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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.