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Brief History of Time: The Rise & Fall of Lancashire Pocket Watches

Long ago, most watches made in Britain were essentially hand-built as one-off items, with a watchmaker making almost every part himself. Making slightly more affordable watches involved assembling enamel dials, movements, fusee chains, hands, verge escapements, balance wheels, springs etc all produced by skilled workers who simply did one thing exceptionally well.

Gathering all these components together meant picking tiny parts from trays, testing everything fitted, and then placing the hand-built movement inside a sterling silver, gold plated, or solid 9ct/18ct gold case. Maybe add a portrait on the case for a particularly wealthy customer too.

Then in the USA around 1850 Waltham changed everything, creating new machine tools and organising the mass production of pocket watches. They got cheaper. The Civil War and the expansion of the railways across the US and Europe from 1850-1880 also boosted demand for accurate timekeeping that was affordable to the working man.

The Swiss caught on and they also streamlined their canton or valley system, where freelancers did specific jobs. New factories were constructed in Swiss valleys, like the Val Joux – or valley of joy – where women and children with small hands and good eyesight could assemble watches pocket watches under big windows and skylights.

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The old Lancs Watch Co warehouse – possibly an office too?

In Britain watchmaking was firmly stuck in the 18th century, with both Warrington and Prescot – just a few miles away near St Helens – suffering a slow decline in business as the Americans and Swiss gradually undercut them. In 1889 a group of investors had one last roll of the dice, and put money into a new factory, complete with rows of electric powered machine tools, lathes, wire-drawing machines, staking sets, polishers and so on. They also built a warehouse, styled as a flat iron type building in Prescot town centre. It stll stands today actually – pictured above – although there’s no watchmaking going on inside.

Looking at the huge door you can imagine that this was a kind of Head Office, where trade visitors could be wined and dined, before enjoying a tour of the Lancs Watch Co factory. (That was later used as a barracks in World War One, and then demolished by the way – all gone.)

About one million movements were produced at Prescot between 1899 and 1910 when the Lancs Watch Co closed its doors. Many of these reliable top winders went in their own branded watches, but some were supplied to jewellers, who would buy a job lot of cases, get their name printed on enamel dial plates, some winding crowns and hey presto – you were a watch manufacturer!

 

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Beautiful full hunter Lancs watch we sold two years ago, mint condition – someone’s Sunday best for decades.

The Palatine keyless movements, with their decorative plating, nicely jewelled staffs and pivots, plus beautiful regulator lever, is an example of the finest Lancs engineering for my money – very collectable. They made some key winders too, but the fusee chains are always less durable in my book, and seem rather dated in terms of design for something made in the early 20th century.

There was a basic three-quarter plate Lancs movement, very similar to the Waltham Traveler, which doesn’t look anything special but can be very reliable if restored properly, or just looked after for a century or more!

The Lancs Watch Company was never really financially secure, and always struggled to compete with the Swiss, who by 1900 or therabouts were frankly better at innovation, winning timekeeping trials and marketing, with teams of agents and salesmen travelling Europe selling ebauche movements (basic movements ready to fit standard size 11-18 cases). So the Prescot factory closed, bringing the curtain down on a bold attempt to make pocket watches as efficiently as Waltham or Elgin could.

The next serious attempt at creating a world-beating British watchmaking enterprise was the Harwood automatic in the 1920s. We will get into that fascinating story another time. Keep ticking over…

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