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Taxing times

By Christopher Proudlove ©

The Beatles were right. According to the song Taxman: “If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat, If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet”. So, with the deadline looming for the return of self-assessment income tax forms (September 30) just be glad this isn’t the 18th century.

In 1792, owners of houses with seven to nine windows had to pay a tax of two shillings (10 pence), while those 10 to19 windows paid four shillings.

This so called window tax was repealed in 1851, to be replaced by a tax called House Duty, presumably a forerunner of council tax. So now you know why you see Georgian houses with windows that have been bricked up – the advent of tax planning, maybe!

In July 1797 George III’s Prime Minister William Pitt had another brainwave: tax the clocks and watches people owned.

The resulting Act of Parliament gave the Revenue the powers to charge an annual duty of five shillings for a clock; 10 shillings for a gold watch and two shillings and sixpence for a silver or “any other watch, or timekeeper used for the like purpose, not before charged, of whatever materials the same shall be made”.

Tax assessors were to be given notice of the location of any clock or watch and householders had to supply lists of all timepieces they owned within 14 days.

Anyone failing to do so was assessed anyway and the assessment was final unless and until proved incorrect.

And if anyone fibbed, they were fined double the duty payable as a surcharge on top of the normal rate with the assessor being entitled to keep half the surcharge.

The Act applied to everyone with the exception of penalty the Royal family, ambassadors, the House of Parliament (surprise, surprise), hospitals and churches.
Pawnbrokers, dealers and clockmakers were required to register their existence and pay an annual licence fee of 2/6 in London and 1/- elsewhere. The fine for failing to register was £5.

The result was swift … and simple: people stopped buying new clocks and those they already owned were either disposed of or hidden away and not used.

The country’s clockmaking trade was decimated. Demand for clocks and watches decreased to such an extent that in less than a year, output had been cut by a half and thousands of makers and the tradesmen who supplied them with the necessary raw materials were thrown out of work.

The other thing that happened was the appearance of wall clocks like the ones illustrated here.

They are called – aptly enough – Act of Parliament clocks and they were adopted widely by innkeepers and the custodians of public buildings – town and market halls and the like – as a service to their patrons who were unable to carry their own watches for fear of being forced to pay duty on them.

In the event, the tax on timepieces proved too difficult to administer and collect and, following intense lobbying, the Act was repealed in April 1798, just nine months after it was enacted.

Consequently, few true Act of Parliament clocks remain in existence. Tavern clocks of similar style had been around since about 1720 and the fashion for the distinctive timepieces continued long after the tax was dropped, so examples can still be found in specialist antique shops and auction sales.

However, the story of how the Act of Parliament clock came into being is both charming and true and one that appeals to today’s collectors, with the result that the two names for them are interchangeable with all but the purists.
Tavern clocks were very large and robust as you might expect for something intended for public service.

They were designed to be hung high on the wall out of the way of possible disturbance by the patrons of a crowded inn or market hall and had large, easily distinguishable markings so the time could be ascertained from a distance.

Owners of modern houses might not find a wall big enough to accommodate some tavern clocks, the length of which can exceed five feet.

Earliest examples had a square dial with arched top which lacked glass or bezel and a short trunk beneath it with cushion-shaped base.

Ear pieces, sometimes in fretwork, appeared either side of the trunk where it met the dial and it was there that clockmakers signed their work.

Later examples dropped the ear pieces with the lower corners of the dial curving inwards to meet the trunk. This allowed less room for a signature, so this appeared on a moulding below the dial.

This was followed in the middle of the 18th century by the hexagonal dial, sometimes paired with a trunk shaped like a teardrop.

The circular dial appeared about a decade later, first in black dial with gilt Roman numerals and minute outer numerals but followed fairly quickly by white with black numerals and fancy brass hands.

At the same time, the trunk started to grow in length. Most tavern clocks had pretty black lacquered cases, chosen to withstand extremes of temperatures likely in inns and public places.

Decoration was surprisingly elaborate with chinoiserie figures, floral motifs and fruit picked out in gesso and gilt.

Occasionally, examples are found with lacquer-covered prints or paintings featuring country scenes or revellers in tavern settings.

Lacquer gave way to mahogany in about 1790, allowing the casemaker more scope to show off his skills but also signalling the end of the tavern clock as it is known best.

In time, the design of the case began to look more and more like a longcase clock to be hung on the wall, having had the lower third of its case removed.

This last development took its lead from Norwich and East Anglian clockmakers, but the fashion spread quickly to all parts of the country.

Movements of tavern clocks were equally robust and technically simple. Rarely are they anything other than timepieces without striking mechanism.

They tend to run for little more than five days, although month-going examples are found occasionally.

However, the weight-driven mechanism with anchor escapement and long pendulum made it an extremely accurate timekeeper.

Being intended for inns and other public places, it was unaffected by smoke and dirt, although hands and dials were prone to damage because they were not protected by glass.

Another frequent problem is caused by the weight falling through the bottom of the case, with the result that the damaged area shows signs of replacement or inexpert repair.

New owners of lacquered tavern clocks should beware the effects of central heating. The dry atmosphere of a modern home is not kind to lacquer which can flake and become detached with the slightest knock.

Damaged lacquer work is an expensive restoration project because the work is highly specialised.

Buying a good original tavern clock will prove to be a test of your patience. Having originally been intended as public property, many are considered to remain so.

I know of a stunning example that hangs in the market hall of a Cheshire town that I would dearly love to own. Liberating it from council ownership is another matter, though.

The same must be the case with examples owned by breweries and hanging in their ancient (but tied) pubs. Beware also modern reproductions. Some are horrible, others hugely convincing.

antiques@chris-proudlove.co.uk

Pictures show

A fine Act of Parliament clock by Thomas Moore (1720-1789), an Ipswich clockmaker working at the time the tax was imposed. The picture of revellers on the door of the clock showing revellers indicates it was intended for a tavern

A black lacquer Act of Parliament clock by Josh Denton of Hull. It is decorated with chinoiserie (Chinese-style) figures in landscapes, but the case has not stood the test of time. Notice the crack running diagonally across the wooden dial – a result of wide temperature variations, possibly from central heating. Nevertheless, it’s worth £800-1.200

A late 18th century mahogany tavern clock worth £1,200-1,500

Tags: Clocks · Horology

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 RGC // Feb 19, 2008 at 1:17 am

    Thanks for your article. I have a clock very similar to your mahogany example above, but wall mounted with an angled bottom. It has been in my family on my mother’s side for about 100 years and came from their pub/hotel in Kent. History includes losing its weight through the bottom as you say, though expertly repaired, falling from the wall when a bomb exploded nearby in WWII followed by a spell in the garden shed until it could be rescued and repaired. The original weight is a delight, with a selection of ‘rubbish’, though heavy, items embedded in the lead! My mother described to me how she took the large dial on the ‘tube’ to a clock makers in Clerkenwell, London for repainting in the 1960s/70s. Received many strange looks! My mother told me how, when arriving at the clockmakers, she felt she had been transported back to the days of Dickens as a little hatch was opened in their doorway when she knocked to announce her arrival! The clock has now been removed to storage following 40 years on the wall of our Victorian family home. Is it for sale? Probably not. Another spell in the garden shed I suspect until one of my sons buys a suitable house for it to take pride of place once more!

  • 2 Christopher Proudlove // Feb 19, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Dear RGC
    Many thanks for your comments and sharing your charming story. It reminds me of one of my own anecdotes: as a young collector, I came across a box full of old broken wooden cuckoo clocks. I suspect they had been taken to a restorer but were considered lost causes, so they were his supply of spare parts.
    My late father was an inveterate tinkerer and when I came home from school one day, he had managed to make up a couple of clocks from the various bits and they were actually hanging on the wall, ticking away and cuckooing at the appropriate times.
    The amusing thing was, he had no weights to drive the things, so he had been forced to improvise: bottles of Heinz tomato and HP sauces had been purloined from my mother’s larder and were suspended from the chains, all performing their duties perfectly.
    I still have the cuckoo clocks, but the sauces were consumed long ago!
    Don’t sell you clock – memories such as these are too precious.

  • 3 robert loomes // Oct 23, 2008 at 6:04 am

    On the other hand… we’ve been left a quirky legacy by the taxman. Unlike most other antiques, clocks are free of capital gains tax. Thanks to a ruling by the taxman that machinery cannot be seen as a rising investment, it is assumed that any machine (and I understand this may include guns) is exempt from capital gains.

    Interesting to see a clock fan using HP and Heinz tomato bottles – both are naturally caustic and were used (probably in the Clerkenwell workshops your mother describes in the 60s/70s) as cleaning agents for getting into crevices in dirty brass! Not sure 21st century ethics would approve of this but I remember using HP fruity as a young man to clean matted brass on clock dial centres.

  • 4 Christopher Proudlove // Oct 27, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Dear Mr Loomes
    Many thanks for your comments. You’re right about clocks and CGT. Vintage, veteran and classic cars are another area not liable to the tax (which is why I aspire to collect both!).

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