In the 18th century farmers and agricultural employees who wanted to supplement their income during the dark winter months could produce watch components in their home workshops. It was a thriving cottage industry in and around Lancashire with the components sold on for watchmakers to assemble. It was during this period that the original Thomas Russell was born (1780) in Cumbria. He worked as an outworker or journeyman watchmaker before setting up independently in Lancaster in 1811. Thomas was the founding father of what was to become a watchmaking dynasty.
The whole area around Liverpool was a hive of watchmaking activity at this time. Hundreds of outworkers were making one or two individual watch components in their cottages. These were then collected and taken to the factory for assembly. Thomas continued as a watchmaker in this location until his death in 1830. The business was taken over by his son Thomas. He moved the business to Liverpool in about 1848 and launched his range of ‘Time ‘O Day’ watches. Liverpool was a major seafaring port at the time. The sale of ships’ clocks and chronometers grew to become a significant source of income for the business.
Around 1860 the business was taken over by his two sons Thomas Robert Russell and Alfred Holgate Russell. At this point, the business effectively split. Thomas changed the name of his half to Russell, Watch & Chronometer Manufactory with branches in Liverpool, Toronto and London. His plan was to provide chronometers to the booming shipping industry, which sailed from these ports. The partnership between the brothers officially ended in 1870 and Alfred continued with the company name, Thos. Russell & Son. At this point, he introduced the famous Russell Hunter watches with their trademark “Tempus Fugit” on the dial.
Alfred continued the family tradition of watchmaking based in Liverpool. In addition, the company started importing Swiss watch movements around the turn of the century from Longines and other makers. The company run by Thomas was awarded a Royal Warrant to HM Queen Victoria and HRM the Duke of Edinburgh. In 1884 the warrant was expanded to include the Admiralty. After the death of both Thomas and Alfred, Alfred’s son, Bernard Holgate Russell and his cousin Thomas Townsend Russell took over the businesses in 1894. They continued using the Royal Warrants for several years after the Queen had passed away. This was frowned upon and they only ceased using this on their watch plates a few years later.
Bernard’s son Thomas Graham Russell with Thomas Townsend Russell continued to run the company from 1915. They invited Joseph Wright to become a director because of his knowledge of the business and his contacts in Switzerland. The company was run by successive members of the Russell family until both the shops and the factory were finally closed down in 1994. It was a sad end to a long and illustrious history.
It’s a long story with many Thomas’ involved and it takes a bit of mental effort to track them throughout the company history. Thomas Russell & Son is certainly synonymous with the Lancashire watchmaking industry and it’s an iconic brand for watch collectors. I will certainly be adding a Thomas Russell & Son pocket watch to my wish list. It will be an antique full hunter pocket watch, featuring the ‘Time ‘O Day‘ branding on the movement and the ‘Tempus Fugit’ trademark on the dial.