Watch- and clockmakers

Industrial Developments in the North West of England

A study of occupations in church records (registered for christenings and marriages) and in census returns reflects changes in the industrial structure of Farnworth, Widnes and the surrounding area. Before the mid-16th century, occupations were agrarian – husbandman, blacksmith – and most people worked on farms and estates. From mid- 16th century until the second half of the 19th century, we find many watchmakers. Then as the chemical and metal industries developed from mid-19th century onwards, occupations such as coopers (barrelmakers) linked to the new industries became common.

The Horological Industry in the 17th and 18th centuries

Watchmaking was an important industry in Lancashire, at its height employing over 21 000 people according to Dennis Moore of the Prescot Clock- and Watch Museum. Prescot, together with Liverpool, was the centre of the Lancashire horological (watch-making) industry.

Watch Sample
Watch Sample

Watch-making was introduced into Prescot c.1600 by a Huguenot refugee from France called Woolrich. The skills were easily picked-up by the town’s blacksmiths. Originally it was a cottage industry, where the work of making the parts and assembling these into clocks and watches was carried out at home. Certain families were well-known for specific watch parts. The man who was responsible for the collection of the various parts and assembling them into a running timepiece got the honour of engraving his name on the back plate.

Watchmaker's Workshop, Prescot
Watchmaker’s Workshop, Prescot

The town had hundreds of small workshops (above) where either parts were made, or where watches were constructed from parts organised within an assembly tray (below).

Assembly Tray for Watchmaking
Watchmaker’s Assembly Tray

One commentator notes that, “From Prescott to Liverpool, eight miles as the crow flies, the countryside was dotted with the cottages of spring makers, wheel cutters, chain makers, case makers, dial makers – every speciality that went into the making of a watch.” By the end of the 18th century between 150,000 and 200,000 watches a year were being produced by this system, satisfying the national need for accurate timekeeping as the industrial revolution took hold.

The crafts which had flourished during the previous century were very much dependent upon skilled craftsmen, and were not able to compete with those employing the latest mass production techniques. Faced with a similar situation the Lancashire Watch Company was founded in 1889. This sought to put the skilled workers relating to all of the processes involved in the manufacturing of watches under one roof.

Tool Room at Lancashire Watchmakers
Tool Room at Lancashire Watchmakers

Unfortunately the Lancashire Watch Company was unable to compete against the American and Swiss manufacturers and finally closed in 1910.

Sources: Fred Swart, Stephen Foreman, Prescot Museum, Dennis Moore, Knowsley History and Ian Dewar.

Read Ian Dewar’s article on Thomas Russell and the Lancashire Watchmaking Industry here.

Abbotts in the Clock-and Watchmaking Industry

Many Abbotts worked in the watch- and clockmaking industry in the 19th century. Occupations frequently found in census and church records for Abbotts include clockmaker and watchmaker, watch movement maker, watch movement polisher, watchmaker-polisher, watch pinion maker, watch fuzee maker, watchmaker (barrel & fuze).

Here are some Abbott watchmakers from my family tree:

  •     Nathan Abbott, born 1733 watchmaker with apprentices, John Gerrard 1770 and Daniel Whitfield 1771
  •     Thomas Abbott, born 1763 watchmaker employed two apprentices in 1796
  •     John Abbott, b 1777, watchmaker (my gggg grandfather)
  •     John Abbott born 1801, watch movement maker, Peel House Lane. (my ggg grandfather)
  •     John Abbott born 1828, watch movement polisher in 1851 census, age 23 and in 1871 census (my gg grandfather).

Watchmaking was a cottage industry and the journeyman* watchmakers often employed apprentices, including their own family – wife, daughters and sons. Above we see three generations of Abbott watchmakers. By 1871 few of the Abbotts remained in the watchmaking business, but great great grandfather John was still going strong.

*A journeyman is someone who has completed an apprenticeship and is fully educated in a trade or craft, but not yet a master. To become a master, a journeyman has to submit a master work piece to a guild for evaluation and be admitted to the guild as a master.

Read more about the Abbott family watchmakers here.