Thomas Russell ‘s name is synonymous with the Lancashire watch making industry and he is an icon for watch purists and enthusiasts around the world. But how he came to become a watchmaker and why Lancashire played such an important role in the watchmaking industry is a fascinating story.
In the 17th century farmers and agricultural workers who needed to supplement their income during the winter months undertook much of the work of watchmaking. In and around Lancashire this was particularly important and the proximity of metalworking, the availability of fine metal tools and the port of Liverpool aided the growth of the industry. By the 18th century watch parts were being sub-contracted to small farms and cottages throughout the region.
Another factor in the growth of this cottage industry were the significant lower overheads that the farmers enjoyed as part-time workers in their own homes. Elsewhere wages were the largest contributor to the total cost of watch manufacturing with the cost of raw materials, apart from gold and silver used in the making of expensive cases, relatively small.
One commentator notes that, “From Prescott to Liverpool, eight miles as the crow flies, the countryside was dotted with the cottages of spring makers, wheel cutters, chain makers, case makers, dial makers – every speciality that went into the making of a watch.” By the end of the 18th century between 150,000 and 200,000 watches a year were being produced by this system, satisfying the national need for accurate timekeeping as the industrial revolution took hold.
The Lancashire sub-contracting system allowed the production of watch movements at such low prices that by the end of the 18th century, the Lancashire manufacturers were supplying most of the great watch firms in London, Coventry and Liverpool. All that these firms needed to do was to make or source their own case and dial, and then assemble the watch.
Thomas Russell joined this hive of activity in 1848 when he moved his business as a watch manufacturer to Slater Street in Liverpool. The city was a major seafaring port and the manufacture of ships’ clocks and chronometers became an important revenue stream for the business.
Thomas Russell’s father, also named Thomas Russell (1780-1830), the founder of this watchmaking dynasty, was born in Eskdale a small village in Cumberland. He served his time in watchmaking in New St. Broughton-in-Furness Lancashire under William Bellman, he then served his journeyman time with William Wakefield in Market St Lancaster where he later…