The Big Time

Clock manufacturer John Smith & Sons was a global player, and a feature of Clerkenwell for well over a century. Carl Gardner tells its story.

There can’t be many small, craft-based businesses from the 18th century that are still going strong today. But clovk manufacturer John Smith & Sons, founded around 1780, is one such example. It no longer makes clocks and its name has changed slightly, but it’s still trading, more than 200 years later.

In its Victorian heyday, it was a dominant feature of the landscape of Clerkenwell, which was long established as London’s clock making centre. It owned a large factory in St John’s Square, where The Modern Pantry is today. The site had been a clock factory previously, too, belonging to a Huguenot settler called Colonel Francis Magniac, a pillar of the local society and a maker of not only clocks and watches but also automated musical toys, which he sold to China (where they were known as “singsongs”).

The Smith & Sons factory was notable not only for the quality of its products but also for its size and slick operation. At the time, much of the clock making trade was still conducted by single “masters”, who called on the skills of perhaps a dozen separate craftsmen, located all over the nearby area, to make the hands, the face, the case, the flywheels, the pendulum and so on. Back then, Smith & Sons was one of only a few companies to overcome the inherent inefficiency of this system, bringing all the necessary skills under one roof. In a way, it was an early adopter of the concept of the modern assembly line.

We know just how ordered and innovative a business it was because The Illustrated London News did an article on it in 1851, matter-of-factly entitled “Visit to a Clerkenwell Clock Factory”. It’s an attentive walk through the processes, complete with accompanying sketches full of men in top hats and aprons wielding tools as they concentrate hard on their work.

All the brass parts required for the clocks were cast in a foundry at the east end of the yard and were finished on site. The dial-making shop made the dials from tin, iron or brass, and the faces were coated with white-flake (a form of white lead). This was then polished to a smooth surface and baked, so that it hardened. The numbers were painted on with lamp black and the whole dial then varnished. The glassworks on site created dome-shaped glass cases, and a case-making shop made wooden ones, using exotic veneers. Finally, there were two areas for assembling the finished products.

The company made a huge range of clocks, from office and musical clocks to church and turret clocks. It was exporting its products widely abroad, including to China and Turkey. But what Smith & Sons was really known for was the skeleton clock. This is a refined, delicate-looking timepiece in which the dial is cut away, showing the inner workings behind. There are a number of Smith & Sons skeleton clocks in the Royal Collection, and some are highly prized today by collectors.

With a growing reputation and international success, the company decided to take part in The Great Exhibition of 1851, which showcased all the late innovations of the age. Smith & Sons displayed a year-going calendar clock and a highly technical chiming clock, which rang on eight bells and struck a gong.

Not only owing ingenuity in its products but also in itself, the business adapted with the times. By WWI, it had transformed itself into Smiths Metal Centres. In the process of becoming a major clocks manufacturer it had become a major dealer in raw materials from all over the world. So, with the demand for clocks diminished, it focused on being a metals supplier, making its last timepiece in 1938.

Over the next few decades, the company expanded rapidly and a network of metal supply centres was opened around the UK – but it hung on to its St John’s Square site until the late 1980s. Today, Smiths has a turnover of more than £60 million.

If you’d like to transport yourself back in time for a moment and check out an example of the company’s Victorian craft, head to the triangle at the top of the Goswell and City roads. There stands the Smith & Sons “Angel clock”. Now electrically run, it was for years wound every eight days by an employee from the factory.

Carl Gardner is a local resident who runs activity holidays in Sicily.