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J.G. Graves The Express English Lever Silver Pocket Watch, 1898

Last updated on November 5, 2022

I enjoy my antique watches. I love the feel, the sound, the craftsmanship and the century or more of character. However, I also enjoy researching the history of the watchmaker, the retailer and the movement. I always complete my research before I buy the watch. Sometimes, if the research takes too long, I miss out on the opportunity. This happened to me recently when I was researching an antique silver Lancashire Watch Company pocket watch. Having done all of that research and missing out on the purchase was frustrating, but it made me determined to find another Lancashire Watch Company pocket watch. Today’s post is about the latest addition to my collection, The Express English Lever Silver Pocket Watch, retailed by J.G. Graves and made by the Lancashire Watch Company.

The Express English Lever silver pocket watch.
J G Graves “The Express English Lever” silver pocket watch.

J.G. Graves

John George Graves was born in Lincolnshire in 1866. His family moved to Yorkshire when he was still a child. At the age of 14, after he had left school, he was apprenticed to a watchmaker in Sheffield. In those days, apprenticeships were normally indentured, whereby the apprentice would be contracted to the master craftsman for a period of seven years. The apprentice would generally live with the master craftsman and receive a small wage. On completion of the apprenticeship, the apprentice was free to go forth and practice his craft.


In traditional English watchmaking, the process of manufacturing a watch was divided into two main fields, the movement maker and the watchmaker. A movement maker purchased the raw materials and produced blank movements. These consisted of the main plates, pillars, the mainspring barrel, fusee, and the gear train. Watchmakers purchased these blank movements and finished them by fitting the escapement, jewels, dial and hands. Finally, the finished movement would be cased, branded and embellished. J.G. Graves would have fitted into the second category of a watchmaker, meaning he was trained to finish the blank movement.

J.G. Graves, retailer

Having finished his apprenticeship, J.G. Graves started out as a street peddler selling watches. He was successful and soon moved into his own premises where he traded and repaired watches. J.G. Graves was a shrewd businessman and started advertising watches, jewellery, furniture, cutlery and silverware for sale both from his shop as well as by mail order. He was amongst the first entrepreneurs to embrace the idea of selling watches, on ‘monthly terms’ thus enabling people to have items they could not immediately afford which they continued to pay for over a period of time. At the height of business, J.G. Graves employed more than 3,000 people, and from his catalogues, he offered as many as 140 different watches as well as jewellery, machinery, and clocks. His company posted over 2 million mail-order items every year.

J. G. Graves advertisement.
J G Graves pocket watch advertisement.

As a result of his enormously successful business, J.G.Graves is a well-known name on the dials of English pocket watches, but he never actually made any himself. All his watches were bought in with the majority being made by the Lancashire Watch Company. At the height of his business, J.G. Graves bought in as much as 70% of the entire production of the Lancashire Watch Company. Additionally, he also purchased Swiss and American watches as well. He was a highly successful entrepreneur, became the Mayor of Sheffield, and lived to the ripe old age of 79. After he died in 1945 his brother ran the business for another ten years until the mail order side was taken over by Great Universal Stores. There is an ongoing charitable trust in the name of J.G. Graves and there are many buildings and recreational facilities that bear his name.


By far the most common J.G. Graves brand available on the antique watch market is The Express English Lever. However, there were other brands available, but these are much more difficult to come by. These other brands include:

J.G. Graves, Sheffield, The Midland Lever, Swiss made

The ‘Imperial’ English lever – Lancashire Watch Company

The Arundel English Lever

The Defiance English Lever- Lancashire Watch Company

‘The Westville Lever’ with a Swiss three-quarter plate movement and engraved back cock.

RomanDial Watches

I prefer to buy from genuine dealers rather than online auction sites. I just find there are so many discrepancies in the descriptions of the watches, that I can’t bring myself to trust the seller. This is the first antique pocket watch I have purchased from RomanDial watches. I spoke to the owner of the business, David, and he was very knowledgeable and helpful. This is the other benefit of purchasing from specialist dealers, you can ask questions and get answers over the phone.

All their watches are fully serviced. The service includes a complete strip-down of the movement to its component parts. All parts are cleaned checked for wear, oiled and reassembled. They then test the movement for at least a week to check for accuracy and reliability, aiming for an accuracy of 1-2 minutes for lever watches. While the movement is being serviced, they clean and polish the case. All the hinges and catches are checked to ensure they are working correctly. Finally, they replace the mineral glass with a new (old stock) crystal. The package also includes a small booklet advising how to use and care for antique pocket watches.

Roman Dial pocket watch care guide.
J G Graves pocket watch.


The pocket watch has a going barrel with an English lever escapement and is dated from 1898. The retailer is J.G. Graves, with the manufacturer being the Lancashire Watch Company. The full plate movement has 7 jewels, which suggests that it isn’t of a particularly high standard. However, judging from the pricing on the original advertisements it probably represented a week’s salary of a skilled tradesman, so for most people, it would have been a significant expense. Additionally, the warranty offered on the watches ranged between 5 and 7 years. For J.G. Graves to offer such a warranty suggests that the retailer had confidence in the quality of the watch. Regardless, I can certainly vouch for its longevity, as the watch is sitting ticking at my desk after 122 years.

Reversing pinion

The movement is stamped with the words REVERSING PINION. A reversing pinion is an invention designed to prevent damage to the movement in the event of a mainspring breakage. A patent application for the invention was lodged by the Lancashire Watch Company in 1895. The problem was that with the very strong mainsprings required at the time the backlash after a failure would travel through the gear train and potentially break components. The solution is quite simple. Instead of the centre wheel pinion being fixed to the staff it is screwed on. In normal use the gear teeth on the mainspring barrel bear against the pinion and keep it screwed down. If the pressure is suddenly reversed the pinion unscrews and the power dissipates harmlessly without passing through the wheel train.

Reversing pinion movement.
Reversing pinion movement.


The sterling silver case is in excellent condition, with a nice machined-tooled back and a vacant cartouche. The case measures 52mm x 19mm and weighs 126g. Inside the case back are the Chester hallmarks for 1898. All of the hinges and catches are working correctly. The case back pops open when the button on the watch stem is depressed. The button also opens the crystal for time setting.

The watch is key-wound and set. It came with a size 4 key, which looks to be modern. It is the smallest key of any watch I have had in my collection. I found it quite difficult to set the time because the key was so small. I imagine it would be quite easy for the key to slip off the arbor and damage the dial or the hands. That said, the previous owner must have had steady hands because the dial is free from cracks and chips. The mineral crystal is clear and free from chips and scratches.


The watch passed the 24-hour accuracy test with flying colours. It was accurate to within less than a minute, which is perfectly acceptable for an antique pocket watch that is 122 years old. The power reserve on a full wind was approximately 33 hours. I’m not sure if it came to a sudden stop or started losing accuracy in its final hours, but since it passed the 24-hour test, I am perfectly happy.

I am pleased with this latest addition to my collection. It comes from a noted retailer and a respected English manufacturer. This J G Graves pocket watch is a very presentable timepiece and is accurate enough for practical use. In its day this would have been an ordinary worker’s watch, rugged and reliable. I am looking forward to the opportunity to wear this watch.


  1. Stephen Cosslett Stephen Cosslett

    I have been given the express English lever pocket watch that was my great grandfathers.
    It does not work, and the first obvious problem is the ‘shaft’ that holds the seconds hand in the sub dial is missing, as is the hand.
    Would you know if these replacement parts are available and from whom.
    If they are is it a difficult process to repair.

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Steve,
      I purchased my Express English Lever pocket watch from RomanDial Watches. They provide servicing and repairs at very reasonable prices. I am certain that they can provide the missing components and service the watch to working order. I would imagine the repair and service would be less than the price I paid for the watch, which I am very happy with. If you are based in the UK, I recommend giving them a call. If you require any further information, please use our Contact Us page.
      Thanks for commenting,

      • Stephen Cosslett Stephen Cosslett

        Thanks Jason, I will contact them.
        In the mean time I have completely disassembled the watch, cleaned everything and reassembled it.
        It is ticking away quite strongly and keeping absolutely excellent time.
        My maiden watch service. Do I feel smug or what. Just need the hand to complete the project.
        Thanks again.

  2. Steve Steve

    Hello again Jason
    I contacted RomanDial watches as you suggested and they made a new seconds hand for me at a very reasonable price.
    I have a timegrapher and was wondering if I could set this watch up using it, but one of the variables is the lift angle. Would you know what it would be for this watch, is such a thing exists for these watches.

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Steve, I am pleased that RomanDial were able to help. Well done with the service as well. The lift angle is a difficult question to answer. Most modern watches have a lift angle of around 52 degrees, but pocket watches tend to be in the range of 36 to 42 degrees. There are plenty of videos online that will show you how to calculate the lift angle using the slow motion video on a Smart phone. That is probably your best option. Thanks for commenting, Jason

  3. Stephen Brown Stephen Brown

    Hi Jason

    I have been given one of these watches with a key, but can’t remember how to open the front to set the time. The button at the top opens the back of the watch, but not the front? Any ideas?
    Many thanks.

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Stephen,
      If it is the same watch, there will be a raised lip on the bezel at the one o’clock position. This can be raised with a fingernail and then the key can be used to set the time. I hope this helps. Thanks for commenting, Jason

      • jeff jeff

        When adjusting the time, should we adjust clockwise or anticlockwise, or does it not matter? Also, is there any way of viewing the manual online? Thank you!

        • Jason Jason

          Hi Jeff, ideally, you would wind the watch clockwise. So if you have the same J.G. Graves pocket watch from circa. 1900 you would open the crystal and place the key over the hand’s pinion/arbor and turn it to the right to set the time. To wind the watch, you open the case back by depressing the crown, inserting the key and turning it anti-clockwise. I am not aware of any online manuals for antique J.G. Graves pocket watches, but the functionality is limited to what I have stated in the last couple of sentences. I hope you get enjoyment from your antique J.G. Graves pocket watch. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jason.

  4. keith gordon keith gordon

    i have been left the Express English Lever pocket watch but someone has broken the back case of at the hinge, is this repairable . it also has the key missing

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Keith,
      I purchased my Express English Lever pocket watch from RomanDial Watches. They provide servicing and repairs at very reasonable prices. I am certain that they can also replace the missing key. If you are based in the UK, I recommend giving them a call. Thanks for commenting, Jason

  5. Lois Ann Smith Lois Ann Smith

    I am inquiring about the value of my grandfather’s pocket watch. J G Graves Sheffield is on the face of the watch. Across the top of the dial face it says “The Express English Lever”. The watch appears to be in very good condition. There are no scratches on the dial, though the case has tarnished as would be expected of a silver case. Opening the back on the cover we find 3 symbols stamped and initials WE. It apparently takes a winding key, which we do not have, therefore we are not sure it is currently working. Is it possible to acquire a winding key? Would it be worthwhile for you clean and restore the watch to working, if it is not. Any information you can give us on the watch we would appreciate it! Thank you

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Lois, it is a nice watch. The WE on the case most likely refers to the watchmaker William Ehrhardt. J G Graves was the retailer of the watch. The other marks are the British hallmarks that will indicate it is sterling silver and the year and place it was assayed. The key on the watch in my collection is size 4. A full set of pocket watch keys can be bought online for around £5. These watches were made in huge numbers and many survive. The sentimental value is likely to far exceed the cash value. If you search online at completed auction sales it may give you an idea of its value. It’s worth getting it serviced, you could try RomanDial Watches. They actually have a near-identical watch currently for sale on their website. I hope this helps. Thanks for commenting, Jason.

  6. Lois Ann Smith Lois Ann Smith

    Thank you so much for the information. We will continue to investigate. Lois

  7. Duane Cowdrey Duane Cowdrey

    Hi, I have a J G Graves pocket watch that says The ‘Imperial’ English lever on the front, that was left to me from my father that passed away and believe it was from my grand father or great grand father. It seems to be in pretty good condition. On the inside at the back, it has 4 hallmarks. One is of a lion facing to the left, 3 barley stems, (so i believe) the letter J Q G with the letter S underneath and lastly the Letter A. It has a serial number 299197. It doesn’t have a key to wind up and I can’t seem to open the back to check the mechanism compartment as I don’t want to break it! I just want to find out its worth as I only seem to find ‘Express’ English Lever pocket watches online. I might get it serviced and cleaned and keep it in the family. Could you shed any more light on this particular pocket watch please?

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Duane,
      The lion indicates sterling silver, the three wheat sheafs will indicate that Chester was the assaying office. Of the letters, one will be a stylised date letter and the others will be a makers mark. You can read more about British hallmarks here. If it is similar to the Express Lever, the movement will pivot open from the front. The case back does not open. Pocket watch keys are available online, the Express Lever uses a size 4 key. I have updated the page with the other brands I found associated with J.G. Graves. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a sold example of the Imperial to determine a value. The Imperial was made by the Lancashire Watch Company. I think the only way to find out more about the Imperial would be to scour through old J.G. Graves catalogues. If you need a service try RomanDial watches, which is where I purchased my Express Lever. I hope this helps, Jason

  8. Paul Paul

    Hi Jason
    I inherited this pocket watch from my Grandad and haven’t used it since (38 years ago). I’ve just
    wound it a few turns and it’s working beautifully. My query is how many turns should I do to wind it up fully without damaging the mechanism.

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Paul,
      I have just wound my Graves pocket watch. I counted 10 turns until it was fully wound. You can feel a slight increase in tension as the spring is wound. You will feel it come to a stop when the watch is fully wound. You cannot overwind a watch, but you can damage it if you try to force beyond this point. I hope this helps, thanks for commenting.

      • Paul Paul

        Thanks Jason.

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