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Brian & Joy Loomes

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks Lantern Clock Frets - a new aspect seen on a Thomas Knifton clock?

Lantern clocks are exciting things of extreme age, about which we constantly make new discoveries. These, after all, were the first household clocks ever made in Britain, and the sheer fact that they survive at all is almost miraculous. No lantern clock survives from three or four hundred years ago without alteration, mostly in the form of up-dating in the mechanics for better timekeeping, and part of the pleasure we derive from lantern clocks is in trying to establish by examination what alterations have taken place, and maybe even to try to guess why, and even when. Lantern clocks are still very much a new field of research, as clocks seem to keep on coming to light by previously unrecorded makers or clocks by known makers but which reveal some previously unknown aspect. Collectors can become obsessed with what to the novice might seem like trivia. The kind of screw that held clock parts together might seem unimportant, but such apparently insignificant minutiae can reveal previously unknown aspects, which might affect our understanding of the clocks in general. In fact this article is based on the significance of a screw!

A fret is a decorative device fitted on lantern clocks to cover and conceal that space which would otherwise offend the eye by letting the mechanics show in the largely 'unused' area between the bell and the top of the clock movement (the top plate). A lantern clock normally had three frets, one at the front and one at each side. All three were usually of the same pattern, though the front fret might have a little more detail or engraving than the side ones, probably because it was more prominently on show. The back was left open, that is fretless, presumably because the back of the clock was hidden against the wall and was not on show at all. Lantern clock frets were of several patterns, which changed over the years, and the fret pattern, if the frets are original to the clock, is one means by which we hope to establish the age of a lantern clock. To a novice lantern clocks all look very similar, and frets even more similar still. In fact there are great differences between lantern clocks, but it takes a little practice to recognise such things as age, dial style, proportion, balance, type of escapement. Of course one considerable help is that a maker's name pins down the clock to the period he was known to be working.

The fret pattern is an important feature in dating a lantern clock, and collectors soon learn what pattern of fret was usual at a given period. The known development of lantern clock fret patterns is very helpful in theory. Unfortunately original frets seem to have been changed at a later date for others with annoying frequency, for reasons we can only guess at. So much is this the case that we accept changed frets as a necessary evil, and a collector will not be put off buying what might otherwise be a fine or interesting lantern clock just because it has replacement frets.

A lantern clock fret was normally attached by means of two screws, each one fastening through one of two projecting lugs on the fret, by which it was screwed down to the top plate. We can usually tell changed frets by the fact that replaced frets would need screwing to the top plate in a different position from the original ones, thereby leaving tell-tale holes of previous frets now unoccupied. Sometimes previous holes can be seen to have been filled in when the later frets were fitted, especially where the new screw hole might overlap the old one and risk a bad fit. We do not know the reasons for frets having been changed, but it was probably not done out of any sort of attempt to deceive the buyer about the age of the clock, which is normally easily established through other stylistic features as well as the maker's name. In any event frets were often changed long before the days of collecting. We might be able to guess at some reasons later.

Because they were so often replaced, we have always assumed that frets were features which might easily become lost, as they would work loose when the screw threads gave out and would then easily drop off when the clock was moved. Being so long obsolete, these clocks have often spent many years lying unused in boxes in lofts and such like places, have been picked up and put down again repeatedly till one day the loose frets dropped off and were left behind. This, we have usually believed, is the main reason that lantern clocks have missing frets or replaced frets.

Full view of the Thomas Knifton clock, signed on the front dolphin fret. Fine engraving.
1. Full view of the Thomas Knifton clock, signed on the front dolphin fret. Fine engraving.
Click for closer view.

Another reason for replaced frets occurred to me recently. We quite often come across what is basically a West Country pattern of fret featuring a lion and a unicorn supporting a shield, being in fact what are in heraldry called the 'supporters' of the Royal Coat of Arms. The shield is sometimes actually engraved with the arms and sometimes the fret carries the Royal motto 'Dieu et Mon Droit'. This fret first appears significantly about 1660, almost certainly in celebration of the return of the monarchy in the form of the restoration of King Charles II. Many lantern clocks made long before the reign of Charles II have had their earlier frets changed after the Restoration for this version with the Royal Arms, even clocks made far away from the West Country, and this may well have been the reason.

But recent experience has suggested to me other reasons for replaced frets. One very early lantern clock, which may be unique and is certainly very unusual, has the frets held in place by a peg or pin knocked through each lug into the top plate. This clock was made about 1615 by Thomas Harvey of London and is one of the oldest known lantern clocks of British make. It is pictured in 'English Thirty-hour Clocks' by Jeff Darken and John Hooper. As far as I am aware all other lantern clocks, nearly all of them later than the Thomas Harvey, normally have each fret held by two screws, which rapidly became the conventional way of attaching them. Or so we believe.

Just recently I came across the lantern clock featured here, made by the very well-known maker, perhaps the most prolific lantern clock maker of the seventeenth century, Thomas Knifton, who worked at the sign of the Crossed Keys in Lothbury. A solitary example of a lantern clock by him is known signed at the 'Drap's Arms in Lothbury' (the Drapers' Arms?), suggesting that he worked elsewhere at one, perhaps very brief, period. He was supposedly born in 1614 in Nottingham, the son of a chandler, was apprenticed in 1632 in the Clothworkers' Company in London, where he was made a freeman in 1640, having served his apprenticeship under William Selwood of the Mermaid in Lothbury. Selwood was a renowned maker of lantern clocks, one of the earliest, working by 1628, and himself a freeman of the Clothworkers' Company. William Selwood, who was the founder of an entire clockmaking dynasty, became a member of the Clockmakers' Company in 1633 not long after its founding, but Knifton never did. If Knifton really was born in 1614, that would make him eighteen when he was bound as an apprentice, which was an extraordinarily old compared to the usual age of fourteen, and that makes me feel uneasy about accepting his supposed date of birth - but for now, it's the best date we have.

A tradesman did not necessarily follow the trade of the Company he belonged to, and it might be that he joined that company because of family connections. A number of clockmakers were members of the Clothmakers' Company, particularly in the years before the Clockmakers Company was founded. Knifton, as I said earlier, never actually joined the Clockmakers' Company but he was known to, and accepted by, them, and bound his own apprentices through the Clockmakers. He died in January 1667.

The known facts about his life mean that he could not have been making lantern clocks till after 1640, though he may well have worked for William Selwood for some years after that. It was the normal practice, after an apprentice finished his term, for him to work for at least two years for his former master. One record implies that Knifton was working on his own account by 1642, though the Civil War disrupted clockmaking considerably until the late 1640s. Thomas Knifton is believed to have followed the politics of the Parliamentary side, as did his master, William Selwood, and the whole Selwood household at the Mermaid - one of whom, Thomas Loomes, was at one time imprisoned for harbouring the King's enemies! It is just possible that Knifton may not have set up on his own till after William Selwood's death in 1653, when the Selwood workforce was scattered. We just don't know for certain, but we can say with some certainty that his working life was largely confined to the 1650s and 1660s. However the outbreak of Plague in 1665 was followed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed Lothbury entirely, and Knifton's death in 1667 would mean that he made precious few clocks after 1664.

So we can assume this lantern clock under discussion was made in the 1650s or early 1660s. I counted up eighteen examples of Thomas Knifton lantern clocks known to me to see which fret types he used - the reason for which will become apparent shortly. He used just two patterns of fret: one sometimes known as 'armorial' with a central shield, and the other having two crossed serpents known as 'dolphin' frets. There were six examples with armorials and 10 with dolphins, and one with the frets missing - plus this present one. Like all lantern clocks it has three frets, but very oddly, the right-hand side fret is of a different pattern from the other two. The front and left hand side are dolphin frets, the right-hand one is an armorial one. The implication might seem to be that the armorial one was a replacement but examination shows this is very unlikely to be so.

The interesting point about this clock, and something I don't ever recall noticing before, is that the frets were attached originally not by the normal screws, but each by one screw and one peg. Even though alterations have taken place over the years as to how the frets are now attached, we can deduce that they were all originally attached by the same 'one-screw-and-one-peg' method.

Detail of the right-hand fret fitted in position on the clock
2. Detail of the right-hand fret fitted in position on the clock.
Click for closer view.

The screws which held lantern clock frets in place originally (and throughout the seventeenth century) were hand-made screws, broad, stubby things, usually made of brass, and normally having a square head (like a bolt) but with a deep V cut in the centre, to drive either with a screw driver or with pliers. They had coarse and shallow threads as screw-cutting was not advanced to more perfection till the mid nineteenth century. Brass was soft and screws over-tightened would soon be stripped of their threads and become useless. For this reason many have been replaced in more recent centuries by better screws with a 'modern' thread and made of steel. These normally had to be slightly fatter than the original brass screws had been to be able to fit into the same top-plate hole, into which was forced a new thread. Just sometimes a careful workman would make his replaced steel screws with a square head in sympathy with the original maker's work, but more often replacements were just off-the-peg round-headed screws of the day.

So it is quite normal for lantern clock frets to be held in place today by replacement screws - so much so that if we do see a surviving original brass square-headed screw, we let out a squeal of delight as joyfully as my old grandfather used to do in those rationbook days after the second World War when he would yelled out loud in joy at finding a piece of meat in his stew! At which my grandma would cuff him for his sarcasm. A surviving original screw is a delight for a collector or restorer to find today, but you have to have tasted rationbook stew to really appreciate it!

On the front fret of the Thomas Knifton lantern clock an original screw survives holding the right-hand lug. On the left lug of the front fret however is a more modern screw, which we can deduce must be a replacement to an original peg, since the hole it drives through is smaller than that of the original right-hand screw. The left lug could therefore never have had a screw through originally.

On the left fret of the lantern clock the left-hand screw is original, or an ancient replacement with a hand-cut thread. The right-hand screw is much more modern and reveals its later addition by the fact that the original holding peg is still there, held fast in the top plate just left of the later screw, which characteristically goes through a smaller hole than the other one.

On the right-hand lug of the right-hand fret the original screw has been lost and this lug is currently held by a later screw too small for the hole and now used as a bolt and fastened underneath by a nut - a solution to a stripped thread that may be amateurish but works! The left hand lug of this fret still has its original holding peg. So by remarkable chance these three lantern clock frets show the three possible stages of wear and tear in replacing pegs by screws.

The odd things is that the right-hand fret is not a match to the other two, being an armorial pattern, but the presence of its surviving peg shows it so have been used like this originally. I suppose it is not impossible for this fret to have been replaced later, but if so the chances are it would have been screwed with two screws as was normal practice. And we do know that Knifton used both these two patterns of fret, armorial and dolphin.

So we come to the most intriguing aspects of all. It is known that on some clocks the front fret is different from the two side ones, even when all three are original, but this is the first example I have come across of a single side fret being the odd man out. Why would Thomas Knifton fit an odd fret on one side? Perhaps because he had one lying around unused? Had he just changed over to the newer pattern of dolphin frets and had an odd armorial one left over? We will never know, but we can be sure it must have been deliberate.

Why too would he opt for the screw-and-peg method of attaching his frets instead of the usual two screws? The answer must surely be because it saved time and therefore money. Making a peg took no time at all to make, whereas making a screw was time-consuming, and on this clock he saved the making of three screws. So on this clock Thomas Knifton has certainly cut corners, the implication being that it was supplied at a lower price, perhaps a price he was beaten down to by a hard-nosed customer.

This screw-and-peg system seems not to have been documented previously, nor, as far as I can establish, has it been widely noticed - only one restorer of several I questioned recalled ever having come across it before, and then only on a very occasional basis. Usually when we dealers think we have spotted a new or interesting feature, and ask a restorer or two about it, they nearly always tell us that they see this feature frequently but never thought it worth the bother of mentioning. But not this time!

Apart from its curiosity value on this particular clock, this system has far greater ramifications. Perhaps many more lantern clocks originally had this screw-and-peg system, but the previous existence of pegs was concealed (as most were on this clock) by the later addition of a second screw. I have handled dozens of lantern clocks and never before thought to look for such signs as a remaining empty peg hole, or a second (replacement) screw fitting into a hole smaller than that needed for the surviving original screw. Maybe we have passed by numbers of them without even noticing. We didn't see the signs because we were not looking for them.

After having written this I looked just today at a photograph of the top-plate of a different Thomas Knifton lantern clock taken a few years back. Sure enough there are signs in the fret lugs of at least one remaining peg!

The implication is that second screws were often fitted later, as with this clock, for greater security, because the peg system was unreliable. If it was unreliable, then that could be one reason that so many clocks have lost their original frets and today have later replacements! So the chance observation of an undersized screw and a surviving peg, might be a clue to this most puzzling business, which has had collectors scratching their heads for the best part of a century, as to why so many lantern clocks have replacement frets.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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