01 May 2022
May 2022 marked the 69th anniversary since Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 29th at 11.30am. Many of you will know that we own the Smiths watch that Hillary wore on that remarkable day, and which, along with the watch on Tenzing’s wrist, would have been used to record that moment in time. Keeping an eye on the time was also important for the men’s safety; the pair only allowed themselves 15 minutes on the summit before starting their descent, for fear of their oxygen supply running out.
The watch was later presented by Hillary to the Company at a dinner held in honour of members of the expedition, at the Savoy Hotel on the 20th October 1953. We have been fortunate to acquire some new material for the Museum relating to that evening; a photograph of the dinner party and a menu-card, covered in the autographs of 28 of those who attended. This was after all, a dinner with no ordinary guestlist. Organised by Ralph Gordon-Smith, Managing Director of Smiths English Clocks Ltd, the night celebrated not only the success of the British Everest Expedition, but also the achievements of some exceptional British sportsmen from that year. The new acquisitions give us an insight to this, for on the card are the signatures of the cricketers Trevor Bailey and Len Hutton, who had helped to secure victory for English Test Cricket, and Squadron Leader Neville Duke and Mike Lithgow who had both consecutively broken the World Absolute Air Speed Record that year. The menu is signed by nine other mountaineers of the Everest Expedition; team leader Sir John Hunt; organising secretary Charles Wylie; cameraman Tom Stobard; expedition medic Michael Ward; and mountaineers Mike Westmacott, George Band, George Lowe, Wilfrid Noyce and Tom Bourdillon. It appears that Tenzing Norgay was not present, but the Master informs me that he had visited the Smiths showrooms earlier in the day. Peering at the photograph it seems clear that even the guests thought that this was an important occasion, for on the table it is possible to make out some of the autographs on the menus dotted around the table.
A write-up of the dinner in the Horological Journal the following month gives us a clue as to why Gordon-Smith arranged the evening, other than for Hillary to present his Smiths watch to Sir William Valentine Ball, Master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, for its permanent display within the Company’s Museum. The article comments that the men had two things in common; ‘Each of them had made an outstanding contribution to this country's prestige during Coronation Year, and each one was wearing a British made precision watch at the time.’ It appears that the guests had also been provided with a Smiths watch to congratulate them on their achievements for that year.
The card is signed by many other notable people who were guests that evening, including the Astronomer Royal Sir Harold Spencer Jones, and the director of the Royal Geographical Society, Laurence Kirwan. We can see that key members of the Smiths staff were also present. The menu is signed by Robert Lenoir, Smith’s chief horological engineer, and the General Manager Dennis Barrett, is photographed standing at the table. Barrett had served as Master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers the previous year, and we know from the HJ that another Smiths member of staff, Harold Buckland was present, who would go on to be Master in 1957. Indeed, Sir Harold Spencer Jones was at that point serving as the Company’s Senior Warden. It is this guestlist that allows us to see why the famous ‘Everest’ watch might have ended up in our museum.
The night was clearly a success, as those in the photo laugh and enjoy a cigar with their port, having no doubt smiled at the Savoy’s nod to the great mountain with its Bombe Glaceé Everest. It marked a great moment not just for British sport, but also for British horology.
Curator of The Clockmakers' Museum, Anna Rolls