Was Coventry watchmaking responsible for the UK engineering industry?

Had there been no watchmaking in Coventry it is likely that there would have been very little in the way of engineering industries at all.

You may consider the above to be a bold statement, but it can be argued that Coventry did not directly experience the influence of the industrial revolution because there was no nearby source of iron ore, no limestone and the coal was deep and had to sourced via mines rather than obtained by opencast methods. It was not until the development of the railway networks in the 1840’s and 1850’s that many town and cities like Coventry were able to readily obtain bulk supplies of iron and steel for use in manufacturing industries.

In the 1600’s a clockmaking and watchmaking industry grew up in Coventry and the reasons for this happening are unclear but it may have been due in part to it’s central position and it is known that a stagecoach run linked London, Coventry and Liverpool which became the three major centres of watchmaking in the UK. There may also have been a Huguenot influence as Coventry had long been a place where immigrants had settled and a number of surnames of French derivation do crop up in watchmaking families.

Coventry did reach a position that it was known to have made at least 50% of all watches being made in England during the 18th and 19th centuries although it is difficult to accurately quantify these figures because many Coventry watchmakers were making movements and even completed watches which were not marked and were sold into the trade.

In 1861 weaving and watchmaking were both in a deep slump, which was in part due to the American civil war, people were starving and soup kitchens were set up. Many people were leaving the city to emigrate and prominent citizens were deeply concerned that the local pool of skilled labour was being diminished. They therefore set up a company (The Coventry Machinists) to manufacture sewing machines and the watchmakers proved adept at this due to the similarity of the work in making gearwheels and assembling drive trains

A nephew of Singer, who was one of the directors of the Coventry Machinists, visited Paris and bought back with him a French “boneshaker” bicycle. this was a rather crude affair but the potential was recognised by James Starley who was a foreman at the company and he developed the machine to be the forerunner of the modern bicycle. It was not long before former watchmakers found themselves making bicycles; this even included former dial painters being employed to paint the fine lines and designs on the cycle frames. Other cycle manufacturers sprang up in Coventry and at one point it was considered to be the cycle manufacturing centre of Europe. The invention of the internal combustion engine soon led to the development of a motor cycle and then motor car industry and entrepreneurs and inventors followed the by now well-trodden path to Coventry.

The Coventry clock and watch industry did survive the 1861 slump and watchmaking continued until the outbreak of the second world war, when the major manufacturers turned their hands to the production of munitions and other military equipment, which was why Coventry was targeted by bombing raids.

The major manufacturer, Rotherhams and Sons was making parts for the automotive trade after the war but did re-commence the making of a range of clocks which were usually given as presentation pieces and this continued until the 1960’s. So there you have it, without watchmaking in Coventry, we could well have gone without engineering overall!

This blog post was written by Coventry Watch Museum. The Coventry Watch Museum Project consists of a group of people, many of whom were born and bred in Coventry, who are seeking to inform people about the history of watchmaking which was so important to the industrial development of the city. The Project is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.

For more information about Coventry Watch Museum click here

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Posted on October 4, 2012, in Automotive, Coventry PR, Manufacturing, PR in Coventry and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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