I can imagine as Bonfire Night approaches, Bill Bruce, expert Lewes clockmaker, gets slightly nervous. In 1784, Lewes threatened to burn an effigy of at least one, if not two, of his clockmaking predecessors, Thomas Harben and Richard Comber. Let’s hope this is not a precedent!
Bonfire celebrations throughout the UK commemorate the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and Lewes leads the way. On that day the now infamous Guy Fawkes, was foiled in his plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In Lewes, we also remember the seventeen Protestant martyrs from the town burned at the stake for their faith during the persecution under Mary Tudor.
It is customary in Lewes to burn an effigy or two of hated public figures who have made the headlines for the wrong reasons and even clockmakers could not escape popular wrath. Both Thomas Harben II and Richard Comber were threatened with being immortalised in effigies. Lewes Bonfire remains the biggest event of the year in the town and people are still burning effigies as a way of expressing contempt. We are pleased to say that Bill Bruce is not amongst them.
Lewes bonfire made an effigy of clockmaker Thomas Harben
Clockmakers were not without their share of troubles. For Thomas Harben II it was feast, then famine. He inherited the family business from his father, Thomas Harben (Senior) the clockmaker but when he married, Thomas Harben II received “a handsome dowry.” He then handed over the family clock business to clockmaker assistants while he diversified into ironmongery and malt. He had also opened a Lewes bank in partnership at Newcastle House.
Thomas Kemp was the Lewes MP after Lord Rockingham’s Whigs replaced Lord North’s Tory ministry. At the hustings before the election in 1784, Kemp singled out Thomas Harben II, suggesting he had been involved in double dealing. Sir Henry Blackman berated him as a jumped-up brazier and tinker. Mr Harben II tried to make light of the attack, saying: “I used to gather rabbit skins too!”
However, people threatened to make an effigy of Thomas Harben II sitting on a donkey with his face turned towards its tail to humiliate him: “Showing him every mark of malevolence” to burn at Lewes bonfire. In April 1793 some people rejoiced in Lewes when Harben’s bank failed. His estates, tenanted properties and malthouses were all liquidated. Richard Comber’s effigy almost burned on the bonfire too. (Colin Brent, Georgian Lewes, 1993.)
Richard Comber was another Lewes clockmaker who was also a surveyor of taxes. He wrote to the Sussex Weekly Advertiser because he had been summoned by magistrates to answer a complaint from two men whom Mr Comber had criticised for failing to make tax returns for their horses. Mr Comber denied the charge, saying he did not accuse the two men and asked for the opportunity to clear his name in the paper.
He wrote that he was summoned: “To answer to the complaint of RICHARD COMBER, Surveyor of such district for their not having made proper returns of the Horses kept by the several inhabitants within their respective parishes; – when by the bye he never did lodge any complaint against any or either of them. And whereas divers harsh expressions and invect-ives were used against the said RICHARD COMBER, such as “burn him in effigy” – and “in effigy damn him, burn the man – Such report having reached my ear, you may guess I do not feel myself very comfortable upon the occasion.” (December 3rd, 1796, Sussex Weekly Advertiser)
Richard Comber was a respected clockmaker who made clocks and watches from 1754 until the end of the century. In 1860 Mr Comber’s clocks were still very much in demand, recommended by Stephen Tanner, a well-respected Victorian clockmaker who said: “I have never met with an imperfect specimen of his work. His work will endure for many generations.” Mr Tanner made the dome-top regulator which is still on display in Lewes Town Council chamber.
It is Mr Comber’s attention to detail when making his clocks that sets him apart: the engravings on his dials are beautiful and the dials finely matted. An eight-day longcase clock was part of the Wetherfield collection dating back to the late 19th century.
Do call into WF Bruce to see clocks made by Richard Comber and Thomas Harben or visit his website. Bill is always happy to show you his excellent collection of locally made and restored clocks from Lewes and further afield at a range of prices. You can also follow Bill Bruce on LinkedIn and Instagram from this article.
With thanks to Marion Smith, social historian, for inspiring the article and assisting with the information.