Last updated on November 6, 2022
I am always on the lookout for a new antique watch to add to my collection. Normally I work from an ever-growing wish list. I enjoy researching watches as much as owning them. However, on some occasions, I come across an antique watch, which catches my interest but doesn’t meet my collection criteria. This post is about one such antique pocket watch, a John Forrest of London fusee pocket watch, 1891.
John Forrest of London
John Forrest ran a watchmaking business in Clerkenwell, London from 1850 until he died in 1871 (although some accounts suggest 1876). There are conflicting accounts of the quality of his work. Some suggest he was a mediocre watchmaker, encasing sub-standard movements in high-quality cases. Effectively, style rather than substance. However, there are some accounts suggesting the opposite, but the opinion of the majority is that the watches were not of a particularly high standard.
Whatever, John Forrest lacked in watchmaking ability, he more than made up for with his marketing prowess. On the dial of his watches, he printed John Forrest, London. On the movement plates, he stamped the words, John Forrest, chronometer maker to the Admiralty. This statement was totally untrue because John Forrest had never made a chronometer in his entire career.
In the 19th century, timekeeping was incredibly important to the Admiralty as a navigational tool. To determine an exact position on the Earth’s surface, it is necessary to know the latitude, longitude, and altitude. Obviously, at sea, the altitude can be ignored. Until the mid-1750s, accurate navigation at sea out of sight of land was an unsolved problem due to the difficulty in calculating longitude. Navigators could determine their latitude by measuring the sun’s angle at noon. However, to find their longitude they needed a time standard that would work aboard a ship. The purpose of a chronometer is to measure accurately the time at a known fixed location, for example, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Knowing GMT at local noon allows a navigator to use the time difference between the ship’s position and the Greenwich Meridian to determine the ship’s longitude.
In 1714, the British government offered a longitude prize for a method of determining longitude at sea, with the awards ranging from £10,000 to £20,000 depending on accuracy. It took until 1761 for a chronometer made by John Harrison to meet their exacting standards. However, it wasn’t until several years later that Harrison received any of the prize money. In the years that followed to be considered a maker to the Admiralty, a watchmaker had to submit chronometers for trials at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
John Forrest was incapable of producing a chronometer and certainly not capable of passing a timekeeping trial. To get around this minor barrier, John Forrest would make a new watch and send it to the Admiralty as a free sample. In his mind, this justified his claim to be a maker to the Admiralty. As a marketing ploy, it worked very successfully and John Forrest sold many of his ‘maker to the Admiralty’ watches. Such was his success, that upon his death, there were a number of enterprising watchmakers willing to buy the rights to the John Forrest name.
His trade equipment, including stock and goodwill, were all sold by his sister to Messrs. Carley & Co. They subsequently got into financial difficulties and later assigned their business to a Mr Read for the benefit of creditors who, in turn, sold the name and goodwill of the business of John Forrest to a Mr R. Thorneloe for £20. In the meantime, on 20 October 1883 and again on the 26th C. J. Hill of Coventry registered “Forrest, London‟ with fir tree symbol as a trademark and marketed watches with “John Forrest, Maker to the Admiralty‟ inscriptions. As a result of the registered trademark, Thornloe sold the name to Hill. In 1891 there was a court case in which C. J. Hill lost the right to continue to use the “Maker to the Admiralty” stamp on his watches.
The use of the name of John Forrest was used by a number of other watchmakers and manufacturers well into the 20th century. An example is the Lancashire Watch Company. There are a number of entries in the company ledgers for orders from retailers using the brand name John Forrest.
The ‘maker to the Admiralty’ claims obviously enhanced the reputation of John Forrest to an unsuspecting public. As a result, John Forrest enjoyed considerable commercial success. It is understandable why watchmakers would try and capitalise on the name. Strictly, speaking, if you own an antique John Forrest pocket watch dated after 1871, it is effectively a fake. If you own a John Forrest watch dated before 1871, then it is the real deal. However, the standard is likely to be below that expected of the Admiralty.
This particular watch I saw on the RomanDial Watches website. It has a Chester date hallmark for 1891, which clearly places it after the death of John Forrest. It has a 13 jewel fusee movement with an English lever escapement. The watch is reported to be working within 1 minute’s accuracy per day.
The dial is in good condition, although the description reports a faint hairline crack. This is not visible in any of the photographs, so I doubt it would be noticeable by the naked eye. The mineral crystal is clear and free from chips and scratches. This is to be expected as RomanDial Watches fully service their watches and replace the mineral crystals. The sterling silver case measures 51mm x 18mm and weighs 114g. All of the hinges and catches are working correctly.
It’s a nice-looking watch with an interesting, but somewhat dubious history. Unfortunately, it is not one for my collection, but I thoroughly enjoyed researching the story behind John Forrest and his maker to the Admiralty claims.