Collecting Antique Clocks Conversion Lantern Clocks and Richard Smith
Lantern clocks were made in London from about 1600 to about 1700, in provincial England till about 1750 and occasionally later. They were driven by weights, the earliest needing winding every eight to twelve hours, by 1700 every thirty-hours. Once-a-day winding was the best they ever reached, if you see infrequent winding as being a desirable feature to aim for. Single-handed clocks (as lantern clocks were) needing frequent winding became outmoded and by the mid to late nineteenth century were pretty well obsolete. Thousands must have been turned in for their scrap metal values. We know clockmakers took in old clocks against new, giving a discount for the high re-usable metal content, especially the brass, which was always costly. A few survived untouched, languishing in lofts, where amazingly they still turn up.
About 1900 a new antiquarian interest arose whereby people of a certain inclination took a little interest in these ancient clocks, but not enough interest to wind them daily. At this time a number were 'converted' to run for eight days. This meant the outer shell or 'case' was retained and a movement made to fit inside it, which was to all intents and purposes the same as that in a bracket clock. A spring-driven movement could be wound weekly, could sit on any surface without the need for cords and hanging weights, and could be given a second (i.e. minute) hand, to tell normal everyday time two-handedly. We call these clocks 'conversion' lantern clocks.
Ten years ago, or a little more, such clocks were regarded as unsaleable, being totally spoiled, and many purist collectors still see them that way. However it has increasingly been recognised that such a conversion preserved, if only the outer shell, at least something of a clock, which might otherwise no longer exist. The history of clocks would be far poorer if these conversions had not taken place, as the work of some clockmakers is known only through conversion lantern clocks. Today conversion lantern clocks, though nowhere near as valuable as 'unconverted' ones (which themselves of course have usually been converted anyway to different forms of escapement from their original form), are highly saleable to a far wider public, who enjoy the clock for what it is.
The normal method was to fit (which usually meant making purposely to fit neatly the space between the top and bottom movement plates) a fusee clock movement, which was just the same as that in a bracket clock of the day. A fusee is a cone-shaped gear found in most British spring clocks to regulate timekeeping against the contrary nature of a spring, which pulls strongest when fully wound and weakest when nearly run down. Continental clocks (French and German) usually did not have fusees. This is why many a French clock will go fast when you wind it on Monday, keep time about Wednesday, and lose time on Friday..
English conversion movements had fusee drive - double fusee for an hourly strikes, single fusee for a non-striker or one with 'passing strike'. Passing strike is the term given to some single-fusee clocks, its use mostly limited to skeleton clocks and conversion lantern clocks. A clock with passing strike will strike a single blow on the bell at every hour, regardless of the hour, and can be run by the power contained within a single spring. Full striking of the number of every hour requires a separate spring for the striking train. A striking (double-fusee) clock has two keyholes for winding; a non-striker or passing strike has just the one.
Some lantern clocks were converted using French or German movements, and these would generally not have fusees, but what instead are called 'going barrels', and would be subject to the fast-Monday, slow-Friday syndrome.
The movement of a spring clock is more subject to interference by dirt and dust than the old weight-driven lantern clock with its massive wheels which, which usually chugged away happily in mud-floored houses regardless of floating straw and chicken feathers. Therefore the top and bottom plates of conversion lantern clocks were usually modified on conversion to keep out the dirt by taking steps to cover the existing holes where hammers and ropes has passed. This meant either fitting a separate dust cover, which might be of brass or tin or iron, but was usually brass, or instead replacing the tope (and usually also the bottom) plate. The fact that conversion lantern clocks have a replaced top and/or bottom plate is not something of detriment, but was just a neater solution than an added dust cover.
The original side doors of (unconverted) lantern clocks had a lug top and bottom by means of which they slotted into place and could swing for access. These fell off whenever the clock was laid down, and the clocks ran well enough without them, being not far from immune to dirt. The great majority of lantern clocks have lost their original doors. Conversion spring-driven movements were more dust sensitive and the converters often fitted replacement doors to keep the movements clean. Again this is not a detrimental feature, but tends to be normal. The same thing applies to back-plates, which were the same thing as a door but held in place by pins. Replaced doors and back-plates are normal in conversion clocks, to keep them dust free.
The bells on lantern clocks, like those of all other antique clocks, are made of bell metal which is grey in colour and has a rough-textured surface. On some conversion clocks the bells have a smooth surface and are polished to a very shiny state, which makes them look like 'new' bells. This came about because it was thought the shiny bell looked 'nicer' on a clock which would now sit at eye level or lower, and the bell surface has been honed to a high-gloss finish.
The original single hand (having a 'tail' for leverage when re-setting the time) was often retained when the clock was converted to two hands. A second (i.e. minute) hand was often made in the same general style at the time of conversion to match what became the hour hand. This means that we have a matching 'pair' of hands, one perhaps 300 years old, the other 100 years old.
An example of how important it is that these conversion clocks have survived destruction is seen in the first example illustrated. This clock appeared in a major auction, the signature said to be 'Ricardus Smith de Nobo Castro fecit'. Nobody seems to have been able to puzzle out where Nobo Castro was, and no clockmaker called Smith could be identified at such a strangely-named location. The result was that the clock came out at a reasonable price. The signature proved to read correctly as Novo Castro, which anyone with schoolboy Latin will tell you means New Castle, nowadays known as 'on Tyne'. Richard Smith of Newcastle on Tyne was recorded as a clockmaker who married there in 1656 and died there in 1681. No example of his work has previously been recorded!
To make the clock even more interesting the front fret carries an engraved dedication 'Moses son of Isaac Henzell (and a final word worn away and illegible)'. Research showed that Moses Henzell was a Quaker who married in Newcastle on Tyne in 1669. This clock was almost certainly bought by his father as a wedding gift for Moses Henzell. So here we have an exceptionally early provincial lantern clock with a known maker with defined dates and a known date of making, the only example of his work so far documented! There are not half a dozen provincial lantern clocks surviving in the land which we can date with certainty to an actual year as early as this. Only the fact of conversion has preserved this unusually interesting piece of horological history.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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