Local Historical Stories


Early in 1996 Alastair Robertson - one of our local historians was asked if he would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. He thought he could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they were still going. Once, and only once, he received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so the Historical Society website seemed the perfect place to have them.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Story No 17: The Alston Clockmakers

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High up and surrounded by hills, Alston Moor could be regarded as England’s equivalent of the Swiss Alps, and the similarity does not end there, because Alston Moor was once the abode of clockmakers.

“The Clockmakers of Cumberland” is a study undertaken by John Penfold for the Brampton History Group in 1976. Most of the following information is taken from that paper, with additional facts from census returns and trades directories.

John Penfold puts Alston Moor in context; “The remoteness of Alston in the 18th century meant that the clockmakers there had to be self sufficient, but the small local population precluded the making of many clocks. With the exception of Joseph Hall, the Alston clockmakers have few clocks to their name.” (Since this article was written a short list of Alston clocks could now be made.)

James and Joseph Kirton (or Kearton)
James Kirton was amongst the earliest clockmakers in Cumberland. He died on 30th May 1729 aged 43; his gravestone is in Alston churchyard. The church register reads, “James Kirton, the ingenious clockmaker of Alston, buried 1st June 1729.”
Joseph, who was the son of Benjamin Kirton and possibly James’ nephew, carried on the business. He was baptised on 31st December 1717, and buried possibly on 30th May 1773 at Alston.
Only one Kirton clock has been reported to have survived.

John and Thomas Craig, or Cragg
John Craig was married in 1765 in Garrigill and worked at Ashgillside until 1790. His son, Thomas, was born at Ashgillside in 1768, and was working about the time 1789-1795 at Windy Hall, before moving to Newton Reigny
Three clocks of John’s survive, but none are known of Thomas.

Joseph Hall
“One of the Cumbrian clockmakers of outstanding ability, having made at least two clocks worthy of very special mention.”
“A clockmaker of distinction and originality”, Joseph made a clock that played twelve tunes and showed the phases of the moon, while another showed the month, date, phases of moon, sunrise and sunset, saints days, “etc”!

Born in 1767, at an unknown locality, but maybe in Northumberland or Durham, Joseph Hall moved to Alston with first wife, Elizabeth, about 1795. In 1797 he bought and then converted the original Methodist Hall at Townfoot into a house and watchmakers shop, after a new, larger chapel had been built. The house is now called “Monument View”. Joseph was also a miller and took over the Low Mill in the town. Elizabeth died at Alston in 1810 and Joseph was later remarried to Jane Priestman, from Howbeck near Caldbeck. They moved to Wigton in 1825 where Joseph died on 25th November1843.
Five clocks survive from the time he was in Alston and three that were made in Wigton.

Ralph Cairns
Ralph Cairns was born in Berwick about the year 1788. He moved to Alston about 1823, appearing in the trades directory for 1829, then moved to Brampton about 1831. He was also a gunsmith and an auctioneer. He died in 1872. His sons had joined the business, and in addition to clock making, they manufactured railway ticket machines for Blaylock of Carlisle.
No clocks have been found of the Alston period, but twelve are known of Brampton.

The Waltons
Of this family, Thomas (died 1759), his son John Snr. (1744-1803), and of John’s eight children, two sons, Leonard (1772-1811), and John Jnr. (1784-1835/40?), took up the craft.
A John Walton is entered in trades directories for 1834 and 1847. This could be John Jnr. and/or his son, another John (1810?-1861/73?), whose establishment was in the Market Place in 1841. By 1851 this latest John lived at Newshield Tollbar with his wife and seven children and was described in the census as a “watchmaker and toll keeper”. In 1861 he was the innkeeper of the Turks Head and a watchmaker. One of Johns at some time lived at Ameshaugh.
A clock of Thomas’s sold at Sotheby’s in 1953. John Penfold presumes that they were mainly repairers.

Hugh Lee Pattinson
Famous for being the man who invented an economical process for de-silvering lead, Hugh Lee Pattinson (25/12/1796-11/11/1858) was talented in several fields.
Born in Alston, he was educated first at a local school, then at private schools, where he apparently always had an interest in sciences. After leaving school he had various careers; as a draper in his father’s shop, a carpenter and a watchmaker. About 1821 he left for Newcastle, returning in 1825, as assaymaster to Greenwich Hospital. In 1829 he discovered the method of extracting silver from lead ore, for which his reward from the London Lead Company was £16,000.
In 1831 he went to live in Blaydon and in 1834 established a chemical works at Felling. Pattinson later moved to Washington, where, in addition to his business interests, he continued to make scientific discoveries, including basis of hydroelectric machines. In 1852 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1857 he returned to Alston to lay the foundation stone of the Town Hall, then in 1858 he retired to study astronomy from his house in Boldon.
Unfortunately no clocks of his have survived.

There are several clockmakers about whom less is known, but they still form part of the picture.

? Martin; working 1753.
John Dent was working in the 1760s. He married in 1767 and moved soon afterwards to Kirkby Stephen.
? Rennie; working in the 18thC, he has one clock definitely known.
William Swinburn; also in the 18thC also has one clock.
Robert Matthew Bradberry; in Alston possibly in the 1820s has one clock.
George Greenwell; worked with Hugh Lee Pattinson in Alston from 1816 to 1821, then in his own right during the 1820s, he was entered in the trades directory for 1829 and has one clock.
William Bayne arrived in Alston about 1820 he appears in the trades directories for 1829, 1834 and 1847. He was working from about 1841 to 1848 in the Potato Market.
Francis Fulton was born in 1810 or 1811, and had premises in the Market Place from 1841 to 1848, but does not appear in the trades directories.
Hugh Armstrong was born in 1827, and was working possibly before 1848 to 1851 in Front Street. Again, he is not in the trades directories.
Thomas Coulthard is only a name with a trade and he was working here possibly in the mid 19thC.
John Wilkinson (1818-14/12/1864) was born in Stanhope and worked in the mid 19thC.) Market Place. He is in the directories for 1847 and 1858. As well as being a clock and watchmaker, he was also a gamedealer, gunsmith, and dealer in musical instruments.

It is interesting to note that during the first fifty years of the 19th century, there were between three and six watchmakers in business in Alston at any one time. What happened after the 1850s has yet to be explored. Perhaps the arrival of the railway in 1852 led to the availability of cheaper, mass-produced timepieces, followed by the decline of the skill and demand for individual clockmaking.

Entries in trades directories after this time are as follows, but from 1879to 1904, watchmakers only are listed, there are no clockmakers, except in one instance:-

Thomas Bramwell appears in 1869, 1879 and 1884 in the Potato Market. In 1894 he is also a photographer. By 1901 he is listed as being in the Market Place. He was succeeded by Charles Bramwell, of Front Street in 1904-5. Charles is listed under ‘Watch and Clock Makers’ in 1914.
George Thompson, Alston, 1869.
R. Johnson, Watchmaker, Market Place, advertises in May 1874 in the Alston Herald.
Hugh Armstrong, Alston, 1879.
John Dodd, whose business was in the Market Place, had his home at High Hundy Bridge in 1884.
James Keenleyside, Market Place, 1884.
George William Lee, Market Place, 1897, 1901.
John Vipond Spark, was also a jeweller and an income tax assessor and collector(!), at Rose Cottage in 1897 and 1901.
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Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
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