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November 17, 2005

The Collection and Library of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers


Located in London's Guildhall, it's considered "one of London's best kept secrets."

Note that it is "closed one morning a week for rewinding, usually Monday."

Simon de Burton wrote about the clockmakers' museum in a piece that appeared in the November 11 Financial Times; it follows.

    Clockmakers' Museum: Tale of Intrigue, Invention, Ingenuity

    "One of London’s best kept secrets" is a much over-used phrase, but it is an accurate way to describe the Clockmakers' Museum tucked away among the maze of grand buildings which constitute Guildhall.

    The exhibits encompass the entire history of timekeeping in words and objects and range from an example of the smallest screw used by the Waltham watch company of America (47,000 of which will fit inside a thimble) to a broken chronometer balance spring which was successfully riveted back together by a Chinese watch maker almost 200 years ago.

    The museum unfolds a tale of intrigue, invention, ingenuity and, in particular, eccentricity, which is the story of The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, an extraordinary livery company granted its charter by King Charles I in 1631.

    From the 17th century to the turn of the 20th, its members transformed the City of London into a clock and watchmaking centre that dominated the world, with English makers such as Dr Robert Hooke, Thomas Mudge and George Graham introducing improvements that proved vital to the progression of timekeeping and which remain intrinsic to the science today.

    According to the museum’s infectiously enthusiastic curator, Sir George White, the Company never got round to acquiring grand premises in the City of the type still enjoyed by other guilds because its members frittered away the funds on wine, women and song, finally emptying the coffers completely in the early 1790s.

    "It was then that they began meeting in the City’s King’s Head tavern, which became the Company’s "home" for some years, until it moved to three rooms in the nearby London Tavern, by which time the chronometer maker FJ Barraud had come up with the idea of setting up a clockmaker’s library", explains Sir George.

    Barraud wrote to some of the great English makers, asking for donations of books to get the library established. For the first few years it was looked after by Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy – later five times Master of the company and clockmaker to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria – who kept the collection on shelves at his Pall Mall shop.

    In 1814, Vulliamy went to the estate sale of the late Alexander Cummings and bought, on the Company’s behalf, a silver half-seconds beating watch, a pair of regulator pallets and the short duration timekeeper made for Captain John Phipps’s Polar voyage of 1773.

    This established the idea of adding objects to the library, and further donations began to arrive, at which point the committee decided to set an aim of "procuring some of the works of the first makers in order to form a series embracing the most distant dates possible".

    Brimming with enthusiasm for the project, the committee voted in 1817 that £20 should be given to Vulliamy to buy a piece of furniture to house the growing collection, so he found a secondhand mahogany bureau which was set up in the King’s Head and fitted with elaborate locks.

    By 1819, the company had 110 books, 48 watches or movements, 12 drawings and the items bought from the Cummings sale as well as its ancient livery records – including a menu for the Clockmaker’s Midsummer Quarter Court of July 1692 showing that such luminaries as Joseph Knibb, Thomas Tompion and Henry Jones dined that day on mutton and cauliflower, beef, goose and fowl.

    Things continued apace until the mid-19th century, but following Vulliamy’s death in 1854 the museum project lost direction and, in 1871, the only surviving member of the Company’s library committee, John Grant, suggested that the collection should be displayed in Guildhall Library.

    The museum opened to the public in 1873 and the collection continued to expand and acquire important exhibits, including John Harrison’s fifth marine chronometer bought in 1891 for £105, and the earliest surviving self-winding watch – made by Breguet – which belonged to Tsar Nicholas I.

    In 1894 the collection was lit by electric light for the first time, increasing visitor numbers to the extent that the librarian noted that "the edges of the upper cases have become much worn and rubbed...  and the wood is beginning to suffer from the boots of the visitors".

    Had it not been for the move to Guildhall it seems unlikely the collection would have survived, let alone been expanded, although it did fade into obscurity after 1945, when Vulliamy’s £20 bureau was seconded by a clerk for use in another part of the building.

    It appears that he eventually took it home with him, as a few years ago it turned up in a west country auction where it was bought by a dealer who spotted a bookplate of the Clockmaker’s Company inside one of the drawers.

    He contacted Sir George, who found the bookcase described in the Company’s records, and it has now been returned to its true home and forms an important exhibit in the museum, housing some of the first pieces bought by Vulliamy.

    During the course of the first inventory since 1858, which Sir George carried out 19 years ago, the Company’s chest also turned up, along with its keys.

    It was clearly the first time that the box had been opened for more than 150 years, because it contained items said to be missing in the previous inventory.

    But there is more to this remarkable museum than just history.

    Its existence helps ensure a future for the clock and watch makers of today by promoting interest in modern horology.

    The first display cabinet visitors encounter is sponsored by the celebrated English watchmaker Dr George Daniels and contains examples of work by contemporary makers, such as the Isle of Man’s Roger Smith, proof positive that the craft of horology is once again set to thrive in Britain.


The Collection and Library of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers at Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, London EC2 is open to the public Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 4.30pm, but closed one morning a week for rewinding, usually Monday. Admission is free.

Tel: +44 (0) 20 7332 1868. www.clockmakers.org


Pictured at the top of this post is John Harrison's Marine Chronometer Number 1.

Harrison and his series of revolutionary chronometers which, for the first time, allowed the calculation of exact longitude at sea and subsequently enabled the rise of Britain as a world power, were the subject of Dava Sobel's surprise 1998 bestseller, "Longitude."

November 17, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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looking for a jeremiah lorden tilling aged 23 in 1869 any help would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks and regards.
Teddy Tilling.

Posted by: teddy tilling | Jun 1, 2006 8:45:36 AM

I have a silver verge pocket watch by Robert Halstead of London which, I am told, dates about 1700. I cannot find much about the maker and his reputation.
I also have a gilt and shagreen watch by James Horner of London about 1770. This is also a verge escapment. I cannot find anything about him. Can you assist from your records or give me advice as to where to look.

Posted by: Sid Muirhead | Mar 24, 2006 12:44:19 AM

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