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Antique Clocks

Collecting

Collecting Antique Clocks Richard Morley, maker of an early iron lantern clock from Warwickshire

Richard Morley was born at Honington, Warwickshire, in 1662, the son of Thomas Morley and his wife, Elizabeth. Thomas was born in 1641 at Honington and had been married at Corley, Warwickshire, in 1658 to Elizabeth Wad. Surprisingly they seem to have had only the one child, Richard, baptised on the 13th May 1662. Thomas and Elizabeth remained at Honington where he died in 1700 and his widow in 1701.

We don't know what Richard did or where he lived as a young man, but by the age of 25 we find him married and living in the adjacent village of Idlicote, where he and his wife, Margaret, had several children. Honington and Idlicote are tiny villages. In 1838 Idlicote had 18 houses. Nearby Honington was a little larger with 45 houses. The population of Idlicote in 1801 was 106 people, in 1831 reduced to 82, which figure changed little in the next one hundred years. Honington in 1801 had 287 inhabitants, rising by 1831 to 341, but by 1931 had dropped to 162.

Richard and Margaret had ten children, of which at least three died in infancy. The first was Thomas, born 1687 (died 1688), followed by : 1688 Stephen, 1690 Margaret (died 1706),1693 Thomas, 1695 James (died 1751), 1697 Ann (married 1724 William Randle), 1699 Richard, 1703 Mary, 1706 John (died 1706), 1709 Hester. Richard was buried at Idlicote on the 5th July 1724, his widow, Margaret, in 1728.

His son, Richard, was described as Richard junior, moved to Honington and was married there in 1722 to Mary Middleton from Tysoe, who died in 1727. In 1729 Richard junior married again, this time to Eleanor Plastoe. He was buried at Honington on the 22nd August 1747. His will was proved in 1748 and describes him as a blacksmith, leaving his tools to his son, Stephen.

The marriage of Richard senior and Margaret has not yet been located. Why he moved away from Honington is uncertain but if, as was often the case, father and son each followed the same trade, it may be there was not enough work at Honington to employ two people. Based on the evidence of the clock pictured here, the only one so far documented by him, we can assume that Richard Morley senior, the maker of the clock, was a blacksmith. It follows therefore that his father, Thomas was probably also a blacksmith, as this trade usually passed down from generation to generation.

The above may explain why Richard senior moved to work in the next village, leaving his parents at Honington. However, it was customary for the oldest son to follow the father's trade at the home location and for younger sons to move away. In this case Richard was the only son, so just why he moved away is a bit of a puzzle. Why Richard junior moved back to Honington, the village of his grandparents, whilst his parents never did, may perhaps suggest a rift in the family between Thomas and his son, Richard senior. Perhaps Richard originally moved further afield around the age of twenty only to return with a wife about five years later to set up in the next village in competition with his father till the latter died some thirteen years later. Much of our understanding of these early clockmakers is guesswork and we may easily put a wrong interpretation on the bare events we uncover.

The making of lantern clocks of what became the typically English type began in London about the year 1600, and at first these clocks were pretty well confined to the first London clockmakers. They were regulated by a balance wheel escapement and were doing well if they kept time within half an hour a day. It was for reasons of inaccuracy that they had a single hand and showed time to the nearest quarter hour, which was good enough for most people most of the time, when the alternative was to have no clock at all. In any event it is doubtful whether the average person had the ability or patience to set the clock more accurately than that, which could only be done by using a sundial and an equation of time table if he had one.

Full view of clock
1. Richard Morley's lantern clock presents an unconventional appearance with its undecorated dial, plain iron feet , iron finials and its exotic top finial with curlicues. Individualistic engraving to the 'dolphin' pattern frets. Date late 1680s or early 1690s.
Click for closer view.

The pendulum was introduced into England about 1660, initially as a verge escapement and short, 'bob' pendulum, yet lantern clocks continued to be made with balance wheel control as before. This was probably for the reasons stated above in that greater accuracy of timekeeping was irrelevant if you could not set the clock accurately in the first place. This is probably also the reason that lantern clocks continued to have a single hand registering quarter-hour units for many years after the two-handed, minute-indicating longcase clock was common.

Lantern clocks were made almost exclusively in London (and a few major provincial cities) until the Civil War ended in 1660 and even into the first decade or two of the reign of Charles II. There were lantern clocks made in the larger provincial cities such as York and Bristol, often by makers trained in, or connected with, London and these were made with a large proportion of brasswork in the London manner. For a London lantern clock was a glittery, showy possession made mostly of brass, a metal that shone like gold.

It was not really until about 1680 that provincial clockmakers began to appear in rural England. By this time the anchor escapement and long pendulum had arrived. Some say this escapement was in use by about 1671 but certainly it is known through dated examples in provincial England by 1675. Some early provincial clockmakers, principally those in the larger towns and cities, who had London connections or training, still made lantern clocks with balance wheel control, and appeared to ignore the pendulum for the first decade or two, just as they did in London, before they all eventually turned over to the verge pendulum.

But in rural England a new breed of clockmaker began to emerge about 1680 and that was the blacksmith turned clockmaker, who sometimes called themselves clocksmiths, which indicated that they did smithing work and clock work. In fact a rural blacksmith was normally capable of undertaking any manner of work involving the making or mending of metals. Hardly any domestic clockwork from rural provincial England survives from before the 1670s or 1680s, and precious little even then. Gradually the rural clock trade began as an offshoot of blacksmithing and when those rural clocksmiths, who were the first in many areas to make clocks, did make the occasional lantern clock, they usually made it not with an old-fashioned balance wheel, nor with the newly-established anchor escapement and long pendulum, but with a short verge pendulum. They could hardly have used an old-fashioned and inaccurate balance wheel when offering domestic owners a product of this new branch of their craft. They could have used the anchor escapement, but usually didn't. Why was this? Well probably because a short pendulum lantern clock is self-contained and easy to carry, and, perhaps more importantly, is not fussy about being level when set up on the wall, certainly not nearly as fussy as an anchor escapement would be. This meant the owner was capable of handling his own clock without having to call out the clocksmith. When such early rural clocksmiths worked their way gradually into making longcase clocks, then they did use the anchor escapement. But a longcase probably needed setting up by the clockmaker anyway.

Rural blacksmiths were experts at working iron, but probably were not used to casting brass. Worked iron cost one penny per pound weight against ten pence for brass, with pewter in between at about six pence a pound. The rural clocksmith could not afford to work in this luxurious metal called brass, as it priced his product out of the range of modest country pockets. Therefore he worked as much as he possibly could in iron, even though it was a much harder metal to work, because it was blessed with a low price. Apart from the fact that iron cost only a tenth of the price of brass, the clocksmith was very capable of working his own iron but would more than likely have to send away for brass castings and probably for engraving work too. The result was these early clocksmith clocks often have a very high proportion of iron to brass, much more so than a lantern clock made in London or the big cities such as Bristol or York.

Of course even the country clocksmith had to have brass for the clock dial, in fact pretty well for all the front of the clock, the part that showed most, which meant for the dial and front fret. Generally he would also use brass for the wheels and iron for the pinions, since the meeting of two diverse metals caused less wear than the meeting of the same metal. Sometimes the non-moving iron parts of some early clocks were japanned or painted black to prevent rust, and this has helped preserve a few to this day. But he kept his brass content down to an absolute minimum. Extraordinarily few clocks from this time survive in the rural blacksmith/whitesmith/clocksmith tradition, but in those that do we can see the centuries-old skill of the smith, forcing hammered iron to perform those more delicate functions, which city clockmakers performed by casting in brass.

Right view of clock
2. Decorated tapered arbors. Original verge pendulum.
Click for closer view.

So these clocks are of lantern clock construction in principle, but sometimes have all-iron movements more like those of a hook-and-spike wall clock, hiding behind a dial which looks as near as possible to a lantern clock. Just occasionally a clocksmith might decide to use pewter to make his dial, because it looked rather like polished and silvered brass but came cheaper. In fact pewter dials are a bit soft and easily get damaged, and pewter dials are seldom found on British clocks. One clocksmith in Cornwall, John Belling senior of Bodmin, is said to have used Cornish tin to make the spandrels for his dials, almost certainly for cheapness - and because it was available locally and the nearest brass had to be shipped from Bristol. I have sometimes seen clock dial spandrels made of lead for cheapness by certain early Oxfordshire Quaker clockmakers, even though lead is ridiculously soft and will easily tear.

In Richard Morley's clock the side doors and backplate are made of tin, an exceptionally unusual practice. The very fine ramshorn-shaped iron door handles are witness to the quality of work he could produce. But there is a comical aspect of these doors. The two pivots are riveted into place as usual, but the pivots were supposed to be on the inside of the doors, where they would be invisible. In error Richard has fitted his handles to what should be the inner face of the doors. In other words the doors are fitted the wrong side out, though of course they still work! It is difficult to think of Richard doing this after all the trouble he took in making the clock so carefully, and it might of course have been some later restorer, who had the handles off during cleaning, and who fitted them back the wrong way round.

Lantern clocks however, even the blacksmith made ones described here, were higher up the social tree than mere hanging alarms. When seventeenth century blacksmiths' iron lantern clocks survive then, they are lantern clocks in appearance, or clocks of that general nature based on the concept of the lantern clock. Only a handful survive. I think I have seen less than a dozen in my life. They are not usually signed - we do not know why. We can guess that it may have been because they sold their clocks in the markets of local towns, where as non-locals they were unwelcome as traders, blacklisted by the native traders by means of by-laws, which forbade outsiders to sell in a market they regarded as their own. The makers of unsigned clocks who broke these bylaws were difficult to track down and even more difficult to prosecute. Early Quakers included metal workers amongst their numbers, who would sometimes leave their clocks unsigned because, it is said, to sign them was an indication of vanity. There might be some truth in that, but the difficulty of tracking down the maker of an unsigned clock might have been as much a boon to Quakers selling in towns illicitly as it was to others. God-fearing Quakers acquired a reputation for honest trading, yet we know they took this opportunity when the Lord presented them with it.

These early blacksmith clocks contain a massive proportion of iron to brass. In fact in some of them the only brass is the dial, and even the wheels might be of iron. Iron wheels were exceptionally unusual. The normal method was to have brass wheels running against iron pinions. Iron of course is the harder of the two metals, but surprisingly it is normally the iron pinions which wear before the brass wheels. This, I am told by those who know such things, is because brass wheels become embedded with tiny shreds of iron and grind against the iron pinions with an action like that of a file. Also the smaller iron pinions make many more revolutions than the larger brass wheels, resulting in more wear.

This single lantern clock of primitive blacksmith construction, the only clock so far recorded by Richard Morley, is engraved on the dial with the charming signature 'Richardus Morley de Idelcoatt Fecet' which he intended to mean 'Richard Morley of Idlicote made this'. This is an attempt at Latinising the signature, just as the famous London clockmakers did on their clocks, but Richard's Latin was less than perfect. Latin would have had 'Ricardus' and 'Fecit'. Idlicote had no Latin form so he spelled that as he thought best. On this clock the pillars, feet, finials, plates, crossbars, bellstrap, countwheel, dial wheel and its pinion are all of iron. This degree of iron content is exceptionally unusual, almost unique. Clearly he was adept at iron working and from that alone we can deduce that he must have been a blacksmith.

I have a record in my notes from many years back of a lantern clock of the 1680s by him, but have no way of knowing if that record refers to this clock or another example by him. From what I have uncovered of his genealogy we know he had a working life of at least forty years. If he had been a regular maker of clocks other examples would have been recorded by now. It is not unknown for blacksmiths to use their skills to make a clock for their own use, perhaps just to prove they were capable of embracing the new art. A unique example exists, the only lantern clock known by him, made by blacksmith John Baxter of Conderton in Worcestershire, a clock which I regret having missed at auction a few years ago and which is now with a collector in the Netherlands. It is signed 'John Baxter fecet 1670' and 'John Baxter of Conderton, blacksmith, 1670', and 'John Baxter did me make, and I will goe well for 's sake'. My feeling is that Richard Morley made this clock for his own pleasure, just to show that he could do it.

Richard Morley's clock dates from the late 1680s or early 1690s and is one of the earliest clocks to survive in the county of Warwickshire. That makes it a pretty exciting age, but its most appealing feature to me is the primitive charm of such early blacksmith work, which is exceptionally rare. I doubt I will ever see another such.

 

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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