Contributed by Sue Burgess
Cuckfield has an impressive clockmaking and repairing tradition that notably spans two and a half centuries.
For most of the 18th century the Gatland family were the prominent clockmakers of Cuckfield:
and Philip 1749-1788.
John and Edward are both buried in Cuckfield churchyard. Of the three Gatland generations, Edward is Cuckfield’s most renowned clockmaker and the museum displays two examples of his long case clocks, both still keeping excellent time.
The principal one is a fine 8 day clock, made in about 1770 for the Sergison family at Cuckfield Park with a 9ft (2.75m) ornate lacquered Chinoiserie case. In 1929, when the contents of the house were being dispersed, it was bought by public subscription for the people of Cuckfield at a cost of £40. It stood in the foyer of the Queen’s Hall for 50 years, then came upstairs into the care of the museum in 1980. It’s still an impressive sight but over time the brilliant colours of the lacquer have faded leaving only gold details, apart from traces of red.
Our more rustic 30 hour clock by Edward Gatland dates from c1740, single-handed with a silvered dial and original oak case. The space between the numerals is marked in quarter-hours rather than minutes, with the half hour indicated by a decorative fleur-de-lys. Telling the time like this was good enough in country districts before stage coach and then railway timetables introduced national rather than local time-keeping and accuracy to the minute became much more important. The “Cuckfeild” engraved inscription on the dial is probably not so much a mistake as an example of 18th century spelling, which was more arbitrary than we are used to today.
A fine silver pair case pocket watch by Edward Gatland is on display in the Coaching case, as a reminder that the guards were responsible for keeping the London – Brighton stage coaches running to time.
Another clockmaker, Walter Smith, worked in Cuckfield between 1773 and 1813. The museum purchased the mechanism of one of his late 18th/early 19thC clocks in 1984 and for many years it was displayed on its own. In 2009 the museum acquired a southern provincial mahogany case as an exact fit. It’s another clock that, more than 200 years later, still keeps perfect time.
In 1797 William Pitt the Younger introduced a five shilling duty on all clocks in Great Britain so, as a result, many owners disposed of their own clocks and relied on clocks in public places such as taverns – hence the name “Act of Parliament” or “Tavern” clocks. The effect on the clockmaking industry was so disastrous that the act was repealed the following year. A late 18thC 8-day “Act of Parliament” clock in a black laquer case, also by Walter Smith, hangs in the Queen’s Hall itself. This clock had previously been in Cuckfield’s Post Office, then the King’s Head Hotel before being acquired as part of the Museum’s collection.
The last Cuckfield clockmaker represented in the museum is Edward Bates (1767-1845). Still well within living memory, his late 18th/early 19th clock stood in “Fluff” Newnham’s clock shop at the bottom of Cuckfield High Street. Still in its original provincial oak case, it was precision-made for accurate time-keeping against which other clocks would be regulated.
A much more modest example of Edward Bates’s work is a 30 hour brass single handed wall alarm clock from c1790. This has no case, probably made for someone who couldn’t afford and/or had no room for a long case clock but had to get up for work, hence the alarm function.
Most recently the museum has acquired an Edward Bates silver pair case watch dating from 1793. It still has its key so we can confirm that it too still keeps perfect time, surely a tribute to the skills of long ago craftsmen. Both silver cases, made by James Richard of London, snap open and shut just as well as they always did so it’s clear that Mr Bates, like Edward Gatland before him, ordered best quality components when assembling a commission.
There is much more information about the clock makers/repairers of Cuckfield, including some earlier than Gatland, Smith and Bates, among the museum’s research room files.