During the sixteenth century, clockmaking by native English craftsmen was mostly confined to the production of tower and church clocks. Domestic clocks and watches were mostly imported or the work of immigrants from the Continent. Because tower clock making involved working in ferrous metal, clockmakers within the City of London tended to be freemen of the Blacksmiths’ Company. Blacksmiths in this sense meant general metal workers, the shoeing of horses being the province of the Farriers.
The growth of the domestic clock making industry however led to a feeling within the trade that it was a craft apart. Resentment grew up between the clockmakers who had become established in London and outsiders who came to set up in or near the City and who threatened their market. From 1622 onwards groups of London makers undertook a series of political manoeuvres designed to undermine the opposition, both through the Blacksmiths Company and in their own right. They failed at first to gain the recognition they sought, but by 1629 they had accumulated sufficient credibility to petition the Crown for an independent Company. To the considerable distress of the Blacksmiths, who believed themselves to be the rightful repository of the clockmaker’s Art, the clockmakers were granted their Charter by King Charles I on the 22nd August 1631.
The Charter gave the Clockmakers power to control the horological trade in the City of London and for a radius of ten miles around. It incorporated a controlling body which should have ‘continuance for ever under the style and name of The Master, Wardens and Fellowship of the Art and Mystery of Clockmaking’. It provided that the Fellowship should be governed by a Master, three Wardens and ten or more Assistants who would form the Court. It went on to appoint the first incumbents by name.
The first Master was David Ramsay, a Scot, who had been appointed watchmaker to James VI of Scotland, later James I of England.
The remainder of that first Court were:-
John Wellowe (Willow)
Thomas Copley (appointed for life)
The original Charter is still in the Company’s possession and is housed with the rest of its library in the Guildhall Library where it is available for inspection.
Although the Charter had been obtained it was still not obligatory for clock and watchmakers to be Freemen of the Company. Many were already free of other Companies and owed their allegiance to them, although the quality of their work was supervised by the Clockmakers’ Company. This was, to put it mildly, an unsatisfactory state of affairs and one that resulted in loss of revenue to the Company.
In 1697 the Company petitioned the Lord Mayor for an Act of Common Council which would require all those working in the making of clocks and watches to take the freedom of the Clockmakers’ Company. This, as might be expected, was again opposed by the Blacksmiths’ Company who saw loss of revenue to them. On that occasion the Lord Mayor found in favour of the Blacksmiths and it was not until 1765 that the Clockmakers succeeded in procuring an Act which required all those working in the clock and watchmaking business within the jurisdiction of the Clockmakers’ Company to take the freedom of that Company.
The Company had still not obtained a Livery and this was finally achieved in 1776. The number of Liverymen was originally put at sixty but has been increased in number over the years by approval of the City Corporation and currently stands at a maximum of three hundred.
In 1813 the Clockmakers became concerned that their numbers were falling. A request was made to the Clerks of other Companies that anyone concerned with clock and watch making should not be taken into their Companies but sent to the Clockmakers to obtain their freedom. It came to the Court’s notice that one Robert Bate, a maker and retailer of high quality mathematical and other instruments, had decided to seek the freedom of the Spectacle Makers’ Company rather than the Clockmakers. The Court of the Clockmakers’ Company summoned him to a Court Meeting on the 11th October 1813. He ignored the summons and a second summons on the 6th December. On the 30th March the following year he was sworn a freeman of the Spectacle Makers Company. The Clockmakers immediately entered a caveat with the City Chamberlain. The Chamberlain called in the Master and Wardens of both Companies together with Robert Bate. The Clock makers produced their Charter and Bye-laws and were somewhat surprised when the Spectacle Makers produced a Memorial claiming rights which cut across those of the Clockmakers. After careful consideration the Chamberlain ruled that “Mr Robert Brettel Bate is entitled to take his freedom of the Spectacle Makers Company”. The Clockmakers immediately lodged an appeal with the Chamberlain and further, petitioned the Lord Mayor.
The final opinion of the Court of Aldermen was not given until the 4th November 1817, when the Chamberlain’s ruling was upheld. This was on the grounds that Bate was a maker of spectacles and did not make clocks or watches. They added however that if he did make or sell any instruments which clearly came within the meaning or intent of the Clockmakers’ Charter and Bye-laws, the Clockmakers could enforce their power and prevent further trading in those items.