Robin Longbottom looks at how a clockmaker’s business dramatically evolved

WHEN William Smith began his career as a clockmaker, he couldn’t have imagined the direction in which the trade would lead him.

Born at Riddlesden in the parish of Bingley in 1774, by the time he had completed his apprenticeship, Keighley was already developing into an industrial town.

He set up his business in Wagon Fold, now Market Street. He is first mentioned in the records of Richard Hattersley in 1799 when he bought clock pinions – the small steel ‘axels’ that carried the clock gears – and various other ironwork. Hattersley was a whitesmith, a specialist smith who worked in forged steel, although he also dealt in wrought iron. From 1800 Smith is not only recorded buying clock pinions but also occasionally steel rollers, spindles and flyers and other parts for spinning frames.

Clockmakers were the town’s first mechanical engineers and keenly sought by mill owners to set up their machinery. Aware that the world was changing fast, he apprenticed his sons to whitesmiths, the machine engineers of the day. He had seven sons – Joseph, born in 1794, followed by James, Lawrence, William, Prince, Samuel and George. When the youngest, George, was baptised in 1813 he was still described as a clockmaker but three years later a Keighley deed refers to him as a ‘clockmaker and whitesmith’. By then his eldest sons had completed their apprenticeships and a trade directory of 1822 lists William Smith & Sons, roller, spindle and flyer makers for the worsted, cotton and flax spinning industry. The next logical step was for the business to make complete machines.

Unlike other machine makers in the town, who bought in their machine parts and assembled them, William Smith and his sons sought to bring all the trades under one roof and to establish an ‘assembly line’ business. It was a long, slow process but appears to have been largely completed by the time William died in 1850. After his death the business continued under the direction of James, William, Prince and George (Joseph and Samuel had died in the 1820s and Lawrence had left the partnership in 1845 to make and retail clocks in Low Street).

By the 1860s the company was producing all the component parts to build complete machines. A blacksmith’s shop forged the spindles, flyers and other iron work. An extensive tool shop machine finished the rollers, flyers, spindles etc and a brass foundry made the bushes (bearings) for the components to run on. The tin rollers that provided power to the spindles were made in the tinner’s workshop and the few wooden parts in the joiner’s shop. All the machinery at the Market Street Works was powered by a 25-horsepower beam engine and two Cornish boilers, with a Green’s economiser to improve efficiency.

Adjoining the Market Street Works were the company’s two iron foundries, where the machine ends and spacers were cast, and a fettling shop, where the rough edges were trimmed off. The whole site covered about two acres, but the small foundries couldn’t produce enough castings to maintain production. Therefore, a third foundry, Worth Valley Works, was established off Bradford Road. This was built on a three-and-a-half-acre site and included cupolas to melt the cast iron, a casting shed and an additional machine works powered by a steam engine.

However, differences arose between the brothers, and William Smith & Sons was dissolved in 1865. James, the eldest, set up a new business at Royd Works in Beechcliffe. William continued at Market Street until the property was finally sold in 1870. George the youngest of the brothers retired and Prince Smith, William Smith’s fourth surviving son, set up at Burlington Shed on Bradford Road and founded one of the largest worsted spinning frame makers in the world.