English Wristwatches

English made wristwatches: Rotherhams, J W Benson, Nicole Nielsen, H Williamson and the Lancashire Watch Company.

By the last quarter of the 19th century London was one of the great capital cities of the world; one where fashions were started and trends were set. One of the more important trends at this period was greater freedom for women. This coincided with the then international craze for the pedal bicycle. This energetic activity, and its associated problems of finding the time when hanging on to the handlebars, led to a fashion in which the small ladies fob watch, then usually attached to the bodice with a pin and a chain, began to be worn on the wrist in what were called ‘converters. These specially designed leather straps came in different sizes and, judging by surviving photographs of women from the period, many small and some not so small watches were being proudly worn on the wrist from the 1880’s onward. Concurrent with this, more expensive gold cased watches with fixed gold bracelets were being sold for evening wear, and gold bangle converters were also being made and advertised.

Very much then seen solely as a ‘women’s fashion,’ it was only the advent of war that allowed the wristwatch to cross the gender barrier some time around the end of the century. The earliest recorded advert for wristwatches aimed at men, in the 1900 J W Benson ‘New Century’ catalogue, mentions leather converters being worn by men of the English forces during the South African Boer War. The uptake was slow, presumably due to male hostility to what was considered such a feminine fashion, but by 1918 and the end of the Great War, it could be said that age of the pocket watch was over. Never again, Sunday best apart, was the pocket watch to have the importance it once held in male attire.

Swiss manufacturers were quick to take advantage of the situation as it was they who supplied most of the small watch movements. Fit a small fob watch with wire lugs, remove the bow and fit a smaller button and you have a watch that could be worn on the wrist and the later conversion of ‘pocket’ watches into ‘wrist’ watches was a common occurance throughout the first quarter of the 20th century. There were, however, a few English firms who could also supply the growing demand.

The most important of these was the Coventry based firm of Rotherham and Son. This famous Coventry firm was large enough to design and manufacture complete watch movements in a variety of sizes, as well as cases dials and hands to match. Their business, though large, was primarily supplying the retail trade and most of their watches, both pocket and wrist, bear a great variety of High Street names. Two sizes of movement were used in their wristwatches, though it would be wrong to think that the smaller size was aimed at women. Size was a fashion aspect and the early wristwatches should rightly be considered as unisex, where wrist size and personal preference ruled. 

Despite being turned over completely to the war effort, Rotherhams returned to making watches after 1918 and continued to supply quality watches into the 1930’s, by which time most other English manufacturers had chosen to stay with the new and expanding business relating to the internal combustion engine in all its different manifestations.

The other main English manufacturer of quality wristwatches was the London firm of J W Benson. With a solid reputation and strong colonial ties, Benson started to produce their own wristwatches in 1910. Their watches came in silver, 9 and 18 ct cases and can be found with both plain and radium dials, their cases carrying the firm’s stamp of JWBLd. That said, the great majority of Benson’s watches, even after 1910, continued to be fitted with Swiss movements.

Occasionally one comes across English wristwatches bearing the famous London names of Frodsham or Dent. Always of the best English quality, Dent retailed Rotherham made watches and, like their main rivals Frodsham, those produced by the great London firm of Nicole Nielsen & Co. These later are very rare and point to the fact that few seem ever to have been sold, presumably because of their high relative cost compared to the Swiss-made, English-retailed alternative. In fact all true English made wristwatches are much rarer than their Swiss counterparts and good examples rightly command a premium price.

The other main supplier of English wristwatches was the Coventry based firm of H Williamson Ltd, though their purchase of the Swiss firm Buren, circa 1898, makes it difficult to know exactly what constitutes ‘English’ work. Williamson supplied watches for the cheaper end of the market and were thus in head-on competition with Swiss imports. Not nearly so well finished as those by Rotherhams or Benson, most that survive have either 7 or 13-jewel movements, though occasionally one can find their better, 16-jewel examples.

The last firm that one occasionally encounters is the work of the Lancashire Watch Company of Prescot, Lancashire. This famous or foolhardy company, depending on your viewpoint, went bankrupt in 1910 after which the appointed receivers continued to sell movements to whoever would buy them. Some of their smaller output ended up as wristwatches, often very nicely cased, though all I have seen date from after the firm ceased production.

The Great Depression that began in 1929 finally ended English watch production and by 1935 they had vanished from the market, leaving the UK in a vulnerable position at the outset of the Second World War. It was only then, and due to government encouragement, that S Smith & Son started production. First supplying timers and the like for wartime use, they began to produce their best quality wristwatches from 1945/46 onwards - see my other article.

David Penney - Copyright 2011