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obo Article - A Matter Of Time

This week’s #clerkenwellcuriosities celebrates British Summer Time with a focus on EC1’s horological history.

Nowadays, the first country that comes to mind when talking about watchmaking is Switzerland. However, did you know that us Brits brought some of the greatest design innovations into the timekeeping world?


Since the beginning of the 18th century, Clerkenwell was the centre of clock and watch-making and the streets became lined with subdivisions of the trade. By the end of the 18th century, some 8000 workers were engaged in the business in Clerkenwell and turned out many of the best machines in the world.

Not only did the British create long-lasting innovations for the clockmaking world, but through these innovations, they enabled the growth of the British Empire.

How? By creating the first British Chronometer. Indeed, John Harrison, who resided in EC1, was the brains behind Captain James Cook’s discoveries.


The watchmaker solved the problem of finding longitude at sea which enabled ships to travel the world with accuracy!



By the 19th century, Britain was leading the watchmaking industry, with more than half of the world’s watches being crafted on its shores and more specifically in Clerkenwell. However, with the arrival of the 20th century, the industry in Britain had declined by half and eventually collapsed. But there still remains one, right on our doorstep!

Clock manufacturer John Smith & Sons, founded around 1780, is still trading, more than 200 years later. In its Victorian heyday, it was a dominant feature of the landscape of Clerkenwell. It owned a large factory in St John’s Square, where The Modern Pantry is today.

If you’d like to transport yourself back in time for a moment and check out an example of the company’s Victorian craft, head to the triangle at the top of the Goswell and City roads. There stands the Smith & Sons “Angel clock”. Now electrically run, it was for years wound every eight days by an employee from the factory. #obolife #ticktock


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