The Wigton School
George Fox (1624 – 1691), founder of the Quakers. Hand-colored woodcut. Alamy.com
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England were a time of social and economic unrest. Religion and politics were closely interwoven; the idea of separation of church and state was virtually unknown. Religious debates were commonplace. Many people, disillusioned by the hypocrisy and moral laxity of the English clergy, began to question past ideas and practices, looking for new answers. For the first time, the Bible was being printed in English and people could study it directly, instead of depending on specially educated clergymen to interpret it. The movement that produced the Religious Society of Friends arose in this period of religious ferment.
A young George Fox talking with women in a field 1600s. Hand-colored woodcut. Alamy.com
George Fox was born in 1624 in Leicestershire, in the north of England. As a young man he attempted to live a life of purity and love, struggling to find the truth. He could not find what he sought in established religious organizations. After a period of agonized searching, he experienced an inward transformation that helped him understand that the love and power of God are available to all people without the help of priests, ministers, or sacraments. He wrote, I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God. George Fox traveled extensively throughout England, talking to people, and holding meetings for worship. Originally, Fox and his followers did not intend to form a new denomination. They believed they were returning to a true, primitive Christianity. They were known as the Children of the Light or Friends of Truth and later simply as Friends. The first formal structure was organized in 1652; this is generally considered the birth date of the Society of Friends. The word Quaker was originally a nickname used to describe Friends. There are two accounts of the origin of the word. One, that George Fox, in 1650 bid Justice Bennett tremble at the word of the Lord, so the Justice called him a Quaker. The other story is that the name was given because of the trembling and spiritual stress that sometimes appeared in meetings of Friends. Nowadays, the words Friend and Quaker are used interchangeably.
A Quaker's meeting in the seventeenth century. Alamy.com
It was around 1652 when George Fox first visited and stayed at the home of William Pearson of Tiffinthwaite Farm near Wigton, where he met a small group, called Seekers, who had separated from the Established Church. Following this meeting with George Fox, William Pearson built the first Meeting House on his land and provided land for a burial ground. On a visit to Wigton in 1653 George Fox was turned away by angry townspeople. However, he returned ten years later, staying once again with host William Pearson at Tiffinthwaite Farm and found the meeting 'very large and precious'.
Early 18th century Quaker meeting. Shutterstock.com
William Pearson died in 1674. The Meetings, however, continued and according to the records Monthly and Quarterly Meetings were held regularly. Other meeting houses had been built in and around Wigton to accommodate the growing movement population. In 1704 Wigton appears to have been the hub of Holm Monthly Meeting.
George Fox in his later years. 17th century English: Portrait of George Fox, attributed to Peter Lely, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
John Sanderson was born in1671. He was brought up at Tiffinthwaite Farm (owned by William Pearson) where his father Robert was the blacksmith and they probably lived in the outbuildings on the farmland. But when John Sanderson was left fatherless at the age of 12/13, he left the farm and moved in with his Uncle John Sanderson and aunt Mabel at Highmoor. It is thought that during this time Sanderson was apprenticed under Quaker Clockmaker John Ogden at Bowbridge in Yorkshire. However, there is no evidence that John Sanderson was apprenticed to John Ogden and my assumption is based on the information I have gleaned from reference books and my own private research, which does include, comparing 17th century examples by Sanderson - to known examples by Ogden from the same early period. Uncle John Sanderson, died in 1690 and John Sanderson fathered a child with Aunt Mabel and soon after became a member of an important Wigton Quaker family when he married Elizabeth Pearson of Tiffinthwaite Farm in 1691 (who was William Pearson's granddaughter). They lived at Tiffinthwaite farm, or the farm buildings and it was here that John Sanderson made his early clocks. How ironic it was, that not only did John Sanderson return to the place where he grew up, but this was also an important and historic place for the quakers, where George Fox and William Pearson had their first meeting in the early 1650s.
Above. A stunning tulip dial 30-hour wall clock with religious verse by John Sanderson, c1715. Photograph by Lee Borrett
Below. Showing the dial of John Sanderson’s earliest known 8-day longcase clock to have come to light so far. Made in about 1695, there are religious verses to the top two corners and dial centre. The combination of the arrowhead meeting half-hour markers along with the word ‘Of’ in his signature are features usually only only seen on Sanderson’s earliest known work which date from the early 1690s. Photograph by Lee Borrett
Many of John Sanderson’s early surviving clocks which have come to light, bear the ‘Memento Mori' verses on his dials. This is a Latin phrase meaning remember you must die. The term originally comes from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: 'Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' The vanitas and memento mori picture became popular in the seventeenth century, in a religious age when almost everyone believed that life on earth was merely a preparation for an afterlife.
Above. 'Memento Mori' . Showing a close-up of the early 8-day Sanderson dial centre c1695. Photograph by Lee Borrett
Below. Showing a close-up of the 'Memento Mori' engraved dial centre of another early John Sanderson 8-day longcase clock which dates from around c1710. Photograph by Lee Borrett
This verse from the bible (Eccl 1:2) is also listed in the Quaker Bible of Quotes and I think that these early clocks with the memento mori verses on their dials, could perhaps, originally have been made for the quakers and non-conformists of the region, since Wigton had become a large settlement for quakers at that time and Sanderson must have had plenty of quaker and non-conformist customers. However, I must point out that this is only my own opinion and I have no documented evidence to support this theory at the moment!
Above Philippe de Champaigne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Philippe de Champaigne's Vanitas (c. 1671) is reduced to three essentials: Life, Death, and Time. Memento mori is latin for 'remember that you have to die' is an artistic or symbolic trope acting as a reminder of the inevitability of death. The concept has its roots in the philosophers of classical antiquity and Christianity, and appeared in funerary art and architecture from the medieval period onwards.
Above. The fascinating small wall clock by John Sanderson shown here, has deeply engraved multiple religious verses to the 9.25-inch dial and is particularly interesting. Although the Memento mori verses are different to each other, they are all warning us that man should be mindful of death and repent his sins before it’s too late! The verses from left to right and across the top of dial read: - ‘Our days and years here will Quickly spend; Eternity will come that has no end. The verse to the dial centre reads ‘As time and clock and all things pass a way, A mend your lives for here wee must not stay’. To the bottom left-hand corner, the verse reads ‘Esto Memor Mortis’ and to the bottom right-hand corner it reads ‘Libile Tempus a bit ‘.
17th century primitive pegged oak longcase by John Sanderson dating around c1698
John Sanderson founded ‘The Wigton School of Clockmaking - (as it has become known). The school was made up of three main makers, which were John Sanderson, John Ismay and Richard Sill. Early clocks by all three makers all have remarkably similar features and have all come out of the same workshop. Other interesting Cumberland makers who seem to have a connection with 'The Wigton School ‘from a very early period were Joseph Calvert of Wigton (one clock known - with religious verse), Henry Sheppard of Wigton (one clock known - with religious verse) and Redge Buckell of Skelton near Wigton (one dial known - with a verse). Joseph Calvert was not a professional clockmaker, but he did make a remarkably interesting and unique 8-day longcase for his own use in about 1700 (probably aided by Sanderson). Research shows that he was born in 1654 and lived and worked as a yeoman farmer - about a quarter of a mile from John Sanderson. The clock is an important find, with a fascinating provenance and is shown on this website. John Ismay who is John Sanderson’s stepbrother (sharing the same father), was born in 1699, and was apprenticed to John Ogden in 1711. He Died in 1755. Richard Sill was working at Wigton by 1704, and married a local girl. Not a lot is known on this maker, but he died at Wigton in 1729.
Above. Showing a wonderfully interesting and very rare 30-hour wall clock with religious verse and penny moon feature by Richard Sill of Wigton, c1705. Photographed by Lee Borrett
Below. Showing a close-up of Richard Sill's penny moon feature. Note the wonderful and deeply engraved religious verse. Photographed by Lee Borrett
The question arises with Sanderson’s early 30-hour clocks as to whether they were intended to be housed in long cases. His eight-day clocks are no problem in this respect, as many examples are still found in their original cases. However, his numerous and early thirty-hour clocks with lantern type brass movements have nearly all been housed in a case later (apart from a few original examples), or still have no case today and sit instead on a wall shelf or bracket. It seems likely that Sanderson’s clocks were the Cumbrian equivalent of Walter Archers Gloucestershire hook-and-spike clocks. Sanderson’s thirty-hour clocks were probably bought to just sit on a simple wall bracket originally. This would make the clock much cheaper than a cased example and the new owners would then have a choice to have the clock cased later when they had more money. Why would Sanderson have gone to the vastly time-consuming trouble of casting decoratively shaped pillars, and often feet too, if they were to be housed unseen inside a longcase? For such a purpose he could have used much cheaper iron rod. His later conventional birdcage movements with square (flat) pillars were almost certainly made to be housed in a long case.
Religious longcase by John Sanderson with first owners initials, dated 1703.
From my own experiences in collecting them I think that apart from a few cases the vast majority of Sanderson’s early religious versed 30-hour clocks with the lantern style movements were probably used as wall clocks initially and then some of these were either housed later in a new case, styled in the then fashion of the day, or like other examples found today - which have been at some time in their life adapted to a previously occupied case (married up). However, when collecting these early Wigton clocks this is all part of their natural history through the passage of time and ownership and I do not view this in a negative way.
I would like to thank Brian Loomes for allowing me to use any previously published information and articles on John Sanderson and 'The Wigton Scool of Clockmaking'.
I would like to thank Brian Wellings for his input and help with this article.
Brian Loomes is the authority on John Sanderson. His book 'Brass Dial Clocks' has a whole chapter on The Wigton School. This book is a must for collectors interested in this subject. Much of the above information on 'The Wigton School' was taken from the book, along with an article written for Clocks Magazine of April 2006, also by Brian Loomes. I have however included additional information on clocks and newly discovered makers that have come to light since the book was first published, along with my own opinions on the subject!