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Smiths Clocks of Derby

Smiths Clocks of Derby

The Derby firm of John Smith & Sons, better known today as ‘Smith of Derby’ is the heir and continuator of a long tradition. Indeed it would have been possible to have viewed 2008 as a tercentenary of the establishment of a continuous tradition of clock-making that has gone on uninterruptedly, mainly in Derby. The essential link in the chain that stretches back to 1708 is in the first John Smith, of a Derby family but born in Hognaston in 1813.

He was incidentally, linked to at least one Derby brazier working in the eighteenth century and to be a brazier in the Derby of that pre-industrial era can have meant only one thing, he was working in the clock trade. He was also related to the Howards and Harlows of Ashbourne and the Brownswords of Derby and Nottingham. Smith served his apprenticeship from 1827, starting when he was fourteen and although the relevant paperwork has been lost we have his own testimony that this apprenticeship was served with the firm of John Whitehurst II – the great John Whitehurst’s nephew and chosen successor.

Assuming this was for six years as the usual term for a Whitehurst apprentice, he would have qualified in 1833 which was the year his master died and was succeeded by his son, John Whitehurst III. The firm although started by John Whitehurst in Derby in 1736, was an offshoot of that of his father, going back to 1708 in Congleton, Cheshire. John Smith worked for Whitehurst’s, which was nationally famous for turret clocks as well as for a variety of domestic and office clocks, watches and instruments, until 1840/41, when he resigned due to his failure to get on with the firm’s foreman, Thomas Woodward.

He set up on his own account at 46 (now 126) Nuns’ Street (the old brick Tudor farmhouse) shortly afterwards, founding the firm that still bears his name today. In 1860 Smith moved his business, then still making and repairing domestic clocks and watches, to 6 King Street (long since demolished) and then in 1865 his success enabled him to transfer to much more commodious premises at 27 Queen Street – an extraordinary coincidence, for this was the house originally built by the father of John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, rebuilt in 1764 for the great John Whitehurst himself, after whose time (from 1793) the eminent British painter, Joseph Wright took up residence there, dying in the house in 1797. A blue plaque unveiled in January this year records two of these men; Whitehurst’s is elsewhere.

At Queen Street, Smith was able to turn to the manufacture of high quality turret clocks and over the following two generations this began to form the backbone of the business. This was of course alongside long case, bracket and various types of wall clock, not to mention other spin-offs from his Whitehurst years; watch-clocks and barometers. He even made a few, mainly silver, pocket watches, but these are very rare and tend to date from the years prior to 1865.

Quite a lot of his output was for the regional railway companies, especially the Midland Railway and station and signal box wall clocks as well as staff silver watches can still be found at reasonably modest prices. Smith died in 1883, but there seems to have been a rift in the lute concerning the succession. The eldest surviving son, George Samuel Smith, seems to have seceded around 1875 and set up on his own account in St Peter’s Street. This business lasted until George’s death in 1925 and clocks made by him can still be found. The main business was continued by the younger sons, Frank Simon and John Henry.

They died in 1913 and 1910 respectively, leaving the firm in the capable hands of experienced clock makers Jack Warden and Will Hayes, overseen by Frank’s widow Emma; this situation was maintained until her son Howard Smith (1907-1983) came of age in 1928. John Edgar Howard Smith was the man who kept the firm alive through the great recession and the dark days of the Second World War, when he took on contracts for all sorts of unlikely work to keep those men who weren’t away at the war in productive work and to ensure the firms’ survival. He was also very hands on and never asked a man to do what he would not do himself.

The early twentieth century also saw a retail arm launched in a shop on the inside corner of Market Place and Corn Market in Derby, well remembered for its plethora of clock dials on the outside wall, giving the time alongside that in four world capitals. When this was wound down in the 1960s, the place was demolished and a rather shiny bank built on the site. From the collector’s point of view, however, this widened the picture for although the firm stopped producing their own domestic clocks between the wars, they were selling (with their name on) a whole variety of different clocks and watches – mantel clocks, a few of the odd-looking long cases of the period, watches, aneroid barometers and so on, mainly UK sourced from first rate manufacturers, but also from good makers on the continent.

Furthermore, other distinguished firms have been pulled into this continuing tradition through the acquisition of two other long-established clock making firms, Joyce & Co of Whitchurch, and Potts of Leeds. Between the 1930s and the end of the 20th century no domestic clocks were made, only turret clocks and items relating to them with innovations and improvements coming thick and fast. Of recent years however, the firm has reintroduced some exceptionally high quality domestic clocks, bearing the Whitehurst name.

They are definitely going to become tomorrow’s high-end antiques. Meanwhile it’s worth tracking down the mid-to-late 19th century wall clocks which should sell at auction for £300-£400 or a good bit more if in exceptional condition. The maker’s name ‘John Smith & Sons of Derby/Midland Clock Works’ or similar, allied with Midland Railway, LNWR or, after 1923, LMS on the dial will, however, carry a premium, for clock enthusiast + railway enthusiast = serious competition!

Alistair Plant


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