Edward MASSEY and the importance of the ‘Liverpool lever’ watch.

The making of watches is not just about technology but is also about the single biggest driving force that helped shape the development of the modern watch. Almost always ignored in our sphere of history, that force is marketing: the design, production and distribution of watches with the specific goal of satisfying customer needs, as well as, of course, the business of making a profit. In other words, this is not a story of precious antiques, but of consumer goods being sold into a market that had, in the most part, yet to be created. It’s what makes the story of the ‘Liverpool lever’ so important. That is:

1. Watches not bearing London as their place of manufacture

2. Watches of a new style, not looking like London work

3. Watches that clearly promote their ‘new’ feature, or indeed features; and 

4. Watches bearing a third-party warranty, of sorts, in this instance in the form of a Patent

At this point a short introduction to the subject is necessary:

Thanks largely to the work of Thomas Tompion, by 1700 the London finished watch, with its balance-spring, had become the watch that customers wanted to own, and London became the place to buy them. The ‘best’ watches had become associated with London, much like ‘Scotch’ is with whiskey or Parma with Ham. 

As such, England’s capital city became a magnet for many of the best craftsmen in Britain, and also attracted workers from continental Europe – as well as those dealing in poor quality copies and fakes of course, but that is a different story.

Watchmaking was, even by 1700, a highly collaborative endeavour and the home of watch finishing became firmly entrenched within its London-based, but not necessarily London-born, workforce. The manufacture of rough movements, 

that part of the watch passed on to the finishers, was also carried out in London, but most English watch movements originated in South Lancashire, from the area around Prescot. In particular, it was the cutting and finishing of the steel components, especially the pinions, that rightly gave Prescot the reputation of producing the finest rough movements, and the business flourished there well into the 19th century. 

This is perhaps not surprising given the availability and quality of materials, and the associated skills relating to tool making, for which this area of Britain had long received world recognition. It is, however, not the manufacture of rough movements, but their finishing and the subsequent retailing of watches in Liverpool and surrounding areas that is the subject of this short essay.

The work of the Aspinwall family is perhaps the best known of those few Liverpool watchmakers who appear to have made and sold finished watches in the 17th century. Examples of this date are so rare, however, that the general statement that most if not all finished English watches originate from London still holds true. Things started to change, however, once the demand for the new balance-spring watches took off, particularly at the beginning of the 18th century.

A typical ‘London’ watch of circa 1725 has a pair case, a champlevé dial, a relatively deep movement with a recoil (verge) escapement, and the all-important balance-spring that could be easily adjusted for timekeeping by the owner. Such watches were also retailed outside the capital and various British cities and names can be found engraved on their, London supplied, dials and movements. There are, however, enough Liverpool signed examples at this time to believe that watch finishing was indeed taking place in South Lancashire; perhaps catering to the demand emanating from London. As such, some ‘London’ signed watches may even be all South Lancashire work – but more research on this particular subject is needed.

The copying of ‘London’ watches at this period is certainly to be expected, and it is not until after 1750 that the first truly South Lancashire creation occurs, of a type of watch not seen before. These are the new dead-beat escapement watches coming from Ormskirk - by Benjamin RYLAND, William GARRETT and others. Their importance to what followed in Liverpool should not be underestimated.

George Graham led the change from recoil to dead-beat escapements in watches around 1725. The London trade immediately produced a version that could fit the old vertical frames (the ‘tumbling pallet’ or Flamenville escapement), and experimenters such as Henry Sully also developed versions. 

The ‘Ormskirk’ escapement, in all its variations, is much the same, but these watches show clear proof of innovative local watch manufacture. Not one part of these watches could be considered standard London work: the escapement, the use of a going-barrel, the early use of a Bosley-type regulator, and the unusual plates and pierced decoration as seen on the earlier examples. They were also a success, in as much as watches with this ‘new’ escapement, mostly from Ormskirk and Liverpool, continued to be made and sold until the mid 19th century – a span of around ninety years. 

Later movements have a distinctly continental style (the rough movements were almost certainly imported) with a Swiss/French-style balance-bridge, mostly with a steel coquerette. The cheaper versions have going-barrels with an exposed mainspring. Better finished examples have gilded barrels surrounding the mainspring, and some rare examples have a fusee. Importantly, such watches did not bear ‘London’ as their place of origin, and did indeed find a market, even though it was likely only a local one. It is now, however, that we see the entry of one of the more important characters onto the Liverpool scene: 

Peter LITHERLAND patented his new dead-beat watch escapement in October 1791, and he and his backers, Whiteside and Banning, began to promote and advertise them in a local, mostly shipping, newspaper Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser, in 1793. This proved a revelation when I first discovered this small series of adverts in the early 1990’s. In particular, they show that most of the variations seen in Litherland’s output were available from the very beginning, and provided quite a different understanding of his work than had previously been accepted. But why a shipping newspaper?

This is almost certainly because a thriving and cosmopolitan port area such as Liverpool provided customers for them. More importantly, the trade in watches via the New World ports of America was a good and growing business, and indeed ships captains under contract to American importers, and probably general passengers who could afford to invest in stock, were the main ways that such exports then took place. 

From the research into business history already published, we know that imports of consumer goods into America took off in the early part of the 19th century. So much so, Liverpool’s watchmakers found it difficult to keep up with the demand. This was the main reason for the growth in importance of Coventry as a watchmaking center, plus there was almost certainly an anti-London feeling in post-Independent America.

Litherland’s output of his new patent watches (he used no other escapements at this period) had reached around 1800 in serial number by the year 1800. 200-or-so watches a year by 1800 would seem to indicate a sure though perhaps relatively slow start, but trade was obviously good enough to prompt other Liverpool watchmakers to enter the field. Robert Roskell was the first and perhaps most successful of Litherland’s now equally famous rivals, but there soon followed many others.

The cheaper watches, those more commonly seen in Litherland’s surviving early output, have gilt metal cases, 3-wheel trains, going barrels, and little jewelling, being only on the balance. Litherland’s advert shows that these retailed at £7/17/6. His more expensive watches usually have a going fusee, the movements are capped and are jewelled on both the staff and escape, and they often have a solid gold balance providing ‘eye appeal.’ Some rare examples are of Litherland’s largest size, perhaps his ‘best’ size, being just over 63 mm in diameter. 

Litherland’s most expensive watches are described as “second’s beating, fully jewelled, best finished and cased in gold,” and are priced at no less than £63 – a sum fully commensurate with best London work.

Litherland’s output had reached 6,000 in 1810 and was around 10,000 by 1820 – an increase in production to around 500 watches a year. More watches indicate more sales and more money coming into the business, and, in turn, means more people involved in their manufacture, and it is this latter decade in which most of the significant technical events of this story happen.

I have so far deliberately not used any of the common names used to describe watch escapements. This is for the good reason that they can confuse and lead to miss-associations. It’s the same with any loosely descriptive common name - they can so often connect items in our mind that are not, in fact, connected. It is much the same with Litherland’s patented escapement, which we know as the ‘rack-lever.’ In operation it is, however, a dead-beat escapement, in common with Graham’s cylinder, Sully’s dead-beat, the work of Debauffre on the continent, aswell as the Ormskirk variants. It plays no part in the technical development of the detached lever escapement of Thomas Mudge, invented around 1750.

This is not to decry Litherland’s work, rather it is Litherland’s successful manufacturing and marketing of finished Liverpool watches that is his lasting legacy. In short, he showed that customers were able, and willing, to purchase non-London made watches in considerable numbers – far more so than those from Ormskirk. Further, and just as importantly, customers were shown to be susceptible to being offered a watch bearing the ‘warranty’ of a Patent, and the gates were now fully open for Roskell, Tobias, Beesley and countless other Liverpool based watchmakers to compete and sell their ’Patent lever’ watches, mostly in America but also, it must be said, in London too. In doing so, they changed the way watches were made, how they looked and how they were marketed worldwide.

Edward Massey, an avid and energetic inventor, patented his form of lever escapement in April 1812. Borrowing perhaps some proportions from Litherland’s rack lever, Massey’s work is nonetheless detached. This is very different from, and a great improvement over, any frictional rest dead-beat escapement. Exactly where Massey got his idea is unknown. Suffice to say that detached lever watches had been made by numerous London based watchmakers after Mudge and, despite what you may have read, continued to be finished and sold after the death of Josiah Emery in 1797. 

‘Detachment,’ and the beneficial aspects for the balance, resulting in better timekeeping, was then understood, and mechanically minded inventors like Massey must have known this, and it is to Massey must go the plaudits of bringing detachment into Liverpool watches. This was the single greatest technical improvement over the older Graham-type dead-beat watches, and watches engraved ‘Massey’s Patent,’ ‘Patent Detached,’ and ‘Improved Patent’ forged a deserved reputation for their Liverpool makers, especially in their biggest market, America. So much so, these now began to be faked by the Swiss!

It was these Liverpool watches that inspired American production, and which led directly to the founding and eventual flourishing of Waltham, Elgin and other famous American firms; and it was the copying of Liverpool watches by the Swiss, and then their copying of the American copies of Liverpool work, and their production methods of course, that led directly to where we are now. What’s more, the detached lever escapement, as invented by Mudge, and promotedby Massey, is still by far the most widely used and trusted of all mechanical watch escapements.

That is not quite the end of this story as Massey’s versions of the detached lever, though mechanically and commercially successful, especially after he added draw, were eventually to lose out in preference to another form. Mechanically no better, except perhaps more secure in its safety action, the ‘table-roller’ or ‘single-roller’ escapement (the ‘English lever’ as it tends to be called abroad) was one of five or so different detached lever escapements that quickly appeared after Massey’s Patent of 1812 - mostly within a few years, and all certainly by 1820. All were successful in their own right, having a long life with some of England’s escapement makers, but not all are as well known as the Massey or table-roller. All are uncommon before 1820, and some are indeed rare, having been mostly missed in the written histories. None were patented, but all are detached, and all were no doubt inspired by the work of Edward Massey.

The most important of these is the ‘single-roller’ variant, the eventual mainstay of English work. Pre-1823 examples are rare but I have seen enough of these watches now to be certain that the earliest examples do indeed date from before 1820, and that Liverpool is almost certainly from where the escapement originated. All those seen by me do have draw.

A less well known variant is the ‘Savage 2-pin’ escapement and George Savage is thought to have been making this from around 1814. The importance of this escapement is that the impulse has been transferred from the lever fork in the Massey to the safety pin. In doing so, the impulse takes place more on the line of centres, a clear if marginal advantage. Further, even the earliest examples seen by me have draw and it is likely that the finer tolerances needed in this escapement made draw a necessity. Such fine tolerances no doubt increased the cost of fitting this ‘improved detached’ escapement and examples are certainly not common. Surviving examples also show that wear, and perhaps hard knocks, can negate any advantage as the deranged escapement reverts to operating much like a Massey or table-roller – unsightly wear at the corners of the notch is a sure sign of this. That said, this escapement, if properly fitted and fully jewelled, must rate amongst the best for pocket watch use.

Another variant of the table-roller uses a wider fork action than normal, necessitating the use of two pins in the roller. Miss-described by some in the past as a “modified Savage,” this ‘2-pin’ escapement does not work like a Savage and is not a modification. This variation appears to have no mechanical advantage over the Massey, other than to perhaps circumvent the Patent, but it was used in the English trade for over fifty years. All those seen by me have draw.

Another rare detached Lever variant uses a large trapezoidal-shaped (dovetail-shaped) jewel in the roller, which needs a most exaggerated shape of fork. Otherwise, the action is the same as in the Massey. All those few examples known to me have a London origin, are well finished, with draw, and have a fine action. This escapement also has the accolade of being among the first of the newer ‘second generation’ of detached lever escapements to have been finished as a form of ‘pocket chronometer,’ by none other than John Roger Arnold I believe.

I could go on but the history and development of the English lever is not the subject of this short essay. Instead, I can share one other important Massey influence with you, and that is a watch of typical Liverpool appearance but is in fact by William Pearman working in Richmond, Virginia, USA. This is his No 2 watch and it has not, as far as I know, been written up before.

The watch has a silver paircase of English manufacture, carrying Chester hallmarks for 1823. The brass-edge is also of English manufacture, as is the dial. The rest, however, is all American made. Further, its detached lever escapement is of a type not previously recorded:

The roller is a type-1 Massey. It is possibly an English ‘spares’ import, but it looks to be locally made. The escape is a type of pinwheel, certainly locally made and crossed out. The lever shows the usual Massey safety action but with a heavy, rack-type counterpoise and the most individual form of pallets – they not jewelled. 

This escapement is certainly a one-off (perhaps two-off, given its number). It is also obviously not as well made as the standard Liverpool watches with which it is trying to compete. However, this most rare survival must rate as one of the earliest, perhaps the earliest, truly American-made, not just American-finished watch movements (as produced by Luther Goddard and others), and it is certainly the first with a detached lever escapement. That said, it is equally important in showing just how strong was the influence of Liverpool watchmaking at this time, circa 1824/5. 

To sum up: these watches by Litherland, Massey, etc, were the foundation of the following important aspects that clearly pointed to the future:

  • The continuing development and promotion of the detached lever escapement. 

  • The take up of ‘thinner’ half and three-quarter plate calipers, from around 1820 onwards.

  • The manufacture and proliferation of easier to adjust bimetallic compensation balances, following on from the London work of Robert Pennington. 

  • Lastly, but just as importantly, the understanding of how to sell ‘new style’ watches into a new and expanding market. In doing so, making Liverpool watches a world respected brand.

David Penney (copyright)                                                                                 April 2018