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Moments In Time

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The History of Coventry Watchmaking...

  • Origins of the Trade
  • The Peak Period of Coventry's Watchmaking
  • Statistics

The origin of the watch industry in Coventry is very obscure due to the lack of documentary evidence. One can only conjecture as to why Coventry became the third watchmaking centre after London and Liverpool.

In its heyday the industry enjoyed great prosperity but there were also recessions which resulted in periods of deep poverty. Nothing is unique about that in an industrial society. What happened to the Coventry watch industry has since happened to other Coventry industries with a similar impact on their workers.

What one can be sure of is that there were a few clockmakers working in Coventry prior to the 1750's. It is known that Coventry, due in part to its geographical location, had for a long time been sited at a cross-roads where goods were manufactured, exchanged and dispatched to all parts of the country.

This made it a suitable place to start an industry which was no doubt stimulated by the technical advances made over a period of time in the clockmaking and watchmaking fields. Some of the most important of these developments throughout Europe are shown below:
  • 1450 - Mainspring introduced
  • 1450 - Fusee introduced
  • 1540 - Screws first used in Germany
  • 1584 - Gallileo's pendulum theory
  • 1590 - Screws first used in England
  • 1600 - First pocket watch
  • 1610 - Watch glasses introduced
  • 1620 - Gut replaced by chain on fusee
  • 1640 - Enamelled dials introduced
  • 1674 - Hairsprings first introduced
  • 1694 - Jewel bearings introduced
These developments might well have contributed to the expectation and demand from wealthy gentry for a portable timepiece, i.e. a pocket watch. Demand has always created the momentum for an industry to expand.

From the records that do exist we are aware of several early Coventry clock and watchmakers. Samuel Watson was sheriff of Coventry in 1686 and was reputed to have built a clock that not only told the time of day but also showed the positions of the planets and signs of the zodiac.

In 1695 John Carte, a watchmaker from Coventry, was working in Lombard Street, London. John Patson and Joseph Huet maintained the clocks in the Market Place, Cross Cheaping and the Grammar School. Huet was paid 20 shillings in 1669 for making a balance wheel and spindle for the school clock. New clocks were provided at the school and New Gate around 1680, the former being made by Benjamin Brockhurst who was elected Mayor in 1708. In 1745 and 1753 George Potter, a watchmaker, was Mayor of Coventry and in fact died in office during 1753.
Heritage Plaque of Rotheram's Offices

In 1747 the firm of Vale was established, Samuel Vale serving as Mayor on several separate occasions. The firm subsequently became Vale & Howlette, then Vale, Howlette, Carr & Rotherham. Richard Kevitt Rotherham was a former apprentice of the firm which eventually became Rotherham & Sons. Rotherhams went on to become the major employer and manufacturer and came to enjoy an international reputation. By 1899 they employed 400 - 500 people plus about 200 outworkers and produced 100 watches a day.

By the 19th century other watchmakers enjoyed the prominence of holding office as constables. There were 7 serving as constables in 1802, 9 in 1813, 13 in 1819 and 13 in 1824. The period of greatest expansion of the industry was between 1830 and 1850. In 1851, 2000 people were employed in the watch trade. The great majority were small craftsmen specialising in one aspect of the trade but there were 21 larger manufacturers employing 631 people between them.

This information is from Moments in Time - The History of the Coventry Watch Industry - Volume 1

Although watchmaking in Coventry enjoyed a peak period from about 1850 - 1890, cheaper watches from America and Switzerland began to appear. The American factory-made watches were produced using jigs and gauges, with the result that parts were interchangeable. They also used a standard design, adding extra refinements to a basic model to give a series of watches of varying quality. The methods they used cut production costs considerably and also assisted after-sales service.

In 1887 the Coventry Technical Institute in Earl Street offered courses in horology under local watchmakers such as Player, Rotherham, Bonniksen and Fridlander. These courses included history, theory, geometry and technical drawing in addition to the usual practical work. This was an attempt to provide a broader based training compared with the old apprenticeship system, so that watches could be designed on the drawing board instead of being made individually thus solving the problems of manufacture as work progressed.
Coventry Watch

Rotherhams were already established on machine lines, but still used a considerable amount of hand fitting and finishing. This was time consuming and therefore expensive. In 1880 they felt the need to purchase machinery from America in order to become more competitive. Other factory units emerged in the city as watchmakers banded together fighting to survive against the flood of cheaper watches from Europe and America. Firms such as Errington, later to become Williamson, The Coventry Co-operative Watch Manufacturing Society and the Coventry Watch Movement Company all produced factory made watches of varying qualities and flourished briefly before yielding to fierce pressure from competitors.

This information is from 'Moments in Time - The History of the Coventry Watch Industry - Volume 1'

By 1907, English production of watches had slumped to a mere 74,000 (see Table 1)
Table 1: Watch Production Figures
Year English Continental/Swiss* American
1800 200,000 200,000 -
1850 200,000 2,000,000 -
1862 164,000 2,500,000 50,000
1872 145,000 3,000,000 400,000
1882 227,000 3,500,000 1,250,000
1892 204,000 4,500,000 2,250,000
1902 226,000 6,000,000 2,750,000
* For 1800 and 1850 the Continental/Swiss figures are for Switzerland only.
1862-1902 figures from The Coventry Standard, 15 April 1903

Table 2: Coventry Census Figures
Year Population Watchmakers - Male Watchmakers - Female
1861 49,936 1,943 43
1871 39,474 2,368 74
1881 45,116 .. ..
1891 53,004 3,032 534
.. Figures are not available

This information is from Moments in Time - The History of the Coventry Watch Industry - Volume 1