The British Watch and Clockmaking Company

Example of a British Watch and Clockmakers Company watch

In 1800 Britain produced around half of the world’s watches, however by 1840 for every one English watch sold the Swiss were able to sell ten. In an attempt to remedy this situation, in 1842 the British Watch and Clockmaking Company was founded at 75 Dean Street in Soho, with the aim of mass producing watches with interchangeable and replaceable parts. The ultimate goal was to regain a lot of the ground Britain had lost as a centre of horology.

 

watch-engraving

An engraving of a self-branded British Watch and Clockmaking Company movement

Curiously it was a Swiss national, Pierre Frederic Ingold (1787-1878), that aroused this nationalist feeling when he came to Britain with the idea of building such a company. He had already tried and failed in both France and Switzerland to inspire the same enthusiasm, and indeed a venture had started in Paris in 1838, but less than a year later he found himself running away to London chased by stories of slander and bankruptcy.

With him, Ingold brought an array of inventions and machinery. His dream, and despite not being able to speak English one that he was able to convince many of, was the ability for these machines to produce 300 watches a day; up to 100,000 a year, which at that time was half of Britain’s total output. All of this was promised to be completed under one roof, and importantly the machines would only require unskilled workers to operate.

There was a set of 25 machines for each production line, each one performing its own specialised task. It was claimed that each set of machines would replace 150 men. Due to the mechanised production processes the speed of watch manufacture was expected to be not only faster, but up to 30% cheaper than the hand-made methods in use by the rest of the industry.

british-watch2

Mission statement of the British Watch and Clockmaking Company

To begin this venture, some of the best and brightest of England’s watchmaking industry were involved. Many influential scientists of the time, including Charles Babbage who would later go on to invent the world’s first computer, were called in to vouch for the ingenuity of the machinery.

It is a modern idea of a watchmaker as a lone figure in a darkened workshop. The more realistic view is that these were entreprenuers and industrialists who just happened to be in watch business. Ingold’s idea to produce watches in such a quantity and for such profit – they promised a net return of 30% of investment per year – was very appealing.

John Barwise and Thomas Earnshaw Junior took up the positions of operations directors. They were flanked by Anthony Vieres, Thomas Hewitt, Sigsmund Rentsch and Mr Addison who served with them on a supervisory board. The Dukes of Chatelherault, Brandon and Hamilton offered their patronage, and some 84 British companies had committed themselves as agencies. Ingold was to serve as the superintendent.

Their first task was to raise the required capital of £250,000. This is around £9 million in today’s money ($14 million). A considerable amount, but with regard to the potential rewards and based on their support, a sum that should have been within their reach. After their hope of reaching this sum, they had ambition that a further £250,000 could be raised soon afterwards.

Example of a British Watch and Clockmakers Company watch

The movements produced were slim and compact for the time, but were still of a high quality. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

But it was their scale of ambition that was to be their undoing. Britain had an established watch industy that relied upon small groups of highly skilled and specialised craftsmen working by hand creating precise and expensive timepieces. The idea that machines could put them out of work terrified them and they viewed such mass-manufacture desires with great hostility. The British Watch and Clockmaking Company therefore posed a huge risk to their livelihood and they grouped together, notably under the banner of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, to make sure it would not succeed. They too were entrepreneurs and industrialists, but their labour was done mostly by hand using time-honoured designs and techniques.

So they petitioned parliament to try and halt this mass-manufacturing monstrocity before it could get started. They succeeded, and the British Watch and Clockmaking Company was denied the ability to raise the capital they required. You can read the fascinating story of the House of Commons Debate here.

Example of a British Watch and Clockmakers watch sold by the retailer William Wagstaff

Some of the ebauche movements manufactured by the British Watch and Clockmaking Company were purchased by independent retailers, such as William Wagstaff, who would then sell it as their own. Interestingly one of the incomplete ebauche movements held by the British Museum has a completed and branded dial already made, which would suggest that bespoke dial making was a part of the operation being completed at Dean Street as a service to their retail agencies. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

Undeterred the company went ahead anyway, perhaps in the hope that they could make their money back sooner, or maybe they thought that they had come so far and promised too much to give up at this point. We know that they did produce watches; a piece from the May 1890 edition of the Horological Journal states “Watches in large numbers, and to a high degree of merit, were for a time produced”. In the Summer edition of the Antiquarian Horology of 1990, R.F Carrington, who has completed most of the known research into the company, believes that the total amount of watches manufactured was between 2000-2500.

The miraculous inventions were just not able to churn out as many as they had hoped. It appears that the mass-produced machined parts still required the time-consuming, and expensive, efforts of finishing by hand.

The enterprise was further hindered by the fact that one of the founding members, John Barwise, died soon after the House of Commons debate. It would be romantic to think that he died of a broken heart, but he was already 86 years old and so it was likely to have been a coincidence. His son, also named John, took over his responsibilities.

They struggled on for 3 years until 1845 when they ran out of capital and closed for good. It seems the company petered out as the initially enthusiastic backers started to withdraw their support.

Despite the company’s name, it is not thought that they ever expanded into clockmaking.

So why did the company fail? There are four main reasons:

  1. The opposition from the established trade
  2. The lack of capital
  3. Unproven methods of manufacture
  4. The claims of cost, output and reward were seen as too prodigious and fantastical at the time
british-watch1

from the prospectus of the British Watch and Clockmaking Company – 1842

After the company closed Thomas Earnshaw Jr. went back to selling his father’s chronometers, and Pierre-Frederick Ingold, now bankrupt, travelled to America in the hope that this new nation might be more open-minded to his ideas.

It is frustrating to have had Britain’s last major hope of the 19th Century battered so brutally. With the aid of hindsight the extreme miopia of the established industry is all too evident. The people that thought they were saving the British watchmaking industry were the ones who ended up destroying it. The world-wide watchmaking industry had changed, the method of manufacture had changed and the customer had changed. British watchmakers were still excellent at what they did; but the common man did not want to buy what they made, and they stubournly refused to adapt. Both America and Switzerland were able to view the situation with fresher eyes that were not clouded by hundreds of years of tradition and pride. They gave people what they wanted; cheap and reliable watches.

50 years after the company’s closure, Britain sought again to break into the market of mass-manufactured watches, and looked to successful American companies as their model. Ironically these American companies were setup using designs of machines and methods that are now largely credited to Pierre-Frederick Ingold’s efforts and ideas.

Charles Darwin I am sure could have used the episode as a prime example of evolution in action. Like the Woolly Mammoth, the British Watchmakers were grand, proud and majestic. But they were from a time that had passed and as soon as competition arrived they retreated to their strongholds, battened down the hatches and tried to continue as normal. They wished the ice would return and these new antagonists would retreat, but it did not and one by one they died out.

Never would there be quite so much promise of a British watchmaking revival. The whole episode with the British Watch and Clockmaking Company only entrenched the established workshops in their protectionist Luddite beliefs. In 1858 the British Horological Institute was founded with the purpose of protecting what little there was left.

Bad luck, resentment and obscurity hounded the restless Pierre-Frederick Ingold until he died in 1878. His idea of mass-manufactured machined watches would live on however, and both America and Switzerland’s stories of factory built timepieces for the professional classes can be traced back to his industrious ingenuity.

75-deanstreet

75 Dean Street today, once the home of the British Watch and Clockmaking Company. The building was completed in 1735 and in the Post Office census of 1841, a year before the BWCC started, it is written that the building was the home of a distillery. It is noticable in that the windows, even 170 years later, are larger and wider than any of the surrounding buildings. Natural light being one of the prerequisites of a watchmaking workshop.

5 Responses

  1. Peter says:

    Wow, De Lane Lea ! This name does ring a bell…
    That’s where Hendrix, The Stones, Queen and many others went to record their songs !

  2. Jack Chapman says:

    Hi

    I work for Nutopia, a television company in London. My team is producing a landmark documentary series about innovation for PBS and the BBC and I have just read your fascinating article about the history of British clock and watchmaking.

    I was hoping you could send me some suggestions for papers to read, especially around your statement that in 1800, Britain was producing half of the world’s watches.

    If you could get back to me on my email address, your help would be very much appreciated.

    Kind Regards

    Jack

    • Colin Colin says:

      Hi Jack,

      Thanks for your message.

      I would be happy to help give any information you are after. I have a number of different sources, some mentioned in the article, and other material taken directly from the British Museum’s archives.

      I will scan and send you the details.

      Regards

      Colin

  3. Ralph says:

    Colin, your image of the face above, with the legend :-

    ‘The movements produced were slim and compact for the time, but were still of a high quality. Image © Trustees of the British Museum’

    has a date of 1810 but in the article, you write Ingold didn’t get the company going until 1842. Why the discrepancy?

    Great website, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed browsing through your articles.

    • Colin Colin says:

      Hi Ralph,

      Thanks for your comment!

      The “date” of 1810 is in fact the serial number of the watch so there’s no discrepancy. Some watch manufacturers put the same serial number on the dial, movement and case so that they can both be correctly paired up when assembled, and also later buyer will know if the part are all original or replacements with a different serial number.

      Colin

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