Collecting Antique Clocks John Disborrow of Ashen, lantern clock maker and gentleman
John Disborrow was a little-known clockmaker, who is at present either unrecorded in the books or is recorded incorrectly. He is known through only a handful of clocks. In fact even his name is uncertain as it occurs in a variety of spellings, which include Disborrow, Disbrow, Desborrow, Desbrow and Desborough. On his clocks the name seems to be limited to either Disborrow or Disbrow. I took an interest in him recently when I came across an anchor escapement lantern clock by him and his life proved a little difficult to uncover. All I could then find about him was that there was a lantern clock of about 1700 by him signed 'Jno. Disborrow Ashen', which was illustrated in W. F. J. Hana's book 'Lantern Clocks'. That clock was very similar to the one recently discovered, which was however a different clock and was signed 'John Disborrow Ashen'.
Apart from that clock in Hana and the one just mentioned (illustrated here) I knew of only two other lantern clocks by him, and I have tried to record such things obsessively for many years now. One was an anchor escapement lantern clock sold at Christie's in their South Kensington rooms in 1990, which was signed 'Jno. Disbrow Tillbrayhill'. I learned that Tilbury or Tilbury Green was a village adjacent to Ashen, so clearly this was by the same man. One other clock which must be by him was sold at auction in Christie's main rooms in 1991 listed as 'John Lisborrow Ashen', evidently a misreading of the name on the dial, but the same man again.
I had little idea where to start looking for details about his origins, but by chance I was able to discover his will, which he signed on the 16th May 1736 and which was proved in 1745. In it he described himself as 'John Disbrow of Ashen in the County of Essex, Gentleman'. He left property there including a farm with lands in Ashen and the cottage he then lived at with land in Ashen and Tibury. Fortunately he mentioned various relatives, including a brother, Simon with his wife Mary and several named children, and his sister Anne Nicholls also with several named children. With a few clues now in hand it was not too difficult to locate the baptisms of Simon (in 1676) and Anne (in 1674) born in London in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, to parents named Simon and Hannah Disborrow. Strangely the registers do not seem to record a baptism for John himself. But parish registers are often incomplete or have odd entries missing for all kind of reasons - not least when the doddering parish clerk pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and unwittingly lost the scraps of paper he had jotted them down on before writing them up neatly into the register book at such time as he could put it off no longer and with about as much enthusiasm as I might have in filling out my vat return.
Anyway the documenting of a brother and sister with this unique combination of names (as well as those of their children) told me I had the right family. We might deduce from his will that John Disborrow was either a bachelor or a widower with no children of his own, as he left everything to his relatives. I have the impression that John was the eldest child of the family, but in any event he was probably born between about 1670 and 1680. This would mean that he was working in the clock trade for not less than forty years, assuming that was his primary or sole occupation. But the small number of his surviving clocks (four is the best I could make it) implies that he was not working at full-time clockmaking in this entire period. Of course there must be other clocks still not documented, but all the same this is a small tally, when compared against many clockmakers, who may have worked for far fewer years yet by whom numerous clocks are known. Perhaps he had family money to ease his way through life, as it seems very unlikely he could have amassed the farms, buildings and land he left from his earning in the clock trade. There is not much more we can say about his life.
Judging by the four examples I know of, they were well made clocks of good quality. The style of this clock, its pillars, frame, dial design, fret pattern, are all based on London, and show that the maker was fully familiar with the latest trends there - even though the lantern clock was fading from popularity in London by this time. It may well be that he obtained his castings from London. The engraving of the scrollwork and the name is expertly done, and is crisp and sharp. The wheelwork is crisply finished too. By now the arbors are parallel with separate brass wheel collets, none of the tapering seen in arbors of half a century earlier. Whatever else John Disborrow did professionally, we can see that in that part of his career which involved clockmaking, he knew exactly what was needed and could turn it out at a professional level equal to that of the best.
Note: An extended version was published in Clocks Magazine.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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