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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks Richard Breckell and his lantern clocks

Clockmaker Richard Breckell of Holmes is believed to have been born in 1654, the son of John Breckell of Holmes and Trunnall, grandson of another John Breckell of Mithopnooke within Thornton in the parish of Poulton le Fylde, Lancashire. John, Richard's grandfather, died in 1657 leaving lands at Holmes in Thornton and Trunnall, the latter obtained partly by marriage to his wife, Agnes, and partly 'by purchase from her two sisters and by descent from my father'. Richard's great grandfather was probably another John Breckell of Trunnall, who was there as early as 1611. Holmes and Trunnall at that time were adjacent clusters of houses in Thornton township, which itself was within the parish of Poulton-le-Fylde just north of present-day Blackpool. In short the Breckell families lived at Holmes, Thornton and Trunnall way back beyond the reach of the parish registers into the sixteenth century. The result was that the Breckells were thick on the ground in that small area, many of them brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, mostly inter-related, mostly named after one another, and virtually impossible to trace individually. That was the position with many small rural communities in the seventeenth century, where virtually everyone was intermarried. But how much more this applied to a group of villagers situated as this one was at the end of a small peninsula of land barely two miles wide with the sea on two sides and the River Wyre on the third and therefore largely cut off from other places of trade.

Richard Breckell 'of Holmes' married 1st February 1672/3 to Jane Breckell, her origins untraced but no doubt a distant relative. Sometimes the parish registers refer to Richard Breckell as of Holmes, sometimes of 'Thoulmes'. I can only assume Thoulmes is the way the clerk tried to write down what was said for 'the holmes', whereby the h is not sounded and the two words are run together in typical Lancashire fashion. In the same way today a strong Lancashire accent might pronounce 'going into the house' as 'going in thouse'. Unfortunately the registers for the most part refer to Richard Breckell simply by name, without any profession or location being mentioned, and there were several Richard Breckells living in the locality at the same time in the second half of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth.

No less than 25 children were baptised to one or more men named Richard Breckell in the parish of Poulton le Fylde between 1674 and 1725,when Richard the clockmaker died aged seventy one. Though we can identify some of these children as being born to Richard the clockmaker, there were others, who may have been born to this Richard or to more than one quite different person named Richard Breckell. Richard Breckell the clockmaker married at least one more time, but there were at least five more marriages of men named Richard Breckell in this locality before 1725. Whether any of these other five marriages relate to him is uncertain.

front view of the Richard Breckell clock
1. This is perhaps the earliest known clock by Richard Breckell, having square iron pillars, as well as iron plates. The dial sheet has square corners, not being filed to fit the shaped profile of a normal brass pillar capital. The bellstrap has negative endings, very unusual for a brass bellstrap. Date late 1680s or 1690s.
Click for closer view.

It is well known that clockmaking families intermarried at this early period, thus spreading the trade within the family groups. Fathers taught sons, uncles frequently taught nephews, and so on. In that connection it may be relevant that there were also Breckell families living at this time in the coastal parish of North Meols, a few miles to the south and just north of present-day Southport. Tantalisingly there were connections between the Breckell family and the Barton family, who included clockmakers there. Barnaby Matthews was a clockmaker at Meols at this time, and also there was a Barnaby Breckell, which might imply a connection between those clockmaking families too. This is all very unsatisfactory genealogically but we are simply stuck with it.

If Richard Breckell, the man, is hard to pin down, his clocks are a little easier to identify. No doubt only a tiny fraction of his work has yet been documented, but he is known to have made a few lantern clocks and longcase clocks, the latter using lantern movements. Holmes was a strange out-of-the-way backwater for a clocksmith to make a living selling clocks. He must have taken his goods to the markets of other towns to sell and it is perhaps not surprising that eventually, in 1706, at the age of 52, he took up the freedom to trade as a clockmaker and hardwareman in Lancaster, about twenty miles away. After thirty years of successful trading at Holmes, I cannot help wondering why he would then want to take up freedom to trade elsewhere. Yet he did, and then traded on for almost another twenty years more.

We can well imagine that hardware may have been the larger part of his trade. Everyone needed hardware, but most could manage quite well without a clock. This double trade probably accounts for the very small number of his clocks known today. Three lantern clocks are known to survive today, plus a fourth one, which is a spoiled example and now has a much later, non-original movement. Additionally we know two, perhaps three, longcase clocks with lantern movements, one of which is illustrated here.

The Holmes lantern clock illustrated here has original anchor escapement and is signed 'Richard Breckell de Holmes Fecit'. The overall height is 15 inches, the pillars 11 inches high, plates 6 inches wide by 5 3/4 inches deep, the chapter ring diameter 6 1/2 inches, chapter ring width 1 1/2 inches. He used iron for his top and bottom plates, a feature found in a few very early lantern clock makers elsewhere but seldom as late as this. The reason was because iron was cheaper and more easily worked by a smith, whereas, apart from being most costly, brass had to be cast to shape. But here he also used plain square-section iron for his pillars, and that is very unusual practice indeed and makes his clock distinctively different from those by others, and even different from other clocks of his own making. The rounded finials and feet are of unusual shape, perhaps his own castings. They sit uncomfortably against the squared iron pillars, and the switch from brass shaped feet to squared iron pillar to brass shaped finial is a bit of a shock to the system, when you first see it. This may be one reason why he changed that practice later to using cast brass pillars, like everyone else.

The dial sheet is very thin, as is the bellstrap, perhaps indicators that he made them himself rather than buying standard castings from some specialist. The bellstrap ends clip around the finial stems instead of by the normal method of pinning into them, and this further suggests that Richard was making his own. On this clock his spurs are set into the iron baseplate. Later he sets them into the back of the ball feet, as others usually did.

The way he signs his clock using 'de' is an interesting touch seen in the work of a handful of early provincial makers. London clockmakers used 'Londinii', a Latin genitive of Londinium meaning 'of London'. But with places like Holmes, Latinisation was hardly possible because Holmes had no Latin name - if he had invented one by signing 'Holmesii' nobody would have understood what he meant. So he did just the same as several other early makers in places such as Wigan (John Burges) or Halifax (Thomas Ogden) and used 'de' to mean 'of'. This in itself implies that he (or his engraver) was totally familiar with what was regular practice within the craft in other locations. From this and other aspects we can judge that the extent by which his clocks varied from those of others was quite deliberate, and this was not a case of some country bumpkin making it up as he went along. Richard Breckell knew exactly what he was doing, and when he changed his practices, we can be sure there was a reason.

dial of the Richard Breckell clock
2. The dial is very tarnished but the engraving shows well at this sharp angle against the light. The iron hand is original. The dial is signed 'Richard Breckell de Holmes Fecit'. The chapter ring engraving is particularly deep.
Click for closer view.

In 'Clockmakers of the Lancaster Region', published in 1987, Susan Stuart pictures a lantern clock with original anchor escapement signed 'Richard Breckell Lancaster Fecit'. This same clock is pictured in George White's book 'English lantern Clocks' published in 1989. This seems to be his only clock yet known to be signed at Lancaster, and was presumably made after 1706, but by its style, I would think not long after. It is the oldest known clock to have been made in Lancaster. Here he uses the same finials and frets as earlier, which are of not quite the regular shape and therefore presumably were of his own pattern and making. The dial and chapter ring are virtually identical to that on his Holmes clocks. But by now he is using turned brass pillars, just like any other maker of lantern clocks. Perhaps he felt he should make his clocks a little grander now that he was a freeman of Lancaster. On this clock his spurs screw into the rear feet of the clock instead of being riveted into the baseplate as on his earlier example. This too is perhaps a sign that he is now making his clocks more 'professionally', that is more in the conventional way others made them rather than in his own earlier quirky clocksmith style. There is nothing of London style or quality in these clocks, but increasingly he makes them along the same concept as in London.

Another lantern clock was sold at auction in Christies in July 1989, supposedly signed within the floral centre 'Richard Brackell de Holmes fecit IH'. This had an anchor escapement and dolphin frets and was lacking side doors. No illustration exists of this clock. It sounds similar to the one illustrated here, but was a different height, and carried the monogram IH, perhaps the initials of the first owner. With the signature containing 'de', it does seem to be one of his earlier clocks. The name was probably misread as Brackell.

Another lantern clock, this one with a late nineteenth-century German spring-driven movement by Winterhalder and Hoffmeyer, was sold at auction on 14th October 1998 at Sothebys Sussex saleroom, signed within the dial centre 'Richard Breckell Holmes Fecit'. This stood 15 1/2 inches high and had dolphin frets but again was not illustrated.

An eleven-inch square dial longcase clock with lantern movement and anchor escapement is pictured in Clocks Magazine for July 1991 page 55 signed on the chapter ring 'Rd. Breckell Holmes Fecit', the date maybe 1700 or just after. This has the same extraordinary high backcock, which seems to have been his invention and is probably unique to this maker. Why he used it I do not know, but it might be that the purpose of its higher position was to keep the pendulum spring well clear of the hanging hoop. The movement is exactly the same as that of his lantern clocks, the plates 6 inches wide by 5 1/2 inches deep. However an eleven-inch dial is too large for anything except a longcase added to which the clock has neither hoop nor spurs, indicating it was intended to be housed in a long case, not hung as a lantern clock nor housed as a hooded clock. Moreover it lacks frets, feet, finials and bellstrap, all of which were superfluous when they would not be on show in a case. The bell sits on a normal longcase type of bellstand. In other words Richard Breckell has done what other lantern clock makers are known to have done, that is to use the same movement for their longcase clocks as they had in their lantern clocks. They simply missed off those costly decorative trim features, which would not show when cased. The longcase movement has plain nuts in place of the much more costly finials and feet.

The dial of Richard Breckell's longcase clock is exceptionally interesting. The engraved decoration is based on a circle of naïve tulips of a type not unlike those on his lantern clocks. But then to fill up the remaining space he has used devices well known on clocks made by those who could not engrave. The border of cup-and-ring circles could be done by someone incapable of engraving just by using a drill. The central circle and its petal-like divisions looks like what we call zig-zag engraving, which could be done by someone who need not be a skilled engraver by holding an engraving chisel in a guider and working back and forth, left and right, at the same time as working forwards. Whether Richard Breckell did the engraving himself, or whether he employed an engraver, this all implies that the engraver perhaps lacked the confidence, or was otherwise reluctant, to engrave the whole centre with tulips, but fell back on these easier methods. I am inclined to think Richard may have done his own engraving, a view which seems to me strengthened by the fact that the dials are so similar to each other, despite the time lapse.

There was a clockmaker in North Lancashire who signed his work R.B. A lantern clock signed 'R. B. Fecit' is pictured Clocks Magazine January 1992 page 53. It seems to me very unlikely that Richard Breckell was the maker who signed himself R. B. This was probably Richard Barton of Aughton and Ormskirk, whose clocks, like those of John Barton, are much more typical of the south Lancashire region, having integral pillars, the bellstrap sitting inside the bell and a dial design based on a single giant flower rising from VI and filling the whole dial centre - none of which features are on Richard Breckell's lantern clocks. Moreover they do not have Richard Breckell's extraordinary high backcock, which seems to be an invention of his own and therefore unique to his work. R. B. clocks have separate winding clicks for each train, whereas Richard Breckell's have continuous rope winding as was usual on any thirty-hour clock. In short R. B's Clocks look very different from those by Richard Breckell.

What more can we say about his clocks, apart from the interesting differences between his earliest and latest? Both are based on the London-originating concept of a lantern clock, though being made out in this remote location, they bear only superficial resemblance to London clocks. Their execution, finish, styling, wheelwork and engraving were all less refined, less elegant, less costly to make, than the London equivalent. This means that they are much more a local product of a man who thought for himself and may have undertaken much of his own work, which we might expect from one working, as he did, in such an isolated area. I never cease to find it amazing that metalworkers such as Richard Breckell sprang up in remote corners, where we might never expect clockmakers to make a living. That they survived at all, and that some even prospered, may seem to us little short of a miracle. But they did, and new evidence comes to light regularly, of isolated rural clockmakers, whose existence we never even dreamed of fifty years ago. I could list several such, whose work we now know, yet whose work and even whose names were totally unknown even ten years ago. But that's another story......

Note: An extended version of this article appears in Clocks Magazine.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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