A Story of Time

1 Watch interior

This is the story of James Knowles, who lived 1779 to 1862, and who has the distinction of being the most remote of my direct ancestors about whom I have any information. (Other that is than birth and death dates, the only trace so many of us leave behind of our lives other than our children. I do, though, know a bit about a man of the same generation, William Davis, the “Wexford Pikemaker”, mentioned elsewhere in these pages). James Knowles came of humble stock, but was to become a prominent watchmaker in London, a trade his descendants continued for four generations and almost 120 years, after moving to Winchester in Hampshire.

James was born in Nayland, a Norman town in southern Suffolk, near the Essex border and on the banks of the Stour. It is a market town for the surrounding farms, and was so in James’ day. It is a distance of 65 miles (105 km) from London to the south west. Nothing is known of James’ parents, Joseph Knowles and his wife Jane, except that on 08 September 1779 they took their son James to be christened, perhaps in the local church of St James, whose patronage the parents may have evoked for their child at the christening. St James’ church was built in the 14th century, and suffered depredations at the hands of the armies of Cromwell during the Civil War of the 1650s. The priest at the time of James’ christening was the Rev. William Jones, Curate of St. James from 1777 to his death in 1800, an eminent author and musician, writer of The Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity proved from Scripture; and composer of St Stephen, a hymn-tune still in use today. Jones was an orthodox High Anglican priest, but James Knowles was a committed Catholic, as were to be his descendants, and perhaps his parents Joseph and Jane were too. (In that time many Catholics outwardly conformed to Anglican rites while following their own faith).

2 View of Nayland

3 William  Jones

Up to January 1766 Roman Catholics in England owed temporal allegiance to the Pope of Rome, not to the Sovereign of England, and were treated with suspicion and suffered restrictions imposed by the Act of Uniformity, the Tests Act and other laws. In 1766 the Pope recognised the claims of the House of Hanover over its English subjects, and Catholics began to be treated as other than potential traitors. The Papist Act of 1778 was the first easing of restrictions, but popular objection to this Act led to the Gordon Riots in London in 1780. Tolerance of Catholicism was a gradual process. The Relief Act of 1829 was the first Act to effectively remove restrictions of professions open to Catholics, though it imposed property restrictions which left its provisions open only to the well-to-do. Had James Knowles been a practising Catholic in his early years he would have needed to proceed with caution, and have found it difficult to gain employment other than with a fellow Catholic, in Nayland or elsewhere.

The next glimpse we have of James is only a supposition, though a plausible one. He had travelled the 65 miles SW to London, perhaps looking for work. There he met a certain Edward Goldsworthy. Edward was a master watchmaker, originally from Exeter in Devon, who moved to London in about 1794 at the age of 43 where he eventually established himself in a shop in Wilderness Row in Chelsea. Earlier shops of his had been in Lower George Street and Grosvenor Road, also in Chelsea. In 1794 Edward would have needed an apprentice for his new London business, and it seems likely that apprentice was James Knowles, then aged 14 years. This was a usual age for an apprenticeship, which lasted for seven years. Edward himself had served an apprenticeship to master watchmaker George Flashman at Exeter at the same age and for the same period. Perhaps James was hired as a boy to do odd jobs, until Edward saw his potential.

4 Spitalsfield 1860

On attaining his majority in 1801 James Knowles married his master’s daughter, Ann Goldsworthy, on 22 June, at Christ Church Spitalfields. Ann was 18, a minor, and the marriage was witnessed by Edward her father and Edward her brother. Christ Church was an Anglican one built in the Huguenot (Protestant) dominated area of Stepney, where the French refugees carried out their own rites separate from the Anglican Church.  James had evidently gravitated to a Dissenting area of London where his Catholicism was more tolerated. Edward himself was an Anglican, at least by observance, and married (his second time) in St Martin in the Fields. His children’s births were registered at Independent churches, however, so Edward may have been more than sympathetic to Catholics: the Goldsworthy family was evidently tolerant of Catholicism. (Goldsworthy is Galsworthy, an old Devon name dating from Norman times).

At age 21 James opened his own watchmakers’ shop, at 31 Craven Street Hoxton Shoreditch, a sign he had served his period of apprenticeship (though no register of apprenticeship has been found). Edward appears to have been fond of James. Not only did he sanction the marriage with his daughter, but the two watchmakers worked as associates, and on Edwards’ death 30 April 1824 James moved to Edward’s shop in Wilderness Row and announced himself in the press as “successor to Edward Goldsworthy”.

It was a good time to enter the watchmaking field. Watchmaking was a prestigious profession, closely associated with the age of British expansion overseas, and developments in science. (Watchmakers then were a little like Apple computer programmers are today in developing a fusion of technology, science and design). English watchmakers led the world in the period 1650-1850, when their hand crafted pieces were such a sign of progressive taste and material prosperity they were worn on a gold or silver chain in a waistcoat pocket, and consulted on every possible occasion. Makers clustered around the Clerkenwell, Shoreditch and St Luke’s area of London. Watchmakers were valued by the Royal Society for the role they played in developing aids to navigation during the period of the founding of the British Empire. Famous watchmaker John Harrison created a piece, the marine chronometer, that first successfully measured longitude in 1760, for which a prize of £20,000 had been offered by the English Parliament. “Standards in London were maintained and driven up by the Clockmakers’ Company. The Company’s original purpose was to regulate and encourage the ‘art and mystery’ of watch and clock making together with many related skills, such as engraving, sundial making and mathematical instrument making. Its powers were generally restricted to the City of London, but in some areas extended to the whole of the UK” (WatchPro). For a time French Huguenots (Protestants) of Shoreditch were prominent in this field. After 1850, as James reached the age of 60, the industry began to fail to compete with cheaper machine-made Swiss pieces. This picture gives some details of British innovations and inventions in the art of watchmaking.

5 British watch innovations

James had landed in just the right place and time (and compatible religious feeling) for his future career.

Here is a map of London 1827 by Christopher Greenwood. Wilderness Row and other locations can be seen at the lower centre portion of the map. The entire map is worth investigating. It is at http://users.bathspa.ac.uk/greenwood/index.html. There you can find Craven Street, Union Street, Smith Terrace and Bunhill Fields, places where James lived or was to live, and bury his dead, navigate to different sections of the map, zoom to enlarge, and consult a list of place names. I think locating the geography of events makes it more real, as we imagine the people talked about making their way from one location to the other. Another old map of the area is here http://london1868.com/index.htm. James Knowles lived and worked in a comparatively small part of London.

6 map 1 Wilderness row and other locations

Watches of that time were made to fit inside ornate gold or silver cases to protect the mechanism from dust. To protect the rear casing of the watch itself, also of gold or silver, from being scratched by the holding case, watchmakers often used a circular piece of paper called, logically enough, a watch paper. These eventually bore a message from the watchmaker to the owner. Where he bought it should he need another one; when he had to come back to have the mechanism cleaned or adjusted, or just an advertisement of the business. Here are two watch papers, one of Edward Goldsworthy, one of James Knowles, the latter noting he is Edward’s successor, and showing Chelsea Hospital, near where his shop was located. There are many of these watch papers still preserved. See samples at this site http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.com.au/2009/05/watch-paper-prints.html.

7 Goldsworthy watchpaper

8 Knowles watchpaper

9 Watchpaper

I have not found any examples of watches or clocks made by James Knowles in the almost sixty years he operated at various shops in Chelsea. But here is a clock by Edward Goldsworthy, made probably just before his move to London.  Here also are some watches made in London during the period James was active, and earlier. What is clear is that these were the Rolls Royce of watches. Just imagining the time and expertise spent making these cases, engravings, mechanisms, and ensuring the work was accurate made me realise that today they would be beyond the purse of anyone but kings and millionaires to purchase. Yet experts have calculated that over 150,000 such pieces were made in the mid 1800s in England.

Goldsworthy 2

Goldsworty 4

10 Harrisons chronometer 1760

11 Watch 1800

James and his wife Ann had many children. But in an age where infant mortality was high the Knowles family broke records. Their first child, James, was born 04 April 1802 and died 30 April 1803; William, born 24 June 1803, lived to 17 May 1805; another William, born 25 August 1805 died 03 March 1806; another son, Edward, born 02 April 1807; a daughter, Ann, born 07 March 1809, died 16 February 1812; then there was a survivor, Joseph, born 14 February 1810, who lived until 24 July 1872 (and is the subject of another essay here); another Ann was born in 1812 but died 23 August 1825; Mary, born 01 March 1814, died 03 March 1815; and finally another survivor, Mercy, born 29 February 1816, died 1898. Five of the nine died within a year of birth, another as a teenager, another has not been traced, leaving only two children surviving into adulthood. Was this due to a hereditary weakness or did gold and silver smiths and watchmakers have a hazardous environment? All the children were christened at St Lukes Finsbury, at the Independent Chapel, with the exception of Joseph, who was christened at Dr Williams’ Library at Redcross Street near Cripplegate: Dr Williams was a leading supporter of Dissenters in London at that time. All the deceased children were buried at the Nonconformist cemetery at Bunhill Fields (where John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake are also buried). Both locations were not far away from Craven Street, and a melancholy round it must have been for James. Then on 23 January 1820 James’ wife Ann herself died, aged only 38. Seven months later, 21 August 1820, James married a second time, to Ann Wicks, who was 24 years old at the time (James was then 42). James had three children with Ann Wicks: Mary Ann was born 13 July 1821; George Wicks born 05 February 1827 died 12 September 1827; and another survivor, a daughter Caroline, born 12 October 1829 who died 1893. Twelve children, only three reaching adulthood. To cap it all, on 30 April 1824 James’ mentor Edward Goldsworthy died, leaving James the care of his second wife Mary Jones, and his business in Wilderness Row to carry on.

In 1822 James moved to a shop in Hospital Row Chelsea. The hospital is depicted on his watch paper. The shop at Wilderness Row was closed, though it still remained in the possession of James, who apparently managed it for Edward’s second wife, Mary Jones, who lived there till 1835. By the time of the 1851 census he is at 29 Union Street, with a visitor, George Browny whom by the time of the next census he seems to have adopted, for that census includes a George B Knowles of the same age, a carter. James’ address in 1861 was 30 Smith Terrace and he still lists himself as a watchmaker.

Chelsea Hospital north front, 1845

13 St Lukes Chelsea1

James’ family of three children (four with his adopted son George) included his eldest surviving child Joseph (perhaps named after James’ father) who inherited the profession of watchmaker and diversified as well, working as a jeweller and a gold and silver smith. Joseph moved to Hampshire and married a heiress with property in Winchester, where he set up a watchmaking business inherited in turn by his son George Joseph, and George Joseph’s son George Goddard, by which time the competition of cheap machine made watches had closed many British firms. James’ daughter Mercy married a master tailor called James Harbige, lived with him in Shoreditch and had five children with him. James’ other surviving daughter, Caroline, married a soldier called Henry Robertson. They lived for a while in the Wilderness Row property, then moved to Islington. Caroline had five children with Henry, who became one of the Chelsea Pensioners.

14 WatchMaker

Like many researchers into family history I am left wondering what James Knowles thought of the events of his time. He lived, after all, in one of the great revolutionary periods of history. Yet I have no letters or journals written by him, and no accounts left behind by those who knew him. So I have to imagine him talking of these following matters with friends, family and customers.

James was eight when the USA became a nation and drew up its Constitution. In England William Wilberforce began his campaign against slavery (but England transported 38,000 slaves that year regardless). The following year The Times commenced its significant publication history; in the Great South Land Captain Philips arrived with the First Fleet of convicts, a strange experiment in sending prisoners to an unexplored and unknown land with no provisions. In1789 when James was 10 the French Revolution began its bloody course. A strange poet called William Blake published his Songs of Innocence. When James was 12 Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published and much discussed, and that same year the Magic Flute was performed in Vienna, the famous composer Wolfgang Mozart dying only months later. When James was 14, about the time he left Nayland,  Louis XVI was executed in Paris, the decision made with a majority of one vote. The Reign of Terror began, and Marie Antoinette was beheaded as well. Did news of these events filter into Nayland? Or did James wonder what people were talking of when he heard mention of them later?

When James arrived in London he surely heard about the great Admiral Nelson, whom that year lost an eye during a siege in Corsica. Thomas Paine, a great figure of the European Age of Enlightenment, was writing The Age of Reason in a Paris jail. The following year Warren Hastings was impeached (and exonerated) for his administration in India, a matter which divided people passionately. When James was 17 he may have heard that the famous explorer Mungo Park had reached the Niger in Africa. The equally famous “Friend of Liberty” John Wilkes died in Grosvenor Square; Wilkes had once been administrator of the affairs of St Lukes in Old Street. When James was 19 the Irish rose in rebellion against the English occupation, and were slaughtered. When he was 20 General Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Dictator of France. The question of liberty and freedom was much debated. When James reached the age of 21, although he didn’t know it, London’s population reached one million (and the world’s population one billion). In London mad King George III survived a second assassination attempt. These were matters everybody was talking about.

15 Horatio_Nelson,_Viscount_Nelson_by_Sir_William_Beechey

As a married man with his own business James surely grumbled when Parliament introduced income tax in 1801, a temporary expedient to fund the war now raging with France. When he was 26 the Battle of Trafalgar was fought; when he was 30 there was rioting at Covent Garden over a steep rise in the cost of tickets that lasted four months. The electric light was invented by Humphrey Davy that same year. When James was 32 there was rioting at Nottingham led by Edward Ludd which destroyed machinery thought to be a threat to labour. The following year Napoleon retreated from Moscow, and the year after that William Charles Wells first suggested the idea of natural selection to the Royal Society. When James was 36 the Battle of Waterloo saw the end of Napoleon (almost). The following year Lord Byron scandalised London and rumours circulated about his possible incest with his half sister. When James was 39, in 1818, left and right shoes were introduced for the first time. Two years later George III died after a long period of insanity and there were rumours of poisoning by arsenic.The Cato Street Conspiracy, in which Arthur Thistlewood attempted to murder the entire British Cabinet, was foiled. That was the year of James’ second marriage. When James was 43 Charles Babbage invented the calculator. Two years later Tom Spring defeated Jack Langan after an epic 2.5 hour boxing match. Supporters of both men argued for days afterwards. When James was 49 Sir Robert Peel reformed the London Police Force and the streets began to be patrolled by ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’. When he was 51 he would have heard of the first passenger trains, and also of more agricultural riots, the Swing Riots which destroyed threshing machines. At age 52, in 1831, a cholera epidemic swept London.

When James was 57, Charles Dickens published his first books and was instantly among the most popular authors of the day. The following year Thomas Crapper introduced the water closet, and Queen Victoria began her reign. In 1838 Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution. In France Louis Daguerre invented the first viable commercial photographic process, the daguerrotype, a positive image only. Did James rush to have his and his family’s photos taken? When James was 61 the postage stamp was introduced, expediting the flow of the mails. When James was 62 Punch magazine was founded. James participated in a census of the British population. Two years later the Thames Tunnel was opened, an engineering marvel of the time. The following year there was an enormous development in railways, and railway lines covered the country, while people travelled faster than ever before. The next year the potato blight suddenly appeared and destroyed 40% of the crop in Ireland, where it was crucial for the people’s survival. When James was 69 the great Californian gold rush broke out. In London there was another cholera epidemic, and the Government passed the Public Health Act (too little too late).

16 Big Ben

When James was 72 he would have been able to visit the Great Council Exhibition, and see the famous Crystal Palace. He would have certainly been interested in the installation of Big Ben on the tower of Parliament House. That year he participated in another Census. When he was 73 he could have visited the newly opened Victoria and Albert Museum. The following year he would have seen people smoking the cigarette first introduced that year by Philip Morris. He would certainly have heard about the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea. The following year he would likely have been gossiping about the Great Bullion Robbery of a mail train. At age 80, if he were interested, he would have seen Florence Nightingale become a best selling author, on the subject of public health. In 1861 James participated in yet another census. He died the following year, on 23 July, at Smith Terrace.

Of course this is but a tiny fragment of the events of James Knowles’ life. The full list can be found here http://timelines.ws/sitemap.html. Rather than just leave these events out because there is no evidence of what James thought of them, I include them because it is a certainty he would have been interested in at least some of them and discussed and written about them. It’s just that we don’t know about which ones. Also unknown are James’ taste in the arts. Did he read poetry, the traditional kind written by Walter Scott or Robert Burns, the new Romantics William Wordsworth and later John Keats, the slightly scandalous Shelley and Byron? Did James see and like the paintings of Constable and Turner? Did he read the new author Jane Austen, or the popular Charles Dickens (everybody read Dickens). Did he listen to Haydn when he visited London? Just as we don’t know his tastes in the arts, we don’t know his political leanings, his state of health, or the strength of his religious convictions. Everything that would bring him alive to us is missing, and all we have is BMD dates, professional details and census data. A bit of imagination is required. James Knowles did practise a revolutionary profession, and was involved however passively in the movement for individual freedom, in his case religious freedom. This tells us something at least of the kind of man he was.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Thanks are due to the researches of George Liakos who generously shared his information on individuals who overlapped in our respective family trees. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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