These clocks just mentioned are true lantern clocks - made by blacksmiths, yes, and with some primitive features, but still fully-fledged lantern clocks with a large proportion of brass. But these are not the sort of blacksmiths' iron lantern clock I am mean by blacksmith-made ones.

The ones I am referring to contain a massive proportion of iron to brass. In fact in some of them the only brass is the dial, and even the wheels might be of iron. Iron wheels were exceptionally unusual because it was well known that wheels meeting pinions as alternate metals would wear far less than wheels meeting pinions of like metals. The normal method was to have brass wheels running against iron pinions. Iron of course is the harder of the two metals, but surprisingly it is normally the iron pinions which wear before the brass wheels. This, I am told by those who know such things, is because brass wheels become embedded with tiny shreds of iron and grind against the iron pinions with an action like that of a file.

Normal lantern clocks (including those rustic oddities by John Baxter and Christopher Carter) have everything made of brass except for the ironwork of the pinions and arbors (axles). Blacksmith ones used brass just for the dial and wheels, with very exceptional ones having iron wheels too. Everything else was made of iron - the 'frame' or 'cage', as it is sometimes called, the top and bottom plates, the bell-strap.

Walter Archer worked at Stow on the Wold in Gloucestershire from the 1690s, a rural maker who did sign his clocks. He was typical of many early clocksmiths in that he did much of, if not all of, his own work and would make whatever type of clock he could sell at the time, from hanging (hook-and-spike) alarm timepieces, to true lantern clocks, to both eight-day and thirty-hour longcase clocks. His clientele included rustic farmers who were incredibly price-conscious and had little money to spend and were probably the last people in the world to need a clock, as they got up when it was light and went to bed when it was dark. He therefore cut his quality down to as low a price level as he could, when he had to. But he still had to supply them with a serviceable clock.

His work includes, as well as normal clocks, a known handful of only five eccentric clocks which are unique to him and one is illustrated here. These are in appearance very much like lantern clocks when seen from the front but hook-and-spike wall clocks behind the dial, a sort of hybrid between the two. The front carries a top fret just like all lantern clocks, but there are none at the sides (hook-and-spike manner). There is no true bell-strap, but a bell stand inside the bell, just like any birdcage hook-and-spike clock. This was easier to make and did not need the supports in the form of top finials, so he didn't make finials. The feet of lantern clocks were just decoration, and so he didn't make feet either. Walter Archer's hybrid clocks are in a world of their own and help to point out that difference between the costly true lantern clocks and those permutations which still served as lantern clocks but kept the price down.

The anonymous clock pictured here looks at first sight similar to Walter Archer's hybrid clocks. The brass dial is exactly as made for a true lantern clock. The movement too has features we expect in a lantern clock (bell strap, finials, feet) but these are all made of iron. The wheels are of brass, but everything else is of iron. The maker was clearly an expert smith, but his identity remains unknown.

It is unclear whether the clock was made initially with a verge pendulum and converted later to anchor escapement and long pendulum, or whether it began life with an original anchor escapement. Detailed study in dismantled state by an experienced restorer (which I am not) would determine which, but this has yet to be done. Seventeenth-century lantern clocks of any type are of such amazing age that they have almost always had alterations done in their extraordinarily long lives. It never ceases to surprise me that clocks so long obsolete survive at all. It is hardly surprising that it can be a bit of a challenge to decide just what these changes were, since all we have to go on are a few empty holes here and there. It looks as if it was made with original anchor escapement and long pendulum (which it still has of course), but, if so, it has one or two puzzling features.

The movement appears to have been altered at some past time by switching the hammer and hammer arbors from right to left - the holes can still be seen where the strikework once sat on the right and as filled holes where the ends of the crossbars hold the arbors. This was probably to switch from two separate driving weights to a single one with Huygens type linking chain, which the clock now has. What was once the front winding ratchet (for the going train) is now a fixed wheel like any other thirty-hour clock, but contains the remains of a ratchet wheel no longer in use. The clock winds on the rear (striking) train, as became the normal system with thirty-hour clocks.

How can we date a clock such as this? The pendulum (in verge form with short pendulum) was is use by 1660 in longcase and bracket clocks, but was seldom used that early in lantern clocks, where the balance control was still popular for another generation or more, probably because of its convenience in so far as balance clocks were not as fussy about being set up level as pendulum clocks were. The long pendulum with anchor escapement is believed to have been first introduced about 1670, or so the books tell us. We know for certain it was in use in the provinces by 1675, as I know of a signed longcase clock dated with that year.

So this clock could have been made in the 1670s or 1680s, maybe even a little later, though the dial engraving style suggests no later than 1690. There is precious little styling about hammered iron, so we have no stylistics to help there. The wheels appear to have been cut by a wheel-cutting machine, which is thought to have come into use by about 1670. Both the wheelcutting and the anchor escapement (if original) point to a post 1670 date, maybe 1680. This makes it a pretty exciting age, but its most appealing feature to me is the primitive charm of such early blacksmith work, which is exceptionally rare. I doubt I will ever see another such.

Footnote: An extended version of this article appeared in the Horological Journal.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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