Collecting Antique Clocks New Clocks from Old
It is well known that clockmakers would often take an old household clock in part-exchange for a new one, and sometimes even a church clock or turret clock - perhaps one that was broken, seriously worn and thought beyond repair, or just plain old-fashioned. And many a householder, or church authority, would be glad of the discount the clockmaker would allow against the price of the new item. But why would he want old clocks in part exchange?
We have always known that a clockmaker would value the metal parts which he could re-use. It was not so much the iron, which could be re-worked but was cheap enough to buy new anyway. It was in particular the brass he wanted, for that was very costly to buy new - at ten old pence per pound weight, against one old penny a pound for iron. That made brass considerably more costly than pewter (at six old pence per pound weight), something we might not initially have realised. These prices prevailed throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when there was little or no inflation. The clockmaker could re-use all the metals in a variety of ways, re-working the iron and, if need be, melting and re-casting the brass. But he could also make parts for his new clocks using robbed pieces of old ones, and we sometimes see a wheel made from a piece of brass which has engraving on, and was once a part of an old dial.
But there were times when a clockmaker could use the whole of an old clock movement, perhaps where the old movement was a solid and reliable item, but maybe just old fashioned. A canny clockmaker might decide to make a new dial and case whilst re-using an existing old movement. This is not very often met with, though I have seen it a number of times. To the inexperienced such a clock can look like a 'marriage', that is a clock made up, usually in modern times, from old bits and pieces, often done deliberately to deceive the naïve. In a certain sense such a clock is a marriage, in that an old part or parts are re-used and added to certain new parts. But on these occasions when a clockmaker of the past made a new clock incorporating some older parts, it gives an interesting insight into trade practices. Such a clock is pictured here.
This particular clock is unsigned and from its various stylistic features and its make-up we can deduce it was made by a rural clocksmith. A clocksmith was a craftsman in that half-way house between blacksmith and clockmaker, often a second or third generation blacksmith, born and bred into metal working, who began tentatively to branch out into the world of clocks, initially often by mending heavier items such as church clocks and ultimately by making his own. Usually he was known only in his own immediate locality, and by the nature of his work he would use whatever plundered pieces he could to make do and mend, and most important of all to keep down the cost. Customers came to him on account of his lower prices, who might balk at the price charged by a fully professional clockmaker. Clocksmiths were located primarily in less well-to-do rural areas, though they might take their products to local town markets to sell - even on occasion in towns where local bylaws banned outsiders from trading. Many clocksmiths had fathers who were blacksmiths, but their sons were true 'clockmakers'.
Many clocksmiths did not sign their work - and for good reason. One was to escape detection or prosecution for trading illegally in local market towns. Another was because a clocksmith was unlikely to be able to engrave, could not therefore 'sign' his own work by engraving his own dials, and was unwilling to go to the extra cost of paying an outside engraver to do that. The clock pictured here comes within that category, being unsigned, probably because the maker could not engrave.
This clock is at first sight a typical rustic thirty-hour oak-cased single-handed longcase clock. The primitive oak case has a deeper than usual area beneath the top-mould indicating a lack of sophistication in style (but also indicating something else we shall see shortly), has no opening door to the hood (which means the hood must be removed to adjust the setting of the hand), has an absence of pillars to the hood, and a peg-fastening trunk door, which was cheaper than a lock or turnbuckle. All these features kept the case as simple as possible to keep the price down..
It is when we look inside at the clock movement itself, that we are aware of its interesting origin. The movement is that from an anchor-escapement lantern clock of about 1690. In the early days of country longcase clock making some clocks did use the old type of lantern movement, that is they were built from scratch with the lantern movement. That is not the case here. It can be seen that this movement came from an older (true) lantern clock, as it once had a regular lantern dial, once had side doors, once had frets - all these removed to allow it to be used as a longcase movement. However it has retained the feet and finials and lantern-clock bell strap, though its top finial has been removed to allow easier clearance of the case hood. Even with this top finial removed the clock movement stands much higher than a regular longcase thirty-hour movement would, because of its high-positioned bell, and this is the reason for that deeper hood area above the dial, to allow room for the unusually high movement bell.
The ten-inch dial sheet itself (a cartwheel type of casting) has nothing by which we can date it. It could have been made almost anywhere in the land at any time in the eighteenth century. The chapter ring however is of a distinctive style with meeting arrowheads for half-hour divisions, a style which was used in the provinces between about 1690 and about 1720. This chapter ring was probably from some long-dismantled (ten-inch, single-handed) clock, and just happened to be the size required for our clocksmith's purpose. It has no signature. The clock it came from perhaps was signed by its original maker on a plaque, or within an engraved dial centre. If our clocksmith had been capable of engraving, or willing to pay another to do it for him, he could have had his name added along its base - but, for whatever reason, he didn't.
The spandrels are of a cockleshell pattern which were used between about 1750 and 1770 on smaller thirty-hour dials. The spandrels seem to have been fitted to this dial sheet at the time of its making, that is were put on new at the time. The hand is a replacement. We can deduce therefore that this clock was made about 1750-60 by a rural clocksmith (probably in Rutland where the clock was found), using a new dial sheet made to fit a still-serviceable 1690s lantern movement, an old chapter ring of about 1710 or 1720 (which carried no signature), and new spandrels of the day. The whole clock was housed in a purpose-built rustic oak case. We can see it was purpose-built because of the high front section above the dial, built unusually high to clear the lantern clock bell.
The dial was dismantled to see, just out of interest, whether the maker had left his name or any other information such as a date or a place scratched, however crudely, somewhere out of sight - behind the chapter ring, on the back of the dial .. Nothing was found. It seldom is with such clocks. I always find this surprising, as it must have been tempting to have left some claim to craftsmanship by the maker. If I were to make a clock, I would want it to be known by any future enquirer, who I was and when I made it.
Whether the rustic clocksmith who made this clock felt the same we can only guess, but he denied himself the satisfaction of leaving his mark. Was it out of fear of prosecution and fine from some market town guild where he was not allowed to trade? The example always stands out in my mind of John Sanderson of Wigton in Cumberland who took clocks illicitly to sell in Edinburgh when on a visit there in 1715 to visit other Quakers, pursue his faith and spread the word of the Lord. His clocks were confiscated by the local trade guild, whose members resented and prevented this unauthorised competition, until he paid the imposed fined and promised never to repeat the offence. Sanderson was a Quaker and a devout, God-fearing man, but was not averse to a bit of skulduggery to escape being detected when poaching someone else's market. We know some of his clocks were signed with the totally fictitious name of Jeremiah Sanderson in order to avoid detection, probably in other instances of market poaching. For Sanderson at least there was no unwritten thirteenth commandment, which might have restrained other people of conscience - 'thou shalt not poach thy neighbour's market, nor steal his custom with thy illicit trading'.
It is horological detective work of this sort that makes clocks so fascinating. What looks at first sight like a quite ordinary country longcase, proves to be an interesting and very unusual piece of horological history.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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