The Oundle Clock Shop keeps traditions ticking

At the far end of West Street sits a clock shop, one of Oundle’s oldest remaining shops, a charming throwback to another era. Now owned by Jo Elwood, her grandfather, Sidney Dyson founded the business as a place for retail furniture and lamps in the 1920s, and the original signage is still above the shop door. The stained glass and mahogany façade, painted with bright gold, is protected by a preservation order.

“Imagine sleepy little Oundle almost a hundred years ago. He had the top of the range furniture. He would go to London and buy from some of the better stores and wholesalers and bring the furniture back to sell in Oundle.”

The shop was then passed on to his son-in-law, Jo’s father, Emil Skiba, a watchmaker. Jo’s father ran the shop for over 50 years, passing his trade onto Jo and her brother who both became clock repairers. Jo and her current business partner Garry Martin made further changes to the clock shop, which has now undergone a transformation from furniture and cabinet making to jewellers, watchmakers and clock repairs. Since Jo and Garry took over the shop, the range and diversity of the clocks has swelled.

Antique and watch collectors visit the shop regularly, alongside new visitors to Oundle. Though there are now many auction houses and antique centres, privately owned antique shops are rare. Oundle was previously a hub of antique shops, with more than five in the town at one time.

Oundle’s clock-making industry was prolific for a small town. The clock shop currently stocks quite a few local clocks, including those from Oundle, Oakham, Stamford, Kimbolton and Uppingham. Every town with a blacksmith, even if it was small, would have had a clockmaker. If you had the tools and the skill to assemble something made of iron or brass, you would likely be able to create a clock.

Some of the first pieces of clockwork were found in the large church clock towers. Later on, instruments such as lantern clocks, which were one of the earliest domestic clocks, came into production. Then even later, came the rise of their cased version, the grandfather clocks. Though expensive, they were common amongst clergymen and farmers. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution of the 1840s that clocks were mass-produced by machines and became more affordable for the majority of people.

Grandfather clocks were originally made with safety in mind; the large cabinets protected the swinging pendulum from young children or pets. However, with time, the long cabinets started to take on a more decorative purpose. Then, they became a statement piece, and an indication of wealth. “In the Victorian age when these were very popular, you would have your friends over for supper or drink, and the gentlemen would go round and look at all your fascinating objects,” she said.

But by the 1950s, grandfather clocks fell out of fashion. “My father remembers buying them for the pieces, for their movements, and chopping up the beautiful cases because nobody wanted them. He would just buy them really, really cheap for four or five pounds, keep the bits for spares and the rest would go.” She said that even now, the market for long case clocks is very niche.

She pointed to one that she had just purchased. “I bought one this morning just for scrap, for the pieces that I can use: the bell, the weights, things like that,” she said.

Similarly, pocket watches would have been carried around by gentlemen on their waistcoats and would have also been a sign of social standing. They were also very practical, especially with the growth of timetabled train travel. Everyone relied on compact watches, including women who would wear them on a chatelaine, a belt, or even around their necks.

Many of the watches themselves have a pair case or triple case, made with a primary case and another layer for extra protection and safety. Some of the 2mm or 3mm chain links within the watch mechanisms were often made by children aged 12 to 14. As a result of the close-up nature of their work, the children would use magnifying glasses and often undergo eye strain, which could sometimes lead to blindness.

Jo showed us a verge watch which dated from around 1760. She opened up the case to reveal the interior mechanisms and pointed out an intricately decorated wheel. “This is what we called hand pierced. You have a tiny, tiny little file and you’re making and engraving all of that to be covered, and never really to be seen. Don’t you think that’s incredible? I have these in a collection in my house and I display them open so that I can see the inside because it’s so beautiful.”

The wheel, or back cock as it is called, can be so intricately decorated with flowers, or peacocks, or even men on horseback, that they’re collected individually, without the rest of the watch.

“Can you imagine anybody doing that now and how much that would cost? The hours and hours of work and this done by hand, all hand pierced, hand engraved,” she said.

The oldest clock the shop has handled was by a local Oundle maker, Francis Wright. It was a lantern clock dating from around 1640-1650, with the name ‘Junior’ written on it. Another unusual clock was encased with burr elm, others were highly inlaid clocks which would have been particularly special when they were made. Jo described the experience of buying a clock: “When we sell a clock, we often say it’s a bit like if you go to a car showroom and you can go and buy a cheap car with very few extras or you could go to the Rolls Royce or the Bentley showroom and have the best of the best with every gizmo going. And that was how clocks were, longcases and watches. You could have the cheapest, the plain ones, or you could have inlay, and the mahogany case which would have been more expensive than an oak case.”

She showed us an array of unusual and fascinating clocks. One has a rocking ship at the top of the pendulum, another has a swinging moon. Some have equational time, which tell the date, month, and the position of the stars.

Because antiques are no longer produced and are sought after internationally, local collectors value the items in the clock shop. The rich social history each clock comes with also means that they continue to hold their price in the local area. While the genealogy or family history of a watch may be difficult to decipher, Jo can usually trace it back about 100 years. She took us towards a collection of larger clocks. “That one for instance, made in Oakham so presumably it went to a fairly local person in the beginning. But who owned it after that? Did it go to Stamford? Did it go to Grantham? Did it go to London? And who’s seen it? Who’s looked at the time and wound it up and serviced it for three or four hundred years?”

Some might ask why you need a watch or clock when you’ve got a phone. But if you’ve grown up with a clock, or simply had one for a long time, its hourly chimes are a source of comfort. “They’re the heartbeat to your home,” she said.

The clocks in her shop come with a three-year guarantee. She delivers and sets the clocks up in their new home, and includes a three-year service. She says her clocks might be expensive, but they are fully working and come with a guarantee. She said that at auction, it would be more difficult to find a product of the same quality. “You could probably buy one of those for a fifth of the price, but you don’t know what you are buying. It probably doesn’t work. You might not have a clue how to set it up when you get home, and it can be a real big disappointment.”

Jo also runs Greenman Antiques across the street from the clock shop, with Garry and her daughter, Vicky Elwood. They opened Greenman Antiques furniture shop in 2010 after finding that customers would often buy beautiful pieces from the clock shop, but then look for another piece, such as a chest of drawers or desk, to compliment it.

Both shops also have an online presence, though Jo doesn’t sell items online. Coming to the shop and finding an antique is an entire experience in itself.

Perhaps one of the most iconic objects of the clock shop, is the life-sized white china lurcher in the window. When Jo was young, she worked at a china wholesalers on East Road repairing porcelain china. She bought the dog as a gift for her mother, who loved dogs.

When she and her business partner, Gary took over the business, among many items remaining in the shop was the white lurcher. At the time, the shop did not have as large a collection as it does now, so it was used to fill up the empty space in the window. When it was moved out of the window for a time, people would ask what had happened.

“We had no idea it was so iconic in the town,” Jo said. “Almost every week we’ll have somebody ask, ‘How much is your dog?’.

“We’ve had to put a not-for-sale sign on it. There are a lot of travellers and others who have lurchers and greyhounds and they love it. Many a time, they’ve come and said, ‘Oh, there’s always a price, just tell me the price.’ And we say, ‘No, there is no price’.”

Priyanka Menon
June 2022