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H. Williamson

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

H. Williamson was established in 1865 in Coventry by Henry Williamson as a dealer in, and later manufacturer of, jet jewellery. Jet is a hard black fossilized wood that can be carved and highly polished. Queen Victoria wore jet from Whitby as part of her mourning dress after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and it became extremely fashionable. When jet went out of fashion in the 1880s the company diversified into other areas.

The firm grew rapidly to become a huge wholesale business. The head office and show room was at 81 Farringdon Road, London. There were factories in Birmingham and Coventry.

In 1892 the firm was incorporated as a limited liability company as H. Williamson Ltd.

Henry Williamson went into semi-retirement due to poor health and failing eyesight in 1906, and died in 1914.

Following the financial crash of 1929 and the subsequent world-wide depression, H. Williamson Ltd. became insolvent in August 1931 and was liquidated.

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Williamson and P & A Guye

Guye and Williamson
1893: Guye and Williamson. Click image to enlarge

The advertisement reproduced here from The Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith of June 1893 says that H. Williamson, Ltd., 81 Farringdon Road, London are the sole agent for the United Kingdom for P & A Guye's movements in London made cases.

Culme shows that two punch marks “HW” in cameo within an oval surround were entered at the London Assay Office in 1888 by Henry Williamson. A sterling silver watch case with one of these HW sponsor's marks and the date letter “R” for 1892 to 1893 containing a Guye movement has been seen. This suggests that H. Williamson were having watch cases made for them in London, hallmarked under their own registered sponsor's mark (which was a common practice) and fitted with movements such as those from P & A Guye.

The address of P & A Guye at 77 Farringdon Road is interesting, because Grace's Guide lists H. Williamson's address in 1922 as 77-81 Farringdon Road. The same guide lists Williamson factories in Birmingham and Coventry, and branches in Manchester, Auckland, Calcutta, Johannesburg and Sydney.

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Williamson and Errington

In November 1895, it was announced that H. Williamson had taken over the watch manufacturing concern of Mr. Charles H. Errington, Holyhead Road, Coventry. Although little known outside Coventry, Errington's establishment was said to be of considerable extent. Before the acquisition of the Errington watch company, Williamson had made only clocks at a factory in Salisbury and acted as agents for other companies, notably the watchmaker P & A Guye but also quite likely Errington, which would be how they became interested in the factory. For twenty years Errington had devoted himself to the production of low cost watches, being granted a number of patents for improvements in watch movements.

In announcing the acquisition of the Errington Watch Factory, a name that was continued, H Williamson said that it possessed “the most perfect system of Machinery in this Country for the Manufacture of High Class Watches, Keyless and Key-Winding, ¾ and full-plate.

Cutmore says that because Errington had finished rough movements made by James Berry of Prescot, when H. Williamson acquired the factory there was no machinery for the manufacture of the watch plates or other basic parts. It is believed that Williamson acquired machinery for making plates and other parts in 1896 from the failed English Watch Company. However, this is rather contradicted by the statement made by Williamson's on taking over the Errington factory.

In 1898 H. Williamson's main premises at 81 Farringdon Road London was said to be extensive and imposing, with commodious offices at the front and a very large shipping department at the back, with warehouses, workrooms, a large packing department and numerous departments handling gem stones, jewellery, items of silver plate and electro plate, and a large clock, optical and watch department. “There were many excellent lines of Swiss watches . . . the majority of which are manufactured exclusively for the company.”

The building at 11 Spencer Street, Birmingham, with a factory and offices, had been built for the Reading family of jewellers circa 1871. It was acquired in 1899 by H. Williamson Ltd., who used the offices and made electroplated silver wares in the factory.

In May 1909, a fire completely destroyed the Salisbury clock factory, which covered nearly an acre of ground, in little more than one hour, and the whole of the stock, plant, and machinery, including tools, models, plans, drawings, calculation lists, and everything connected with the factory, were completely destroyed. A new factory for making clocks was set up in Coventry under the direction of Charles Errington who pulled off an extraordinary achievement in getting together a complete plant, machinery, tools, etc. in a few months, designing a completely new clock movement, the first “Astral”, which met with exceptional praise from experts and others who examined it. Charles Errington continued working for H. Williamson as manager of the Coventry watch factory until his retirement in June 1910.

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Williamson and Büren

In 1898, Williamson purchased the Swiss company of F. Suter & Cie, a watch manufacturer founded in 1873 by Fritz Suter in the town of Büren an der Aare in the canton of Bern, Switzerland. In 1899, Williamson purchased the factory of Albert Montandon in la Chaux-de-Fonds.

The factory in Büren was acquired specifically to supply parts such as the train wheels and pinions, mainspring barrels and arbors, and escapement parts, to the watch factory in Coventry. These parts were incorporated into watches of English appearance, with plates that were made in Coventry. These watches were advertised as “English Lever” and “Keyless English Lever” watches.

In 1899 the Lancashire Watch Company, who had previously supplied watches to Williamson before they started making their own movements with imported Swiss parts, took out a prosecution under the Merchandise Marks Act (1887). Williamson were found guilty of applying a false trade description to watches with Swiss train wheels and other Swiss made parts. As a result of this, Williamson purchased Swiss machinery so that they could make the parts in Coventry, which meant that the Swiss factories were no longer needed for this purpose.

Rather than close or sell off the Swiss factories, Williamson began making complete watches there and importing them under the brand name Büren.


W.H.S sponsor's mark for imported watch cases

Imports of watches from the Büren factory no doubt increased as the demand for expensive English made watches decreased. Swiss watches in gold and silver cases with Swiss hallmarks were imported without any problems until 1907. Then in 1907 the British authorities woke up to the fact that this was against the law, and required that all imported gold and silver watches be assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. This caused a scramble amongst watch importers such as Williamson to service the requirements of hallmarking, which meant that they had to have a sponsor's mark registered with one or more assay offices.

As major manufactures and wholesalers of gold and silver Williamson already had sponsor's marks registered with the London Assay Office. Henry Williamson had first registered his mark H.W as gold worker on 4 February 1887, and various H.W.Ltd marks were registered after the company had become limited, but a different sponsor's mark was registered specifically for use on imported watch case, the mark W.H.S within a surround with angled ends shown here.

The first sponsor's mark punches with this mark were entered at the London Assay Office on 22 June 1907 by William Henry Sparrow, described as an importer of gold and silver watches, 11 Spencer Street, Birmingham. Two additional punches with the same mark were registered on 4 July 1907, and two further punches with the same mark on 3 May 1909.

These simple registration details conceal an interesting story. Philip Priestley records that Sparrow was “possibly” Manager of the Errington Watch Company Case Department, so it would make sense that when Errington was acquired by Williamson in 1895, Sparrow continued in charge of the manufacture of watch cases. When the law changed to require imported watch cases be hallmarked, he was the obvious person to enter a sponsor's mark for that purpose.

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Merchandise Marks Act Prosecution

In November 1899 H. Williamson Ltd. were accused of breaching the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 by falsely applying to certain watches the description “English lever,” and of exposing for sale certain watches falsely described as made in England. It was not disputed that the watches in question did contain several parts of foreign manufacture, or that they were sold as English lever watches with the English hallmark upon their cases. Williamsons admitted that in some watches the barrel arbor, the cap studs, the centre wheel and pinion, the third wheel and pinion, the fourth wheel and pinion, the pallets, the pallet staff, balance cock, main spring, balance spring, balance and barrel were made in Switzerland.

Williamson contended that the train and other foreign parts used in these watches were on the same footing as the balance and spring mainspring, which were nearly always of foreign origin in all English watches. They also contended that the foreign parts need not be considered in the description because they were imported in the rough and had to be shaped, polished and fitted in Coventry. These arguments were not accepted by Mr. Chapman, the magistrate who heard the evidence in the case, and in March 1900 Williamson were found guilty, fined £20 with £10 costs and the watches confiscated.

An article in the Horological Journal in 1948 said that a result of the trial was that a new Merchandise Marks Act precluded any British watch or clock factory from using more than sixpennyworth of material, which the article said “just covered the cost of a hairspring”. In fact, it covered more than that as can be seen from the Williamson Astral pocket watch shown in the next section, which has a Swiss made balance, balance spring and mainspring, and the jewels are also almost certainly Swiss made, which is why it has only 7 jewels. At the time, jewels were mass produced in Switzerland by automatic machinery, but in England they were shaped and formed by hand, which made them much more expensive than the Swiss. The Williamson movement would be better, longer lasting, with 15 jewels, but the number was probably kept to seven to stay under the sixpennyworth limit on Swiss materials.

The judgement in the case probably didn't come as a surprise to Williamsons because even during the case they had been importing Swiss machinery to be used at the Coventry factory to make parts which were previously imported from Switzerland. After losing the court case, Williamson extended the Coventry factory so that they could make all of the parts there instead of importing them, although they continued to use Swiss balances, balance springs, mainsprings and jewels. The Swiss Büren factory remained owned by Williamson, but now made complete watches marked “Swiss Made” for sale in the UK and elsewhere.

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Williamson Astral

Williamson Astral Face

Williamson Astral Face. Click image to enlarge.

Williamson Astral Perret Spring
Williamson Astral Paul Perret Balance and Spring. Click image to enlarge
Williamson Astral Movement
Williamson Astral Movement. Click image to enlarge

In 1910, H. Williamson introduced a new watch brand, the “Astral”.

The pocket watch shown here is a Williamson Astral in a gold plated Dennison Star grade case. The movement with its exposed winding wheels looks Swiss, but it was made actually in Coventry by H. Williamson Ltd. in around 1910.

The reason for the Swiss appearance is that before 1899 Williamson had been assembling movements in its Coventry factory using parts made at its Swiss factory in Buren, so the watches naturally had a Swiss appearance in order that the imported parts would fit.

The watches were advertised for sale as English, but use of Swiss parts in them was found to be illegal when Williamson were prosecuted under the British 1887 Merchandise Marks Act.

Williamson lost the court case and subsequently imported Swiss machinery so that they could make almost all of the parts in Coventry, but the movements retained a characteristic Swiss appearance, with exposed winding wheels and a straight line lever escapement.

Warranted English

After losing the Court case and increasing the use of parts made in Coventry, Williamson started to mark movements “Warranted English”, either on the top plate or on the ratchet wheel as shown here, and issued a guarantee with each watch that said it was “guaranteed to be a genuine English Lever, the whole of its parts being of English Manufacture with the exception of a trifling amount of Foreign material which does not exceed the value of 6d.”

Although the movements and their component parts were then mainly made in Coventry, there were still some Swiss parts. At the time, English watchmakers routinely used Swiss mainsprings, balance spring and jewels. This movement has only 7 jewels, but it has a Swiss balance and balance spring, and not just ordinary ones. They are in fact a Paul Perret nickel steel compensation balance spring and an uncut monometallic balance made of maillechort, a nickel alloy that resembles silver in appearance.

The photograph shows the uncut balance and white metal alloy Paul Perret balance spring. Possibly the use of only 7 jewels, with no train jewels, was in order to keep the cost of imported materials to below sixpence.

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John Troup & Sons

This company was established in the early 1840s by John Troup at 36 Hatton Garden, in London's jewellery quarter, as a watch and clock maker and jeweller. Troup was joined in the business by his sons Alexander James and Frederick William, when the business was named John Troup & Sons. In 1870 the business was described as a wholesale jeweller. The premises has a small street frontage but stretches back a long way and today houses 18 independently owned jewellers booths. It seems likely that the front of premises was used as a retail shop with a wholesale business at the back. In 1903 a branch was opened at 105 Spencer Street, Birmingham.

In 1907 the business and stock was sold to H. Williamson Ltd for £35,000.

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H. Williamson Wristwatch

Williamson Advert December 1905
Design 383942 registered 1901, Williamson advert 1905: Click image to enlarge

Although wristwatches had been used by British military officers since the 1880s, these were usually in the form of small pocket watches in leather holders called wristlets. H. Williamson Ltd. was one of the first manufacturers to make a wristwatch with a leather strap that attached directly to the watch by the means of lugs attached to the case.

Mr Tucker, managing director of the firm of H. Williamson Ltd., made an interesting statement about the origin of the wristwatch. In an interview in 1954 he said:

During the Boer War we received a 12 size watch belonging to an officer in South Africa. He said he wanted to wear it on his wrist. I suggested putting loops on the case and sewing straps on to them. This was done, and we were struck with the idea and had it registered. It was some time before the idea took on, but eventually it became extremely popular.

The design was registered with the British Board of Trade in 1901, making it the earliest known example of a wristwatch with a leather wrist strap attached directly to the case for which there is indisputable evidence. The registered number of the design is 383942.

The exact date of registration is not recorded, but the volume in which it was recorded is dated runs from 21 September to 12 December 1901. If the 4,157 designs that were registered over the 83 days covered by the volume came in at a steady rate, that would put the date of registration at 1 December 1901.

The strap is a two-piece open ended design with the open ends sewn together, exactly as described by Mr Tucker. There is one feature of the registered design that is immediately notable; the strap is not attached directly to the wire lugs of the case but to an oval loop of wire that is itself coupled to the wire lugs on the case by a flattened metal tube. Unlike patents, registered designs have no accompanying text description; the only only thing that is recorded is a representation, one or more illustrations of the design, so there is no explanation given of the reason for this feature.

The registered design shows that the lugs project horizontally from the case rather than drooping down as is the case for lugs designed to take a one-piece pull thorough strap. It might be speculated that the strange design of the lugs, with the attached flattened metal tube and oval loop of wire, was to form a hinge to relieve bending strain from the strap when tightened around the wrist. But a strap stitched directly to directly projecting metal lugs would put little bending strain onto the lugs and this explanation seems implausible. It might be that a simpler design with the strap directly attached to the lugs would be so obvious that it could not be registered, so this more complicated design was conceived purely to allow a registration of a design to be secured. The fact of registration, evidenced by the registered design number, could be used to warn other manufacturers off, and the lack of any textual description would make it difficult for them to mount a challenge.

It appears that Williamson did not immediately begin in 1901 to manufacture large numbers of wristwatches with leather straps. The first known advertisement by Williamson for wristwatches with leather straps was published in December 1905, as shown here.

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Williamson in World War One

Astral Wristwatch Advert from 1916
Astral Wristwatch Advert from 1916: Click image to enlarge

The first World War resulted in large numbers of new officers being commissioned. Each of these needed to buy a wristwatch when he was buying his outfit, as well as a uniform, sword, revolver, field glasses, etc. This on its own created a huge demand for wristwatches. Then officers were seen wearing wristwatches by the large numbers of new recruits who joined the army during the war, who quickly coined the term ‘a proper wristwatch’ for a smartly dressed officer and many of whom decided that they too would like to wear a wristwatch. This added to the demand for wristwatches.

The 1916 Annual General Meeting of H. Williamson Ltd. was told that:

The public is buying the practical things of life. Nobody can truthfully contend that the watch is a luxury. In these days the watch is as necessary as a hat - more so, in fact. One can catch trains and keep appointments without a hat, but not without a watch. It is said that one soldier in every four wears a wristlet watch, and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can. Wristlet watches are not luxuries; wedding-rings are not luxuries. These are the two items jewellers have been selling in the greatest quantities for many months past.

The advert reproduced here for the Wristlet Astral dates to 1916. The watch is said to have a screw back and bezel case; these cases were made by the Dennison Watch Case Co.. Although Williamson were clearly enthusiastic about the prospects for wristwatches, English made Astral wristwatches are not common.

The movement was stamped “Warranted English”, but without this it could easily be taken for a Swiss made movement. It is essentially a Swiss watch made in England using Swiss machinery, with a Swiss straight-line lever escapement and exposed winding wheels, Swiss mainspring, balance spring, balance and jewels. It had only seven jewels in the escapement, no doubt to keep the cost of the imported components beneath the sixpennyworth limit the train bearings were not jewelled.

It would be interesting to know what these retailed for, they were probably more expensive than a Swiss made wristwatch with a 15 jewel movement. It is no wonder they are rare!

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H. Williamson Liquidation

Following the financial crash of 1929 and the subsequent world-wide depression in the 1930s, H. Williamson Ltd. became insolvent in August 1931. The business continued to operate as before while the liquidators attempted to sell the assets.

A joint-stock company "Büren Watch Company SA" was formed in Büren an der Aare on 15 July 1932 for the purpose of acquiring the watch factory "H. Williamson Ltd. Buren Watch Co" and all its assets and goodwill. The purchase agreement was dated 19 July 1932. The board of directors were appointed at a constitutive general assembly on 23 August 1932. The directors included William Edward Tucker, ex joint managing director of H. Williamson. Tucker was appointed sales manager and by 1934 had travelled three time round the world selling Büren watches. The Swiss company was bought by the American Hamilton watch company in 1966.

The Coventry company Rotherham & Sons became the British agents for watches made by the Büren Watch Company SA in September 1932.

Williamsons made clocks and watches with the name Astral and, in the 1920s, electrically wound car clocks with the name Empire. A branch of Williamsons trading as “English Clock and Watch Manufacturers” was taken over by Smiths, who continued producing clocks with the name of Astral until 1955.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated February 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.