Time Piece: Working Men and Watches
John Styles considers whether the fashion for wearing pocket-watches flourished among working men in the eighteenth century because it was stylish, because they needed to know the time accurately, or for some other reason.
In 1747, William Hutton, a twenty-four-year old journeyman framework knitter at Nottingham, bought a silver watch for 35 shillings. 'It had been the pride of my life, ever since pride commenced, to wear a watch', he later remembered in his autobiography. The watch turned out badly.
It went ill. I kept it four years, then gave that and a guinea for another, which went as ill. I afterwards exchanged this for a brass one, which, going no better, I sold it for five shillings, and, to close the watch farce, gave the five shillings away and went without for thirty years.Hutton’s reminiscences tell us three important things about watches and those who wore them in eighteenth-century England. First, although Hutton was only a humble framework knitter, he was able to acquire two expensive silver watches in the course of four years, and also to realize some of their value when he disposed of them. Second, wanting to own a watch was an expression of sartorial aspiration for young working men like Hutton, and owning one was in large part about display. Third, the watches Hutton bought were disappointments as timepieces, although it was many years before frustration at their functional shortcomings finally conquered his desire to own one.
Few autobiographies survive from the eighteenth century like William Hutton’s, written by someone who began life as a working man. So unusual is their survival that they provide little help in establishing whether Hutton’s experience with his watches was typical of the generality of working people, or whether it was altogether exceptional, evidence of the aspirational cast of mind that propelled him later in life to a successful career as a Birmingham book dealer. Probate inventories – lists of possessions drawn up after the owner’s death for inheritance purposes – have been the main source used by historians to provide evidence of what people owned. They are of little assistance here. They deal mainly with the wealthier half of the population and survive infrequently after 1740. There is, however, one other, less familiar means of finding out what working people owned – the lists of things stolen from them that survive in the records of the criminal courts. They show that William Hutton was not exceptional. By the later years of the eighteenth century, ordinary men comprised a majority of victims of watch theft whose cases came to court, drawn from among the small farmers, day labourers, artisans and petty tradesmen who comprised the bulk of the male population.
The records of prosecutions for theft have a tendency to over-represent valuable items that were more attractive to steal. Nevertheless, there were thousands of prosecutions for thefts of things worth considerably less than William Hutton’s five shilling brass watch. Watches were consistently the most valuable item of apparel stolen from working men in the eighteenth century – more valuable than other expensive items of clothing such as coats and waistcoats, cloaks and gowns. This was because the cases which housed the watch mechanisms were made overwhelmingly from silver, despite the availability of cheaper alternatives. The silver watch that William Hutton was so proud to acquire in 1747 cost him a hard-earned 35 shillings. Yet it was probably only a second-hand one. Moreover, the expense of a watch did not end with its purchase. Watches regularly needed professional cleaning and oiling, and parts like springs wore out and had to be replaced.
How did such an expensive item come to be widely owned among that portion of the population least able to afford it? William Hutton, exasperated at the unreliability of his silver watches, may have been driven to make do with a cheap brass-cased watch, but few men of his class were prepared to follow his example. Forty-two out of forty-seven watches stolen from plebeian owners, and identified by material in the records of criminal courts in the north of England, had silver cases. The same pattern emerges from the pledge book of a York pawnbroker George Fettes over an eighteen month period in 1777 and 1778. Of 176 watches taken in pawn where the case material is named, 168 were silver, four were gold and four were cheap alloy.
In the first half of the century, few working men in provincial England achieved their ambition to own a watch, however. This is evident from from the surviving depositions of the Assizes (the criminal court which dealt with more serious offences), where, outside London, cases of watch theft were usually tried. Of 117 cases of this kind from the Assizes for Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland between 1640 and 1800, only seven date from before 1750, and only one of the victims of theft was a working man – in this case a sailor whose watch was stolen in 1749. The other owners, as far as they are identified, were gentlemen. By contrast, a far greater number of watches were stolen after 1770, and of these more than half the owners were working men, such as small farmers, day labourers, artisans and petty tradesmen. This pattern was not confined to the north of England. In Worcestershire and Oxfordshire too, prosecutions for watch theft were much more common after 1750, although it is rarely possible to identify the occupations of their owners.
In London the picture was different. Numerous watch thefts are recorded earlier in the century, suggesting watches were widespread in the capital sooner than elsewhere. The proportion of Old Bailey trials involving watches rose continuously each decade from the 1700s to the 1770s; by 1756, working men accounted for over half the victims (excluding watchmakers) of watch theft. They remained a small majority in 1785.
Watches achieved reasonable accuracy as timekeepers only during the second half of the seventeenth century when improvements were introduced, for example, to the balance spring, which together with the balance wheel, acts as the oscillator that controls the motion of the watch mechanism. In London the number of watches owned by working men increased during the half-century immediately following these improvements. The delay in diffusion to the provinces may be explained by the greater purchasing power among sections of the common people of the capital compared with their country cousins. It may also have been due to the proximity of London consumers to the workshops of the capital, where the finishing stages of the watch-making industry were concentrated. Over two-thirds of the watches recorded in the northern Assize records carried the names of London makers. The same was true of the watches entered in George Fettes’ pledge book.
Our understanding of the history of the diffusion of timepieces has been dominated by E.P. Thompson’s claim that changes in people’s inward notion of time are linked to the transformation in work disciplines caused by the Industrial Revolution. Natural time associated with task-orientated labour in field or workshop was replaced, Thompson proposed, by the tyranny of the clock, associated with time-orientated labour at the machine. Widespread ownership of clocks and watches was, for Thompson, evidence of this profound cultural shift, as well as one of its driving forces. He insisted that a general diffusion of clocks and watches occurred only at the moment when the Industrial Revolution demanded greater synchronization of labour. Thompson’s critics argue that he failed to appreciate just how widely clocks were available in both public and domestic settings before the Industrial Revolution, indeed well before the eighteenth century. From the late Middle Ages, clocks had proliferated in churches and other public buildings, and subsequently in the halls, kitchens and parlours of the well-to-do. By the early eighteenth century, few English men and women were out of earshot of their chimes.
Thompson argued that the take-up of watches by working people did not occur before the close of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the imperatives of industrialization alone cannot explain why they became prized consumer items. He proposed that watches had three main attractions for their plebeian wearers. First, they were utilitarian tools for measuring time, evidence that working people had internalized the new time disciplines demanded by industrial capitalism. Second, they were sources of prestige. Third, they were realizable assets, the poor man’s bank. But if, as we have seen, working people came to own watches earlier than Thompson believed, which of these attractions was most powerful in encouraging their acquisition?
Watches were certainly used by eighteenth-century working people to raise money. In 1734, a woman who lodged in a single room in London worried about the watch hung up by her chimney being stolen. She explained: ‘if I or my Husband should be taken ill, we had nothing else that we could make a little Money of.’
According to Fettes’ pledge book, watches accounted for half the objects against which he lent the largest sums of money, more than any other type of possession. The pawnbroker lent an average 15 shillings for a silver watch, which represented a far better store of value than the brass watch an exasperated William Hutton got rid of for five shillings. Nevertheless, the fact that silver watches were readily pawned does not, in itself, explain why working people acquired them in the first place.
Did the attraction of owning a watch rest for working people on the need for time discipline? To answer this question, we need to know whether watches were actually used for timekeeping at work. More than half the fifty-three plebeian owners of stolen watches in the northern Assize depositions between 1749 and 1799 were involved in working trades, some of them as employees, others working on their own account on a small scale. The largest single group among them was seamen (nine), followed by textile workers (five), and then a diversity of trades, from coal miner and gardener to tailor and shoemaker. Other occupations included servant, labourer, husbandman and soldier.
None of these watch owners worked in one of the new cotton or worsted mills that proliferated in the north after 1780, despite the fact that workers in these factories appear in the criminal records as victims of other kinds of theft. Most of the workers in the early factories were women and children. Only one of the fifty-three watch owners highlighted above was a woman, an unmarried servant. Ownership of goods by women is often concealed in eighteenth-century criminal records by rules which vested legal ownership in their husbands and fathers – even so, the proportion of females among plebeian owners of stolen watches in the northern depositions is tiny by comparison with other stolen goods. Fettes’ records also bear this out. Of 197 people who pawned watches with him for the period of his pledge book, only eleven were women, yet women accounted for more than three-quarters of the total pledges he received in those years. Generally, the most valuable items pawned by women were gowns, but these didn’t command anything like the sums Fettes lent against men’s watches. This suggests that women could rarely afford to acquire watches or own them in their own right.
The small numbers of women, labourers and husbandmen among owners of stolen watches in the northern depositions and the large numbers of seamen and textile workers – especially those, like William Hutton, who worked at home or in small workshops, rather than in the new factories – demonstrate that ownership of silver watches was greatest among men in the higher-earning manual occupations that were prospering as manufacturing and mining expanded in the north of England in the course of the eighteenth century. Younger men employed in weaving, coal mining, and shipping could command substantial wages during periods of full employment, especially towards the end of the century. Yet it is difficult to imagine that most of these men needed a watch for timekeeping at their work. Sailors toiled at sea to the rhythm of four-hourly watches set by the ship’s master, weavers laboured at the loom to the weekly rhythms of the putting-out system, pitmen hewed coal in shifts measured by set output quotas, and even those urban journeymen whose working hours were fixed according to the different amounts of daylight available in summer and winter would have known the time of day by the chimes of their parish church clock.
Very few watches were stolen from their owners as they worked. In part this was because other circumstances were more propitious for theft, especially night-time bedrooms, busy inn parlours, drunken sexual assignations, unsupervised storage chests and lonely highways. Nevertheless, it is clear from the evidence in a number of the Assize cases that watches did not usually accompany their owners to work. The silver watch belonging to William Brooke, a collier from West Ardsley in Yorkshire, was stolen from his house after he had left for work early on a Friday morning in June 1789. James Groves, servant to Matthew Ridley of Heaton House, near Newcastle, lost his silver watch while working in December 1751, when it was hung on a nail at the foot of his bed. James Stockdale, a sailor in the whale fishery, acquired a silver watch in South Shields after returning in August 1787 from the long and dangerous, but lucrative, summer voyage to the David Straits between Greenland and Baffin Island.
One group of workers was the exception, however. Men who worked in transport depended on accurate timekeeping – and they were sometimes the victims of watch theft at work, especially if they were coach or carriage drivers. Drivers worked unsupervised and were expected to keep to timetables. Indeed, under the new mail coach system instituted in 1784, the Post Office guards who rode the mail coaches were provided with watches calibrated to London time. They were required to keep a record of arrival and departure times along the journey. The victims of watch theft in the northern Assize depositions included a mail coach driver from Shap on the road from Kendal to Carlisle and a chaise driver employed by an innkeeper at Glenwhelt on the road from Newcastle to Carlisle.
For the majority of working class owners who did not need their watches for work, the time-pieces hanging from their bedsteads or chimney breasts may have woken them for the start of the working day, serving perhaps as substitutes for domestic clocks. Nevertheless, watches were designed first and foremost to be carried. Most watches were stolen from the pockets of their owners, especially when they were at leisure. Relieving a drunken, befuddled victim of his watch may have been easy work for a thief and, as a consequence, prosecutions for watch theft may tend to over-represent watches stolen under such circumstances. Nevertheless, watches were stolen far more often when their owners were out enjoying themselves at an inn or at the races than when they were at work. These were evidently occasions when it was considered appropriate for watches to be worn and displayed. A silver watch with a china face was picked from the pocket of a tailor, James Hargreaves, as he stood near the starting post at the races at Thornton in Craven in Yorkshire in September 1765. A silver watch with a blue and white striped ribbon ‘fastened to it in order to pull it out by’, was stolen from the pocket of James Harrison, servant to a Swaledale yeoman, during a fight at an inn in Richmond, Yorkshire, one evening in August 1774. The next year a silver watch with ‘a china face with a steel single linked chain, a brass key, two seals’, belonging to William Jennison a saddletree plater, was taken from his ‘watch pocket in his breeches’ at a public house in Ripon on a Tuesday evening in February.
Although the watch itself tended to be concealed in a breeches’ fob pocket, the decorative ribbon or chain used to pull it out was usually worn hanging below the waistcoat for all to see, often with seals and a watch key attached to it. Watch chains, made mostly from bright steel, were attached to twenty of the stolen watches in the northern depositions. Three more watches were stolen with coloured silk ribbons. Fifteen of the chains and ribbons had seals fastened to them when stolen. Most were cheap steel seals, valued at one or two pennies, but a few are described as set in silver or copper, and were probably made from semi-precious stones such as cornelian or crystal.
James Stockdale of South Shields had a seal with an angel and an anchor on one side and a head on the other; another seaman’s seal was embossed with a flaming heart. The anchor might have been simply nautical in its associations, but it could also represent hope, an allegorical symbol common in late eighteenth-century jewellery, just as the flaming heart could represent passion. Nautical imagery was not confined to sailors. William Jennison, the Ripon saddletree plater, had two seals, one of which was ‘half brass half steel having the impression of a ship on one side thereof and on the other side a man’s head’. His other seal was a steel one ‘with an impression of a cock heading a hen’. The Yorkshire servant Elizabeth Rose’s seal simply had the letter E engraved on it. Such motifs were not confined to seals worn by plebeian owners. They probably bought them ready-made, but exactly the same sorts of devices were found on seals engraved to order for much richer men and women.
How often these seals had a practical use for their plebeian owners is hard to ascertain. Only four of the fifteen owners of watch seals in the group from the Assize depositions were unable to sign their names, suggesting cheap seals were not substitutes for a signature employed by the illiterate. Undoubtedly, watch seals and the chains from which they hung offered plebeian men an important vehicle for sartorial display, just as they did for the rich, the fashionable, and the famous. Chains and seals did not have to be worn hanging out of the fob pocket, but it was normal for them to be displayed in this way. When a silver watch with a steel chain and a small silver seal set with a red stone was stolen in 1778 from Benjamin Proctor, a peddler living at Old Malton in Yorkshire, he followed the thief to Newcastle, over sixty miles away. Suspicion was aroused there when the thief, having had the chain and seal hanging out of his pocket, was seen to ‘put the said chain and seal into his pocket and draw the flap of his waistcoat over it’.
Watches were decorative items as well as sophisticated pieces of technology. Their compact size, elegant cases in shining silver, reflective watch glasses, and enamelled or china dials combined many of the elements of eighteenth-century jewellery. Despite normally being concealed, showing off one’s timepiece required a certain flourish as the watch was removed from the pocket, the performance adding to the sense that this was an object to be displayed. When a London labourer, James Johnson, first tried on an expensive new suit of clothes in 1789, he ‘insisted on having his watch, and a looking glass; says he, I am a fine gentleman’.
Of E.P. Thompson’s three reasons to explain the attraction of watches to working men, we should not underestimate their importance as practical tools for measuring time, despite their unreliability. Nevertheless, for all but a few who worked in road transport, watches were not indispensable necessities when it came to timekeeping. What they did offer those workers who could afford them was reasonably accurate, general-purpose timekeeping in a conveniently portable form.
In addition, as Thompson argues, they were both a quickly realizable store of value and a prestigious form of male jewellery.
The particular importance of display is emphasized by the aesthetics of watch design and the ways in which watches were personalized by means of cheap, expressive accessories. Silver watches signalled enviable affluence combined with a suitably masculine command of technology, of the kind richer men manifested through purchases of scientific instruments and the like. Not that richer men were immune to the decorative allure of watches. ‘A fool cannot withstand the charms of a toy-shop,’ the Earl of Chesterfield warned his son in 1749, ‘snuff boxes, watches, heads of canes, etc. are his destruction’. It is no wonder that for William Hutton, a clothes-conscious young journeyman, to wear a watch, even a second-hand one, was the pride of his life.
E.P. Thompson, ‘Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism,’ Past and Present, 38 (1967), 56-97; Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift, ‘Reworking E.P. Thompson’s “Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism”,’ Time and Society, 5 (1996), 275-300.; Alison Backhouse, The Worm-Eaten Waistcoat (York, 2003).
- John Styles is Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire. His books include The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (Yale University Press, 2007) and Design and the Decorative Arts: Britain 1500 to 1900, (V&A, 2001).
City of Vice
Sir John Fielding, pictured above, and his older brother, the novelist Henry Fielding (1707-54), are the central characters in a new five-part series for Channel 4, City of Vice, (directed by Justin Hardy and Dan Reed and written by Clive Bradley and Peter Harness), which explores the role of the two Magistrates of Westminster in exposing the underbelly of eighteenth-century London.
Based on contemporary trial records, newspaper reports, pamphlets and diaries, the docu-drama tells the story of how the brothers attempted to halt the growth of petty crime, targeting the capital’s brothels and dens of iniquity in mid-Georgian London. Around the time of writing his masterpiece Tom Jones, in the late 1740s, Henry Fielding became London’s Chief Magistrate, his younger half-brother John working alongside him as his assistant. Together the brothers founded the Bow Street Runners, the earliest forerunner to the Metropolitan Police, and identified the need to address crime prevention through co-ordinated detective work. After Henry’s death, John Fielding took on his brother’s mantle, succeeding him as court justice. In 1772, John Fielding instigated a plan for a centralized register of offenders at Bow Street, extending his brother’s work nationwide.
The series builds a picture of the evolution of London’s first police force, while each episode introduces characters based on different historical cases. Ian McDiarmid and Iain Glenn play Henry and John Fielding respectively, while other cast members include Geraldine James, Nigel Harman, Juliet Aubrey and Frances Magee.
City of Vice starts on January 14th, Channel 4 at 9pm.
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