The Oatley Watch

Little is really known about the early life on James Oatley our Colonial clockmaker and again even less about the maker’s family however we do know some interesting things about his business and of course his exportation to Australia as a convict.

James Oatley was convicted in the Warwickshire Assisses and sent to Australia in 1817. The reality of his conviction and the subsequent mending of his ways is a matter of public record. The greatest testamemant to the reforming of the man can be seen in the numerous court entries in Sydney where we find Oatley no longer to be the criminal but rather the Expert Witness for the Crown.

The early history of where and for whom in England Oatley worked is unclear as a result of  record keeping issues in the area where James Oatley worked. A dispute between the two neighbouring districts of Warwickshire and Shropshire resulted in the loss of many documents. The recent discovery of the Oatley watch made in England is of significant importance as it gives us some insight into the pre-convict life of Oatley. The watch showed clearly the existence of Oatley’s secret signature and the fact that he worked in Tamworth in Warwickshire. Early writings do let us know the he enjoyed the local environment that surrounded Tamworth but until the existence of the watch there was little proof of the watchmaker’s early work. The watch was not merely an infill for our celebrated colonial maker but also clearly showed the high quality of maker.

Oatley is transported to Australia following a second conviction for larceny. Oatley quickly becomes the reformed man a leading member of society and produces a large number of what have become the most important clocks in our Australian Colonial Heritage.

Oatley unlike his contempory makers, such as Francis Abbott in Hobart chose to concentrate on his business and as such produced what is believed to be over 40 longcases of which many survive and possibly a watch or two. Abbott was the Scientist come clockmaker rather than the Clockmaker come businessman like Oatley.

Abbotts life can fortunately be seen in detail when we read both his diary and the diary of his son, they clearly show the obsession with science and a thirst for knowledge. Oatley primarily was a clockmaker and the watchmaking side of his work has been long believed not to exist or to of been of little consequence. This fact has been more recently dismissed as both an early example of his work a 1805 pair cased fusee and an Australian made silver pocket watch signed Oatley Sydney have come to light. It is also thought that the Oatley family may have a watch in their collection but this is not of public record.

So strong is the following of Oatley as a Colonial clockmakers that even snippets of his existence have proved to be highly sought after collectables by the Australiana and Horological collectors. The recent sale of an English pocket watch at auction in Sydney which would have had without any Oatley connection have sold for approximately $2-3000 sold instead for just less than $10,000 due to the existence of a repair paper from Oatley in the back of the watch. Therefore merely the fact that Oatley has repaired the watch is sufficient to add a premium to the watch of $7000.

Oatley has without doubt been embraced by the Australian collectors far more than any other clockmakers that worked in Australia. Henry Lane for example was the first clockmaker in the colony but the big difference is that Lane snubs his nose at the Colony and heads back to Bristol as soon as he can, and therefore leaves the space open for the new comer convict clockmaker James Oatley to take his place. The question to be asked when you look at the clocks that Oatley made when he arrives in Australia is did Lane really leave the clockmaking scene in Australia or did he continue using Oatley as an outlet in the colony.

Bristol clocks at the time that Lane returns to England had a very distinctive style, and without doubt that style is substantially like those made by or sold by Oatley in Sydney. Although impossible to prove there exists a strong possibility that Oatley simply had Lane supply him clocks that he sold here as his own.

There are distinctive features in the movement that indicates the maker was of good quality. Features such as the drive system for the date, the geometry of the escapement, the finish to the steel and springs all show that the clocks are better than the average English made clock. The existence of these variations is what has supported the argument that Oatley has to have at least made these components as they were so different from the normally supplied English movement at the same time. The same argument exists for the round silvered dial as it uses a high copper content alloy believed to have colonial origin. Which therefore is the truth is Oatley the “clockmaker” or “clock assembler”? I can only postulate and to that end I believe Oatley was capable to produce a clock of high quality and that he also had the skill to market the clocks to the extent that he did, and as such become the must have clockmaker of his day in the Colony. Just having the ability doesn’t mean that he actually did make them or that he added the escapement or calendar components?

The common process in England at the time was to go to several outside suppliers to build a clock, movement, dial and case and not to make the entire clock in-house, in fact the few clockmakers that exist today can be called more genuine clockmakers than those of the 19th century as the present day clockmakers have to make nearly all of their own parts as there are no other outside suppliers available. The Oatley replica clocks that we have made use only three people to build the clock these being the clockmakers (myself) the engraver and the cabinet maker. The comparison is that is it believed that 18 different people were used in England to build a clock at the beginning of the 19th century.

To answer the question as to whether Lane was Oatley’s supplier does require us to look at Lane’s work and where he was working. Lane was a Bristol clockmaker which means his clients were generally wealthy merchants as Bristol had a thriving merchant driven economy due to the proximity of the port and the large amount of traffic through it. This thriving economy eagerly sought out the fine things in life. Examples of Lanes work both before his visit to the colony and after are available and the most obvious feature of his work is the slightly different layout he uses and the exceptional quality of his work. When you examine Lane’s work it can easily be argued that he supplied a set format to the Colonial businessman James Oatley who makes and fits the dial and hands for the supplied movements. Obviously Oatley has his cases made here as they use Australian timbers and are of substantial proportion in comparison to the comparative clocks made in England and Scotland.

It has long been argued that the clock style was that of Scottish origin due to the round dials used by Oatley. The leap to this conclusion simply doesn’t take into account that round dials are not only found in Scotland.   The general design of the case does however strictly comply with the sought after Bristol clock cases of the day and the only real similarity to the Scottish clocks is the round dial. We have recently purchased a Bristol clock of the same era as Oatley that is nearly the exact copy of the Oatley case. These cases are not rare but they are significant for their connection to the Australian market.

There has been a long held belief that the case-maker here in Australia had a Scottish background and therefore the style was repeated. Who the case maker for Oatley was is a grey area and there has been many theories put forward.  The comparison between the two cases does provide strong evidence that not only the movements may have come from Bristol but that the case designs may have also come from Bristol as well. Would there be sufficient evidence to prove that Oatley was more businessman than clockmaker, possibly not, but there is some other public record that indicates that Oatley was definitely the businessman.

Oatley was of course a convicted thief but as can be seen from his Tamworth watch he was definitely a fine quality watchmaker. There is some thought that as Oatley had been arrested prior to the conviction that saw him transported, that the second arrest and conviction was by the crowns convenience as the colony was about to lose its clockmaker in Henry Lane and they needed a replacement. Oatley the transported thief quickly becomes the Colonial clockmaker and also provides Expert evidence for the Crown. It is his appearance as the expert for the crown on numerous occasions that we get to have an insight into how he conducted business. Oatley can be seen to clearly be trading as a watch dealer in the court cases and it is of public record that he promotes himself, his ability and his business address at the crowns expense.

Oatley is without doubt an important figure in Australian Clockmaking history and it would be superb if he like Abbott in Tasmania had left behind a diary record of how he conducted his daily business. A record in Oatley’s diary of “the movement arrived from Lane today for the clock going out to Badgerys Creek” would have answered all of the questions. The exact nature of how the Tamworth watchmakers become the celebrated Sydney clockmaker will always have some mystic. Maybe that mystic is part of what will continue to have his longcase clocks be worth in excess of $400,000.

Lane and Abbott are by no means our only other clockmakers and as time progresses and research continues the work of Ziegler, Smith, Auld and others will possibly also come to prominence, but time itself will tell. As observers we can only hope to tie up some of the loose ends that exist. The Oatley Tamworth watch is definitely one of those items that helps us understand the early history and fits as one of the more important pieces of Watchmaking history to be discovered in recent times.

Posted in: Tick-Talk

About the Author:

For over three decades Andrew and his staff at Master Clockmakers have been involved in the restoration and conservation of timepieces from historically important clocks such as Sydney Town Hall and the clocks for Sydney Central Railway to small intricate ladies watches made by watchmakers such as Patek Philippe.

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