After publishing the second edition of my book on Smiths Clocks ( "Smiths Domestic Clocks ed2", available from Pierhead Publications, email@example.com ) I realised that I had not given adequate weight to the acquisition by Smiths of the H Williamson Ltd company which was, by then, known as English Clock and Watch Manufacturers Ltd (ECW).
In trying to rectify this omission I found it impossible to obtain confirmation of some of the information found on the Internet over the last several years and my age now prevents further research on my part so I offer this as simply my idea of a possible time line and I add the warning that
Astral was NOT a manufacturer! It was a trade name introduced by H Williamson Ltd. to indicate a particular range of clocks so the full Astral story starts in 1868 with H Williamson.
Henry Williamson established H Williamson Ltd in 1868. This date is given on the title page of 1923 catalogue.
It was originally a wholesale business concerned with Jet Jewellery, Silver ware, Watches and Clocks.
Even in 1923 the company had diverse interests. The company started at 77-79 Farringdon Road and later their main address was at 81 Farringdon Road in London.
Around the turn of the century Williamson also had a special department that hand finished high quality pocket watches and deck watches for the Admiralty and for years they held the record for the highest marks. Many of these Deck Watches were sold with a retailer's name on the dial, not Williamson's name.
H Williamson Ltd was registered as a company.
In 1895 H Williamson Ltd. bought the Errington Watch factory in Coventry from Charles Hutton Errington, retaining Errington as Manager of the factory until he retired in 1910. The Errington Watch factory was then a watch finishing factory, buying in components and finishing and casing them. It provided Williamson with a starting point to acquire the expertise and build his own watches.
Between 1897 and 1910 Williamson, in his own name, made and submitted 13 Karrusel watches for the Kew trials. One of these watches even obtained the very high score of 91.3 in 1901!
It should be noted that Williamson's normal watches could be very accurate. The Ewco and Astral watches in particular were warranted to be within 7 seconds a day in 3 positions!
(The above 2 paragraphs reproduced with permission from clockswatches.com)
In 1898 H Williamson Ltd. purchased the business of Suter & Co, Swiss watchmakers situated in Buren, Switzerland and also the watch factory of Albert Mondandon at Chaux de Fonds. It appears that this was to ensure a supply of parts for his own watchmaking activities and that, apart from this, he allowed the factories to continue with their own range of products. This was the only Swiss watch factory under English Ownership.
In 1899 Williamsons fell foul of the law. They were accused of contravening the merchandise marks act by utilising Swiss-made parts in their 'English made' watches. They lost the case, and after this all the watches produced with Swiss parts were clearly marked 'Swiss Made'. Pendulette clocks were also made at Buren. These were very popular in the USA, but because of restrictions on importing clocks into the UK, very few were sold here.
H Williamson was one of the few watch and clock makers in England who successfully made the transition from the old style of individually crafted watches and clocks to the then new mass production methods.
He was one of the main manufacturers who used interchangeable parts in their watches and clocks. It must be remembered that prior to the 1900's machine made interchangeable parts were actively discouraged by the main watch and clock makers in England, who feared that this would produce inferior products.
Sadly these people were wrong and England came into the mass production age very late, allowing their markets to almost disappear.
(The above 3 paragraphs reproduced with permission from clockswatches.com)
In 1901 H Williamson Ltd. advertisements show the first reference to the EMPIRE name but only as the name for a new watch which was in production at the Coventry factory.
In 1902 H Williamson Ltd. bought Potters Steam Clock Factory in Salisbury, renamed it the "English Clock Factory" and re-equipped it for mass production of clocks and speedometers. For this purpose Williamson obtained advice on mass production techniques from Georg F Bley (1865-1939), one of the leading exponents of mass production who was very highly regarded in Germany and had worked at VFU/ Gustav Becker.
Bley came to England in 1902 to advise and remained to take over the technical direction of the Salisbury factory. He returned to Germany in 1910 and joined the Hamburg American Clock Company.
Speedometer manufacture was soon discontinued as their main watch customer, S Smith & Sons, claimed patent infringements and Williamson's did not want to upset a major customer. Some interest apparently remained until 1907 as English Patent 115 (1907) issued to Bley and Williamson is for clocks and speed indicators.
The Salisbury factory was burnt down in 1909. Following the fire, H Williamson Ltd. decided to move all production to Coventry where there was space to expand.
The first clock made in Coventry became available in 1910.
In the same year, 1910, Williamsons introduced the trade name "Astral". The Astral range included not only the platform lever escapement type used in marine clocks, but also pendulum models and striking clocks. see "Trade marks" below.
Henry Williamson died in 1914, but H Williamson Ltd. continued to trade under the joint management of the founder's son "Charlie" and William Edward Tucker who had been a commercial traveller.
Europe was then at war and they had lucrative government contracts to supply timepieces to the armed forces, but after the war ended the company started to decline.
In 1921 the clock making partnership of Grimshaw and Baxter joined with H Williamson Ltd. and from 1922 the companies traded as the "English Clock and Watch Manufacturers Ltd"
By 1925 English Clock and Watch Manufacturers Ltd (ECW) were concentrating on low price clocks with striking movements and sold them under the Astral trade name.
The trade name Empire was introduced but the company continued its decline.
Receivers were appointed to manage the ECW cash flow problems.
1931 ECW went into bankruptcy.
Documentation around this date is scarce, but it seems that production at ECW continued during the bankruptcy and that Smiths purchased clocks and/or movements from ECW during this time.
In May 1932 the Clock manufacturing operations of English Clock and Watch Manufacturers Ltd. were acquired by S Smith & Sons (Motor Accessories) Ltd.
The purchase meant that Smiths acquired rights to many movement designs. Probably the most important of these were the Astral and Empire marine ranges, both of which remained in production for many years.
In the same year Smiths announced that the Coventry factory was to be re-equipped.
At about this period Tucker, Nunn Ltd. was formed. A case of wheels within wheels I think!
Smiths registered the trade names Smiths Astral and Smiths Empire.
Smiths closed the ECW Coventry clock factory amalgamating ECW with the Enfield Clock Co (London) Ltd which they had purchased in September 1933 and transferring all current manufacturing operations to the Enfield factory at Edmonton.
Manufacture of the Astral and Empire ranges acquired from ECW was continued until 1965. This can be seen from Smiths catalogues.
Note that in later years Smiths used the trade names "Astral" and "Empire" very extensively for other ranges of watches and clocks, presumably hoping that some of the reputation gained for those names would rub off on later offerings. Although they used the names "Astral" and "Empire" they did at least use different trade marks on the later ranges.
Smith's ended their clock and watch making operations.
When H Williamson Ltd started to produce clocks in 1902 at Salisbury they adopted as a trade mark a drawing of a clock key with the name Salisbury inscribed on the wings of the key.
When in 1910 production was moved to Coventry, after the fire at Salisbury, the trade mark was amended to show Coventry on the key.
H Williamson Ltd made clocks of many types and qualities and in particular produced a range of clocks which they called "ASTRAL"
The Astral range included not only the platform lever escapement type used in marine clocks, but also pendulum models and striking clocks.
The Astral range proved very popular and the trade name Astral was registered in 1910 and was subsequently stamped on the movements in the range.
Clocks produced by H Williamson Ltd were also identified by a serial number which was stamped in small figures at the bottom of the backplate.
Another name used by Williamsons was "Empire" and Williamson advertised in 1910 that a new watch was available under that name.
Kochmann's index of European trademarks appears to suggest that the name "Empire" was registered in 1920 and other reports indicate that it was used for a range of clocks from 1928.
H Williamson Ltd merged with Grimshaw & Baxter in 1921 and traded as the "English Clock and Watch Manufacturers Ltd". It does not seem that ECW took any steps to amend names or trademarks.
When S Smith & Sons (Motor Accessories) Ltd bought the "English Clock and Watch Manufacturers Ltd" company in 1932 they acquired the rights to the Astral and Empire trade marks and trade names and in 1933 they re-registered them as Smiths Astral and Smiths Empire.
Smiths did not normally put serial numbers on their clocks and this can be helpful in deciding if a clock was made before or after 1932 and therefore whether it is a Williamsons or a Smiths.
By the time Smiths acquired English Clock and Watch Manufacturers Ltd the marine range of Astral clocks had established a high reputation for quality and accuracy and Smiths clearly wanted to retain the value of the name so they continued to use the Coventry Astral trade mark, omitting the serial number but adding a model number to the marking. When this practice was first adopted they added just a basic model number (123 for a small seconds lever movement and 156 for a movement with sweep seconds dial).
Later, certainly by 1950, they preceded these numbers with a fourth number, a 6 or 8, to indicate the dial size. I have been unable to establish when Smiths ceased using the Coventry key mark and replaced it with the wording "Smiths Astral".
Some variations of the basic model number, such as 151 and 277, are to be found, mainly in non marine clocks.
As time passed, they added the Smith company name also. This gives another dating clue as clocks made before 1955 were marked "Smiths English Clocks" whilst those between 1955 and 1966 would be marked "Smiths Clocks & Watches"
Much the same applies to the Empire Range. Some Williamsons Empire clocks used a picture trademark i.e. a drawing of a globe with a sash saying Empire. When Smiths took over they kept the trademark but left off the serial number and added a model number (264). Other clocks in the Empire range had the word EMPIRE either on its own or with an enclosing box. In both cases Smiths eventually omitted these marks and used a four figure model number.
Kochmann's Trade mark index book shows another "Empire" mark, a lion surmounting a circle (the earth?) with the word Empire and "30 hour alarm" attributing this to Williamson, but I have not seen that mark on any clock.