Last updated on September 5, 2023
I have written before about how vague the term watchmaker can be. It could be a person who makes a complete timepiece. It could be someone who buys the components and assembles them. Or, it could be a retailer that sells a completed timepiece. In this case, it is the latter. There are many antique pocket watches on the market that carry the Kays of Worcester branding. In fact, there are so many out there that I thought it was worth writing a post about the company.
Kay’s of Worcester was a mail-order catalogue business, with offices and warehouses throughout the United Kingdom. The company was founded in Worcester in 1889 by William Kilbourne Kay, located on St Swithen’s Street.
William Kilbourne Kay
William Kilbourne Kay was born on September 11th 1856, on Portsea Island within the city of Portsmouth. His mother died soon after he was born. His father and stepmother also died in 1860, leaving William to reside as a lodger with a number of local families under the protection of the local parish.
William Kay moved to Worcester in the early 1870s as a young man. He found employment as a jeweller’s assistant with John Martin Skarratt, a clockmaker who had taken over the family business that had been established by his grandfather in 1794.
In 1886, Kay left Skarratt’s and went into partnership with a local architect named George Jones. The two men started up their own jewellery and watch business, known as Kay, Jones & Co of Worcester, from premises in The Foregate. In 1889. The partnership dissolved, but Kay continued to operate from The Foregate premises under the name of Kay of Worcester. It was a business based on orders received directly from the customers who subscribed to Kay’s catalogue. The early catalogues are filled with jewellery, watches, clocks and household items. Initially, there were no fashion or clothing items for sale.
Kay & Co. Ltd
The business was a huge success and Kay registered Kay & Co. Ltd with Companies House on 8th June 1895. In 1896, Kay entered into discussions to buy out John Martin Skarratt the man who gave him his first job in Worcester. The two businesses were amalgamated in May of that year after the contracts were signed and monies paid. By amalgamating the two companies, Kay could legitimately claim that his business had been in existence for over a century. This became an important marketing ploy for the company. Additionally, Skarratt & Co held a contract with the Great Western Railways (GWR) to supply railroad grade “clocks, watches and timepieces” to the railway and this contract passed to Kay & Co Ltd.
Eventually, William’s son Jack took over the running of the business. The company continued to expand and trade successfully and became one of Worcester’s largest employers. The company’s catalogue range expanded to include fashion, household items and sporting goods. Kays was an early supplier of credit, enabling customers to pay a deposit, receive the goods and repay the remainder on a weekly schedule. The target market was typically working or lower-middle-class people. Kays of Worcester survived two world wars and traded for over 200 years. Ultimately, the business came to an end in 2004 when it merged with Littlewoods to become Shop Direct.
Keyless watches were readily available from around 1850. The convenience of not needing to carry a key must have been a considerable benefit. However, Kay & Co continued to produce key wound watches well into the 20th century. I’m assuming that this was some kind of advertising or marketing ploy to make the watches distinctive. Kay & Co were predominately Swiss made, by manufacturers such as Buren and Revue. However, some of their watches were stamped Warranted English, indicating that the movement was made in England.
Not all of their watches were key wound, they did sell watches with Swiss stem-winding movements. Often these were higher-end models with jewelled pallets and micro regulators. Of the watches I have seen online, most have had 15 jewel movements. There was the occasional watch with 7 jewels. There were also some examples of watches with cylinder movements, dating well into the 20th century. These would have been at the lower end of the range. Typically, their watches were in the budget to mid-range categories in terms of quality. The case material ranged from gunmetal, nickel, sterling silver, continental silver, gold-plated and rolled gold.
List of brand names
These are the names I have seen printed on the dials of Kay’s watches, I’m sure it is not complete. Note the inconsistent use of the apostrophe, Kay or Kays or Kay’s.
- Kay Worcester
- Kays “Superb” Lever
- Kays “Perfection” Lever
- Kays “Universal” Lever
- Kay & Co, Worcester
- Kays Keyless “Triumph”
- Kay’s “Old Favourite”, Worcester
- Kay’s Challenge
- Kays “Standard” Lever
- Kay’s “Screwback” Lever
- Kay’s Climax Lever
- Kay’s Masterpiece
- Kay Worcester Swiss made
- Kay’s Famous Lever
I doubt I will ever see a Kay’s watch in my collection, simply because they don’t have any serious horological value. Perhaps, I might consider one of the higher quality Swiss made timepieces, but it is not something I would be actively looking for. Kay’s was a very successful mail-order business with a long history, but they weren’t genuine watchmakers.
Kays Catalogues at Wikipedia.