Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A Scottish Grandfather Clock by James Wiseman, Lesmahagow

Grandfather clock by James Wiseman,
Lesmahagow, Scotland, c1858

My family owned circa 1858 eight day clock by James Wiseman of Lesmahagow in Lanarkshire Scotland is a good honest example of a Scottish Provincial Grandfather clock. By the mid 19th century Watchmakers and Clockmakers were to be found in almost every Scottish town of any size and importance. Thus a large number of such clocks remain to this day, proudly displaying their Scottish maker's name and provincial origins.

Grandfather clock by James Wiseman,
Lesmahagow, Scotland, c.1858

The history and provenance of any object adds so much to its interest. As this clock has never been out of family hands we have been lucky that it has a known history of ownership. But what do we know of James Wiseman?

"James Wiseman" watch paper, Hamilton, 1864
(used as padding in the back of pocket watch cases)
[from my own collection]

Born in the Parish of Strathaven, the first reference to this enterprising young clockmaker is in 1850 when, at just 23 years of age, he commenced business in the village of Lesmahagow as a watch and clock maker and jeweller. Obviously successful in his trade, 1851 census records show that Wiseman was then "employing one man". In 1859 he moved his business to the much larger township of Hamilton, later operating as "James Wiseman & Son", his son William having become a partner in the business around 1889.

An Advertisement for "James Wiseman,
Watch and Clock Maker, Jeweller, &c.",
of 32 Cadzow Street, Hamilton, 1862
[Source : Silver Forums]

Unfortunately, I note that by 1894 the Wiseman business had become insolvent, with the sole remaining partner, James' son William Wiseman, being subject to "sequestration", in other words bankruptcy proceedings. An offer was made to creditors "...on their whole debts of Twenty Shillings in the pound, payable in four equal instalments at four, ten, sixteen, and twenty-two months after their final discharge." James Wiseman himself was by this time deceased.

James Wiseman Clock Mechanism, c.1858

Surprisingly, I note an Alexander S. Wiseman, "Late James Wiseman & Son... Established 1850" and operating as a "Watch and Clock Maker, Jeweller & Optician" in Motherwell from around 1896 and additionally in Hamilton, as late as 1907. A fuller history of the three Wiseman businesses can be found in "Scottish Clockmakers" by Felix Hundson published in 1984.

John & Margaret Watson, Crossford, c.1860,
the original owners of the Wiseman Clock
[from an Ambrotype image in my own collection]

This Grandfather clock by James Wiseman therefore pre-dates his move to Hamilton in 1859. Knowing that it was owned by John and Margaret Watson, being the Crossford Village Grocer and his wife, it would likely have been purchased when they married in 1858 or not long before. That makes this clock around 157 years old. The only other example of a Wiseman clock from Lesmahagow that I have located is in Ontario Canada but is in a dissimilar style. Although somewhat more ornate it has a less well proportioned hood covering the mechanism and face and has a different door design. Curiously it is marked "J. Wyseman, Lesmahagow" but Scottish name spelling had in previous years often been phonetic.

A tinted Edwardian postcard of Crossford Village.
[from my own collection]

This clock features a presumably English (most likely Birmingham) movement with an attractive 'japanned' painted dial face showing the changing seasons, and a mahogany veneer case with an attractive 'flame' mahogany door. The beautiful 'flame' effect is achieved by cutting the mahogany at the point where a limb protruded from the tree trunk. Being a very expensive wood much prized by furniture makers, 'flame' mahogany was normally, as in this case, used as a thin veneer. The rest of the case is a mixture of solid and veneered mahogany wood.

Mahogany veneer "flame" door,
Wiseman Grandfather Clock,
Lesmahagow, c.1858

James Wiseman would have had this quite well-proportioned case manufactured locally or onsite by a qualified cabinetmaker and this adds to its provincial charm. Interestingly, his brother Robert Wiseman worked as a joiner in or near Strathaven, which is only 9 miles distant of Lesmahagow, so this is a distinct possibility.

James Wiseman Clock Mechanism, c1858

A great many enterprising provincial clockmakers sold clocks with locally manufactured cases and bought in movements but bearing their names on the clock face. Thus there is quite a wide variety of case designs to be found today with consequent varying levels of quality. Some are better proportioned and decorative than others and additionally, polished brass adornments are not uncommon.

The "bob" carrying a Scotch thistle
which beats to the second

My first verified reference to the family provenance of this clock is my elderly Scottish born Great Aunt personally telling me that John Watson, by now a widower and in ill health, came to live with her parents around 1883. John brought with him a number of items of monetary and sentimental value, one of them being the Wiseman Grandfather clock. But as her parents already had a Grandfather clock (which I now own) they unusually then came to own two such clocks. Sadly, John himself died later that year aged 65 years. The clock then remained with the Watson family in Scotland until my Great Aunt and her family emigrated to New Zealand at the end of 1910. The clock, including some of their furniture, came out at the same time as freight on the 'S.S. Durham' per the Union Transit Company of Glasgow.

Grandfather clock by James Wiseman,
Lesmahagow, Scotland, c.1858

With a slow moving pendulum these clocks remained highly accurate. But despite it still usefully serving the purpose it was designed for after close to 157 years and faithfully ringing out the hours on a large bell, such clocks are less fashionable today due to their size and tending to dominate a room. Even by the latter part of the 19th century the popularity of such clocks had been on the wane, being replaced with smaller, usually more inexpensive, and just as accurate timepieces.

A short Video with the Bell Striking

But my family have still been lucky to inherit what would have originally been quite an expensive purchase. This clock still faithfully rings out the hours and with care and attention it should easily run for another 157 years. But sadly, qualified clock repairers are now becoming few and far between.

Painted Arch, Wiseman Grandfather Clock, c.1858

Bibliography :

- "Scottish Clockmakers" by Felix Hundson, 1984 (Edinburgh City Reference Library)
- "In Memoriam - Rev. W.P. Rorison DD", 1907 (held by the writer)
- Robert S. McLeish, Lesmahagow Parish Historical Society (2000)
- Watson Family Papers & Photographs (held by the writer)

Video produced with Windows Live Movie Maker, Virtual Dub cropping and Xvid Codec compression.


  1. Hello. I also own a long case clock from Lesmahagow, circa 1850. It was made by James Pelling, watchmaker. It looks quite like yours. I have a full history of Mr. Pelling, and have photos of the actual store (now boarding apartments) where the store was, as well as a photo of Peter Pelling, James' son, standing outside of the shop, circa 1915.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You have slightly more information about your Lesmahagow clockmaker than I have (so far) managed to gather, had not heard of Mr Pelling till now. Is really good that you have a history of the clockmaker, fascinating to research such history. I've got another clock blog coming up but this one will be English dating to 1779. Even harder to piece together information.

  2. I was very interested to read your blog. I have been researching my family tree and I am descended from a sister of James', Jean Wiseman. I have added the information about James and Robert to my tree, thank you. It is indeed a beautiful clock. I wish that kind of creativity had survived down the generations to myself! Jeni Park

    1. Thank you Jean for your kind words, much appreciated and am glad that this blog also assisted with your family research.

  3. I have a drum type of longcase clock. Date unknown. Maker is T Frew of Hamilton. The only information I have found is that he occupied 32 Cadzow St at some point. Same address as Wiseman! Were they partners or is this a coincidence?

    1. Hi John, Thomas Frew was examined for "sequestration" [bankruptcy] in September 1899 and his goods and business at 32 Cadzow street Hamilton sold in November 1900. A starting date alludes me without some intensive research but yes, he definitely followed Wiseman at that address. Hope that helps


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