Collecting Antique Clocks Henry Webster and the Lancashire School of lantern clock makers
The Lancashire 'school' of lantern clock making is a term I have coined for a tiny group of clockmakers, who worked in the late seventeenth century in south-west Lancashire in and around Ormskirk. Their work was clearly of the same nature, and the first man in this group, who must therefore have been the founder of this lantern clock school, was Henry Webster of Aughton, near Ormskirk. He is known through a number of his surviving lantern clocks, and through no other types of clock.
As far as we can deduce Henry Webster was born between 1650 and 1660. I was able to trace a few events of his life in the local parish records. He married at Aughton in the spring of 1685, the earliest known date we have for him, fathered several children there and died there in 1697. We can guess that he would have been about twenty-five years old at the time of marrying; or if he was unusually restrained in his passions, thirty-five. We know his working life covered a span of little more than twelve years. Not surprising that his clocks are few and far between.
Henry Webster was the first to produce lantern clocks in this region, yet his name was unknown twenty years ago and he still to this day does not appear in the standard lists of makers. In fact in the text relating to one of his lantern clocks, mentioned below as illustrated in 'The Arthur Negus Guide to English Clocks' (published in 1980), assumes that Henry Webster worked in London. He did not put a placename on his lantern clocks, probably because Aughton was a little-known place then, as it still is today. We are fortunate in now having a date of death for him, in so far as that means we can set his lantern clocks before a defined date. Otherwise we would have little but style to go on, and the style of what became the Lancashire lantern clock school is a little odd, so that dating by style would have been tricky.
Very few clockmakers in Lancashire are known to have made lantern clocks at all. In the seventeenth century there was barely a handful, and some of them made (or perhaps even just sold) lantern clocks which were conventional and so could not be mistaken for the work of this specialised Ormskirk group. John Lyon of Warrington is known for a single lantern clock of the 1660s, which is believed to have been made in London and sold by him with his name on, so he does not come into this picture. Richard Breckell of Lancaster (working 1690s till about 1725) is known through a couple of lantern clocks, but, though there are certain similarities in his work, Richard Breckell's lantern clocks are not quite in the same style as those of the Lancashire lantern clock 'school'. John Cooper of Warrington (and Chester?) is known by a solitary lantern clock of the 1690s, which is of this localised type. These makers, though from Lancashire and nearby, are not part of the Lancashire 'school'.
Those lantern clocks which do fit into this pattern are known by makers from Ormskirk (and the adjacent village of Aughton) and are: Henry Webster (five lantern clocks known), John Barton of Ormskirk (one lantern clock known), an unidentified maker who used the monogram 'JB' (one lantern clock known), who might just have been John Barton; and another unidentified maker who used the monogram 'RB' (one lantern clock known). So lantern clocks of this Lancashire school are known through only eight examples by only five clockmakers (four if 'JB' actually is John Barton).
John Barton worked from the 1690s till he was declared bankrupt in 1723. It is difficult to imagine that he was not related to clockmaker James Barton, also of Ormskirk, who died there in 1718, but by whom only a couple of longcase clocks are known and (as yet) no lantern clocks at all.
From what we know of these makers, Henry Webster is the first one to have worked in this line, and his work must have been studied by and copied by the other later ones, who may even have worked under Webster. In fact Henry Webster appears not only to have been the first of this localised 'school' of lantern clock making, but to have been the earliest maker of clocks in Lancashire, by whom any domestic clock is known today. I am excluding John Lyon, as he seems to have bought the only known clock to bear his name, not to have made it. It is of course quite possible that they were trained under and worked initially for Henry Webster, for there are no surviving records of apprenticeship from this early period. The fact that James Barton set up in business about the time of Henry Webster's death, may imply that he took advantage of a gap in the local trade caused by his demise. John Barton was presumably following on from James in the same way.
It is Henry Webster's work which set the pattern, which was copied by those who followed on after him. It is very difficult to summarise what is known in the way of the work of one particular maker, as there is always a risk of double counting, but so far as we can tell only five lantern clocks are known today by Henry Webster. Two are illustrated in that excellent book 'English Lantern Clocks' by George White, published in 1989 - George White knew where Webster worked! A third (owned by Temple Newsam House Museum, Leeds) is illustrated in 'The Arthur Negus Guide to English Clocks', written not by the late Arthur Negus (who had no knowledge of clocks but who did actually pose for the jacket picture!) but by David Barker. A fourth lantern clock by Webster is owned by the Bristol Clock & Watch Museum Bristol, Connecticut, USA. A fifth Henry Webster lantern clock, today in a private collection, is a prototype with rack striking of an experimental nature, which makes it unique amongst all seventeenth century lantern clocks, is housed in its apparently original case, and is very different from his typical work.
The clock pictured here is one of the two illustrated in George White's book.
Those features which are common to the Lancashire 'school' and which help to identify those lantern clocks are as follows:
A longer version of this article appeared in Clocks Magazine.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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