Wednesday, February 19, 2014

John Crostwaite Watchmaker

The name Crosthwaite was once a common family name in this area.  However, we have to go back quite a long time before we find references in local records to the Crosthwaites.  The index to the Prerogative Wills of Ireland from 1536 to 1810 include references to two local Crosthwaites.  Joseph of Killart, a farmer, and Philip of Shanraheen, also a farmer.  It was probably their ancestor, Thomas Crosthwaite, an English settler, who was granted lands under the Act of Settlement passed in the reign of Charles 2nd 1661-1665.  The last reference I found to the Crosthwaites in this area was in the burial records of St. John’s Cemetery which shows that Prudentia Crosthwaite, an unmarried lady of Presbyterian persuasion, aged 80 years, died at Stanhope Cottage, Athy on 2nd February 1878.

The most famous bearer of the family name was John Crosthwaite, a watch and clock maker who was born in Athy on 29th September 1745.  He is reported to have left Athy when he was 15 years of age and walked to Dublin to look for employment.  Athy in the mid-eighteenth century was a Borough controlled by a Sovereign elected each year on 24th June by the members of the Borough Council who in turn were appointed to that position by the town’s landlord, the Earl of Kildare.  Athy, on account of its geographical location, was for a long time a frontier town but by 1730 or thereabouts following a period of relative peace it began to assume the status and appearance of a market town.  A town hall was built and the market square was laid out around that time.  This development gave an impetus to the development of the town as a market town for the region, a position which would be further enhanced when the Grand Canal was extended to Athy, followed fifty or so years later by the railway.

John Crosthwaite was born just a few years after the great scandal of Athy Borough Council saw one of its members, Graham Bradford, convicted of perjury for which the punishment was confinement to the town pillory prior to being transported to one of the American colonies.  As Crosthwaite grew up in Athy he would have been aware of the rumpus in the Borough Council following Thomas Keating’s wrongfully assuming the role of Town Sovereign.  This impersonating of the Town Sovereign lead to the removal of Keating and two of his fellow councillors, Robert Percy and Nicholas Aylward from the Borough Council.

When the young Crosthwaite reached Dublin he took up an apprenticeship as a watchmaker in Christchurch Yard.  By 1772 he had set up his own business in Dame Street and three years later he was to be found at 27 Grafton Street at the Sign of the Kings Arm.  His business prospered and went through a number of name changes, all of which however related to his premises, at either 26 or 27 Grafton Street.  John Crosthwaite & Son became in 1802 Crosthwaite & Co. and one year later emerged as Crosthwaite & Hodges, comprising a partnership between John Crosthwaite and F. Hodge who had previously operated a business from 138 Capel Street.  Crosthwaite died on 30th January 1829 having become during his working life one of the most famous watch and clock makers of his time.  He is buried in St. Anne’s, Dawson Street in Dublin.

Crosthwaite’s fame arises from the improvements he brought to clockmaking, many of which were the subject of papers published by the Royal Irish Academy.  One such paper entitled, “Description of Two Pendulums - with an account of a clock where the maintaining power is applied immediately from the escapement wheel to the axis of the pendulum rod” detailed an advancement in clockmaking for which Crosthwaite is now world famous.  The advancement was Crosthwaite’s experimentation with Diamond Point and in dispensing with a crutch, which up to then was an essential component of a clock.  Indeed, I understand that what is regarded as one of Ireland’s most famous clocks made by John Crosthwaite using the Diamond Point principle is to be found in the Church of Ireland, Delgany.  Other notable clocks made by Crosthwaite include a double dial clock in St. Columba’s College Rathfarnham and a number of domestic clocks in what was the Mental Hospice in Lucan.

Crosthwaite’s experimentation with Diamond Point found expression in the clock which once graced the Custom House building in Dublin but which unfortunately cannot now be traced.  The Church of Ireland in Mountrath has another of Crosthwaite’s masterpieces of clockmaking which I believe is a somewhat later model than that to be found in Delgany.  The only example of his work known to have been in his native county of Kildare was the Canal Hotel clock at Robertstown which I believe was last heard of in a private museum in Straffan.

Writing of clocks prompts me to refer to the Town Hall clock in Athy which was presented to the people of the town by Lord Downes of Bert House following the disbandment of the Borough Council in 1840.  Downes had been appointed a member of the Council by the Duke of Leinster many years previously.  The clock, made of cast iron, is unique.  There is not another clock like it anywhere else that anyone can trace.  The maker of the clock cannot be determined with absolute accuracy but Julien Cosby who lives in Wiltshire, England and who periodically travels to Ireland to keep the Athy clock and many other well known public clocks in working order, believes that it may have been made by Waugh & Sons of Dublin.  Another of Waugh’s clocks is the turret clock in Powerscourt, Dublin.

Another Crosthwaite whose fame caused his name to pass down through the generations was Philip Crosthwaite who was born in Athy on 27th December 1825.  His parents, Edward and Rachel, had earlier emigrated to America but their son Philip was born when they were on a visit to Edward’s family in Athy.  The parents returned to America and the child was left to be brought up by his grandparents in Athy.  He attended school in the town and later Trinity College, Dublin which he left before graduating, intending to visit his mother in America.  By one of those extraordinary quirks of fate which oft times besets the adventurous, Crosthwaite and a companion found themselves on a boat heading to the west coast of America when they thought they were making a trip to the east coast.  Crosthwaite eventually left the ship at San Diego and remained in and around that area for the rest of his life.  When war broke out the following year between the United States and Mexico, Crosthwaite claims to have enlisted in the American army and after the war he entered public life in San Diego, first being the County Treasurer and later a member of the first Civic Council for the city.

In 1853 Crosthwaite opened a general store in San Diego and around the same time became a freemason and was installed as Master of the newly created San Diego Masonic Lodge.  For seven years from 1861 he was out of San Diego, but on returning resumed his civic duties and a year later was appointed Chief of the local police.  Five years later he moved from San Diego and took up ranching, eventually owning 45,000 acres of land on which he had thousands of cattle. 

Philip Crosthwaite, who was Episcopalian, had married Josefia Lopes, a catholic, in 1848 and they had seven sons and three daughters and as the extended family grew it was claimed in a local newspaper just three years before he died, “Mr. Crosthwaite’s house is in lower California and from his house for 35 miles every house one sees on this road is a Crosthwaite”.  He died in San Diego on 19th February 1903 at the age of 77 years and is buried in the Masonic section of Mount Hope Cemetery.  Strangely for a man with a large family and great wealth, his grave was unmarked until 1968 when the local Masonic Lodge erected a polished granite stone over his burial place.

I am not aware of any Crosthwaites still living in this area but if there is I would be delighted to know what family connections, if any, there were between John Crosthwaite, born in Athy in 1745 and his namesake, Philip, who was born 80 years later.

I recently came into possession of a small whiskey bottle with a label which read, “Malt Whiskey from T. & J. George, Family Grocers, Wine and Spirit Dealers, Duke Street, Athy”.  A check of all the known trade directories throws no light on where Georges carried on business.  Can anyone help me find out where their business premises was located?

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