Sir John Bennett.

Sir John Bennett FRAS (born, 15 October 1814 – died, 3 July 1897) was a watchmaker, a local politician and a flamboyant London personality. Although, a qualified watchmaker, he was primarily involved in the retail side of the business selling Bennett branded Swiss and English watches.

Early life

Bennett was the eldest son of John Bennett, a watchmaker in Greenwich, South-east London. He was educated at Colfe’s Grammar School, Lewisham. In 1846, at the age of 32, he established his own business as a watchmaker at 65 Cheapside, in the City of London.

Civic career

Bennett was a Common Councilman on the City of London Corporation for the ward of Cheap from 1862 – 89. In October 1872 he was elected to the London School Board to fill a casual vacancy in the representation of the City of London. Although he stood down from the school board at the election in 1873, he returned to serve a three-year term from 1876 – 79 and he served a further term 1885 – 1889.

Sir John Bennett, National Portrait Gallery.

He was a Sheriff of London and Middlesex in 1871 and a Lord Lieutenant of the City of London and was knighted as part of the celebrations for the recovery of the Prince of Wales from typhoid in the same year. He unsuccessfully stood for parliament on three occasions; Greenwich (1873), Maldon (1874) and Wiltshire (1886). Some of the failures were undoubtedly due to his flamboyant personality which showed not only in his outspoken ideas but also in his dress and public appearance. In the Lord Mayor’s show, he tended to appear in a velvet jacket and a broad-rimmed hat, seated on a white horse and receiving more applause than the Lord Mayor himself.

Sir John Bennet, Vanity Fair 1883.

Business and promotion

 An eccentric character, Bennett took every opportunity to promote his watchmaking business and went into advertising in a big way. The façade of his Cheapside shop promoted himself as “watch maker to the Queen” and “clock maker to the Royal Observatory”. He also promoted his business in print with a large number of his advertisements including pictures of the various watches and clocks he sold. The 1851 Exhibition warranted a page-long advert in the official catalogue.

Lectures and opinions

Bennett was also known for his lectures on watchmaking and the quality of Swiss timepieces. For example, in Leeds, in 1856, he gave his audience an explanation of how watches are made and expressed his opinion as to why Switzerland was so far ahead of England in producing good timepieces. He attributed their success to the superior education of the people, the subdivision of labour and the extensive employment of women who were particularly well-suited for the delicate work of watchmaking. He was also in favour of the adoption of the metric system where, once again, Switzerland is quoted as an example of its convenience in manufacturing.

Bennett died in 1897, but the business continued to operate under his name. The shop was eventually put up for sale in the late 1920s and the business closed.

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