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Rural Clockmaking in Eighteenth-Century Wales: Samuel Roberts of Llanfair Caereinion, 1755–1774

  • Alun C. Davies (a1)


With the recent publication of David S. Landes's Revolution in Time (1983) the business of clockmaking has begun to receive the scholarly attention that its historical significance warrants. In this finely etched case study, Mr. Davies draws on a remarkable business record—Samuel Roberts's Register of Clocks—to document a previously obscure chapter in the history of this frequently neglected business: the crafting, sale, and distribution of grandfather clocks in eighteenth-century rural Wales. And if, as Landes contends, “the consumption of timepieces may well be the best proxy measure of modernization,” then Davies's study illuminates a key development in the rise of the modern world.



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1 The quotation in the précis is from Landes, David S., Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 325. The epigraph is from Loomes, Brian, Country Clock-makers and their London Origins (Newton Abbot, 1976).

The original manuscript of Roberts's Register is in private possession, but the Welsh Folk Museum, St. Fagans, Cardiff, Wales, has two photographic facsimiles, one made in the 1930s, the other in the 1970s. The Museum's late curator, Peate, Iorwerth C., described the Register briefly in “Two Montgomeryshire Craftsmen,” Montgomeryshire Collections 48 (1943): 35, and in Clocks and Watch Makers in Wales (Llandysul, 1945; rev. ed. 1975), 21–22, 74, 93. An illustration and some extracts from Peate's account were repeated in Edwardes, Ernest L., The Grandfather Clock: An Historical and Descriptive Treatise on the English Long Case, with Notes on Some Scottish, Welsh, and Irish Examples (Altrincham, 1949; 3d ed. 1971), 4243, Plate 194. See also Loomes, 78–89.

2 Pryce, W. T. R., “Samuel Roberts, Farmer Who Made Clocks,” Country Quest (Feb. 1980): 911, notes the discovery of movement number 592, dated 1786, which seems to be the last made and signed by Roberts. Clocks surviving from the late 1770s are sometimes inscribed “Roberts and Son.”

3 Notably the business records of Thwaites and Reed, of Clerkenwell and Bowling Green Lane, London, running from 1780 to 1955; and Victor Kullberg, Liverpool Road, London, running from 1868 to 1943. See Bromley, John, comp., The Clockmakers' Library: The Catalogue of the Books and Manuscripts in the Library of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers (London, 1977), nos. 10001034, 1045–62.

4 Bunt, E. F., “An Eighteenth Century Watchmaker and His Day-book,” Antiquarian Horology 8 (1973): 175–82.

5 “John Hoff His Book of New Clocks Made and Sold” is reprinted as an appendix to Wood, Stacy B. C. Jr., “The Hoff Family: Master Clockmakers of Lancaster Borough,” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society 81 (1977): 169225. See also Wood, Stacy B. C. Jr., and Kramer, Stephen E., Clockmakers of Lancaster County and Their Clocks, 1750–1850 (New York, 1977), and Sweinhart, Fred C., “Early Pennsylvania Clocks and Their Makers,” Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania 3 (1941): 48.

6 Albright, Frank P., Johan Ludwig Eberhardt and his Salem Clocks (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1978), 6368.

7 Loomes, Brian, The White Dial Clocks (Newton Abbot, 1974).

8 Colyer, Richard J., The Welsh Cattle Drovers (Cardiff, 1976), 101, 131; Jenkins, J. Geraint, The Welsh Woollen Industry (Cardiff, 1969), 116ff; and Sylvester, Dorothy, The Rural Landscape of the Welsh Borderland: A Study in Historical Geography (London, 1969), 447–48.

9 Estimates are based on Williams, David, “A Note on the Population of Wales, 1536–1801,” Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 8 (1937): 359–63.

10 Hancock, Thomas W., “Parochial History of Llanfair Caereinion: Additions,” Montgomeryshire Collections 18 (1885): 361–62, and Humphreys, Charles H., “Llanfair Caereinion in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Montgomeryshire Collections 48 (1944): 143.

11 The tithe map and apportionment books of 1842 give the landlord as the Earl of Powys, and the tenant as Samuel Roberts (son of the clockmaker). In 1842 Pant-y-Tanhouse had a total holding of eighty-eight acres, two rods, twenty-three perches, and contained mixed arable land and pastureland. See National Library of Wales, Tithe Map 1842: “A Map of Heniarth … in the Parish of Llanfair in the County of Montgomery; Llanfair Parish in Seven Parts; No. 3.”

12 Murphy, J. J., “Entrepreneurship in the Establishment of the American Clock Industry,” Journal of Economic History 26 (1966): 169–86.

13 Thompson, E. P., “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present 38 (1967): 70, cites an example in Sussex, where twenty customers clubbed together to pay twenty installments of 5s. each, drawing lots for one £5 timepiece. See also Ponsford, C. N., Time in Exeter (Exeter, 1978), 128, and Loomes, Country Clocks, 88–89.

14 While Roberts offered one basic model in two variations, with some extras, other part-time clock-makers seem rarelv to have made two clocks the same. See Setchell, J. R. M., “The Friendship of John Smeaton, F.R.S., with Henry Hindley, instrument and Clockmaker of York …,” Notes and Records, Royal Society of London 25 (1970): 81.

15 Edwardes, Grandfather Clock, 11–14.

16 Dodd, A. H., The Industrial Revolution in North Wales (Cardiff, 1933, 3d ed., 1971), 329.

17 Evans, E. Estyn, “Historical Geography of the Shropshire-Montgomeryshire Borderland,” Montgomeryshire Collections 10 (1929): 130.

18 The modest two-hander, number 265, which Roberts made for 54s. in 1767, has an oak case with an elaborate marquetry of inlaid holly and bog oak. See Plate 5 (a) of Peate, Clock and Watch Makers in Wales, and Plate 194 of Edwardes, Grandfather Clock.

19 Map 1 and Table 3 were compiled bv locating place names on the following Ordnance Survev Sheets: (i) 125, 126, 136; 1:50,000, first series; (ii) S.J. 00, 01, 10, 11; scale 2½ inches to 1 mile (1952); Sheet 40: Montgomery: Scale 1 inch to 1 mile (David and Charles facsimile, 1970 reprint of survey started in early 1800s and completed in 1830). See also Davies, Elwyn, ed., A Gazetteer of Welsh Place Names (Cardiff, 1957), and Thomas Morgan, The Place Names of Wales (2d rev. ed., 1912), 224–35. It is impossible to be precise about some places, either because the entry is incomplete (“Pant-v-“) or because some place names (Pentre, Bwlch, Cwm, Bryn, Allt, etc.) are common to most Welsh localities, often as informal local abbreviations. Where it seems reasonable to allocate these to places in the neighborhood of Llanfair Caereinion, this has been done.

21 The addition of a trade or place name to a surname helps to discriminate among the handful of well-established classic Welsh surnames; the Register contains twenty-one customers by the name of Davies, twenty-three Evanses, twelve Lloyds, sixteen Morrises, twenty-one Thomases, and fully thirty-eight Joneses. See also Morris, T. E., “Welsh Surnames in the Border Counties of Wales,” Y Cymmrodor 43 (1932): 93ff.

22 Humphreys, Charles H., “The Trade and Industries of Llanfair Caereinion a Hundred Years Ago,” Montgomeryshire Collections 46 (1940): 107–10.

23 National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth: Will of Samuel Roberts, 1 February 1800, proved before the Ecclesiastical Court of the Diocese of St. Asaph, 17 June 1801. Unfortunately the will does not have an inventory attached; it simply declared that “my working tools in the Shop” were to go to one of Roberts's sons, Lewis. For annual budgets, see Dodd, Industrial Revolution in North Wales, 335–36.

24 Landes, David S., “Watchmaking: A Case Study in Enterprise and Change,” Business History Review 53 (spring 1979): 139, esp. 5–12; Davies, Alun C., “The Life and Death of a Scientific Instrument: The Marine Chronometer, 1770–1920,” Annals of Science 35 (1978): 509–25.

25 Loomes, Country Clocks, 54ff.

26 Compiled from list in Peate, Clock and Watch Makers in Wales, 31–89.

27 See Lee, Ronald A., “Early Pendulum Clocks,” Antiquarian Horology 11 (1978): 146ff, and Mahoney, Michael S., “Christiaan Huygens: The Measurement of Time and of Longitude at Sea,” in Studies on Christiaan Huygens, ed. Bos, H. J. M. et al. (Lisse, Holland, 1980), 236–38.

28 Hartley, J., “The Thirty-Hour Key Wound Long Case Clock,” Antiquarian Horology 11 (1978): 3334. For Hooke's contribution see Symonds, R. W., Thomas Tompion: His Life and Work (London, 1951), 14, 112–13, and Gunther, R. T., The Life and Work of Robert Hooke (Oxford, 1930), 69.

29 Noted between entries for clocks 170 and 171 in the Register.

30 Dodd, Industrial Revolution in North Wales, 158, 169, 185, 309; Lewis, W. J., “Lead Mining in Eastern Montgomeryshire in 1751,” Montgomeryshire Collections, 58 (19631964): 114–24.

31 Willan, T. S., Abraham Dent: An Eighteenth Century Shopkeeper (1970), 3637.

32 See “A Thirty Hours Clock, with a Larum and Count-Wheel Striking Work,” s.v. “Clock” in vol. 8 (1819) and the illustration, s.v. “Horology” in vol. 2 (plates) (1820), of Abraham Rees, Cyclopaedia. The articles describe tools and methods similar to those used by Roberts; they were originally published in 1807–8: see Harte, N. B., “Rees' Clocks, Watches, Chronometers and Naval Architecture: A Note,” Maritime History 3 (1973): 9295. For the development of wheel-cutting engines and their spread in the late eighteenth century, see Weiss, Leonard, Watchmaking in England, 1760–1820 (London, 1982), 153–75.

33 Ashton, T. S., An Eighteenth Century Industrialist:Peter Stubs of Warrington, 1756–1806 (Manchester, 1939), 60. See also Mercer, F., ‘The Manufacture of Files, 1773–1935,” Horological Journal 77 (1935): 136–41.

34 The cheapest handloom in Montgomeryshire in the eighteenth century was £2. See Jenkins, J. G., “The Woollen Industry,” in Wales in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Moore, Donald (Swansea, 1976), 97.

35 Eversley, D. E. C., “The Home Market and Economic Growth in England, 1750–80,” in Land, Labour and Population in the Industrial Revolution: Essays Presented to J. D. Chambers, ed. Jones, E. L. and Mingay, G. E. (London, 1967), 212. See also McKendrick, Neil, “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth Century England,” in The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth Century England, ed. McKendrick, Neil, et al. (London, 1982), 2627.

36 E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” 60. “When any group of workers passed into a phase of improving living standards, the acquisition of timepieces was one of the first things noticed by observers” (ibid., 70).

37 Landes, Revolution in Time, 325–26.


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