The clockmakers of Claydon

N estling in the far north of Oxfordshire, almost surrounded by Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, is the tiny rural village of Claydon, its clusters of farm buildings and acres of rolling fields standing testament to the agricultural industry that has been its mainstay for centuries.

Out of this seemingly insignificant hamlet came a family that was to make its name known in Oxford, London and eventually throughout Europe. Brothers John and Joseph Knibb, and their cousin Samuel, became some of the most eminent clockmakers of the 17th century, revolutionising clock-making techniques and counting royalty among their customers.

In September, their famous connection with the village was commemorated with the unveiling of a blue plaque, erected near the parish church of St James the Great, where many members of the Knibb family were baptised and buried. Inside the church, the stone-flagged floor bears Knibb family memorials (pictured above), now so worn as to be virtually unreadable, but on one in front of the wooden-topped font the name of Knibb is just about visible.

These days, newer houses sit uneasily on the edge of the village, and there is the unmistakable whiff from the coffee factory in Banbury, five miles distant, but otherwise Claydon probably remains much as the Knibb family knew it, nearly 400 years ago.

The eldest of the trio was Samuel Knibb, born in 1625 to John Knibb (1595-1663) and baptised at the local church. Of Samuel little is known, other than that he started a clock-making business in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, some time before 1655, and it is believed his cousin, Joseph Knibb, served a seven-year apprenticeship with him. He moved his business to London in 1662, and a year later became a member of the London Clockmakers Company. At around this time he went into partnership with instrument maker Henry Sutton. Sadly, he suffered from constant ill-health and died around 1670, aged 45, leaving his younger cousins to claim the lion’s share of the Knibb family glory.

Brothers Joseph (1640-1711) and John (1650-1722) were the fifth and six sons of Thomas Knibb (1600-72), yeoman of Claydon, and his wife Elizabeth Wise. After completing his apprenticeship, Joseph moved to Oxford to set up his own business in St Clements. His brother John, ten years his junior, worked with him, probably as an apprentice. When they moved the business to Holywell, leasing a building from Merton College, they incurred the wrath of the city guilds, who objected to anyone who was not a Freeman of the city trading within the city walls.

Feelings escalated when Charles II moved to Oxford with his court and Parliament to escape from the ravages of the Plague in London, and the competition for Royal patronage among the Guild members was fierce. In 1667, Joseph Knibb’s application to become a Freeman of the city was turned down after being opposed by the smiths and watchmakers. Ever resourceful, he claimed privileged status as a university tradesman, based on the fact that he was renting university property. Eventually he renounced this claim, choosing instead to pay a fine of 20 nobles (equivalent to just under £7) and, curiously, a leather bucket.

Much to the dismay, no doubt, of the city’s other clockmakers, the Knibb family business flourished, with the brothers gaining widespread recognition for their fine craftsmanship.

In 1670, Joseph moved to London, leaving John — who was only just 20 — in charge of the Oxford business.

Joseph’s departure, after fighting so hard for Freeman status, seems odd, but it is generally assumed he went to sort out the affairs of his cousin Samuel, and to take over his business when he died. It could also be that he was ambitious, and certainly he prospered in London, quickly becoming a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and, in 1684, a Steward of the Clockmakers’ Company.

He worked in the capital for nearly 30 years, gaining international renown, before retiring to Hanslope in Buckinghamshire, where he continued to make clocks until his death in 1711. He is buried at Hanslope Church, along with his only recorded son, Thomas, who died in 1703.

One of his most outstanding achievements was the invention of the ‘Roman striking’ technique, which reduced the number of hammer blows necessary during the winding of a clock. Other notable achievements include the making of turret clocks for Windsor Castle and Wadham College, Oxford, and a pendulum clock for the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. He also made numerous longcase, wall and lantern clocks for domestic use.

Meanwhile, John was making his mark in Oxford. Under his direction, the business flourished and, like his brother, he became known for the exquisiteness of his work.

His best workmanship is generally acknowledged to be his bracket clocks, but he also produced lantern, longcase and 30-hour wall clocks, all of the finest quality.

Notable local examples of his work include a turret clock made for St John’s College in 1690, a longcase clock made in Hanslope and a brass watch which he lent to his friend, the renowned historian Anthony à Wood. He also repaired the clock at Yarnton church in 1703, and maintained the turret clock at Wadham College from 1673 to 1722.

In 1673 John became a Freeman of the city, aged just 22, while his election to the city council in September 1686 marked the start of a long and distinguished civic career. After just two years on the council he was elected bailiff, enjoying a public ceremony that included the ringing of the bells at Carfax.

In 1689, John Knibb was one of six Council officials to accompany the Mayor of Oxford to the Coronation of William and Mary at Westminster. In 1698 he was elected Mayor, a position he held again in 1710. In 1716 he became an Alderman.

John and his wife Elizabeth were regular attendees at St Cross Church, Holywell, and their eight children were all baptized there. When John died in 1722 he was buried in St Cross churchyard.

Some years later, a memorial plaque was erected recording the fact that his wife, who survived him by 18 years, was also buried there, as well as several of their children, and Joseph Knibb's wife, another Elizabeth, who came to live with John when Joseph died.

Coming from an agricultural family, the young Knibbs were almost certainly expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps.

But they chose a different path, and succeeded in establishing themselves as some of the finest clockmakers of the 17th century — as well as putting the tiny village of Claydon on the map. Now the blue plaque will ensure lasting local recognition of their achievements.

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