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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks Robert Williamson's lantern clock

Robert Williamson is one of those clockmakers whose work we see now and then but about whom not very much is known. There were no less then twelve Williamsons making clocks in the late seventeenth century, some of them no doubt related, but with such a commonplace name, I had never really tried to research most of them. I did discover long ago that London clockmaker Joseph Williamson, who was probably a Quaker and claimed to be the inventor of equation clocks, had 'served his time in Ireland' in the 1670s, and that John Williamson had moved from Leeds to work in London in the 1690s, but found he didn't like it and quickly moved back again - which I can well understand. But as for the others, I had found no cause to look into them, and such a name is not the easiest to research.

Robert Williamson was a fine maker, known for longcase and bracket clocks as well as watches. It is probably for watches that he is best known, signing them 'at St. Bartholomew Lane'. Many years ago I had a late seventeenth century grand sonnerie longcase clock by him, and that's a rare thing. A grand sonnerie chimes the quarter hours on whatever number of bells is chosen and follows each quarter chime by a strike of the count of the last hour - and so needs a considerable store of power for this. But for all that his work was well known, no lantern clock had so far been recorded by him. When one came to light recently, the one illustrated here, this gave me the impetus to try researching his background.

I knew he was apprenticed through the Clockmakers' Company to John Harris in October of 1658 and was freed from his apprenticeship in October 1666. During my search I came across a stray note dated 1665 in an archive collection saying that John Harris owes a debt to Robert Williamson, which makes me wonder if the apprentice had more money than the master? Assuming fourteen as the normal age of apprenticeship, this would set his birth year at about 1644. As it happens one of the other apprentices that John Harris took through the Clockmakers' Company was named Thomas Williamson, apprenticed in November 1661, and freed in January 1669, putting his year of birth at about 1647. It was not uncommon for brothers to be apprenticed under the same master, so here was a hint of a possible relationship. When Thomas was made a freeman of the City of London in 1669, the apprenticeship details given then state that he was the son of "Dove Williamson of Fulbank, Lincolnshire, clerk". Fulbank is actually Fulbeck and a clerk means a clerk in holy orders, that is a village parson. John Harris is a little hard to pin down as there was more than one working at the same time and they are hard to distinguish from each other.

I was lucky in that Robert Williamson left a will, which he signed on 22nd January 1704, when he was sixty years old and 'sick and weake in body', and which was proved on 3rd February the following year which we would today call 1705, but was then called 1704. He must have been seriously ill as he died within days of signing his will. I always take a macabre pleasure in the contents of wills as they throw up unexpected information. His first bequest was to his mother in law, Mary Halhead, of the use for life of a property in Banbury in Oxfordshire. I later learned that his wife, named Joyce, had died before 1695, at which time he was aged fifty two and was living as a widower in St. Bartholomew's Lane (which address he signed on some of his watches). This was in the parish of St. Bartholomew Exchange. He was at that time living with his unmarried daughter, also named Joyce, then aged twenty. I later found the baptisms of most of the children of Robert and Joyce, but did not manage to trace the actual marriage, even though we know the bride was Joyce Halhead.

A bequest to a mother in law was unusual, and implied that she was a widow in need of financial assistance, and also implied that his own parents were probably dead. If his first bequest came as a surprise, the second was more so. He left bequests to several of his children: Roberta, Winifred, Michael and Susan, and to daughter Elizabeth the wife of Thomas Darlow, and to their child, Robert, at the time his only grandson and the one who was named after him. It turned out that Thomas Darlow was also in the clock trade and a member of the Clockmakers' Company, being in fact an engraver. Perhaps he had done engraving worked for Robert Williamson and through that contact had met his daughter, Elizabeth. All these children and relatives would ultimately fit into place, but the biggest surprise was when he mentioned 'my eldest son, Dove Williamson.... now residing in Madrid in the Kingdom of Spain'! So we could guess he had named his first child after his father, and that therefore he was indeed the brother of Thomas Williamson and son of the rector of Fulbeck in Lincolnshire. The bequest to Dove was that he could keep £100 of the money his father had already lent him and which he wanted back at the time of his death to finance his bequests to his other children. Intriguing though it was, there was nothing to explain why Dove was then living in Spain, but we gain more insight into him later.

The only lantern clock so far recorded by Robert Williamson, made in the 1680s
1. This is the only lantern clock so far recorded by Robert Williamson. It was made in the 1680s as a centre verge pendulum with alarmwork, but was converted later to anchor escapement. Click for closer view.

Robert Williamson's father, Dove Williamson, became rector of Fulbeck at an unknown date some time before 1640. But in 1645 he was ousted, replaced by order of Cromwell's Parliament, by Tristram Hinchliffe, who "was made and constituted Rector of the Parish Church of Fulbecke by authority of Parliament, by reason of the delinquency of one Dove Williamson, then clerke and Incumbent of the said Parish". During the Civil War many parish priests were turned out of office and were replaced by others who would perform their duties in a more sober manner and with less ceremony, as befitted Puritan attitudes. Hinchliffe was born in 1585 at Silkstone in Yorkshire, and had married in 1614 at Kirkby Underwood in Lincolnshire, where he lived at least for some time. So when he succeeded to the parish of Fulbeck he was sixty years old. He was clearly very unpopular with his parishioners, who no doubt resented his being imposed on them with his more serious sermons in his uncouth Yorkshire accent, for he had constant problems in getting them to pay their tithes. In 1659 he took proceedings in the Court of Exchequer against Susannah Luddington, widow, for non-payment of her tithe. In 1663 the Court decided that Susannah Luddington should pay £7 compensation in respect of all overdue tithes. In 1662 a daughter, Susannah was baptised there to Dove and Winifrig Williamson, the original rector, who had been restored to his former office in 1660, a position he held till his death in1680. In 1680 he was succeeded there by Thomas Williamson who must surely have been a relative. I am not sure who Thomas was but he was rector till 1691.

Robert Williamson and Joyce must have married about 1669-70, but I have not been able to trace this marriage. Their eldest son, Dove would have been born about 1670, but again this baptism has not been found. Marriages often took place in the bride's parish and it sometimes happened that the bride went home to be with her parents for the birth of her first child, so these two events may be recorded together in some parish as yet unknown, perhaps in or near to Banbury, where Joyce herself was born. Robert and Joyce, lived initially in the parish of St. Stephen Coleman Street in London, where their first daughter Mary was baptised in 1671. They lived there only briefly, perhaps for four years at most.

They next lived within the parish of St. Margaret's Lothbury, where they stayed for about ten years and where several children were baptised: 1673/4 Thomas, who died in 1674, 1675 Joyce, 1677 Elizabeth, 1678 Rebecca, 1680 Winifred, 1682 Michael,1683 a daughter named Roberta though the registers record her as Robert! It was during this period (1682) that Robert became an Assistant in the Clockmakers' Company. By 1686 they had moved to the parish of St. Christopher le Stocks, where their last child, Susan, was baptised in March 1686/7. This was where Robert would live for the last eighteen years or so of his life, in St. Bartholomew Lane, the address he is best known by on his watches. He was now a senior member of the Clockmakers' Company, in which he became a Warden from 1695 and finally Master in 1698. He was a conscientious member, who attended meetings regularly until in January 1704/5 he suddenly stopped attending. The implication is that he was struck down with an illness that was both sudden and fatal. He barely had time to make his will and, having made it, he died within a matter of days.

His wife, Joyce, was born in Banbury in 1649, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Halhead, who were woollen drapers. Mary Halhead was the mother-in-law mentioned in Robert Williamson's will of 1704. Mary had an older brother, Thomas, born in 1641, who married and had several children including Thomas born in 1678 and Robert born in 1679. This younger Thomas was apprenticed through the Clockmakers Company to his uncle, Robert Williamson, from 1693 to 1702. Robert Halhead, the other son of Joyce's brother, was also apprenticed through the Clockmakers' Company as a clockmaker to Thomas Birch junior in 1694. Thomas Birch had been trained by, and worked for, the Clyatts, who were also masters of Edward Orton, who later married Robert Williamson's daughter, Mary. This extremely complex circle of relationships links most of these clockmakers to Robert Williamson, from whose lead in the clock trade came these many other clockmakers.

Left view of the Robert Williamson clock
2. This view shows the divided trains, indicating that the clock was made originally with a centre verge pendulum swinging between the trains, a convenient layout leaving space for the alarmwork outside the backplate. Decorated hammer stop. Backplate replaced. Click for closer view.

But Robert Williamson's own sister, Margaret, had married at North Scarle in Lincolnshire back in 1675 to Robert Rayner, and they too had several children, Dove (named after her father of course), John and Stephen and each of these was apprenticed into the clockmaking trade through the Clockmakers' Company - John Rayner in 1688 to John Sudbury, Stephen also to John Sudbury and Dove Rayner in 1693 to Thomas Darlow. Thomas Darlow was an engraver and the husband of Robert Williamson's daughter, Elizabeth, and he later trained his own son, Jeremiah Darlow, in the same trade. Dove Rayner worked on as a clockmaker in St. Dunstan's parish in Stepney till he died in 1743. Dove Rayner seems to have been the only one of the Rayner side of the family to have prospered. When he died in 1743 in London he left three estates, two in Staffordshire and one in Buckinghamshire, as well as considerable monies to his widow and only daughter.

Another of Robert Williamson's daughters, Mary, had married in 1691 to Edward Orton, yet another clockmaker, though with an unusual background. He had been apprenticed in 1680 to Samuel (and Abraham) Clyatt, but on account of some illness or perhaps disability had been obliged to leave, as he was 'not able to do him any service by some infirmity in his limbs'. Despite this disability Edward seems to have continued in the clock trade, though his marriage to Mary Williamson was short-lived, for only eighteen months later, in 1692, we find that she had died and he re-married as a widower. He continued in the clock business and there is an intriguing mention of him in the Clockmakers' Company accounts when in 1708 he claimed he could not serve as Steward because he was going out of town on the Queen's business, its nature unspecified but he claimed the same again in 1709. The will of an Edward Orton, gentleman, of London proved in 1718 looked interesting. In fact this is the same Edward Orton but the will provided little information other than that he left everything to his wife, as 'I have no child, brother or sister or any other near relative'. We remain no wiser as to the business he undertook for the Queen, but somehow the invalid clockmaker 'not able to do any service' had become a gentleman!

Robert Williamson's nephew, Thomas Halhead (the son of the brother of his wife Joyce), had been trained as his apprentice and later went on to work in his own right. He died aged 40 in 1718, leaving a widow Mary but no children. Michael Williamson, Robert's son and Thomas's cousin, was a witness to his will.

As for Michael Williamson, Robert's only son if we exclude the runaway Dove Williamson in Spain, he was made free in the Clockmakers' Company in October 1714 by patrimony. This means he had not served an apprenticeship in the clock trade but was permitted to be a freeman in that company by virtue of the fact that his father had been one. It is strange that Michael does not seem to have followed the clock trade, whereas almost every other male relative did. He married in 1714 to Mary Pugsley and died in 1719 in Mark Lane, described as a 'merchant' and aged only thirty seven and childless. I have a copy of his will, dated 1717, which is enlightening. His sister Elizabeth Darlow, widow of Thomas Darlow the engraver, is still alive and gets a token bequest of one shilling - probably because she had inherited sufficient from her late husband. He left £50 to his spinster sister Winifred 'for her assisting me and living with me'. But the icing on the cake for me was that he left one shilling to 'my welbeloved brother Dove Williamson one shilling, he owing me and my sisters one thousand pounds due to us from my dear father, and if he pays them the balance due, I give him my part'. So the rogue brother, Dove, never did pay up, and was probably still in sunny Madrid with his thousand pounds, while his sisters were living in poverty.

Top plate view of the Robert  Williamson clock
3. The top plate view shows the anchor escapement and the empty holes where the verge pendulum cocks were positioned. Click for closer view.

When Winifred made her will in 1747 she was sixty seven years old and living in Banbury in very restrained conditions, perhaps having at one time lived in one of the Banbury houses her father had left. She left a petticoat here, a pair of bed sheets there, some curtains there, all pathetic possessions. Things had come to a pretty pass when she had to count up such trivia, even down to 'all my coal and wood and fewel'. Anything else, which cannot have been much, she left to her remaining sister, widowed Elizabeth Darlow, the executrix, who still lived in Clerkenwell, London. Four days after Elizabeth took out probate on Winifred's will, she wrote her own, perhaps mindful of the fact that she was seventy. She lived with a friend, Anna Bayley, and Anna's samename daughter. Presumably none of her own children was still living, as she left everything to the friend, Anna Bayley, the mother, 'if she is still living', which sounds as if Anna's future was equally uncertain. Within nine months Elizabeth was dead. Robert Williamson family was totally extinct.

As a result of Robert Williamson's becoming a clockmaker no less than nine other clockmakers followed in the family. They were:
His brother Thomas Williamson.
His three nephews Dove, John and Stephen Rayner, children of his sister Margaret and her husband Robert Rayner.
His nephew Thomas Halhead, son of his wife's brother, Thomas Halhead.
His son in law Edward Orton, husband of his daughter Mary.
His son in law Thomas Darlow, the engraver husband of his daughter, Elizabeth, and their son, Jeremiah Darlow

Then there was the son of William Longland, a farmer in Fulbeck, a village which never ran to its own clockmaker. The youth, John Longland, was apprenticed in London as a clockmaker in 1667, the year after Robert Williamson completed his term, and this apprenticeship must surely have been inspired by the fact that an older Fulbeck lad had visited home telling of the success he had met with in London. In all nine clockmakers followed on from Robert Williamson's lead.

The family which originated from a well-to-do clergyman, through a prosperous craftsman, who was amongst the leading London clockmakers of the day, were reduced to rags in three generations. What became of Dove Williamson in Spain I do not know, but let's hope he met with a sticky end.

This article was first published in Clocks Magazine.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes

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