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Clocking In At Abingdon Museum

A recent arrival at Abingdon Museum is this handsome long-case clock, now on display in the Attic Gallery. It was a donation from Sir Hugo Brunner, whose family has owned the clock for a long time. It used to be at Denman College, the adult education college set up by the Federation of Women’s Institutes at Marcham. Lady Elizabeth Brunner, Sir Hugo’s mother, was instrumental in setting it up, and she had put some of her furniture in it. Now that the college is closed, the furniture came back to the family, who decided to give the clock to us.

The inscription on the clockface identifies the maker:

Thos. Denton, Abington.

Hang on, you will say, “Abington”? Shouldn’t that be “Abingdon”? Yes, it should be. We don’t know why it says “Abington” on the clock. Perhaps it was an error by whoever put the inscription there. Thomas Denton, however, was definitely an Abingdon clockmaker, and that is why we now happily house the clock here at Abingdon Museum.

There is not much to be found out about Thomas Denton. The clock was made in the middle of the 18th century, so he must have been active then. There is a mention of him in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, on 21st October 1758:

Lost, last Tuesday Evening, In or near Abingdon, Berks, A Silver Watch, a flat Steel Seal, a Silver Dial Plate,…Whoever will bring the said Watch, to Mr Thomas Denton, Watchmaker in Abingdon, or Mr Millachip, Brazier in Oxford, shall receive a Reward of Half a Guinea.

A search on the internet turned up a further, very attractive, piece of information: an advertisement for Thomas Denton’s shop, which clearly states that it was in Abingdon, “near the Market House”. This was at the time a common name for the County Hall, so his shop was probably on the High Street or East St Helen Street, or perhaps on the Market Place. Denton was clearly a versatile entrepreneur. Not only did he make watches and “clocks of all sorts”, he also sold ornaments and hardware. The text of his advertisement gives you the full flavour:

Thomas Denton, Watch and Clock Maker Near the Market House Abingdon. Makes Repeating, Horizontal, Seconds and Plain Watches. Also Clocks of all Sorts at the most Reasonable Rates. Likewise Sells Plate, Plain Gold, Stone and Mourning Rings of ye newest Fashion. Plated Buckles & Spurs of all Sorts. Hardware, Wholesale & Retail. Ready Money for Secondhand Watches & Clocks, Old Gold & Silver, or Exchanged for new.

Advertisement for Thomas Denton’s business in Abingdon. Image courtesy of the Horace Walpole Library, Yale University.

It looks like Denton had a thriving business, and making watches and clocks was only part of it.

A longcase clock like this is made up of several components. In fact, this clock did not arrive at the museum assembled as it is now. The pendulum case, the top part (called the hood) and the workings were all packed separately, and were put together here at the museum. We did not manage to set it going, although we have all the necessary parts, so perhaps one day we will.

The clock presents a number of interesting aspects. We have deliberately put it on display in the same room as the other longcase clock which was already in the collection. That clock is from the same era (made c. 30 years later), by clockmaker William Pond in Abingdon. The decoration of the clocks forms an interesting contrast. The Denton clock has an oriental design, with buildings, trees, birds and people, all looking vaguely Chinese or Japanese. The technique employed in making the decoration is called japanning. This technique developed in imitation of oriental lacquered objects, which were first imported into Europe on a large scale in the 17th century. A japanned surface consists of several layers. On furniture and other large items the base layer would most commonly be wood. Decoration layers could have thin metal (like gold leaf) or gold paint.

The design is very much in contrast to the more English looking landscapes on the William Pond clock, but japanned items were fashionable for a long time, roughly from 1620 to 1820.

Clockface of the longcase clock made by William Pond, on display at Abingdon Museum

The oriental looking wooden case also forms a remarkable contrast with the clock face, which is of a completely different design. With its leafy scrolls and putti heads, it has got a strong baroque flavour, in keeping with the period in which it was made. This creates a bit of a mismatch with the case, so you might be wondering what the clockmaker was thinking when he put those two together. We don’t know what really happened, of course, but I can think of a few explanations. Despite his wide-ranging activities, Thomas Denton was probably not a producer of japanned furniture, and it is unlikely that he made the case himself. It is more probable that he bought the case to be paired with the clock face and workings at his shop, either as a whole, or perhaps as panels, already decorated but to be assembled by him. Perhaps it came from one of the secondhand clocks he took in. There is also a possibility that the combination of Chinoiserie case and baroque clockface was not his idea, but requested by a customer, who picked the parts from which they wanted their clock to be assembled. There is a third possibility, and that is that the case didn’t come from Denton at all, and that he originally sold the clock with a different case. It is only the clockface which has his name on it, and there is nothing to definitely tie the case to him as well. So perhaps one early owner of the clock fancied a different case and swapped the original one for the oriental-style one.

Detail of the decoration on the Thomas Denton longcase clock, with a bird and a tree.

Clocks with a swinging pendulum had been made since the 17th century, although at first they were encased in smaller boxes which hung on the wall, with the pendulum sticking out at the bottom. For a long time these large clocks were also very expensive, so expensive in fact that only the nobility and very wealthy people could afford them. Over the course of the 18th century, production methods changed, making the clocks more affordable, but even at the time when Thomas Denton sold his clock, you had to reasonably well off to buy one.

I have used the term “longcase clock” throughout, which for a long time was the established term for this style of clock, along with “floor clock”. You might have heard the term “grandfather clock”, but that didn’t come into use until much more recently. The term “grandfather clock” comes from a popular song by American composer Henry Clay Work called “Grandfather’s Clock”, written in 1875. Somehow with the popularity of the song the name “grandfather” was transferred from the person to his clock, giving us the still current term of “grandfather clock”.

So, come and see the two grandfather clocks in the Attic of Abingdon Museum. Which one would you choose for your own living room?

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer


4 thoughts on “Clocking In At Abingdon Museum

  1. hi iread with interest about the clocks in your museum,,by coincidence i have a customers clock in for restortion [i restore clock fo a living,,one of the decreasing few ]
    this clock an 11 inch square painted dial,,circa 1790…[from the dial characteristics roman hour numerals,,5 minute arabic numerals ] has ABINGDON,,, VERY CLEAR,,,,but the name rubbed off,and unreadable,,,i would like to know what it might be .
    while i most books on counties,,cannot find one on Berkshire,,,i do have an early pigots directory 1830..which list ANSELL,PAYNE,AND POND,,,[Send a copy if you want ]the names seem too short for the layout,,,and the clock is about 40 years earlier…do you have any records off local makers ? that might fit,[the late 18 th C, date ]
    happy to help with any clock queries,,at all…as i realise it can be a difficult subject for non specialist.
    happy send pics if it helps,,,the case NOT ORIGINAL TO THE WORKS,,,but about the same date..not unlike your POND case,simple oak country clock
    many thanks Regards ,,robert woodhouse


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