Objects that tell a story
Anything made by people has a story to tell, I suppose, but it’s specially interesting when you find intentional communication by someone’s hand. A mason’s mark is more personal than the testament of his work alone. In the loft-space of an 18th Century windmill outside Amsterdam, I was shown the carved names of every miller that had operated and maintained the mill, up there in the beams where hardly anyone sees. Makes you think.
Anyway, as I mentioned in the last post, ANC also had some secrets hidden where hardly anyone sees – signatures of long-dead clockmakers/menders, and with dates. Most couldn’t be seen without dismantling the clock’s movement, so they represent more than a routine inspection. The earliest date is for John Gelston, 1823.
You probably can’t read that. In fact the inscription is hard to read with the naked eye – I had to reflect light off it in several directions before I could read it properly. It says: Cleand March 1823 John Gelston.
So that’s the earliest date that I have associated with the clock, or rather, the clock movement, because there are clear signs that some elements don’t match up – that we actually have a bit of a hybrid here. I’ve no way of knowing whether the case and the works originally belonged together, but the dial certainly doesn’t match. There was a family story that Uncle Bob bought it from a man with a garage full of dodgy clocks that he was in the way of splicing together into working specimens. He was very likely a talented bodger, unlike John Gelston, who can be traced online. He was a respected clockmaker who worked in Newry, Lisburn and Belfast. His dates are 1754 – 1830, so he was nearly 70 when he cleand the clock. He cleaned it again in 1826, but this time he put his mark on the outside, so perhaps did not dismantle it.
Here’s Alexander Kenmuir, another member of an established clockmaker family from Lisburn. There are 2 Kenmuir inscriptions, A. Kenmuir in 1871 and H. Kenmuir in 1880. Alexander lived from 1825 to 1886, but H was harder to pin down. There was a Henry Kenmuir listed in the 1901 census for Lisburn, born 1853, probably our guy.
So, if the clock was first cleaned in 1823, how old does that make it? We can only guess – the gaps between the inscriptions are incredibly irregular, varying from 3 years (shortest interval) to at least 40 in the longest. I don’t think a new clock should need any more than an occasional drop of oil for at least a decade, so my best guess would be 1810 or so.
C K Lindsay, 1933, was the latest date that I could find, and the web was no help in placing him. All in all, we found 6 dated inscriptions, and the “HM” that you may be able to see in the photo above. I don’t think there are any others, although a friend found another Gelston signature on the outside of the plate, that I had overlooked. It seems that I’m probably the first person to strip down the clock movement since 1933, so I’d better proceed with care. At this stage, all the parts are clean, a couple of pivots that were slack have been reworked, and the signs seem good. It could be a long process getting it back into reliable operation, though.
The dial of this clock, as I mentioned before, is a bit of a hybrid – “mongrel” might be the word. The first thing you notice is the inscription below the ring of Roman numerals. “McCabe Lurgan” in copperplate engraving. Back to Google…
McCabes are still trading as watch vendors, at least in name. According to the History section of their website: “James McCabe born in 1748 was the son of Patrick McCabe, himself a notable watchmaker from Lurgan in County Armagh in Ireland. James McCabe immigrated to London in 1775 where he established his own business in Bells Building, Fleet Street. On 2nd April 1781, James McCabe, was made an Honorary Freeman of the Clockmakers Company. After this, they seemingly became specialist watchmakers of high reputation. “Among notable owners of McCabes was Lord Horatio Nelson, and the first President of the United States – George Washington who purchased his McCabe pocket watch in Philadelphia in 1793.
They had all left Lurgan by 1775 according to any records I could find, which means the dial is, in part at least, an 18th Century one. Edit: However: “Irish distributors often stamped their name on the dial so that, if you have a clock that says Donegan’s of Dublin, it may be that it was sold by Donegan’s and made elsewhere. “
If you look carefully, it’s fairly obvious that various brass parts have been bodged into shape to assemble the clock face. See the way the seconds ring has been fitted by filing away part of the inner edge of the hours ring? Another anomaly is the small window in which you can see the number 10. This should be connected to a date mechanism, but there is none on the clock movement, so it always reads 10. There is misalignment too – look at the two winding key openings, they are off level. All rather quirky.