Watch and Clock Makers in Cullompton  

While the Bilbie family will be remembered for their bells, they also made clocks and watches. In the late 1700s these were quite well regarded. Lantern clocks seemed to have been a specialty of theirs. The clock business was largely at Chewstoke and Axbridge (John Bilbie).  A number of their clocks still exist – an example of John’s work is in the National Trust property “King Johns Hunting Lodge” in Axbridge. 

The Bilbies in Cullompton are recorded as Watch and Clock makers. In the Universal Directory 1794, Thomas (misspelt Bilby) is recorded as ‘Bell founder, clock and watchmaker’. He is credited with a clock for the church here in 1811 for which he was paid £55. In 2009, a longcase clock made by Thomas Bilbie sold for £2,250 at Christies. The clock was described as a mahogany, striking, eight day, longcase clock with automaton dial. It featured  automaton lumberjacks and was 89 in. high.

Another watch and clockmaker in the directory is William Whitby. He was apprenticed to Henry Rendell of Tiverton in 1776 for 7 years. By the 1790’s he seems to have his own business here – a oak longcase clock with his name on it (and Collumpton) has been dated to around 1795.  See the image below. He appears again in Pigots Directory in 1823.

Long case clock made by William Whitby

The other watch and clockmaker recorded in Pigot’s is William Uglow. He is thought to have moved to Truro (King St), as a fine oak longcase example with his name and Truro on it still exists. 

By the 1850’s there seem to be three watch and clock makers in Cullompton:  

  1. John Benham born in Tiverton (but in Cullompton from 1838 initially – according to the 1841 census – in Exeter St) also seems to be a cabinet maker – (See National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors Forum); it is thought he had the dials made in Bristol but the rest made locally. At least 2 of his clocks still exist (A Fusee Timepiece and a Mahogany Longcase Clock with a rocking ship above the dial).    It is thought he later moved to Bradninch and died in May 1866. See Devon Clocks and Clockmakers by C Ponsford, 1985.
  2. George Bidgood. George seems to have come from a large Cullompton (and Bradninch) family. We have records of 3 generations of George’s from 1741 in Cullompton.   George (b 1804) married Sarah who became a Milliner and Dressmaker and their daughter Emma (b 1834?) made Straw Bonnets. However, it seems none of George’s work has survived and he doesn’t seem to have registered anywhere as a Devon clockmaker. So, perhaps he was largely a retailer and repairer. 
  3. William Hill jnr. William also seems to have come from a significant Cullompton family. A Henry Hill had an Academy, sold books and was Deputy Registrar of Births and Deaths. He lived in Pound Square. At the time of the census in 1851 William snr had a Beerhouse near the New Cut and William jnr is described as a watchmaker and engraver. Like George Bidgood, none of his work seems to have survived. 

       According to Slater’s Trade Directory of 1852-3 all three lived in Fore St.  Both John Benham and George Bidgood received payments as victims of the 1839 fire.  

Notes: Around Bristol was a good place to make clocks and watches, as raw materials were readily available. There was also a thriving export market to the New World – at least until American Independence. Timber was shipped in and manufactured goods out. At its peak (around the 1840’s) it is thought around 200,000 clocks and watches were exported from Bristol each year. Up to the First World War, British clocks and watches were amongst the best in the world. – largely produced in little workshops like John Bilbies’s in Axbridge. The Swiss began to dominate after this; with British production largely going to the military as part of the war effort and after the war we were slow to introduce mass production.