Collecting Antique Clocks Richard Beck, a lantern clock maker during the Civil War
The first we hear of Richard Beck is that he was apprenticed in May 1646 through the Clockmakers' Company to John Selwood, thirty-three-year-old younger brother of the better-known William Selwood, who was then thirty nine. The Selwoods made lantern clocks at the sign of the Mermaid in Lothbury, London, and they were both struck down tragically early in life. John died in 1651 aged only thirty eight, and William followed only two years later aged only 46. On John Selwood's death, Richard Beck was transferred to Thomas Loomes, a former Selwood apprentice and at that time the only other surviving clockmaker at the Mermaid who had completed his training. Beck was to complete his apprenticeship in May of 1653, at which time he was granted freedom to trade by the Clockmakers Company. But in those turbulent times during the Civil War nothing was ever straightforward within the ranks of the Company.
Judging by the date of his apprenticeship and assuming he was bound at the usual age of fourteen, we can deduce that Richard Beck was born about 1632. I have not been able to track down his birth with any certainty. We know from later information that his father was also named Richard Beck. One possible birth in this year of a Richard son of Richard Beck was at King's Norton in Warwickshire and another was at Helpringham in Lincolnshire, but we cannot be sure that either refer to this same Richard Beck.
The tragic death of the Selwood brothers in quick succession meant that at the age of only about twenty four Thomas Loomes suddenly found himself master not only of the Mermaid clock business, but of the several apprentices held by the late Selwoods and now masterless. John Selwood died in 1651 but as late as December the Clockmakers' Company ordered that Thomas Loomes must not take on Richard Beck until he had applied for permission to do so. What was he supposed to do with him meantime? The Company did eventually grant permission in the January following.
But Thomas Loomes took over not only Richard Beck but also Simon Dudson, who had also been an apprentice of the late John Selwood. But additionally he took on Tobias Davis, William Clarke and Edward Norris, who had been apprentices under the late William Selwood. Officially he should have applied for permission, but he must have found himself faced with the position of having to find them food and lodging immediately. Should he have thrown them out into the street pending consideration of his application?
In May 1653 Richard Beck had completed his term of service, but it seems that Thomas Loomes had allowed him to begin working in his own right and to sign his own clocks before he was given official freedom to do so by the Company. Thomas Loomes was fined for this offence at the very same court which granted Richard Beck his freedom. With the main two clockmakers of the three-man business now dead, the financial strain on Thomas Loomes must have been incredible. How could he single-handedly produce enough work to feed the small army of apprentices? By late 1653 we know he had at least five! It is hardly surprising that he let Richard Beck get on with producing his own clocks, especially as he had completed his term of service.
This pedantic attitude by the Clockmakers' Company administration took no account of the sudden reality of the situation, and was the less forgivable in so far as it was one-sided. They were inclined to turn a blind eye to infringements by those among their own number while persecuting lesser offenders at will. It may not be insignificant at this period during the Civil War that the administration were principally Royalists, while the dissatisfied included many Cromwellian supporters, amongst them Thomas Loomes, later imprisoned for hiding fugitives from the Commonwealth army, and Ahasuerus Fromanteel himself, shortly to become Thomas Loomes's father in law, who had actually contributed money to support the Cromwellian cause.
Eventually in 1656 there was an outburst by a disgruntled group of members, led by Thomas Loomes and his father-in-law, the famous Ahasuerus Fromanteel, whose daughter Thomas had married two years earlier in July 1654. The rebels included Andrew Prime, who was Fromanteel's brother-in-law, John Drake, a senior member of the Blacksmiths' Company and a man of fiery temper, and William Almond, a long-established clockmaker, who was probably of Irish origin and had estates in Tipperary. Fromanteel himself had been a Brother in the Company since 1632, that is for over twenty four years, but had worked across the river in Southwark, where Company control was perhaps less easy to enforce. Why it was is difficult to say, but the Company seem not to have troubled Fromanteel in Southwark, although strictly speaking that was within their sphere of control. Just what Fromanteel did for the first twenty-five years or so of his working life remains rather a puzzle, as very few clocks seem to exist signed by him during that period. As a mere Brother in the Company Fromanteel was not supposed to sign his own work, but such niceties of discipline seldom seem to have troubled his conscience, and it is quite possible that he sold his work unsigned at that time.
Fromanteel was not admitted as a full freeman until he turned up at court in January 1656 with a personal letter from Oliver Cromwell himself ordering that he be made a freeman of the City of London and of the Clockmakers' Company. The Court of Aldermen records: 'Upon the letter of his Highness the Lord Protector in the behalfe of Ahasuerus Fromanteel for the obteyninge of his freedome of the Citie it is ordered by this Courte that the said Fromanteel shall be admitted into the Freedom of this Cittie by redemption in the Companie of Clockmakers payinge to Mr. Chamberlain to the Cittie's use the summe of 46s 8d.' The Company were obliged to admit Fromanteel against their natural inclination, and must have been seething.
In 1656 a group of thirty three dissatisfied members complained by signing a declaration of no confidence in the administration and sending it to the Lord Mayor. They claimed they were too many apprentices to the point where 'they fear the end of their service would be the beginning of beggary', that they were 'in a worse condition than ever we were before the Charter (of 1632) was granted', and that attempts at discussing this with the administration had produced no result. But perhaps the major complaint was that, although the Company had been formed to keep out foreigners, Frenchmen were 'admitted to rule the Freemen'. By Frenchmen they meant any foreigners, and it was largely true that the Company was controlled by those of direct foreign origin or parentage.
The Masters in the 1650s included Edward East in 1645 and 1652 (probably English but a Royalist and a Catholic and therefore hostile to the Parliamentarians), Robert Grinkin in 1648-9 and 1654 (the Grinkins probably came from Latvia or Russia and the name is unknown in England before the arrival of Robert Grinkin senior, father of the current master), and John Nicasius in 1653 and 1655 (who was from the Low Countries). In fact during the earlier years of the Civil War the mastership consisted of a clique of like-minded Royalists, mostly of immigrant origin, who re-elected each other to office on a rotating basis. Several of them, including Robert Grinkin himself, were accused in 1655 of employing unauthorised Frenchmen, an accusation which failed to reach the Company record books. An interesting image is conjured up of Grinkin as a dandy, when he left to his manservant in his will in 1661 certain unwanted items of clothing - 'my .. suite and cloake, blacke silke stockings with garters and shooties (shoe ties = laces?) as also my stuffe suite and coate sett forth with silver and gold fringe and coloured silke stockins, garters, shootyes and gloves, two of my best wearing shirts, fower of my best bands with ruffs ...'. And this at a time when black-clad Puritans ran the country.
A record of the Company meetings was kept in two forms, a rough book of notes jotted down during the meetings and a neat one into which the entries were written up more carefully later. It is probably not by chance that the rough books for a few years from and including 1656 are missing, and only the neat and no doubt edited version survives!
The Lord Mayor sent them away to sort things out amongst themselves, but in a resulting meeting held on 8th September 1656 nothing was resolved. Following that a counter petition in support of the administration was drafted up by the administration, including Robert Grinkin, Edward East, Onisepohorus Helden (a Dutchman) and others, who later erased their names from the document, which left only fourteen supporting signatories against thirty-three rebels. This fourteen actually included Henry Erbery, who signed both petitions for and against, Jeremie East, brother of Edward East, John Cooke, a former apprentice of Cornelius Mellin, one of the aliens against whom the original charter had been designed, and John Bayes and Jeremy Gregory, who were 'very loving friends' of Robert Grinkin, as well as William Clay and Edmund Grinkin (brother of Robert), which latter two were not even members of the Company at all!
This disreputable counter-petition, which was clearly drummed up my the administration, who then sought to distance themselves from it, left the petitioners even more riled and they complained again to the Lord Mayor, as 'a greate number of Artists made poor by these grievances'. The outcome of that was that the administration made an example of Thomas Loomes, whom they reported to the Lord Mayor for having five apprentices instead of the permitted two, and on 25th February 1657 the Lord Mayor ordered him to comply.
Fromanteel, now of course a full freeman of the Company by virtue of Oliver Cromwell's personal intervention, had been at that September meeting and, never one to suffer fools silently, he could contain himself no longer. He was an educated and literate man, and on March 3rd 1657 he wrote a letter of 'apology' to the Court of the Company. Gratifying though it may have been, I cannot imagine he expected it to calm matters. Things had been said at that meeting, he began, that 'did not become Christians nor Civil men' - a phrase that I seem to recall echoes words of one of Oliver Cromwell's own speeches, though I cannot pinpoint it, but it was probably a phrase well known to the administration and calculated to further rile them. Five was the magic number. He acknowledged that he spoke rashly. He should not have said that his journeyman could do more than any five of the Assistants put together - even though it was true! He pointed out that his son in law, Thomas Loomes, was accused of having three apprentices more than he ought (five in all), and yet he had no apprentices other than those approved by the Company! Though there was truth in that, he was a little sparing with it - they had been approved, but to work under the late Selwood brothers, not Thomas Loomes. The outcome was to be expected - on 27th April Thomas Loomes was fined forty shillings, the price of a lantern clock.
Returning to Richard Beck, all this disruption was taking place around his earliest years as an independent clockmaker, and most of it was centred round the master of the Mermaid, where Thomas Loomes had taken him under his wing and encouraged him in his independence. It is not surprising then that Richard Beck is amongst those rebels, who signed the 1656 petition. But all the same this must have been quite a brave decision for a young man only three years into his professional life, newly married with a young wife and his first child, Elizabeth, born that very summer. He well knew he would have risked aggravating the senior members of the company, influential men, from some of whom trade might otherwise have been forthcoming. But sign he did, backing up his former master, and fellow Mermaid apprentice Simon Dudson.
Richard Beck last attended the Company meetings in 1658. The reason he stopped attending was probably because he was suffering from some illness, which rapidly took a very serious turn to the point where on 9th May 1659 he wrote his will at the age of only twenty seven. He must have died within days, as the will was proved on 7th June. In it he mentioned his young widow, Elizabeth, and his three infant children - Elizabeth born 1656, Richard born 1657 and Mary born in February 1659, only three months before Richard's death. They were all baptised at St. Benet Fink church opposite the French Church. He also mentions his parents, Richard and Mary Beck, and his sister, Anne, wife of Samuel Wolfe. A witness to the will was clockmaker Carr Coventry, a freeman since 1657 and by whom no work is known today, which may imply that he worked for Richard Beck at that time.
Richard's brief working life was no longer than six years and his output cannot therefore have been great. I know of a watch by him and four lantern clocks, the latter signed in slightly varying ways but generally 'near the French Church' or 'at the French Church'. These were all made as balance wheel examples, as the pendulum did not appear till 1658 and it is doubtful if anyone in England other than Ahasuerus Fromanteel made pendulum clocks before the date of Richard Beck's death (1659). They are fine clocks with excellent engraving, but form a sad testimonial to the tragically brief life of this young clockmaker, who flourished during the Civil War.
Note: This article appeared in extended form in Horological Journal in 2008.
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