Tuesday, 23 February 2016

A 1779 English Longcase Clock by Thomas Woodruff, Salop

My 8 Day Longcase clock by Thomas Woodruff,
of Salop, Shropshire, England, 1779

My 18th century eight day brass faced clock by Thomas Woodruff of Salop (now known as Shrewsbury) in Shropshire England is a good example of a classic Georgian era English provincial longcase (Grandfather) clock.

While the provenance of ownership of this clock is unfortunately unknown I have been able to find a reasonable amount of information about this provincial clockmaker including uncovering (literally) some interesting and very conclusive evidence of when it was made.

Detail of the face plate and silvered dial
(my apologies for the reflections)

Shrewsbury itself is an historic and pleasant old Tudor town located in a loop of the Severn River and contains many half timbered and historic old homes and churches among its narrow streets and wynds. I have myself visited twice, once staying in the centre of the old town in a listed 16th century house with plastered walls and beautifully exposed beams, some of which one had to "duck" under to avoid hitting.

A view looking up Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury
[Source : Google Streetview]

The first reference to the Woodruff family as Clockmakers in Salop [Shrewsbury] is 1762 when G.H. Baillie notes in his "Watchmakers and Clockmakers of the World" a 30 hour long case clock made by James Woodfruff, presumably Thomas' Father. The next reference is to be found in "Shropshire Clock & Watchmakers" where Thomas Woodruff is recorded as being a Clock and Watchmaker in Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury from 1767 until his death in 1801. Obviously the business passed from father to son. Legal records held in the Shropshire Archives and dated 1767 record him as being a "watchmaker [and] bondsman [indentured servant] of Salop".

A view looking down Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury
[Source : Google Streetview]

Wyle Cop lies in the old part of the town, running close to the "English Bridge" up a rise towards the High Street and the town centre. It now contains predominately 17th and 18th century dwellings with shops at street level. An historic half-timbered three story building survives at the lower end of Wyle Cop with the 12th Century St. Julian's Tower at the upper end. As to where in Wyle Cop Woodruff's premises were located is unknown.

Two examples of Longcase Clocks by Thomas Woodruff

A number of longcase clocks by Thomas Woodruff come up for sale occasionally, some being in a similar or identical classically styled Georgian case or hood similar to my own and additionally some with a brass arch and adornments. This similarity confirms that my clock has not been a "marriage" of mechanism and case. Unscrupulous dealers have often been known to place a good brass movement in a better quality case to hopefully increase its value. This is always something to watch out for as often the mechanism will not properly fit the hood or the dial face and / or case will be a mixture of time periods or styles. While I have not personally discovered one, GH Baillie notes a late 18th century bracket clock by Thomas Woodruff which shows that he was a reasonably versatile clockmaker.

The trunk with the door open
and showing the very heavy
lead weights and brass bob

I am assuming that, as with so many other provincial clocks, the mechanism parts and brass face were brought in fully machined or at least made to the clockmaker's specific order so only assembly would be required. While Woodruff's name has been ornately inscribed on the brass face there appears to be no conclusive proof that James Woodruffe himself would have manufactured anything other than the oak case. But this would certainly not be impossible were he to have manufactured and sold a reasonable number of clocks to make the purchasing of cutting and machining equipment financially worthwhile - and had the requisite skills to undertake this highly specialised but expensive work. I would imagine that his watches were similarly inscribed with his name but I have never located one.

Detail of the brass mechanism, large cast
iron (?) bell and rear of the face plate
showing theareas of cut out brass

The face plate is made from one piece of polished and lacquered brass with an overlaid silver plated chapter ring and a date ring behind the face plate. Cast decorative gilt scroll spandrels are screwed onto each corner of the face plate. Due to the high cost of brass, areas of metal have been carefully cut out from behind the chapter ring. This work caused a slight crack in the edge of the plate which was then expertly riveted together at the back. Only the small crack is visible from the front.

The oak case and door with
mahogany cross-banding,
an expert piece of joinery

This case is of dark stained oak with fluted columns on the case and hood, with mahogany cross-banding around the edge of the trunk door. Unfortunately a previous owner has applied a few screws to some parts of the case which must have come loose but these are thankfully not too obvious. Sturdy iron brackets have been inserted inside the case where the base joins the trunk containing the pendulum but these are not visible unless the case door is open. This was probably a wise move as the mechanism and iron weights are exceedingly heavy and had obviously been placing pressure on the old and now creaky oak case. Upon opening the case door one can still perceive a smoky smell which indicates that the clock spent many years in the vicinity of a fireplace.

The etched details "J May 79" which I found under a layer
of grime on the rear of the face plate. While it looks like "99"
 in the image it is definitely "79"

Since purchase at auction in the year 2000, I always believed  the design of the clock and brass face to be commensurate with the period circa 1760 to 1790. But while once having removed the brass face plate in order to clean the mechanism, I could just, under two centuries of grime and in a good light, make out some unusual scratches on a back bottom edge of the plate. After carefully polishing this area to get a clearer view, I could then make out the details "J  May 79" etched in scrolling copperplate. This therefore usefully confirms that the brass face plate itself was manufactured in May 1779 by someone with the initials "J". The dial, which is in Roman numerals as well as numbers, includes a subsidiary second hand and a date aperture which moves every 24 hours. The weights are of lead suspended by catgut (fibre) cables.

The remains of Old St Chad's Church with
the cemeteryin the foreground.
[Source : Darwin Country]

Thomas Woodruff married his wife Ann sometime prior to 1767 and went on to have nine children. He died on the 5th October 1801, aged 65 years, and is buried at "St Chad's". This could be the church yard adjoining the new St Chad's Church built in 1792 or in the grounds of what remained of the old St Chad's Church which largely collapsed in 1788. The latter would likely have been used if there had been an old family burial plot. I walked around the new churchyard in 2003 but there was no sign of a named gravestone. Surprisingly, his wife Ann lived on for a further 54 years and died as late as 1855 aged 99 years, being buried in the Abbey Cemetery beside Shrewsbury Abbey. This area is now known as Abbey Foregate. There is no evidence that a family member continued the clock and watch making business.

Clock cleaning and re-oiling
After 236 years this longcase clock still usefully serves the purpose for which it was designed, complete with an exceedingly loud bell strike. With care and attention there is no reason why it should not serve another 200 plus years. While some reproduction parts are available and re-bushing presents no problem, qualified clockmakers are unfortunately becoming fewer as the years roll on. It is truly a highly skilled occupation. Values appear to have dropped over recent years and it probably now has a value of around NZD$3,000 to $4,000 But I am still fascinated at such an old mechanical object still going strong after so many years and generations, a credit to the original maker.

Sources :

- "Watchmakers and Clockmakers of the World" by GH Baillie, 1929
- "Shropshire Clock & Watchmakers" by DJ Elliot, 1979

My thanks to a very helpful antique dealer (I have unfortunately, in the passage of time, lost his name) in Wyle Cop who, in 2000, provided me with the information quoted from "Shropshire Clock and Watchmakers" and even went down the street and took a photo of Wyle Cop for me.

Copyright : Unless otherwise stated all images are from my own collections and may be freely copied for personal use provided this site is acknowledged. Thank you.

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