Watchmaking Industry

Although watchmakers are recorded as living and working in several of Warwickshire’s towns, it is the city of Coventry that develops as the hub of the industry, gaining an international reputation for the quality of the watches manufactured in the city.

Watchmaking was first recorded in Coventry in the late seventeenth century, but it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the city became a centre for the industry, rising to a position of national importance during the nineteenth century.

The term ‘watchmaking’ covers a multitude of tasks, and workers would tend to specialise in one – or a limited number of – operations. A large proportion of the ‘raw’ components were brought in from Lancashire (particularly Prescot) and then finished in Coventry. The domestic system with outworkers operating from workshops at home was widespread, with well-lit topshops a feature. Watchmaking was initially a predominantly male occupation, with skilled workers generally well rewarded. Frequently, close proximity of workers to each other in a particular neighbourhood meant that all the various components were readily available, with one 1817 estimate putting the number of separate operations at 102!. This system of outworkers remained a feature of the industry well into the nineteenth century, with, in some cases, outworkers continuing to supply the larger workshops and factories with semi-finished components.

As the nineteenth century progressed there was a move towards larger firms and correspondingly larger premises, with the first watchmaking ‘factories’. The application of power was another major development, though not always taken on board by the Coventry watchmakers, keen to maintain the craft reputation of the Coventry watch. Alongside these developments came the growing acceptance of women workers in the industry, with the fast, nimble hands of the female worker duly acknowledged. It was estimated that in 1891, of the 4100 workers employed in watchmaking in the city, 534 were women.

Probably the best-known Coventry watchmaking firm was Rotherhams, with origins traced back to 1747, and watchmaker Samuel Vale. Rotherhams became the largest of the Coventry watchmakers producing 500 watches a week in the 1880s, and the (converted) Rotherhams offices and residence in Spon Street remain the most important surviving premises of the watchmaking era. Another important location (16 Norfolk Street) is the residence and workshop of Danish-born Bahne Bonniksen, who moved to Coventry and invented the (revolutionary) ‘karrusel’ watch movement in the 1890s.

The challenge came from large-scale, mechanised factory units in Switzerland and the United States, enjoying the absence of tariff barriers, and lower-cost imports made inroads into Coventry’s premier position. Coventry’s watches may have been of superior quality, but they also carried a higher price, and market share began to shrink.

Naturally enough, particular watchmakers and specific watches developed a growing reputation, although the anonymity of the many hands that touched the components meant it was difficult to attribute manufacture to particular firms. Some – but not all – adopted trade marks. Coventry watches have become highly-prized items and there is a considerable market in these antique pocket watches, with prices to match!

The industry was concentrated in the Spon Street/Butts area of the city, before expanding into the new suburbs of Chapelfields and Earlsdon. Some evidence of the premises used in the industry remain on view in the city, now all converted to other uses. The city also boasts an area of housing created specifically for the watchmaking industry in the suburb of Chapelfields, now classed as a conservation area.

Watchmaking Industry: further information

AuthorSubjectPublished/More
Coventry Watch MuseumMoments in Time: History of the Coventry Watch IndustryCoventry Watch Museum
DVDMoments in Time: History of the Coventry Watch IndustryCoventry Watch Museum
Montes, MBrown Boots in Earlsdon: A Study of a Watchmaking Community. An interesting survey of the process of watch manufacture, the various roles played by the workers, and the main firms involved, all set within the suburb of EarlsdonCoventry Branch
of the Historical Association
Victoria County History of Warwickshire Vol 8Section on Watchmaking
(Available online)
Victoria County History, London
Available at this link
Barber, A & Railton JCoventry Watchmakers Heritage Trail: A guided walk through the watchmaking areas of the city. The trail is marked by a blue plaque on each relevant siteCoventry Watch Museum
Fry, D & Smith, A
(The Coventry We Have Lost)
Earlsdon & Chapelfields Explored. Good analysis of the emergence of these two Coventry suburbs, both of which were much involved in watchmakingSimanda Press
Searby, PeterWatchmaking in Coventry
Warwickshire History Vol 3 1976
Warwickshire Local History Society
Capewell, C RLife & work in 19th century industrial areas - Cottage factory and dwelling workshops in CoventryAvailable at this link
Visit
Coventry Watch Museum, Court 7,
Medieval Spon Street, Coventry
A small but fascinating museum run by volunteers. Full details on website Available at this link
Visit
Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry
Information on the Coventry watch industry, with a collection of 150 pocket watches, including early watches by makers such as Samuel Vale and Rotherham & Sons. There is also a good collection of watchmaking tools, including items from the Player family's watch dial painting workshops and the Traherne case making workshopAvailable at this link
SitesThe surviving (converted) watchmaking locations are recorded on the WIAS database under Watchmaking. This includes the sites listed in the ‘The Coventry Watchmakers’ Heritage Trail’Availble at this link