History of Longcase “Grandfather” Clocks

“Until the 1670s, longcase clocks were mostly made in London,” says Dr Firth. “The northern influence grew stronger when London makers switched their attention to bracket clocks.”

Soon there were 2,000 makers throughout the county. Every town had their own – six in Wetherby, 40 in Leeds, 30 in Wakefield and 20 to 30 in York. Halifax and Hebden Bridge, lying on the route through from Lancashire and open to new clock-making ideas, were key players in grandfather clock development.

The economic attraction was the number of potential employees involved. To make a clock required a classic division of labour. You needed a specialist woodworker to fashion the hood, trunk and base – coffin-makers saw the chance to employ their skills here. Dr Firth has one of their early efforts from about 1670 – it’s fairly crudely fashioned with an adze and the sides are not square.

Also required in making the product was a dial maker, a movement maker, someone to provide the gut for the suspended weight locksmiths and finishers. The clockmaker, whose name was engraved or painted on the dial, was the man who co-ordinated all this and was the instigator of ideas and business plans.

A typical Yorkshire longcase clock of the 1770s, such as those made by Ewbank of Elland, has a tall and elegant case usually made of oak, standing on a rectangular base. The hood houses a 12-inch painted dial. These were cheaper and more fashionable than simple brass and easier to read. But the glory of this business was in the flowering of local ingenuity and tastes. “There’s no standard clock, everyone had their own quirkiness. That’s part of the beauty. In 1770, you had the advent of the white dial which could be painted on. Whitby makers might do a picture of a boat.”

Thomas Lister, from Luddenden, whose clockmaking dynasty began in the 1760s, was in demand for the smiling moon engraved on his dials. Roberts of Otley was renowned for dials engraved with charming images of rural scenes.

In an early form of diversification, enterprising farmers saw clocks as a way to supplement agricultural earnings. William Snow of Padside, near Pateley Bridge, was one such in the 1780s. Many of the men were Quakers, like Thomas Ogden of Ripponden, who made a clock with a dial which said “wind me on Mondays” (Sundays were strictly for worship). David Firth is proud of the Quaker connection. “At the time, they could not go into the established professions, they were barred from medicine or law. Quakers took their skills into other things and they did well because they were honest traders.”

By Dr David Firth

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