In the Horological Journal, Volume 107 III 1965, there was a two page article ‘The decline of watchmaking in Great Britiain’ by Frank Mercer FBHI. The article began with ‘These few notes are more or less personal recollections which have occurred to me during my own 60 active years participation with our craft’. He went on to write…
‘…Prescot, the home of the movement maker, full of wonderful oldtime craftsmen, had started a watch factory directed by Chas. & T. Hewitt and financed by Earl Derby to a great extent, and equipped not with very modern American plant but with old stuff from some place that wanted to get rid of its outmoded tools and machines for more modern equipment. For years this factory struggled on; the John Bull watch was one of their efforts, as were the clocks and other articles, but things got harder and harder as time went on.
I met T. O. Wright in the law case – Day Time Registers and The Law Guarantee Society and others against this company; he and I being expert witnesses on different sides. I well remember the fine efforts of this company; but as elsewhere – Clerkenwell, Coventry and Prescot – age long conflict between the old craftsmen and modern methods was the downfall in every case.
To make horological parts you have to take the line of the late Sir Allen Gordon Smith: start afresh, with young people unhampered by the old traditions of their forefathers, and willing to take risks. In this way he has made a wonderful contribution to our modern industry. One new and successful move was to employ women workers.
After the end of the Second World War, Sir Stafford Cripps realised the state that our industry had got down to, and this far seeing chancellor ordered Sir Allen Gordon Smith and a small group of experts to go to Switzerland and arrange, if possible, to rent or purchase vital parts and tools that we required. This was “La Délégation Horlogère Suisse’. It was a very young team, in fact I was the old man of the woods. We came across problems that seemed unsolvable. Indeed we had to return on one occasion to put matters right in perspective. I was very pleased to be one of the group ad more and more I realised what a fine negotiator we had in Sir Allen and what lasting results had been obtained.
Causes of decline
What then, do you ask, actually was the main reason for the decline of our industry? I suggest this was largely due to the antagonistic behaviour by the old craftsmen of that period. Cole and Hammersley and others sprung these wonderful watches in their private housed and no new blood was coming forward. North and other makers in London had to meet the combined opposition of these wonderful craftsmen and I often thought all they wanted and worked for was to be in at the death.
The old hands had gone, though their memory was still as fresh as their gifted personal touch, but it was no good making watches only for museums – the people wanted watches for ordinary use, and in this respect the old craftsmen had failed to do their duty for the furture. Today we have outstanding evidence of the progress of the modern maker – I will not mention names. However, even here, I suggest their principal enemies are their own people and the importer, who is a very agreeable person but has rather an easy ride in the matter.
Those who know, and I have many friends in the craft, say – why does he not practice what he preaches? Probably he does and leaves the future to the young! Let the younger generation, who are our hope, get on with the design and new improvements, but let me – oh let me remain at the bench that I love. I leave the future to the renewed youth, keeping watch on their progress, querying their manoeuvres but having a hidden regard for their many achievements.