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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks Robert Harvey, maker of the first lantern clocks in Britain.

The first lantern clocks ever made in England (or in the whole of Britain for that matter, but these happen to have been made in England) were made in London by an Englishman, Robert Harvey, who died in 1615. By this I mean lantern clocks of the type we regularly call by that name, that is the traditional English lantern clock. There were a handful of other clockmakers, who made clocks of lantern construction, working in England before and contemporaneously with Robert Harvey. However these were makers of foreign origin from mainland Europe, principally Flemish, and their 'lantern' clocks were based on the European type, considerably different from what became the traditional English type. Two such makers were Francis Noway and Nicholas Vallin, who made clocks of a more exotic and costly nature for the wealthiest patrons in the land.

So we need to clarify that Robert Harvey was the first known Englishman to have made typical lantern clocks in this country, which at the time were the only domestic clocks and were called simply clocks or sometimes chamber clocks. If we exclude the more exotic clocks by immigrant Europeans, we could say that Robert Harvey made the first household clocks in Britain.

His lantern clocks, of which only three are known, are the only ones which are known to date before 1615. One of these clocks, the one signed by Robert Harvey in Little Britain, London, has been for some years in an American institution (Agecroft Hall, Richmond, Virginia) and is unlikely ever to come onto the market. Two others by him have come to light in very recent years and are described and illustrated here. One of these latter two, the anonymous one, came to light at auction in England several years ago. The other, signed by Robert Harvey at London, came to light at auction in England in 2003, supposedly having been for many years in Antwerp. A miniature hanging alarm wall clock of the hook-and-spike type is also known by Robert Harvey and is believed to be still in private ownership. One other lantern clock is known from the 'Harvey' workshop, currently in private ownership, and is signed by Robert's brother, Thomas Harvey, who continued the trade (and family business?) from some time shortly after 1615 till at least 1618. Thomas was still an apprentice in 1615 when Robert left him his tools in his will.

Little is known about Robert Harvey, but that little is particularly exciting and the more so when we think we are talking about the first known man to make household clocks in Britain. Harvey, at the time an 'outsider', was made free of the city of Oxford in September 1588 on payment of a 'fine' (meaning an entry fee) of forty shillings, the lowest entry fee chargeable, with administration fees of four shillings and six pence. He is the first person in these records to be called a clockmaker, this being documented in the register of Hanasters, another name for freemen of the city. Only freemen were allowed to have a shop within the city limits, those not free were 'outsiders' limited to trading outside the city.

Lantern clock signed 'Robertus Harue London feecit'
1. Lantern clock signed 'Robertus Harue London feecit'.
The u and v were interchangeable in writing of the day.
Click for closer view.

We can perhaps more easily see in perspective the date of his freedom when we think that the Spanish Armada had just been routed and, at the very moment his name was being written into the records, fleeing Spanish galleons were being driven onto the rocks off the north-western coats of Britain by storms.

So much was published about him by the late C. F. C. Beeson in his 1962 book 'Clockmaking in Oxfordshire'. We don't know whether Robert Harvey was then newly qualified and just recently out of his apprenticeship, but if he were just setting up in business that would set his age at death at about forty seven, somewhat older if he had been trading for some years already and was just moving into Oxford. Robert was therefore born about 1567 or earlier.

From 1588 we then have a gap of in his career of about ten years. We next hear of Robert Harvey in an altogether more exotic context. In the late 1590s Queen Elizabeth was keen to woo in a political sense the Sultan of the Turkish Empire, Mahomed III, Grand Seignor of the Turks, known in England as the Grand Turk, whose goodwill she sought in her war against Spain. The group of London merchants who had formed the recent Levant Company were equally keen to get on his good side in the cause of trade. Queen Elizabeth decided to send a most impressive gift to the Sultan, commissioned by and sent from herself, but probably paid for by the merchants. The gift was to be an organ with a clock and automata above, and was to cost no more than £550.00 and was to contain 300 ounces of pure silver and 45 diamonds, emeralds and rubies around the figure of Queen Elizabeth, which would surmount the whole. It was to be capable of playing for a period of up to six hours.

State Papers for January 1599-1600 relate:' A great and curious present is going to the Grand Turk, which will scandalise other nations, especially the Germans' - we always knew how to be nice to our European cousins. Work must have been begun on it some long time before this announcement was made, though just how long it took to make we will never know. Probably a year or two.

This splendid and most elaborate organ-clock with automated figures was to be made by Thomas Dallam, probably the finest organ builder of the day. Dallam had built organs for some of the Oxford colleges and it was perhaps there that he became acquainted with Robert Harvey in the late 1580s or early 1590s. Dallam built the organ, Harvey no doubt built the clockwork moving figures. Dallam had been apprenticed through the Blacksmiths Company in London, and is believed to have had some knowledge of clockmaking as well as organ building. But it seems he wanted a specialist on the team and Robert Harvey was it. Subsequent events proved the wisdom of his choice.

The whole clock stood some sixteen feet high, centred around an organ keyboard above which ranked the organ pipes in the centre of which was the clock itself and a trumpeter at either side. Higher up was a jewel-encrusted effigy of the Queen, and above the lot was a holly bush filled with automated Blackbirds and Thrushes, which sang and fluttered their wings. The clock was capable of striking the hour from one to twenty-four, and of chiming or playing a tune on sixteen bells, after which the trumpeters blew a fanfare. The organ was not only capable of being played, like any organ, but was also automated and could be set to play itself - like a pianola of a much later period. The whole machine was of such a complexity that it would dazzle us today, so the effect at its time of making must have been mind-blowing.

Thomas Dallam's own narrative of his journey is preserved in the British Library, but extracts from it were published by E. Hillary in 1952 in the Horological Journal, from where these notes are taken. The party left London on 9th February 1598-9 boarding the ship, The Hector, at Gravesend, a heavily-armed vessel of three hundred tons. Storms forced the ship to pull into Dartmouth and Plymouth and it was not until March 16th that they finally set sail for Constantinople, which they reached, after varying adventures, on August 15th, where they were welcomed by the British Ambassador, Henry Lello (an unusual name we will come across again later). The organ clock was too tall to fit into any room in his house, so a special room had to be built to house it in the courtyard. Dallam's expertise at organ building was not matched by his standard of spelling and punctuation, and I have improved on it a little to make it easier to read.

'The twentieth day, being Monday, we began to look into our work. But when we opened our chests we found that all gluing work was clean decayed, by reason that it had lain above six months in the hold of our ship, which was but newly built, so that the extremity of the heat in the hold of the ship, with the working of the sea and the hotness of the country, was the cause that all gluing failed. Likwise divers of my metal pipes were bruised and broken. When our Ambassador, Mr. William Aldridge, and other gentlemen, saw in what case it was in, they were all amazed and said that it was not worthe ijd.' (tuppence).

'My answer unto our Ambassador and to Mr. Aldridge, at this time I will omit, but when Mr. Aldridge heard what I said, he told me that if I did make it perfect, he would give me of his own purse 15li (£15.00), so about my work I went.'.

By August 30th the task was completed and on September 11th they 'carried our instrument over the water to the Grand Sinyor's Courte, called the surralya, and there in his most stateliest house I began to set it up … to say the truth, it was no dwelling house, but a house of pleasure, and likewise a house of slaughter; for in that house was built one little house, very curious both within and without - for carving, guilding, good colours and varnish, I have not seen the like. In this little house, the emperor that reigned when I was there, had nineteen brothers put to death in it, and it was built for no other use but for the strangling of every emperor's brethren.'.

By 15th September the clock was assembled and ready. But the Grand Turk himself was away visiting his mother. Dallam visited the clock daily, till one day when the Ambassador warned him that the Sultan would return next day, the 25th, and that everything must be ready and perfect. This was a worrying time, as the Sultan's displeasure might mean an execution, particularly his. Dallam was told that, being a Christian, he would not be allowed to set eyes on the Sultan himself, nor would he receive any sort of reward. But Dallam told the ambassador: 'he needed not to doubt that there should be any fault either in me or in my work, for he had seen the trial of my care and skill in making that perfect and good which was thought to be incurable, and in some things better than it was when Her Majesty saw it in the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The next morning, being the 25, I went to the Surralia, and with me my mate Harvie, who was the engineer, Mr. Rowland Buckett the paynter, and Myghell Watson the joyner.'

The Grand Turk arrived in due course and the clock performed, though Dallam had to hide out of sight being not permitted to set eyes on him. Dallam relates: 'First the clock struck 22, then the chime of 16 bells went off and played a song of 4 parts. That being done, two personages which stood upon two corners of the second story, holding two silver trumpets in their hands, did lift them to their heads and sounded a tantarra. Then the music went off, and the organ played a song of 5 parts twice over. In the top of the organ, being 16 foot high, did stand a holly bush full of black birds and thrushes, which at the end of the music did sing and shake their wings. Divers other motions there was, which the Grand Signor wondered at.' And why wouldn't he!

'Then the Grand Sinyer asked the Coppagawe (secretary) if it would ever do the like again. He answered that it would do the like again at the next hour. Quoth he: 'I will see that'.' Dallam showed the secretary how to trip a certain lever to cause everything to repeat. 'Then the Grand Sinyor said it was good'.

Finally Dallam was brought into the Royal presence to explain how the keys moved of their own accord, and was amazed at the entourage of two hundred pages, a hundred mutes and a hundred dwarfs. He was prevailed upon to play for them and was given a handful of gold as a reward.

Unsigned lantern clock unambiguously from the Robert Harvey workshop
2. Unsigned lantern clock unambiguously from the Robert Harvey workshop.
Click for closer view.

Although requested to stay on with various offers of remuneration and a couple of the Sultan's concubines, which they declined, the party prepared to leave Constantinople, but before they could the Grand Turk decided in mid October that he wanted the organ moved to a different location and they were obliged to carry out this task. But during the reassembling the Grand Turk and his concubines made an unexpected appearance, upon which all the minions fled, leaving Thomas Dallam alone. He thought it best if he too ran away, for it was death to set eyes on the Grand Turk without prior arrangement. 'I ran as fast as my legs would carry me after, and 4 Negroes or Blackamoors came running towards me with their scimitars drawn. If they could have catched me they would have hewed me all in pieces with their scimitars'.

They left in late November, sailed to Greece, then travelled overland by horse. Eventually in mid January the Hector, the very ship they had first travelled in, arrived by chance and they were given passage home. They joined other ships to form a small fleet, powerful enough fortunately to have been able to drive off an attack of Spanish galleons, and when they reached Dover, had with them a Spanish captain as their prisoner. They returned home to London next day, 1st May 1600. It was reported by visiting clockmakers from France and Switzerland that the Sultan's clock was still performing many years later, though what became of it ultimately is not known. This incredible clock is a measure of the talents of not only Thomas Dallam, but of his 'mate' and engineer, Robert Harvey, who must surely have made and repaired and re-assembled the clock and its music and chimes and automated singing birds.

Not much more is known about Robert Harvey, but it has been discovered, by researcher Jeremy Evans of the British Museum, that he worked on certain London church clocks, notably that of All Hallows Staining from 1602 to 1605, St. Giles's from 1606 to 1608 and St. Benet Paul's Wharf in 1614. We can assume he had moved to work in London by 1602, and perhaps remained in London from the time he returned home from Constantinople. He became a freeman of the London Clothworkers' Company in 1604, by 'patrimony', that is by virtue of the fact that his father, John, was already a freeman of the Company. Members of such a company did not necessarily follow the trade that membership might imply, and a number of early member of this company were in fact makers of clocks. It is thought that John Harvey was also a clockmaker, though no evidence exists in the form of any clock known by him. Just when John Harvey joined the Clothworkers we cannot say with any certainty, as there are several entries which might relate to him. However in December 1608 Thomas Harvey was apprenticed in that company to Robert Harvey (his brother), and he is then described as the son of John Harvey 'deceased'. Thomas was freed in 1615, and cannot have made clocks before then. From this we can guess that John died before 1608.

Robert Harvey made his will in February 1614-15, describing himself as a member of the Clothworkers' Company and living in the parish of St. Botolph's Aldersgate, London. It was proved in June 1615. In the will he left his brother, Thomas Harvey, who then was still an apprentice, 'one of my clokes ymediatly', as well as a vice and various tools, to be delivered to him when he finished his apprenticeship. This would mean that Thomas was born about 1594. So in terms of their origins we are looking for two brothers born to the same father, whose name we know was John, at an interval of some twenty-seven years or more, something which is by no means impossible but very unusual and suggests that these children were by successive wives. Attempts have been made at tracing two such baptisms, and I did find two possible parental contenders, but records of this period are very patchy and it has not been possible to ascertain whether some such baptisms discovered were of the right two Harvey brothers.

The above assumes that Thomas Harvey was in fact the brother of Robert, as the latter stated in his will. However that term was sometimes used more loosely in the early seventeenth century, and could mean step-brother (a child from a step-mother's previous marriage, who took the Harvey name) or it could mean merely a kinsman. If any of these latter cases applied, then we would have been thrown entirely off the scent in searching for his ancestry.

The return to normality after such an exciting and protracted journey to Istanbul must have been a terrible shock to the system for Robert Harvey. How could a man capable of such amazing work carried out on behalf of his Queen, and following such an eventful escapade, return to London and make what in fact were 'ordinary' lantern clocks, which sold, if he could find buyers, for three of four pounds each? Did he in fact do that? We know from his will that he had clocks 'in stock', more than one at least, as he left his brother one immediately - the other bequests were to happen after Thomas finished his apprenticeship and were therefore not immediate. Why the immediacy? Was it so that Thomas could sell the clock and raise a little income, since, as an apprentice he would be living on the bread line? Only one clock is known to bear Thomas's name, and that might even be the one that Robert left him in his will. Did Thomas take up clockmaking as a career? And if so, where are all the clock he made?

All that is known subsequently of Thomas Harvey is that he took two apprentices through the Clothworkers' Company - in 1616 Thomas, son of Thomas Ives of Burnham, Buckinghamshire, and in 1618 Thomas, son of John Lello of Clonton (probably Cotton) in Shropshire. The very unusual surname of Lello reminds me that the Ambassador to Constantinople was Henry Lello. Perhaps Thomas Lello was a relative put to serve the surviving brother of Robert Harvey, with whom Henry Lello had been so impressed in Constantinople.

Three lantern clocks are known to bear Robert Harvey's name (plus one unsigned one and one signed by Thomas) from a working life of at least twenty seven years. We know that a practising clockmaker could make one clock every two weeks, which gives Harvey a potential output of around seven hundred clocks. There are makers of lantern clocks in the generation who followed on after Harvey (such as Thomas Loomes), who worked for a far shorter period yet by whom numerous clocks are known.

Or did Robert continue to work for his 'mate', Thomas Dallam? That word was of Dallam's using, but at that time meant merely a 'companion' or associate, and did not have the connotation of a friend, which it means today. In fact it is more than likely that Dallam and Harvey had become friends, having shared such life-threatening adventures together. Dallam is known to have built many organs including King's College Cambridge 1606 (which took over a year to build and cost £371.17s 1d.), Magdalen College Oxford, and Worcester Cathedral 1613. Of Robert Harvey nothing further is known, but the search continues.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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