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James McCabe Clock and Watchmaker

Clock made by John McCabeWhen considering the output of a clock and watchmaking firm it should always be remembered that it was rarely the case that one man would sit at his bench and "make" a watch from start to finish. When starting his business in London James McCabe would no doubt have brought with him some partly finished pieces along with his tools. He may even have travelled to London with an apprentice or, if not, would quickly have taken one. Without records it cannot be known whether he started with raw materials, smelting the brass and steel, or bought complete movements, to be signed with his name and cased. Although he was probably capable of producing a watch from brass and steel it is very unlikely he did so.

Watchmaking, even in the late 18th Century, was already fragmented into a number of specialised skills. For example the cock might be cast by one man, pierced by another, engraved, planted to the plate, jewelled and finally gilded. Six people could easily be involved with this one component although it is probable he would have planted it and fitted the jewelling (but not made it) himself. Some rough ebauches were already being produced ready for pivoting and finishing. Once well established a firm would broaden its activities. McCabe's firm may well have supplied parts or services (such as springing balances) to other makers. At the opposite end of the scale it is certain that the firm commissioned movements from eminent makers. This is shown by a gold consular cased chronometer with sugar tong compensation signed "James McCabe". Hallmarked 1807 the case was made by James Richards and numbered 6183. This movement was undoubtedly made by Earnshaw for the firm but is still consistent with McCabes' numbering.

Bearing this fragmentation in mind, it is demonstrated by existing examples of his work that James McCabe came to London with the clear intention of setting up a lasting business supplying the gentlemen of London with clocks and watches. In the 105 years the firm existed it produced or sold about 30,000 watches. They also appear to have produced or sold about 7,000 clocks and 500 marine chronometers. The number of pocket chronometers produced is not known as some shared the same numbering system as the watches.

James McCabe was born c.1748 in Lurgan, Ireland, into a family of clock and watchmakers. He was the youngest of four brothers, Thomas, William, John and James, all following their father, Patrick, into the trade. Patrick was born about 1708 and after an apprenticeship the earliest he could have started making clocks and watches under his own name is 1730, the date given by Brian Loomes. In 1744 he supplied the steeple clock for Shankill Parish Church in Lurgan. He married Mary Maziere and the couple had at least four children, the eldest, Thomas, being born about 1739. Patrick died on 28th February 1782 and his wife in 1801.

The McCabe Family Tree

Thomas, Patrick's eldest son, led an eventful life. Describing himself as a watchmaker, he opened a business in Belfast in 1762. There is a small silver hunter cased verge watch in the Ulster Museum signed "To" McCabe - Belfast - No. 10". This was almost certainly one of the earliest movements sold from the Belfast shop in 1762 or 3. It is typical of the high quality work produced in Ireland at this time with a large diamond endstone in the cock. Unfortunately the case is not hallmarked and judging by its style dates from the early 19th Century. In addition to watchmaking he also appears to have made watch cases and sold silverware and jewellery some of which came from London. In the late 1770s he also became involved in a the partnership which became Joys, McCabe and McCracken to manufacture cotton. This was a large concern, employing some 500 people in 1785. Yet another venture he was associated with was glass making. Not content with these businesses he became active in politics and the Irish volunteers. In March 1793 his shop, along with other volunteers' premises, was ransacked and looted. Thomas continued at the shop but refused, on principal, to repair the broken windows. Later in the 1790s he got into financial difficulty and closed the shop at 6 North Street. However the situation improved and in 1809 he became an original trustee of the Lancastrian School in Frederick Street, Belfast. He died on 5th March 1820, aged eighty, leaving various properties in his will.

William was born in 1740 in Lurgan. He joined Thomas in Belfast when the shop was opened in 1862. He married Mary Wolfenden in September 1765, moving to Lisburn in 1766 where he opened his own business in Castle Street. He moved to Middle Row in Lurgan the next year and, like Thomas, started selling silver and jewellery. In 1772 he expanded by taking another premises in Lurgan but only six months later moved again to Newry. His former apprentice, John McClean, moved into the Lisburn shop. William, like Thomas, was also involved in the politics of the time being recorded as an Irish volunteer. Two watches signed William McCabe, Newry, are known, both with serial numbers above 900. William and Mary had five children, one, also named William, becoming a watchmaker. Details of William junior's life are more sketchy. He appears to have taken over the business on his father's death in June 1785 before finishing his apprenticeship. He stayed in Newry until about 1800 when he moved to London working first in Borough and then High Street, Poplar, both a few miles east of Clerkenwell, until about 1824.

John, Patrick's third son was born about 1745. By 1767 he was working in Newry as a watch and clockmaker when he moved from Mill Street to the Dial in North Street. Early in 1769 he placed an advert showing he was still at North Street in Newry. It indicated he was making cylinder and repeating watches as well as a complicated musical clock playing at least seven tunes on bells or organ! John moved briefly to Dublin before moving to Baltimore, America where he is recorded as working in 1774, two years before Independence. Little more is known about John except that he is listed in the Baltimore census of 1791.

James, the youngest son, worked in Lurgan until 1770 when he moved to Belfast where he is reported to have worked with his brother, Thomas. However it is not clear whether each made and signed their own work, or indeed from where it was sold. No examples with their joint signatures have been reported. Unlike Thomas and William, James does not seem to have become involved in the politics of Ireland. He emigrated to London in the summer of 1775 where he opened a business in Bells Building, Fleet Street, paying a poor rate of 1.2s.6d. On 20th June 1779 he married Elizabeth Burn. On 2nd April 1781, James McCabe, along with 37 others (including Emery, Frodsham, Pinchbeck and Vulliamy) was made an Honorary Freeman of the Clockmakers Company. He progressed to the Livery in April 1787, Junior Warden in January 1809, Renter Warden in October 1809 and Senior Warden on 8th July 1811. He was briefly a partner in the cotton trade, taking over Thomas's interests in Joys, McCabe and McCracken until the company was dissolved in September 1790. In th early years of their marriage the family undoubtably lived at or near the business. But by 1794 the family had grown to six children and they moved to the London suburb of Stoke Newington. There was an hourly coach between the Bank of England and Stoke Newington, so it is quite possible that James McCabe commuted to work.

The Famous McCabe workingsIn 1802 the business was moved to 97 Cornhill, Royal Exchange. Unfortunately, shortly after he was elected as Senior Warden of the Clockmakers Company in 1811, he fell ill and died in Stoke Newington on 6th October, reportedly of a "mortification of the leg". At his death he was survived by his wife and eleven of his thirteen children, four sons and seven daughters. The eldest, Charley, born in 1782, the youngest, Julia, born in 1801. Charley, his eldest son, did not become a watchmaker and is later recorded as being a merchant in Madeira. The other three sons followed him into clock and watchmaking.

James jnr. born in 1787, appears to have been apprenticed to Reid & Auld of Edinburgh from about 1801 to 1808. This strange choice of master may have been due to the possibility that James snr. was acquainted with Auld in Belfast. It was not until 18th June 1822 that he was granted Freedom of the Clockmakers Company by Patrimony sometime after his two brothers and unlike them did not progress to the Livery. It is unclear how involved James jnr. was with the firm. When his father died in 1811 he was the only one of the watchmaking sons over the age of 21 and therefore able to take charge of the business. It would have been natural for this to happen and there is no mention of him following another trade.

Thomas (II) born in 1791, is not recorded as having served an apprenticeship. He probably worked from the usual age of fourteen in his fathers workshops and would no doubt have be competent in the trade when James snr. died in 1811. He was granted Freedom of the Clockmakers Company by Patrimony on 5th June 1815 and to the livery on 1st March 1819

Robert, born in 1796, was known as a clock and watchmaker but no formal apprenticeship is known. It is probable he was working in his father's workshops when at at the age of fifteen his education would have become the responsibility of his two elder brothers. He was granted Freedom of the Clockmakers Company by Patrimony on 5th February 1821, a year before James, and to the livery on 7th June 1824. For a short period around 1838 the firm traded as Robert McCabe &Co.;After 1811 the business continued without a change of name, probably under the direction of James jnr. and Thomas (II). In 1826 the McCabe firm made its final move to 32 Cornhill, Royal Exchange. Elizabeth remarried to a George Boulton of 6 Great Knight Ryder Street, sometime before 1819 and died on 20th May 1833. Only two of James' sons survived Elizabeth's death, the eldest son Charley, and Robert the youngest son, who inherited the family business. Several of the daughters had married and one had died, so it is not clear how many daughters had survived Elizabeth.

Our thanks to Pieces of Time for the use of this article.


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