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Brian & Joy Loomes

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks A ten-inch penny moon dial longcase in pine - by William Northrop of Wakefield

A penny moon is a feature much admired by collectors, but the term is used to mean a variety of different things. A penny moon dial is one which shows the moon's phases and usually its date too, and is almost always positioned below the XII numeral. This is the only (satisfactory) way a moon dial can be shown on a square dial clock, so that, although it could be used on an arched dial, in fact it was almost always found on square dial examples. When the earliest arched dials came into fashion (about 1710-1730) the penny moon was sometimes used in the arch centre, but arched dials soon developed their own version of a moon dial, being the usual shape of moon we most often see in the arch, known as a rolling moon.

But even on a square dial clock there were two or three different forms of what are sometimes inaccurately called a penny moon. The first (i.e. oldest) and correct form is that type where a small circle (the size of an old penny) reveals a passing moon disc, which shows the moon's size, shape and date - as with this example here. The moon discs were initially made of brass with engraved features. On later brass dial clocks some moons became painted discs, and on white dial clocks they were always painted. Later examples sometimes show a semi-circular opening (often with two moon 'humps'), but the neatest, oldest and most sought-after version is that with a complete circle showing, the smaller the better - as with this present one.

Full view of the thirty-hour clock by William 
            Northrop detail of the hood
1. Full view of the thirty-hour clock by William Northrop in its pine case with original caddy top and unduly shallow base, the replaced plinth being set a little too high up on the base itself. The ten-inch dial allows for unusually slender and graceful proportions. Click for closer view. 2. Detail of the hood showing absence of pillars, dowel-pegged construction on the pitch pine carcase, which shows remarkably little shrinkage. Click for closer view.

A penny moon has become a desirable feature in recent years. Thirty years back nobody cared twopence about a penny moon! Just why this should be so I don't know, but it might be because collectors often like the earliest versions of clock features, and this is the earliest form of moon dial. This sort of moon needs no complicated gearing or wheelwork. It simply knocks on one tooth every twelve hours by means of a pin or wedge on the hour pipe, often, though not necessarily, positioned behind the hour hand. This is just the same principle as a twelve-hour 'knock-on' calendar, such as the mouth calendar on this example pictured here. Such a system was not only simple, but was cheap for the clockmaker to make, as it avoided the extra gear wheel needed for a twenty-four-hour (once a day drive) calendar, that is the type usually found on (costlier) eight-day clocks. The twelve-hourly knock-on calendar system was that most often used on thirty-hour clocks, though it is occasionally found on eight-day work too. The twelve-hour knock-on penny moon system was also found mostly on thirty-hour clocks, and much more seldom on eight-day ones.

In fact when a penny moon system is seen on an eight-day clock, it is as well to regard it with a little suspicion at first, especially on a square dial brass-dial clock, as it may well be a sign of a clock that was once a thirty-hour and was later converted to eight-day. I can think of many 'eight-day' Thomas Lister of Halifax clocks, which have penny moons, and which often prove on closer examination to be converted thirty-hour clocks. Why? Probably because collectors love the penny moon feature, but often prefer eight-day clocks when available with that option. Therefore less scrupulous dealers of the past have converted thirty-hour clocks to provide the supply to meet the demand.

To a dealer or restorer, clocks with a knock-on calendar and a knock-on moon can be a nuisance. When they were new they were fine, as the same pin or wedge drove each wheel, which was set equi-distant from the hour pipe centre, that is the dial centre. Two hundred years or more later, wear has caused the hour pipe to ride lower in the dial, in other words slightly below the dial centre. This can mean that the drive wedge bites deeper when driving the calendar (normally positioned above VI) than when driving the moon dial (normally positioned below XII). The result is that the calendar goes at twice the rate of the moon, when each should progress one point per day. Trying to adjust this by filing the drive wedge, or bending the drive pin, is seldom successful. The only real solution is to 'bush' the dial centre to re-set its position back to central. This is straightforward enough with a brass dial, but a bit tricky with a japanned dial. Fortunately not all such clocks exhibit this degree of wear.

ten-inch dial
3. The ten-inch dial itself, unrestored, having original iron hands, penny moon dial below XII and what is usually called a mouth calendar (sometimes a 'sad' mouth), which is the typical calendar form on a thirty-hour clock. Click for closer view.

In clocks, especially in longcase clocks, small is beautiful - and therefore much more popular, which means more saleable and therefore more valuable. Smaller clocks and smaller dials are often preferred over larger versions. If we are judging on size alone (which in reality we never are in isolation) a ten-inch dial beats an eleven inch, which beats a twelve inch ... and so on, measured always by dial width. This is partly, but not exclusively, because the smaller ones can look neater and more dainty, and of course small clocks will fit into any house, a feature which makes them far more widely saleable than large versions. It also happens almost always that smaller versions are older than larger ones, if we are comparing like clocks. In very general terms we can take dials for instance, where a ten-inch pre-dates an eleven, which pre-dates a twelve, etc. Likewise a small penny moon aperture, like the one pictured here which is circular, beats a larger version and especially a larger one which is a wide semi-circle.

Penny moons occur more on northern clocks than elsewhere, especially in north-west England. They can appear on single-handers or two-handers, but were more often seen on single-handers. By the time clockmakers of the North-west were making square-dial thirty-hour clocks with penny moons we had probably reached the 1720s or later. There could be earlier examples but I can't think of one, so they must be uncommon. By that date dial sizes were often as large as twelve or even thirteen inches - bigger dials, broader cases, wider 'penny' moons if they had that feature. Therefore a ten-inch penny moon in a northern clock is a very unusual item, which is what makes this clock especially interesting. Even more unusual is for a northern ten-inch penny-moon dial to be a two-hander, as here.

The moon dial has an engraved moon face to show the varying crescent shape throughout the lunar month, or the full of the moon, and in this instance the crescent moon has been given a human face in profile with eyes, nose and mouth - a nice, amusing and very unusual touch which gives the clock more character, and of course, from the point of view of a collector, makes the clock a far scarcer item. The matting is of a very deeply pitted and coarse nature, deliberately so, and just one feature of this maker's individuality of style. The dial is shown here unrestored and would benefit from cleaning.

Little is known about the maker, William Northrop, occasionally spelled in old records as Nawthrop. His clocks are usually signed without any place name, though we know he worked at, or close to, Wakefield in what was the old West Riding of Yorkshire roughly between the 1730s and 1760s, these dates being estimates based on perhaps four or five clocks of his I have come across over the years. The only actual dates we have are from official records which survive of apprenticeship bindings. He took on John Hornby in 1742, Stephen Adamson in 1743, and John Brook in 1745. We don't hear any more about John Hornby, but one of this name worked later in the century at Liverpool. Stephen Adamson went on to make clocks in his own right at nearby Tadcaster by the 1780s. John Brook ran away from his master in 1751 after six years of apprenticeship, and we don't know what became of him. This actual clock seems to date from the 1730s, maybe the 1740s.

detail showing penny moon as crescent moon unusual seatboard system
4. Detail to show the penny moon as a crescent moon. Moon discs often have a face, probably a play on moon phase and moon face. Here the engraver has given way to artistic licence to include a nose and mouth as a profile of the 'man in the moon's' face, a very unusual treatment which is amusing and gives the clock a little more character. The number below the moon face indicates the lunar date - here showing the 6th. Notice the unusually heavy quality of the matting to the dial centre. Click for closer view. 5. The seatboard system, original to the clock, is very unusual. A small trestle type of 'table' sits on top of the flat finishing timbers, and the movement bolts to this 'table', so that the whole clock-with-seatboard can be lifted out in one. This system was used particularly, though not exclusively, in the old West Riding of Yorkshire. Click for closer view.

The case is made of pine and is pictured here completely unrestored. It is unusually slender and elegant, which stems from the fact that, at ten inches, the dial is tiny. Ten inches is as small as any longcase clock dial gets in this region. Exceptionally longcase dials as small as nine or even eight inches are occasionally met with in the South, but are virtually unknown in this area. The clock retains its original caddy top - many were removed later to get the height down. The hood has no pillars, and never did have - just one variation in primitive, early, provincial styling. The base would originally have been higher and has been reduced slightly in the base, probably because it suffered on damp stone-flagged cottage floors. A replacement plinth has been fitted in more recent years, but is set too high up, which makes the base look even shorter and is something which could easily be rectified.

It is amazing that a pine case survives at all of this great age. The presence of the bull's eye glass in the door, always an early feature, suggests to me that the clock might date from the 1730s rather than 1740s. Pine of course was always sold in painted form when new. A layer of lead-based primer was first applied, often blue but sometimes red. Then the undercoats would be applied before the final coloured paint, which was often black or blue or green, sometimes red or yellow. Over the years the clock would be re-painted, probably every time the house was re-painted. Its present state, as 'stripped' pine, is a fashion which dates from relatively recent years. In the past the painted finish would have hidden all dowels, joints, and knots. Today we like to see all these as part of the look of old pine, and it was probably stripped to its present state forty or fifty years ago. Slight traces of black and blue can be seen in the corners, where it has not quite all been removed. This wood is of the type they call pitch pine, which has a stronger figuring than ordinary 'deal' and is far more resistant to woodworm and rot.

A most interesting aspect of the case is the seatboard system, that is the timberwork which supports the clock movement inside the case. Instead of having the normal flat seatboard (which either sits loose or is nailed down - at will) , this one has a seatboard with upright ends, like a trestle table. The movement is attached to this by seatboard hooks so that when the clock is removed the whole table seatboard comes with it. Remaining behind at that point is the top of trunk timberwork, all equally ancient, and all painted originally (and successfully) with blue lead paint against woodworm. One or two original clout nails are banged into place to hold the seatboard in exactly the right position. There was no fine cabinetwork inside the case of a thirty-hour clock., especially a pine one, which was the cheapest you could buy. Such a case, when new, might have cost between seven shillings and six pence and ten shillings (38 pence to 50 pence in today's money). If this seems laughable, bear in mind that a struggling rural clockmaker, like William Northrop, would earn about this much for a week's work, and even the best provincial makers of the eighteenth century did well to make one pound a week.

view of the upper trunk
6. View of the upper trunk with the lift-off 'table' seatboard removed. The two side struts remaining are hood restraints, to prevent the hood toppling off when the door is opened. Large clout nails survive at each side, acting as locating positioners for the 'table'. Click for closer view.

I have seen this table type of seatboard many times. It was regular practice amongst many of the Halifax area makers, such as the two Thomas Listers, father and son. I always call this a 'Halifax' seatboard, even though used by others from nearby. I saw a longcase of the 1830s by George Lee of Skipton recently with this sort of seatboard. The oldest example I could positively date of this 'Halifax' seatboard was on a clock made by John Stancliffe of Barkisland (near Halifax) at a time when Thomas Lister the elder was his apprentice, which puts it between 1730 and 1737, as the clock had the apprentice's name hidden inside. This one by William Northrop must tie with that for age, which gives the clock another point of interest for a collector.

So in all this is a humble clock, but with many points of interest for the collector, and a combination of unusual aspects which make it quite unique.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
this article was originally published in Clocks Magazine

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