On the ground floor of the Guildhall in the City of London, you’ll discover the Clockmakers’ Museum.
Looking at the development of time-keeping in the UK, and the history of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, the collection has been in development since 1814, and contains over 600 examples of watches, several fine long-case clocks, ship’s chronometers and even a sundial or two. Displays record the development of clock and watch making in London since as early as the 17th century with a series of cabinets that follow its history through the years – you’ll discover, for example, that clock-making in London began to flourish between 1666 and 1700 as highly skilled immigrants fleeing France arrived in the capital. You’ll also learn about Thomas Tompion, the ‘father of English clockmaking’, who produced clocks for three monarchs – Charles II, William III and Queen Anne. London was at the centre of the world’s watch production by 1800 – assembling watches from parts sourced in Lancashire, London’s watchmakers were producing 200,000 expertly crafted and hand-made units per year. This proved to be their downfall however – by the middle of the century mass-produced and relatively cheap watches from Switzerland, Germany, France and the United States wbegan to flood the market, despite attempts to impose heavy tariffs on imports.
One of the displays in the Clockmakers’ Museum covers the strong connection between London’s craftsmen and marine timekeeping. Accurate chronometers were a key asset in the British Empire’s domination of the oceans for centuries, so much so that the British Navy at Greenwich devised several competitions to encourage the manufacture of the most accurate timepieces possible – ‘premium trials’ were held where the winning makers were awarded a handsome cash prize, while ‘annual trials’ determined which company’s chronometers would go into service with the Navy for the following year. The most attractive displays in the museum are dedicated to the French however, and the ornately decorated fob watches by makers such as Cardinaux, Dimier, Lepine and Gautrin – the exquisite enamels and piercing on these objects is absolutely breath-taking. Many of these objects belong to the Nelthropp Collection – the Reverend Henry Nelthropp donated his entire collection of 200 items to the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in 1894. At that time the collection was valued at over £2000, an astonishing sum.
The display I found most interesting features unconventional timepieces. These include items such as Pasqual Andervale’s hydrogen-powered clock, a catamaran (a fireship’s fuse) made by John Brockbank in the late 1700s, and one of the three Mary Queen of Scot’s ‘skull’ watches, with this particular example apparently having been handed to Mary Seton, one of her handmaids, as the Queen waited for the executioner to lop off her head! Before leaving the museum you should also take the time to look at the cabinet dedicated to one of the recent Masters of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, Dr George Daniels CBE, who died just last year. He was responsible for creating an entirely new type of watch mechanism, the ‘Daniels Coaxial Escapement’, which represented the first real change in watch design for over 70 years – today you’ll find his escapement in the finest watches from companies such as Omega and Patek Philippe.
Entry to the Clockmakers’ Museum is entirely free of charge, and their opening hours are 9:30am to 4:45pm, Mondays thru Saturdays, except public holidays. Do consider a donation however – these help to fund the awards that are given to young clockmakers to encourage them to perpetuate these very rare skills, and to keep the museum itself running. Given the riches inside it would be terrible to see it go the way of the Worshipful Company of Playing Card Makers, whose products only warrant a small cabinet in the hallway outside…
Most of my visits come with a caveat, and there are two small ones when it comes to visiting the Clockmakers’ Museum – I was surprised to find that only one of the longcase clocks was wound and chiming. I suppose I was expecting the museum to be full of the sounds of ticking and whirring clocks – a bit of a shame really, because it would have made the visit all the more atmospheric. There’s also absolutely no photography of any kind allowed inside. Not being able to illustrate my posts with interesting images always comes as a disappointment, both for you and for me.