In Focus

Benjamin Bagnall, Sr., Tall clock

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection_, by Charles L. Venable._

Late 17th-and early 18th century Boston was not a profitable place for clockmakers. Before 1700, the town does not seem to have had a professional clockmaker. Black- and gunsmiths kept the town's timepieces in order. Of the eleven clock- and watchmakers known to have worked in Boston between 1700 and 1750, most appear to have had difficulty supporting themselves. The estates of six of these artisans were never probated, suggesting that they died with small estates or left Boston. The option of leaving town was one regularly taken. John Brand returned to England, William Clagget went to Newport, and Robert Peaseley left for parts unknown. Even James Atkinson, who worked for many years in Boston, was apparently trying his luck in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at his death in 1756. His estate, which included "28 books and Pamphlets" and "sundry watchmaking tools", was ruled insolvent. When Joseph Essex died in 1719, his estate worth 37 pounds was also too small to cover his debts. Especially interesting is the reference to Essex in his estate papers as a "Jackmaker". Evidently he had turned from clockmaking to producing mechanical rotisseries called "jacks" by the time of his death. A year later 1720, the clockmaker Thomas Badley's estate was also ruled insolvent.

The one clockmaker who appears to have been successful at his profession was Benjamin Bagnall, Sr. Bagnall's exact place of birth in England is unknown. However, it is likely that he came from the vicinity of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, between Manchester and Birmingham. Since no records of a Benjamin Bagnall apprenticing in London survive at the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, it is probably that Bagnall served his apprenticeship with a provincial master and subsequently left for the colonies. He was in Boston by 1712, when he brought charges against the Boston joiner Caleb Ray (d. 1721) for not paying the 9.10.0 pounds Ray owed him. On 18 June 1713, Bagnall married Elizabeth Shove of Charlestown.

It appears that Bagnall's shop was relatively successful from the start, even though there were competing makers in Boston at the time, as well as many imported timepieces. Besides producing timepieces himself, Bagnall profited as a retailer and repairer of English timepieces, especially watches. On 5 March 1712, for example, Bagnall's shop was robbed and numerous expensive watches were taken. Judging from the detailed descriptions of these watches, they were probably all of English origin. This supposition is supported by depositions taken concerning the theft of a watch in 1737. In that year a Capt. L'Hommeliey of Long Island bought a watch and chain from Bagnall made by Joseph Thornton of London. Shortly thereafter it was stolen, but six months later it was brought back to Bagnall by William Pincheon, Jr. of Springfield, Massachusetts, for repairs. Besides watches, Bagnall may also have sold English clocks. Contemporary newspaper advertisements list numerous types of English clocks for sale in Boston.

Much of Bagnall's success in Boston was undoubtedly due to the extensive mercantile network in which he participated and his standing among Boston artisans. Judging from court cases brought against him during the second quarter of the 18th century. Bagnall maintained contacts in England, the West Indies, Philadelphia, and Long Island, as well as the North Shore and interior of Massachusetts. This network was aided by Bagnall's part-ownership of the sloop "Ann and Abigail" in the mid 1730s. To support his trading ventures, Bagnall owned a warehouse and several pieces of land. As investment capital was needed, Bagnall repeatedly mortgaged his home and landholdings.

Along with his trading network, Bagnall also maintained a respected position within the Boston artisan community in spite of his being a Quaker. For example, when the selectmen of Boston decided to have a public clock installed on the roof of the First Meetinghouse (Old Brick) in Cornhill Square in 1718, they chose Bagnall to build the clock. The town fathers also looked favorably upon Bagnall in the 1720s. In 1723 they appointed him town constable (Bagnall was subsequently excused from service). He was selected as an assessor in 1724. However, the most telling reflection of Bagnall's prominence within the community came at the marriage of his son Benjamin, Jr., in 1737. On 9 August of that year the "New England Weekly Journal" reported:

"Last Thursday in the Afternoon Mr. Benjamin Bagnall, Jun, eldest son of Mr. Benjamin Bagnall of this Town, Merchant, married to Mistress Anna Hawden, Daughter of Mr. James Hawden of this Town, Shopkeeper, in the manner of the Quakers. The marriage was solemnized in the Old Brick Church, the Quaker Meeting House not being large enough to contain the vast Concourse of People of all Perswations who came to see the Solemnity. The parents of the married Couple gratefully acknowledged the favor of having the marriage solemnized in said Meeting House. His Excellency, Our Governor and several of the Council and of the Justices, etc. attended the said Marriage, which was carried on with becoming decency. It being a rainy time, His Excellency favored the Bridegroom and his Bride with his Chariot."

If Benjamin Bagnall had not been an important member of Boston's artisan class, the governor of Massachusetts would certainly not have honored the Bagnall family with his presence and chariot.

During his career, Bagnall trained two of his seven children as clockmakers: Benjamin, Jr. (b. ca.1713), and Samuel (b.1715). Although Benjamin, Jr., went to Newport, Rhode Island, sometime in the 1750s (he returned in 1761), both sons appear to have worked with their father until he retired. In his old age, Benjamin, Sr., seems to have run a boardinghouse. In 1771 he petitioned the court for a license to sell liquor at his house. His petition stated:

"That he has for a number of Years past received into his House as Boarders a considerable number of Strangers from the other Governments as well as Gentlemen belonging to the Country; being for this purpose well provided with beds, and other conveniences at his House in Cornhill... That he has more especially of late found himself under great difficulties in not being able to supply them with the Liquors they require.... which will greatly accommodate him in his present business which is indeed the only business he can think of engaging in at his advanced age for the support of his Family."

At his death in 1773, Bagnall left an insolvent estate worth 1074.0.8 pounds. By this time he had probably given most of his tools, and perhaps other possessions, to his children. The only mention of tools is a single entry at the bottom of his inventory which reads, "Scales & weights 125.---a parcel Clock tools etc. 205." In his obituary of 15 July 1773, the "Boston News-Letter" noted that Bagnall "came from England to America in life and has always resided in the Place; He was a good husband and a good Parent; honest and upright in his Dealings; sincere and steadfast in his friendship; liberal to the Poor, and a good citizen; he acquired the Regard and Esteem of all who had the Pleasure of his Acquaintance."

Due to their extreme costliness, tall case pendulum clocks were uncommon in the first half of the 18th century. At present only four are known by Benjamin Bagnall, Sr. Of these, this eight-day striking clock is perhaps the best preserved. When Bagnall made these works and ordered the case from a local cabinetmaker, he was greatly influenced by contemporary English clock design. Numerous English clocks made during the 1730s and 1740s, for example, have arched face plates which incorporate virtually identical cast corner elements and dolphins in the arched upper section. Similar herringbone engraving appears around English name bosses, as does the style of Roman letters and "fleur-de-lis" seen here on the main chapter ring. Bagnall's face plates are especially close to contemporary examples from the eastern counties of England, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. These similarities may reflect Bagnall's own origin or that of his English master.

Since cast ornaments for clocks appear in the 18th-century English hardware catalogues, it is possible that some colonial clockmakers ordered their spandrels and perhaps engraved face plates from abroad. However, Benjamin Bagnall, Jr., and probably his father as well, obtained many of the parts they needed from the Boston founders Mercy Jackson and Robert Charles. Records of purchases from Jackson and Charles reveal that the Bagnall shop obtained wire, brass plates, hinges, locks, and escutcheons, as well as "Dolphins for Clock[s]," between 1739 and 1743.

Like his brass- and hardware, Bagnall also had his clock cases made locally. Who made this case or any of the other surviving examples is unknown. However, court records reveal that Bagnall had dealings, albeit troubled ones, with the joiner Caleb Ray (d.1721) and the cabinetmaker Samuel Collins (1706-1751). Whoever made this particular case was strongly influenced by English examples and may well have been trained there. The way in which the sarcophagus top fits between the side finials and does not extend to the sides of the top moldings is highly unusual on American clock cases. The feature is much more common on English, especially provincial examples.

This clock was probably made during the 1730s. Arched dials first appeared in English clocks in the 1710s and were soon being used in the colonies. However, the arched dial was not in widespread use in America until the mid 1720s. Furthermore, the lack of rings around the winding holes indicates that this clock was probably not made before the 1730s and might have been produced as late as 1745. Winding holes surrounded by rings were in use almost without exception in both England and America between the 1680s and 1740s.

Excerpted from

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 10-13.