Collecting Antique Clocks The Powleys of Asby
The Powley family were well-known clockmakers working in and near to Asby in Westmoreland in the eighteenth century. Asby, formerly known as Ashby and more anciently Asheby, lies about four miles south of the larger and better-known market town of Appleby, which itself is a few miles south-east of Penrith and a few miles west of Brough. This is a wild and lonely mountainous parish, rising in parts as high as 1700 feet, tucked away in the low cloud cover in a valley just south of the main east-west route across northern England. This road runs across the Pennine mountain range, the backbone of England, from Scotch Corner in the East across to Penrith in the West, an ancient coach road often blocked by snow even today. Travellers along this harrowing route two hundred years ago must never have found it an easy journey. With winter lying on the bleak fells, it must have been only the very hardy or perhaps the foolhardy, who would have attempted the crossing on the pathetic roads of the day. This was the sort of rough hill pasture they still call 'land out of doors', where sheep outnumbered people and often outlived them.
But it was in such remote spots that blacksmiths had traditionally plied their trade, with never a shortage of hapless passers-by from the softer lowlands, beaten by the unexpectedly harsh terrain, and in urgent need of a horse shoeing or a shattered carriage spring repaired. The Powleys appear to have been just such a family of rugged metal smiths, who quite literally hacked metals out of the mountain sides. Such grizzled mountain men grew gradually into clockmaking as an offshoot of smith work, and were often known as clocksmiths. Metal workers in remote locations of this kind would usually farm in the summer time, when outdoor life was almost tolerable, and make clocks when locked indoors by the winter fire and farming was impossible, and when, in such mountainous terrain, the snow might lie on the ground for weeks on end. You had to be tough to be a smith on the roof of England, with callused hands that could pickaxe metals from the rocks or run a graving tool over planished brass as easily as a knife across butter.
The Powleys' work in the form of clocks has been known to antiquarians for years, but identification of each individual member of the family has always been an uncertain business, made more difficult for us because they were numerous and they traded under a variety of 'signatures'. These ranged from their own individual personal names and surnames, to surnames only, to initials only. It is as if these rural clocksmiths deliberately wished to make their work difficult to identify, and perhaps that was their intention. The Powleys could not possibly have made living in such an out-of-the-way place by trading with neighbouring hill-farmers, who barely scratched out a living from the poor soil. Even if local farmers had been keen customers and had been wealthy enough to buy their clocks (both of which propositions seem to me highly unlikely anyway), the Powleys would have totally satisfied local demand within a couple of years. And yet they made clocks there for the best part of a century.
Their work is not feeble, like that of some rustic clocksmiths who could barely scratch their own names on a dial, though it is of a simple nature, being mostly in the form of thirty-hour clocks humbly cased in oak. But the work itself, its quality, its style, its finish, its engraving, is all of a sufficiently sophisticated nature that they clearly knew what they were about and they were capable of making a very skilled job of it. Their engraving is bold and confident, with well-shaped letters immaculately executed. Their castings are strong and crisply finished, with none of the paper-thin dial sheets found in some cheaper clocksmith work. There was nothing cut-price about a Powley clock. Some of their thirty-hour clocks even have rack repeating striking, clearly a costly 'extra'. These things alone tells us that they were selling to a clientele with some knowledge and taste, as well as the money to indulge it.
We can deduce that they must have visited markets of the larger towns to sell their wares - Appleby, Penrith, Brough, Barnard Castle, . Where there were plenty with the money and taste to purchase. But in those times you could not simply decide to take your rickety cart there, prop it up in the cobbled market place and hawk your wares. All outsiders were prohibited by local by-laws from trading in most such markets, as local tradesmen banded together in guilds to keep out non-locals, who might otherwise come in to undercut their prices and steal their customers. Such by-laws, of course, never intimidated a hard-pressed clockmaker from the hills into missing a sale. A man who could hack his way into a mountain side before breakfast, was not averse to finding a way round the law, and one regular way they did this was by concealing their true identities, thereby making it difficult for local village constables to track them down for retribution.
Some of the Powley clocks went unidentified for years, bearing 'signatures' such as 'W. P. Asby', 'J. P. Asby', and 'I. P. Asby'. In fact the IP signature was normally I. P - having only one full stop after the I and none after the P, a feature they seem to have used consistently. These can now be recognised as the work of William Powley, and John Powley respectively, though just which William is debatable. But their styles of clockmaking are a little unconventional and therefore their work is difficult to date. It might be easiest if we set out initially who they were and when they lived, for only recently has this become known with any certainty.
JOHN POWLEY (I). The first Powley, who may have made clocks, was John Powley of Asby, who married in 1679 to Ellen Willan. The couple had at least five children between about 1680 and 1688, of which only three are known to have survived into adulthood. Ellen died in 1720. John lived on till his death in 1729. We are not certain if this particular John made clocks. Clocks do exist which appear to be as early as the 1720s signed as 'J. P. Asby' and 'I. P Asby', (I and J were then interchangeable in capital lettering) but the style of their clocks is deceptive and it is possible such clocks were made by John Powley (II), grandson of John (I). I have never seen a Powley clock myself which I felt sure could be old enough to be made by this first John Powley.
WILLIAM POWLEY. William was the eldest son of John Powley, born in 1681. He was probably taught clockmaking by his father, but we can only suppose this. It was unusual for any formal apprenticeship to be entered into between father and son, or even between others in a family, who took on relatives as trainees. There was no need for such documentation, and the fact that a tax was payable on apprenticeship bonds, meant that hardly any rural clockmakers would want to bother with such needless and expensive paperwork. If William did not learn the trade from his own father, there were precious few in the locality who could have taught him, perhaps the nearest being Aaron Cheesbrough at Penrith. In fact Powley work generally has a bit of a 'Penrith' look about it.
William married in 1707 to Agnes Taylor, who bore him at least six children between 1708 and about 1720. William died in 1768 aged eighty-seven, and we can expect that he was not making many clock in his eighties. Clocks are known clearly signed by William Powley of Asby, but others exist such as one signed 'W. P.' , numbered 85 and dated 1766 (when he would have been eighty five years old!). In fact William had a namesake son, born in 1714, and it might just be he who made the WP clocks, which would sort of make sense alongside the work of his brother John's I.P clocks. We cannot be sure if this William (William (II)) did make clocks, but if it was he who made the WP one, he would then have been fifty two.
Other clocks exist signed simply 'Powley, Asby' with no first name. It is usually thought that clocks signed by a family surname only, are made at a time when father and son worked jointly together, so that this way joint recognition was given to the younger member of the partnership. 'Powley, Asby' clocks however are probably later than the time of the death of John Powley (I), which would mean they were probably a joint product of William and his son, John Powley (II). Unless of course they were produced by the two brothers together John (II) and William (II).
JOHN POWLEY (II). The eldest of William's six children was born in 1708, a son, named John after William's own father. John Powley (II), grandson of the first John, also became a clockmaker, probably learning the trade from his father. He remained a bachelor and probably worked all his life in the family home and workshop with his father. John died in 1779, only eleven years after his father. This would probably mean that 'Powley, Asby' clocks date between about 1730 and about 1760, though we know that both William and John (II), did sign clocks in their own personal names too.
THOMAS POWLEY. The second son of William Powley was called Thomas, born in 1709. Thomas did enter into a formal apprenticeship on 10th April 1721, when he was bound as an apprentice for the usual term of seven years to serve a tailor in Asby village named Thomas Swainbank. A condition of that apprenticeship reflects the importance of farming to these hill farmers, who had to get in what harvest they could in the brief summer. Thomas was 'to have to his own proper use and service (which means as a holiday) one week time in haytime and another week in corn harvest yearly every year during the said term; and if the said Thomas Swainbank be throng (= especially busy) with work at the said season so that he cannot conveniently spare his said apprentice from his trade, he the said apprentice shall take to his own use the wages which he earns in two weeks time yearly instead of his said weeks in haytime and harvest'. Many apprenticeship indentures contain standard terms and conditions, but this is something I have not seen before, a special clause allowing the boy to have time off specifically to help with the harvest, but in particular the harvest of his parents, of course.
Such a condition may seem amusing to us today. However in those days it was vital to get in the harvest while the weather held. In fact it is not very long ago that children in the Dales villages where I live were allowed holiday from school (or otherwise were kept away from school anyway) in order to lend a hand at getting in the crop at haytime - to which everything else was secondary.
It is not known whether Thomas finished his term as a tailor, but he did eventually turn to clockmaking. By the year 1739 he was married and had a child born in that year named Robert. In that very year he moved to take a rented house with a garth or garden at Battlebarrow, in Appleby parish, for a rent of thirty shillings a year. Battlebarrow was on the north side of the bridge on the east side of Appleby town. By 1753 Thomas is described as a clockmaker. The date of Thomas's death is uncertain as one of that name died in 1754 and another in 1781, either of which might have been the clockmaker, though the latter date seems more likely. Clocks are known dating from about 1750 signed by Thomas Powley of Appleby.
ROBERT POWLEY. Robert was the son of Thomas Powley, born in 1739 at Asby, but by the time he was apprenticed to his father in 1753, he was living with his parents in Battlebarrow, in Appleby parish. An apprenticeship indenture is said to exist, and extracts from it were published years ago. It is unusual for apprenticeships to be drawn up within the close family circle, but this is one, whereby Robert binds himself to his father, Thomas, to learn 'his art, trade and mistery of a clockmaker unto the full end and term of seven years to be fully completed, finished and ended.'. What is also unusual is that this apprenticeship was not registered with the Inland Revenue, as it should have been, being due for tax. Just why that is, I don't know, but hill farmers were never noted for being over-conscientious where taxes were concerned. Robert would have been free of his apprenticeship in 1760. He was married in 1764 to Agnes Ellwood, and is still listed as working at clockmaking in the directory of 1790.
The work of the Powley clockmakers consists mostly of simple square brass dial thirty-hour clocks, housed in plain oak cases. Their dial styles are interesting as they seem to be sometimes strangely old-fashioned in their layout. By about 1750 their two-handed thirty-hour dials still kept the quarter-hour divisions, fairly bold old-fashioned half-hour markers, and even meeting arrowhead symbols on the minute track, all of these being features lingering from earlier years (plate 1 by 'Powley, Asby'). This clock is signed as if a family product of father and son, but as father William was by this time about seventy, it seems more than likely that son John ran the business, but gave credit out of respect as a family product. Another possibility is that John worked with his brother, also named William, about whom nothing more is known than his baptism in 1714. The overall style is not unlike those dials by William Porthouse of Penrith, only a few miles to the west. But this same style still lingers in some of the later Powley clocks, such as that of a good twenty years later signed by 'I. P., Asby' in plate 5.
The movements of these two clocks are typical of the day, but still have some slightly old-fashioned features. The pillars for instance are slender and neat and have unusually fine decorative flanges as well as distinctively long front protuberances to facilitate pinning. That this fancy pillar style should persist as late as 1750 is not particularly extraordinary, but in fact the identical pillar is being used as late as about 1770. Both the earlier and later movements pictured here incorporate a trip lever for releasing the countwheel strike in the event of the clock coming out of strike sequence. This is a handy little feature, which saves the owner groping about behind the hidden countwheel at the back of the movement. It was used on many early clocks, but by the 1750s had largely been discontinued. The Powleys were still using it in the 1770s. Why they should continue practices which were falling from use elsewhere is not clear. It might be that they were simply keeping up the same 'quality' of work they had always produced. Or it might be that they were a close-knit family group, who just keep doing things the way they always had, stuck in a rut because of an absence of outside influence.
There is one intriguing little item I have always enjoyed about this particular family. Some years ago a correspondent sent me a little quotation. I forget who it was but I'm grateful to him all the same. It comes from a survey report by a local mining surveyor written in 1755. 'In this parish is a coper (=copper) mine in which a Clock Smith digs all his coper he uses, having smelted it himself: it (having) so fine a colour, he makes wach cases and sells 'em for pinchbeck. He is all has (= is always) overworked; being in a remote place, 'tis scarce known .' This clocksmith must be John Powley (II), as father William was by then too old to be digging copper out of the hillside. The reference to Pinchbeck may need explaining. Pinchbeck metal was a bright, gold-like metal, an alloy of zinc and copper, used for making watch cases in imitation of gold. John Powley's brass, which he smelted from this unusually rich vein of copper ore, was apparently so striking it could pass for Pinchbeck metal. But the importance of this quotation to us is to see contemporary evidence that these rural clocksmiths did do much of their own work, even down to smelting brass. The Powley dial engraving is excellent. Did they do their own engraving too? Who knows? If it was originally a bit of a secret, then John Powley's source of copper was later discovered, as in a gazeteer of the 1830s is stated 'A copper mine has recently been opened in this parish. A great part of this parish is mountainous. In the village of Great Asby is a quarry of freestone'. Recently opened it might have been, but by 1830 the Powleys had been mining copper there for a century already.
The above details have been pieced together from various sources including genealogical information supplied by a descendant. With what we now know of the Powleys, we can perhaps deduce how to date their clocks other than those obviously signed by the maker with his full name and place.
In particular these are:
I. P. Asby or J. P. Asby. Possibly made by John Powley (I) before his death in 1729, but more likely made by his grandson, John Powley (II), between about 1730 and 1779. Normally these dials have a consistent signature as 'I. P ASBY', that is with only one dot after the I and none after the P.
Powley, Asby. Probably a joint product between William Powley and his son, John Powley (II), between about 1730 and 1760-65.
John Powley, Asby. Possibly by John Powley (I), but more probably made by John Powley (II) and therefore dating from about 1730 to 1779.
W. P. (with or without Asby). Made by William Powley between about 1700 and 1768.
William Powley, Asby. Made by William between about 1700 and 1768.
Thomas Powley, Appleby. Made by Thomas Powley of Battlebarrow between about 1740 and 1781.
Robert Powley, Appleby. Made by Robert Powley of Appleby between about 1760 and about 1790.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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