The British Horological Institute

February 2003

Everyone knows that there is no watchmaking industry in the United Kingdom today. We still make cars, computers, microbiological equipment, etc., so why not watches? The short answer and the long answer are both far too long and tragic for consideration in this Letter! All we British can have the pleasure of doing nowadays is to look back (we are well trained in this matter) at past achievements by master makers of timepieces…names such as John Arnold, James Ferguson Cole, Thomas Earnshaw, the Fromanteel family, George Graham, John Harrison, Thomas Mudge, David Ramsay, Thomas Tompion, and Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy.

However, what we do possess in this country is The British Horological Institute (BHI). This highly active and impressive body was founded in 1858, in Clerkenwell, once London's great watch and clockmaking centre. Ever since that year, the Institute has published each and every month its own magazine, the Horological Journal. Not a single issue has ever failed to appear, and it is acknowledged to be the longest continually published trade journal in the United Kingdom (and perhaps anywhere in the world?). The current Editor, most ably bearing the responsibility for maintaining this marvellous record, is Timothy Treffry, a former academic biochemist who has turned himself into an horological enthusiast with a particular interest in contemporary, high-end watchmaking.

The first President of the BHI was Sir Edmund Beckett Denison (later Lord Grimthorpe, and the designer of Big Ben, which famously rings the quarters and hours all over London from its tower atop the Houses of Parliament in Westminster). Within a year or so of the Institute's foundation, a museum and library were established, and the first evening classes on watch and clockmaking were made available – all for the good of London's old trade which was under threat from foreign imports, and clearly required a strong trade association to represent it wherever required.

Lord Grimthorpe remained President of the BHI for 35 years, in a powerful position since occupied by many distinguished Astonomers-Royal, to aid the growth of appreciation in all quarters of horology, as the establishment of international time zones quickly brought rationality and therefore astonishing expansion to both national and international travel and trade. Now, the office of President is held by the current year's Master of the Worshipful Company of Watchmakers.

In 1872, the BHI moved from Clerkenwell in London's dirty, noisy eastern quarter, to the peace and good air to be found in the village of Upton, not far from Newark in Nottinghamshire. It had purchased Upton Hall from St.Joseph's Roman Catholic Theological College (complete with two residential ghosts!), and started the conversion of 72 usable rooms into an Institute worthy of its name and fame. The ghosts might be longtime residents, because the grounds of Upton Hall were first recorded in the year 956, an amazing 110 years before the Normans' conquest of England.

Today, the BHI is a very valuable body for anyone at all interested in any aspect of horology, and the Associate level is open to all. Professional membership is available for those actively and daily involved in horology, and the grades to be gained are Graduate, Member and Fellow. Every member enjoys the following benefits: the monthly Horological Journal, access to the Collection for study and research, free use of the magnificent Library and free postal research, free use of the BHI information service, membership of any local branch, and discounted horological education.

Regarding the last entitlement, regular daily residential seminars are held at Upton Hall. The workshops are well equipped, and lecturers and instructors are all experts in their specialities. For example there is a two-day course on 'Appreciation of the BHI Collection' and another on 'The History of British Watchmaking'; both are conducted by the widely regarded BHI Curator Viscount Midleton, known to all as Alan. BHI's Distance Learning Courses are very popular as well, for those who cannot make the journey to peaceful Upton Hall and its 10 acres of country gardens. We don't make watches anymore, but we do make highest-standard repairers and parts makers.

For further details: e-mail: clocks @bhi.co.uk.

P.S. Just had first real fall of Swiss-type snow for 12 years. Lovely sight.