Marple Local History Society

Marple, Marple Bridge, Mellor, Compstall, Strines, Hawk Green, Rose Hill, High Lane.


We had an interesting enquiry from a man in Broadbottom recently. He had acquired a long case (grandfather) clock that had the maker’s name on the face - “Ralph Clayton - Marple”. He believed it was made in the 1760s but other than that he knew very little and wanted to know more of the background to his clock and others like it.

The first stop was obviously to check Omeka and, as so often, she came up trumps. We had on file a cutting from the Manchester City News of 9th August, 1884. In a section entitled “Comments and Answers” was a reference to Ralph Clayton:

Old Lancashire and Cheshire Clockmakers
The Claytons of Marple

A relative of mine possesses a clock by Ralph Clayton of Marple but it is without the chimes. In the interior is engraved “Osborne & ——— manufacturers of Birmingham”, so that a clockmaker of the day may not have been so clever a mechanic as might have been supposed, when he could buy them nearly made from the manufacturers. My relative’s account of her clock is that it was bought from Ralph Clayton soon after her Grandfather’s marriage, about 1782. It is certainly not as old as 1750. I do not find any mention at Marple or neighbourhood; there is John Clayton of Marple about 1800 but he is not mentioned as a clockmaker.

This would seem to confirm that the Broadbottom clock was made by Ralph Clayton in the 1760s or 1770s but it would appear that he had not played as big a part in the manufacture as he would have his customers believe. Most of it was made by a company called Osborne & Wilson of Birmingham although it is possible that he only bought the dial from this company. This also helps to date it more accurately as the company only existed between 1772 and 1777 when the partner-ship broke up. As the industrial revolution progressed, specialist firms developed and they supplied sub assemblies to specialist craftsmen. Previously these craftsmen would have made everything within their specialty but they now found it more efficient (and cheaper) to buy in certain parts and components. Thus it was with Ralph Clayton in the eighteenth century and indeed there were still jewellers in the twentieth century putting their own name on clock faces when the mechanism had been purchased from other companies.

By checking the burial records at All Saints we found eight references with the Clayton name within the relevant time period. As the population of Marple in 1754 was only 462 there is a good chance that Ralph the clock-maker was part of this High Lane yeoman family group, many of whom lived at Lomberhey Farm on Andrew Lane. Indeed, the Ralph Clayton of ‘How Lane’ who died of consumption and was buried on 21st March 1797 could well have been the person in question.

second-clockThere is an interesting aspect to the design of the clock face. The usual sequence of Roman numerals is: I, II, III, IV But on this clock, instead of IV it reads IIII. Most clocks made after about 1680 show the number 4 like this; indeed it is much more unusual to find the conventional IV.

It is not known who first introduced this variation on standard numbering but it was probably a Dutchman because several important technical developments were introduced in the mid seventeenth century, notably the pendulum mechanism by Christiaan Huygens, which resulted in a dramatic improvement in accuracy. This in turn led to a rapid growth in clock sales and the establishment of a thriving industry in England, particularly London.

The reason for using ‘IIII’ rather than ‘IV’ is aesthetic rather than technical. Illustrating it in that form gives more visual bulk to the number so it is a balance for the VIII in the eight o’clock position. When it was first introduced rival clock-makers quickly took up the idea and within a very short period, virtually all long case clocks using Roman numerals adopted that form of number. Next time you see a grandfather clock have a look at the clock face.

But Ralph Clayton was not the only clockmaker from Marple. In his book, ‘Memories of Marple’, Joel Wainwright tells of ‘Old Bruce’ who lived at Whitecroft in Strines. He was the epitome of a practical man “who could cut a plank with a gimlet, and bore a hole with a saw, and if he had not a stick, he would make a stone answer his purpose.” Nobody knew if he was originally a wheelwright or a watchmaker, but he had made both Disley church clock and the large clock for the Strines Printworks, which is now displayed in its own bespoke cabinet on Station Road in Strines, adjacent to the excellent little heritage centre freely open to passers-by. Even that clock has ‘IIII’ instead of ‘IV’. Old Bruce was obviously aware of the industry tradition.

Hilary Atkinson - May 2024