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Brian Loomes Antique Clocks

Brian & Joy Loomes

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks John Smorthwaite of Colchester and elsewhere

John Smorthwaite was one of Colchester's earliest clockmakers and by far the most prolific. The clockmakers of that town have been studied in great detail by the late Barnard Mason, whose book 'Colchester Clockmakers' I have owned and treasured since the day it was published in 1969 by Country Life at the then outrageous price, which I initially balked at, of four guineas, labelled on the jacket as 84 shillings. Even then guineas were outmoded as a pricing unit, but publishers have always been a law unto themselves and that was the price. I will never forget that at that time I was looking for a publisher for my own first clock book, 'Yorkshire Clockmakers', which eventually came out in 1972.

If Country Life would publish a book on the clockmakers of a single town, surely they would jump at the chance of publishing a work on an entire county, or so I thought in my innocence. I contacted them at once, only to be told that the book was a total disaster in failing to sell, and that the managing editor never wanted to hear the word 'clock' again as long as he lived. Well, it is a superb book, lavishly illustrated, expertly written with both knowledge and modesty by a great horologist, who had massive experience of his subject - and brings a heavy price second-hand today.

Bernard Mason was born in 1895 and became a successful businessman, who formed his own collection of Colchester-made clocks, which he began in 1927, during a period when they were still unappreciated and cost little. Eventually he gave his collection to the town along with his home, the building they were housed in, called Tymperleys. The whole collection consisting of two hundred and sixteen clocks is said to have cost him a total of £9,685.34p. Mason's deeply-researched book was compiled from his own observations and studies and those of his wife, Evelyn, who did much of the genealogical research. Bernard Mason died in 1981, his widow about 1988. Tymperleys opened its doors as a clock museum in 1987.

Bernard Mason's research into John Smorthwaite is very detailed, meticulous in fact, the more so as he joined forces in that with a descendant of John Smorthwaite's brother, William, called Harold Smorthwaite, who made his own findings available for the book and who himself died in the 1960s. Mason had recorded over eighty clocks by Smorthwaite by 1969, and a few more have come to light since then, including the lantern clock pictured here.

John Smorthwaite was born in 1675 at Middleton in Lonsdale, close to Kirkby Lonsdale near Kendal in the old county of Westmorland in north-west England. He arrived in Colchester, it is said, about 1712 or 1713, a fully-trained clockmaker with an expert knowledge of his trade, a widower with a young daughter called Sarah. He was then about thirty-seven years old, and he worked assiduously in Colchester till his death in 1739 aged sixty three. A headstone in All Saints' churchyard records his burial, to help perpetuate which Harold Smorthwaite had it re-cut in 1923. Bernard Mason and Harold Smorthwaite meticulously recorded every detail they could find of his life, every scrap of a mention of his name, but try as they might, they failed to locate his whereabouts in that thirty-seven-year gap in his career. From the moment of his birth to his arrival in Colchester, John Smorthwaite's life was a complete mystery. Where did he live in the meantime, who trained him, who was his first wife, when did she die, what drove him to move to Colchester, as far away as he could possibly get from his family? These are massively intriguing questions, to which they failed to find an answer. Today I have answers to some of these questions, though by no means all.

But first, what do we know about him in Colchester? His suggested date of arrival is about 1712, but he is first named in a record there in June 1713, when he summoned someone for debt. For the next fifteen years or more he churned out clocks, but seems to have kept himself to himself, remaining a widower and apparently taking little part in public life. In 1720 he took as apprentice William Cooper from East Bergholt in Suffolk at a fee (known as a premium) of £20.00, which was high for the period, and suggests Smorthwaite was in a sufficiently independent position to ask a high fee. The premium was to cover the cost of feeding and clothing the lad for his term of apprenticeship, which was usually seven years. Cooper finished his apprenticeship in 1727, perhaps worked as a while for Smorthwaite as a journeyman, but then married in 1729 to Magdalen Reynoldson. Magdalen was a niece of John Smorthwaite's, being the daughter of his younger sister, Alice, wife of Anthony Reynoldson, a farmer of Tunstall in Lancashire, whom she had married in 1701, when John was about twenty-six years old. This is interesting in so far as it shows there was still contact between John and his family back in the Westmorland area - but perhaps there had been all along. Presumably Magdalen had visited uncle John Smorthwaite in Colchester, or perhaps had even worked as a housekeeper for him, as nieces often did for their uncles, and this must be how she came to meet William Cooper. Interestingly one Anthony Reynoldson, son of Anthony senior of Tunstall and therefore brother of Magdalen, was apprenticed in London in1738 to clockmaker James Lloyd. Young Anthony was John Smorthwaite's nephew.

Lantern clock by John Smorthwaite of Colchester made about 1710-20, pictured unrestored.
1. Lantern clock by John Smorthwaite of Colchester made about 1710-20, pictured unrestored. Click for closer view

The next major event in John Smorthwaite's life was on 17th January 1722, when he married for the second time, at the age of forty-seven and after at least ten years as a widower, to forty-two-year-old, Susan Flanner, a widow of three years or so, still running the tallow-chandler's business of her late husband. We now know that at this time his daughter (to his first wife), Sarah, was aged about eighteen. From this point on the former recluse began to take part in town life, as churchwarden, juryman, guardian of the poor, ultimately alderman, and justice of the peace - a very different public figure from his earlier, much quieter life. Perhaps his new wife gave him an impetus to be more outgoing in society. Perhaps her newly-brought extra income provided him with a wealthier position in society, sufficient for him to allow himself more free time away from the workbench for public duties.

Nathaniel Hedge of Colchester was apprenticed to John Smorthwaite in 1728, this time for a lesser fee of £10.00. Perhaps Smorthwaite knew the Hedge family, who are believed to have been in financial hardship, and made a concession in his rate of fee. Nathaniel's father was a struggling weaver, convicted of stealing firewood in 1705, and thereafter a man with a criminal record. As we shall see later, Smorthwaite was never likely to get on with the senior Hedges, Nathaniel's parents. Nathaniel was eighteen years old at the time, unusually old to take up apprenticeship. Later that same year John Smorthwaite took on another one, Daniel Powlin, at a fee of £31.50, which demonstrates again that the smaller fee for the Hedges was a concession - for reasons we might later guess at.

It was in October 1733 that his daughter, Sarah, was married hastily by licence in a nearby village to apprentice, Nathaniel Hedge, she being heavily pregnant at the time. A child was born in the January following. John was then aged fifty eight. Sarah, we now know, was twenty nine, Hedge was twenty three. In fact on the marriage licence Hedge lied about his age and Sarah's, increasing his to twenty six and decreasing hers to twenty seven to make them appear more equal in age. Sarah, the only child of John's first marriage, whom he had brought up motherless since the first few years of her life and who had been his constant companion and comfort, was now a source of disgrace to him - and just at the very time when he was achieving some prominence and respectability in the town. Nathaniel, a youngster he had taken in from a poverty-stricken home with a criminal father, and to whom he tried to give a decent start in life, had betrayed him. In some ways his start in life resembles that of John Smorthwaite himself, which may be why Smorthwaite took him on in the first place. He banished them from the house and thereafter refused to acknowledge them at all. His will, written only three years later, makes no mention of them, daughter, husband nor child, and left them not a penny. In fact Nathaniel Hedge was a hard worker, made his own way in life and went on to become a prosperous and highly-respected clockmaker.

In 1737 John Smorthwaite took on a further apprentice, Samuel Downum, a blacksmith's son from Newton, Suffolk. A stamp duty was payable on all apprenticeship premiums from 1710 till about 1810, and, being Inland Revenue documents, these records of these are kept to this day, and can be consulted by researchers. But Samuel Downum's apprenticeship is not logged in the Revenue records, though Smorthwaite's other apprenticeships are. This probably means it is because it was a 'parish' apprenticeship, or a pauper apprenticeship. When a parish council arranged for a boy from a poor household to be apprenticed, no premium was usually payable, and therefore no tax record entry exists. Bernard Mason found this apprenticeship indenture nevertheless, presumably because he rummaged through every document preserved in the town archives. No tax was payable either on premiums of one shilling or less, which was a nominal amount laid down when for example a father trained his own son. In these latter cases one might think there was no need for a formal apprenticeship document, but in fact a young man might decide to move to some other location to work, and would often have to show evidence of his training before he could find employment or even open his own shop.

Two years later, in January 1739, John Smorthwaite died. Samuel Downum's unfinished apprenticeship was transferred to, of all people, Nathaniel Hedge. Amongst John's bequests were his oyster beds in the village of Tollesbury, which he left to John Cooper, son of his niece Magdalen (daughter of his sister Alice) and her husband William Cooper. His property in Magdalen Street, Colchester, he left to his 'kinsman' John Smorthwaite of London, poulterer, (whom we now know to be his nephew, son of his late brother, William). There was a condition in the will that if Smorthwaite died before his nephew Anthony Reynoldson (son of his sister, Alice, and brother of Magdalen Cooper) was out of his apprenticeship (which he did), then the income from rents of Magdalen Street was to go to Anthony towards buying his clothing during his apprenticeship.

This pretty well summarises what Bernard Mason had discovered, with a few relationships I have been able to add more recently. He had pretty well all the details of Smorthwaite's life at Colchester, and certainly of his clocks, many of which are pictured in his book. But of his origins, he was able to learn nothing other than his date of birth at Middleton in Lonsdale. Over fifteen years ago I carried out a little research into John Smorthwaite's ancestry myself by checking into the parish registers of Middleton and one or two other parishes in that locality, thereby uncovering his parentage and his immediate kin. The village lies in the fertile valley of the river Lune a few miles north of Kirkby Lonsdale on the road that runs between the wild fells on the way to Sedbergh just across the boundary in Yorkshire. Before recent boundary changes Middleton was in the old county of Westmorland, the last parish squeezed up into the south-eastern corner alongside the border with Yorkshire, from which it is screened by the bleak fells, some of which rise as high as two thousand feet. It is a remote spot today. How much more remote it must have been three hundred years ago, a sheltered valley hidden away from the prying eyes of the world. This was Quaker territory, where many settled hoping to be left to pursue their own form of worship without persecution.

The Smorthwaites were not Quakers themselves, but had Quaker connections by marriage. The family lived at Abbey Farm, Middleton, from the 1630s or perhaps earlier, and prospered. John's grandfather was described as a gentleman and was High Constable for the area in 1667, three years before he died, leaving two sons. The elder, William, was John's father; the younger was Henry, who was still an apprentice in 1669, though we don't know at what trade. From what follows we can guess it was at some form of metal craft.

William married in 1670 to Jane Leeming of Orcaber in the parish of Clapham in Yorkshire about twenty miles to the south, and a very strong Quaker area. They had several children of which the eldest son, also William, was eventually to take over Abbey Farm and to produce numerous offspring himself, till he died there in 1727. John, the clockmaker, was the second son, born in 1675 and not heard of again until he arrived in Colchester, it is supposed about 1712. It was in 1988 that I uncovered these genealogical facts about John's origins and at that time I happened to swap notes with Susan Stuart, who is an insatiable researcher into clockmakers and other metal workers in the North Lonsdale area, and who later published a book, 'Biographical List of Clockmakers - North Lancashire and South Westmorland 1680-1900', which appeared in 1996. Susan had been following up a lead by consulting a book 'The Justices and the Mare's Ale' by Alan Macfarlane, published in 1981, and this revealed some astonishing facts about the Smorthwaites, which she passed on to me.

The movement of the Smorthwaite lantern clock from the left
2. The movement of the Smorthwaite lantern clock from the left, showing two receiving screw-holes made into the spring and hammer stop to hold the side 'doors'. Click for closer view

John's father William was a juror at Kendal Quarter Sessions in 1673 and 1677 and High Constable (like William's own late father) in 1677. As such he was responsible for certain public monies, which he should have repaid at the end of his term, but which he failed to do. As a result he was imprisoned in Appleby Jail in 1679, but was released when he paid up. In the early 1680s the family seem to have gone to live at Clapham, at least for a while, perhaps because of the scandal at Middleton. But not only was this William (John's father) a 'gentleman' as well as a yeoman farmer, but he and his younger brother, Henry, were notorious as burglars, highwaymen, thieves, coin clippers and counterfeiters. They rode out at night with their faces covered for disguise, leaders of a 'black and terrible troop', who robbed their neighbours and terrorised the inhabitants over a wide area. The Smorthwaite brothers were tried for various offences and acquitted, but in 1684 they were tried yet again, this time by 'hanging' Judge Jefferies, who, true to his name, sentenced them to be hung! On August 16th 1684 they were hanged, at Lancaster it is thought, their bodies taken to the Middleton area to be displayed to the public.

Coin clipping (snipping slivers from the edges of coins to melt down the metal for re-use) and counterfeiting were both capital offences. Coin clipping was prevalent at this period over a wide area and numerous men involved included a high number of metalworkers, whitesmiths, goldsmiths, etc.

William's brother, Henry Smorthwaite, had married the daughter of Thomas Wilson of New Hutton, where Henry and his family had gone to live. This Thomas Wilson, in his capacity of constable, had set a trap to lie in wait for the thieves, but ended up catching his own daughter amongst them. Henry claimed in a letter dated 8th August 1684 that he had been led astray by his own widowed mother and his stepfather, Henry Dixon, whom she had married after her husband's death, and by his elder brother, William, who had failed to pay Henry his inheritance due under his late father's will. He pleaded that his poor wife and children would be ruined, but no pardon was forthcoming.

Later in August 1684 William's widow, Jane, gave birth to a daughter less that two weeks after her husband was hung. She had the child, named Jane, baptised at Clapham, when she was perhaps living temporarily at the home of her parents at Orcaber. But by 1687, when this young child died, she had moved back to Middleton, and was living there still in 1695 with her twenty-three-year-old son William, eighteen-year-old daughter Sarah, and daughter Alice, age unknown but probably about twenty. Her son John Smorthwaite, who was to become a clockmaker but was then aged twenty, was not there with his family. This must have been because he was living away learning the clock trade as an apprentice. His elder brother, William, took over the family property on the death of their father in 1684 and by 1695 John Smorthwaite had left his family home, perhaps because as the younger son he had no means of income there. His brother, William, and the rest of his sisters remained there. Alice married in 1701 to Anthony Rennison a farmer at nearby Tunstall; Sarah married a local man, Thomas Procter, in 1703. Older brother, William, married in 1705 and ran Abbey Farm till his death in 1727.

So in 1695 we can assume that John Smorthwaite was away from home serving his apprenticeship, which we could deduce from his background would have been to some kind of metalworker, but we know from his later career must have been a clockmaker. No national records of apprenticeship exist before 1710, when the stamp duty was imposed. Those that survive before 1710 are a random hotch-potch in the records of certain larger towns or corporations or certain trade guilds, and there is no way they can be searched for unless the location is known. We assume John would be apprenticed at the age of fourteen, that is in 1689, until he was twenty one, in 1696. But where?

All this we knew back in 1988. Since then genealogical research has become easier. More records have been transcribed. If you know how to push the right buttons, you can even do genealogy today by computer - to some degree anyway. It's not the same thing as searching the records themselves, but it can be a big shortcut and I thought it might be worth having a shot.

I was looking for the birth of a daughter named Sarah to a Smorthwaite father named John some time not long before 1712. Only one came up. This Sarah was baptised at Kirk Merrington near Durham in 1704, her father being John Smorthwaite who apparently married Ann Walton in 1699 at nearby Brancepeth. They had other children: in 1700 Hannah, 1702 Ann, 1708 John. If this were our man, then presumably about 1708 or 1709 his wife and three young children died and he was left a widower with his remaining daughter, Sarah. They moved to Colchester between 1708 and 1710.

As it happens other Smorthwaites lived there, one Edward of Kirk Merrington had several children, including Joseph, who lived at Brancepeth and also had several children of about the same age as John the clockmaker. This cannot have been chance and it implied that John was sent to live with kinfolk as soon as possible after his father was hanged.

Brancepeth is not a well-known place, but it rang a bell at once with me because it was the home of the prolific clockmaking family of Threlkeld, whose genealogy is massively complicated and not fully understood. They seem to have been a very wealthy family to whom clockmaking at times seems to have been more a money-making hobby than a dire matter of getting a crust on the table. William Threlkeld of London worked in clockmaking in the 1630s and 1640s and then moved to Brancepeth to become curate and died there in 1675. His three sons Henry, William and Deodatus followed him. Deodatus became the most renowned clockmaker of the area, based in Newcastle on Tyne. Henry remained at Brancepeth as curate but his children, of almost the same age as John Smorthwaite, became clockmakers, ultimately in London.

In conclusion Brancepeth was the ancestral home of the clockmaking Threlkeld dynasty, who dominated the trade in the area till about 1730, and always retained their clockmaking connection with London. Brancepeth, and the neighbouring village of Kirk Merrington, was the ancestral home of a branch of the Smorthwaite family. John must surely have been sent there to his relatives to learn clockmaking under the Threlkelds. No records of any apprenticeships are likely to survive for the relevant period to prove this, but the circumstances are too much for co-incidence. Whether he then moved to Colchester because of personal tragedy or because the fickle Threlkelds were content to retire to their genteel estates, as they seem to have done from time to time, we can only guess. Further research is needed to confirm these provisional findings, but it looks very much as if we have discovered John Smorthwaite's missing years.

Regarding his clocks, Bernard Mason recorded eighty, of which he personally owned thirty-seven. Those recorded include sixteen lantern clocks and both thirty-hour and eight-day longcases. I have seen half a dozen more longcases by him over the years coming through various auctions, almost all thirty-hour examples and mostly in later cases. Mason illustrates five examples of lantern clocks from his own collection, each signed 'Smorthwait in Colchester', four in the chapter ring and one in the upper dial centre. Some of his clocks are signed without the 'in'. Another one with a later double-fusee spring-driven movement was added to the collection later but was subsequently stolen in 1989. Three more lantern clocks have gone through auction in recent years, plus the present one illustrated here. This makes a total of twenty-one known, two of them converted to spring drive later, four of them signed in the dial centre, six signed on the chapter ring. He usually spelled his name as Smorthwait without the final e, but a flourish on the t is sometimes mistaken for an e. The surname is more generally written as Smorthwaite. All his lantern clocks appear to have been made originally with anchor escapement and long pendulum.

This present clock illustrated here has many features in common with his other known examples, but has one odd aspect, which I have never seen before. The clock was planned for side doors, which they almost always had, designed to help keep out the dust. We all know what a nuisance these doors are, as they simply hook in, and constantly drop off whenever you try to open them or move the clock. This is why the doors of most clocks are missing or replaced. This clock has the usual holes for door pivots, but has in fact brass panels which are held in place by two square-headed hand-made screws at each side. Those on one side screw into holes in the hammer spring and counter. Those on the other side screw into two purpose-fitted brass lugs riveted to the plates. These side plates are beautifully engraved, and in fact have the same design as the dial sheet itself. The engraving and doors certainly look eighteenth century. Were they done by Smorthwaite himself, using two dial plates for the purpose? Or were they fitted later in the century by someone copying the main dial sheet engraving? I don't know the answer to that one, but it's a very interesting solution to the dropping-off-doors problem.

We clock enthusiasts tend to become bogged down in the details of the clocks, their style age, fine engraving, unusual escapements. We tend to forget that the maker was not a clock-making machine, but a real person often with far more of a burden in the form of the stresses and worries of life than we experience ourselves. Interesting as they are, his clocks reveal no signs of his incredibly harrowing childhood and background and the tragedy which seemed to follow him through life.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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