Collecting Antique Clocks The Whittaker Family of Middleton, Lancashire
The Whittaker family of Middleton near Manchester will be well-known to those who are deeply into the origins of provincial clockmaking, though probably totally unknown to others. There work is interestingly unusual, but precious little of it is known. This far only two clocks have been counted by James and six by Samuel. The best-known of James's clocks is the one featured in the book 'The Grandfather Clock' by the late Ernest L. Edwardes, a man I knew well and whose book, though slightly ponderous in tone, perhaps appropriately for a man who had been an accountant by profession, was responsible for firing the enthusiasm of many of the present generation of clock buffs, myself included. I can remember to this day longing to own a clock by James Whittaker after reading that book and seeing the illustration of that wonderful dial with the engraved centre, but I never have - yet.
This was one of the few 'modern' books (first published in 1949 and going through several updated editions) on the subject, and probably the first book ever to look with anything but scorn at mere provincial clocks. I can remember a later edition of the book being slated by a reviewer, whose knowledge was not in the same world as Larry Edwardes's, for using the term 'grandfather clock' and being marked down in a condescending way because of its sheer size and weight. It was the first time I ever saw a book reviewed by weight. But Larry shrugged this off and went on the write three more. We remember Larry Edwardes, but who remembers the reviewer?
The Whittakers were blacksmiths, the father, John, having three sons and two daughters. James was the eldest son, born in 1666; Gervase and Samuel being born later. Their sisters were Mary and Sarah. Gervase apparently remained a blacksmith, but James and Samuel became clockmakers. According to a piece by Margaret Smith and Carl Goldberg in a book on local history called 'Middleton Matters', they lived at the smithy believed to be situated next to the present-day Black Bull Inn on Rochdale Road. Many smithies were positioned on major turnpike roads to cater for passing traffic. A record exists of the family doing ironwork for a new bridge called Stannicliffe being built in 1681 between Middleton and Hopwood for a total sum of £41.10s. (£41.50p). Gervase received 9 shillings (45p) and James 6s 6d (32 1/2p), though they must have been very young at the time. James died in the winter of 1719-20, apparently a bachelor, leaving his worktools to Samuel and bequests to his other brother and sisters.
Gervase died next, the date unknown. The remaining brother, Samuel Whittaker, lived on till 1746, which is presumably why we see more clocks surviving from the greater output of his longer working life. According to Carl Goldberg his grave can still be seen on the west side of the church tower.
The work of the Whittakers is interesting because it is amongst the first in the region - how many clocks do we see in the area, or any other provincial area, dating from the 1690s? It is more interesting because they did things in their own way. Samuel had an odd manner of making his hammer spring with a forked tale, like that in a lantern clock - in his earlier clocks at least. Both James and Samuel latched their movement pillars, no doubt for the same reason Tompion latched his at about the same date - to make it easier to dismantle and assemble the movements. I doubt the Whittakers and Tompion had much else in common, except that their clocks still work over three centuries later.
The fact that they finned and latched their pillars on 'common' thirty-hour clocks, which comprised almost all of their output, shows they did not skimp on the job, as does the fact that they went to the trouble of making true 'eight-day' type of calendarwork using a separate twenty-four-hour wheel and inner-toothed ring. None of this much cheaper to make twelve-hourly knock-on calendar work for them.
The Whittakers are interesting makers, whose work is scarce. I recently came across the first eight-day clock so far recorded by either of them (by Samuel in fact), as well as another thirty-hour by Samuel, and it seemed this would be a good opportunity to assemble what little we do know about them. The pattern of hand they used for their single-handed clocks seems to have remained the same from before 1700 to maybe the 1740s. Samuel used this for a further twenty years or so after the death of James, perhaps because, since it served the job well, he saw no reason to change it. They signed their clocks without a place name - they were probably well enough known in the area and didn't need to say where they lived. The Whittakers may have been Lancastrians but they had the mentality of Yorkshiremen!
This article was first published with many illustrations in Clocks Magazine.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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