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Brian & Joy Loomes

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks John Fraser of Worcester

Some aspects of John Fraser's background incline me to believe he was a nonconformist, probably a Roman Catholic. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries nonconformists of all kinds seldom kept records of meetings of their own faithful, as these might be used as evidence against them. Those who did so often kept them hidden in private ownership and many such records must have been lost for ever. This means that for today's researchers it is very difficult to find evidence of births, marriages or burials carried out in the nonconformist manner. The fact that entries of these events may occur in regular parish registers does not by any means prove that those entered were conformists in faith, though they may effectively be disguised as such.

The law could hardly determine what sort of religion you might believe in, but it could and did insist that all should attend the local parish church and partake in church services chosen by the state. Privately you could believe in whatever kind of God you preferred, but you were pressured into showing apparent conformity with everyone else. Many nonconformists did just that and paid public lip service to the state religion, whilst privately following their own inclinations and even holding their own services in private, following their preferred practices. Ministers of the church for the most part went along with this, privately showing toleration as long as deviants made a show of public acquiescence. The few who blatantly refused to play the game usually brought retribution on themselves, but most put on a show of public conformity.

Sometimes we see an entry in a parish register that a child was baptised "in private", often the child of local gentry rather than of farm labourers. This does not mean they held a private ceremony to avoid the eyes of the common herd. It meant that the local vicar turned a blind eye to the exact form of words they used, as long as it was done in private. So "in private" is a sure designation of nonconformity. In the same vein we sometimes see burials "at night", and these were Catholic burials, where they might observe their own practices unobserved and without offending others.

John Fraser was born on the 29th December 1667 baptised at St. Martin in Fields on the 1st Jan 1667/68, the son of John & Anne Frazier. He was apprenticed through the Clockmakers' Company from December 1681 till 1688 to Edward Eyston. Edward Eyston had been apprenticed in 1651 to Thomas Eyston and was listed as a suspected "recusant" in 1685, that is at the very time that Fraser was living in his care and household. A recusant was any kind of nonconformist, but might sometimes be defined further, so that e.g. A "Popish recusant" was a Roman Catholic. Thomas Eyston was probably the brother of Edward and had himself been an apprentice under William Partridge. Thomas was also associated with John Matchet, who had been suspended from the Clockmakers' Company in 1678 for being "a well-known Popish Recusant", though in 1687 he was "restored to his former status". William Partridge was a Royalist and almost certainly a Catholic, who had attended Charles I as clockmaker and during the Civil War had raised a company of troops at his own charge with himself as Captain to support the King, and had served the King in the "Life Guard of Foot" - for all of which he was later imprisoned by Cromwell and had his estates confiscated. Partridge claimed to have spent much time in France and Flanders improving his skills and had been "bred under Mr. Este", in other words trained by Edward East. East was a known Catholic, whose will specified they should "bury me privately in the night time" - a sure sign of a Catholic burial.

Nonconformists, like all minority groups, tended to band together, and the importance of that for our purposes in studying clockmaking is that nonconformists would tend to take as apprentices the sons of like-minded believers. Apart from their sticking together, it could have been very dangerous to have had in a nonconformist household a young man from another belief, who might have betrayed them all. So my guess is that John Fraser was a Catholic.

The fact that Fraser never took up his freedom in the Company did not mean that he did not complete his training but simply that he did not wish to pursue the trade in his own right in London. We know he moved to Worcester before the end of the century, and the date of his moving there may well have been about 1691 or shortly after. If John Fraser lived his life as a Catholic, the evidence of that may not simply be hard to find, but it may not even exist at all.

John Fraser was married on the 21st May 1691 at St. James's Dukes Place, London to Anne Murray. I then lose track of him until his death in Worcester, where he was buried at St. Helen's in 1739, though I believe he went to Worcester shortly after 1691. His presence is confirmed by several known examples of his work made there in the 1690s. The burial of a John Fraser at St. Helen's on the 10th September 1700 might have been his father, moving out to Worcester to live with or near his son. The burial of Anne Frazer there in 1710 might have been John's first wife, Anne (Murray), though we can't be sure as it might either have been his mother, also named Anne.

Front view of William Barlow clock
Lantern clock of the 1690s by "John Frasser Worcester", originally built with verge escapement but converted anciently to anchor for greater accuracy. Click for closer view.

John described himself as a goldsmith of the city of Worcester when he made his will on the 10th December 1727, that will proved on the 24th March 1738/39. He was buried in St. Helen's parish 21st February 1738/39. He would have been seventy two. In it he mentions his (second) wife, Winifred, and six children, being a son Thomas and five daughters. To Thomas and his married daughter (first name unstated), now Mrs. Carpenter, and another daughter, now Mrs. Grimbalston, he left one guinea each, which implies he had already passed their inheritance on to them - and we hear no more about them. But to his younger, unmarried daughters, Sarah, Frances and Katherine, he left everything else. Sarah was buried at St. Helens in 1769 and Frances in 1774, both still spinsters. What became of Katherine I do not know.

John's widow, Winifred, left a much more interesting documentation behind in the form of her will, written on the 2nd May 1739 only weeks after the death of her husband. She died barely three months later and she too was buried at St. Helens, on the 22nd July 1739. She would have been eighty two. Her will was proved on the 29th March 1743 her stepdaughter, Frances Fraser being sole executrix. Winifred had an interesting background being born at Penrose (or Penrhos) in Monmouthshire as Winifred Scudamore in 1657, and therefore ten years older than her late husband, John Fraser. She had been married before to Gregory Pember, by whom she had children, and therefore her marriage to John Fraser was her second marriage as well as his. She came from a prosperous background, and she mentioned various relatives including her sister, Catherine Scudamore, then aged eighty nine, and her brother Henry, who lived at Pembridge Castle in Hereford. What became of John's son, Thomas, I do not know but he is not mentioned by his step mother.

I was unable to trace the baptism of any of John's children but oddly enough I did find baptisms of children of a John Fraser by his wife, Anne (formerly Murray) at Edinburgh, some with the appropriate names and born at the appropriate time to fit as John's children: Sarah born 1703, Katherine born 1708. I suppose this could just be co-incidence as Fraser and Murray are common enough names in Scotland and I can think of no reason why John Fraser would have spent some years there.

So that is as much as I could find about John Fraser. His recorded clocks are not numerous, but then if he traded principally as a goldsmith, he may have made them only occasionally. I am reminded of John Buck of Chester and Elias Browne of Norwich, who were also goldsmiths in the early seventeenth century by each of whom a very occasional clock survives. Some clockmakers styled themselves as "watchmaker", which was considered a cut higher than a clockmaker. Similarly a "goldsmith" was higher up the social ranks than a "watchmaker".

A longcase is known signed simply 'John Frasor', another 'J. Frazer of Worcester'. In the way of lantern clocks an example is known signed 'John Frazor Worcester', and the one illustrated here, signed 'John Frasser Worcester'. It seems he could spell Worcester correctly but was inconsistent when it came to his own name. He probably did not have the advantage of a Grammar School education!

A more detailed version of this article was published in Clocks Magazine.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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