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Changing Times | Watchmakers of West Street in Midhurst By Su Fullwood

Over a period of nearly 300 years there have been watch and clockmakers (known as horologists) working in Midhurst, the small market town within the Chichester district.

 

At least 35 can be named, mainly working during the 18th and 19th centuries. The areas of Rumbolds Hill and West Street often had up to three watchmakers working from rooms, shops and workshops at any one period of time.

 

The earliest recorded was Samuel Jemmett whose family arrived in Midhurst in 1722. Of those traced, 11 were in West Street and unusually there is still a traditionally run watch and clockmakers there today. J. E. Allnutt and Son occupy a premises that has seen a rich history of characters, their personal stories of success and tragedy, all connected by the skill of horology.

 

At this time clocks and pocket watches were sought after decorative items which also had a practical use, making them fairly important for people to own if they could afford to. They needed to be regularly maintained and the skills to do this were valued across the country.

 

Apprentices took over five years to be seen as competent makers and repairers. Those with the title master watchmaker had reached a certain level of experience and expertise. They were in a position to pass on their knowledge to others. The fortunes of horologists varied quite significantly with some owning large houses and mixing with society while others were recorded as “pauper watchmakers”, so it is difficult to generalise about their lifestyles and social standing.

 

It becomes much easier to trace the occupants of the West Street premises by 1841 due to the introduction of the Census returns every ten years. It shows that by 1851 The Wrapson family had moved into West Street from a watchmaker’s workshop in Red Lion Street, near the market place.

 

Charles and Mary Wrapson, seemed to be successful and comfortably off. They had three sons and one daughter. One of their sons, William, set up as a watch and clockmaker at 28 Rumbolds Hill.

 

Their two other sons Charles (II) and Alfred stayed living and working with them in West Street. Their daughter Mary Ann also lived with them at this time. When Charles senior died in 1856 his widow Mary inherited the business.

 

Mary was described in the 1861 census and the trade directories as a clock and watchmaker. Her sons were described as watchmakers. It is possible that she may have done all the work on the clocks while her sons specialised in pocket watches.

 

It is the model that is used at J E Allnutts today due to the different skills required. Mary was certainly a very able and knowledgeable business woman, clearly well respected in the community, as the business seemed to have thrived. When she died, Charles, the second eldest child inherited the business.

 

Charles ran the business from 1866 and described himself as a master watchmaker. The family had been steeped in horology for decades and other branches of the family also ran horological businesses in Chichester and Portsmouth, so Charles probably felt confident in this title and in the quality of his work. By 1871 aged 55 he was unmarried and childless but his sister Mary Ann had returned to lodge with him after a very long absence from her home town. She had been living in Portsmouth where, aged 44, she married George Lawrence, a Coach Painter, originally from Tillington near Petworth, before they came back to Midhurst in 1860.

 

In 1871 while living with Charles, Mary Ann’s husband George died and the siblings carried on living and possibly working together until 1876 when Charles also died, leaving the business to his sister. Mary Ann Lawrence became the second woman to run the watchmaking business in West Street.

 

Mary Ann carried on working as a watchmaker right up into her 80s. She employed several journeymen but was very clear in the census returns of 1881 and 1891 that she was the mistress watchmaker, the head of the business and employer. She earnt enough to employ a maid as well. When she finally retired, she sold on a thriving business to the next proprietor, Joseph Ketterer.

 

Next week’s article will delve into the later history of the residents of the watchmakers premises of West Street. In the meantime if you have enjoyed this article why not visit The Novium Museum to see “A Shop In Time” a small display showcasing objects, photographs and stories about this fascinating watchmakers.

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