Lewes Clockmaker paid for electioneering

As a general election looms in Lewes on 12 December in deep mid-winter, you may be excited or you may have had enough talk about Brexit and prefer to buy a clock for Christmas. If you’d prefer to buy a clock, Bill Bruce would agree with you. Whatever your views of our present political climate it’s interesting to read about Lewes clockmakers who were active in civic affairs many years ago, including liberal (Whig) John Holman.

Politics has always been divisive and it was no different in the nineteenth century. As in our age, the contest in Lewes was a straight fight between the Conservatives and the Whigs who became the Liberals in 1859.

Bill Bruce Lewes Clockmaker tends to stay out of politics. He learned from his predecessors that this is the best way to run a prosperous business. He owns WF Bruce Antiques and with his social historian, Marion Smith, they have done a great deal of research into the history of the period. Here’s a snapshot of what they discovered.

John Holman, like Richard Comber was apprenticed to Lewes Clockmaker William Kemp born circa 1722. Thomas Kemp was the Lewes MP for the Whigs who was critical of Thomas Harben II  (the clockmaker, ironmonger and banker.) Mr Holman went into partnership with William Kemp from 1787 to 1797 after serving his apprenticeship and they had a shop in Bull Lane until 1797. The clock pictured above was made by Kemp and Holman in 1780.


The partnership dissolved because William Kemp retired in 1797. John Holman was his last apprentice (1780-1787.) The partnership of Lewes clockmakers followed on from the end of the apprenticeship for about 10 years. William Kemp died a year later in 1798 aged 76. John Holman’s son (Henry James) joined him in the business after Kemp’s retirement.

Lewes Clockmaker John Holman was at the very heart of civic society in Lewes.  In 1798 he became a ‘Headborough’, in 1801 he stepped up to become an ‘Overseer of the Poor’ and in 1803 he became a Constable. However, because of his political affiliations, he was not trusted as much as his colleagues. John Holman was a Liberal (Whig) and most of the town voted Conservative at the time.

Lewes Clockmaker John Holman “was unpardonably kept in ignorance of the affairs of the Borough of Lewes”

In the Town Book of Lewes it records that John Holman was appointed to serve between 1802 and 1803. It states: “This year John Holman the Junior Constable, was unpardonably kept in ignorance of the affairs of the Borough of Lewes, and its Donations and Charities, in consequence (which is too often the case) of his Political opinions differing from those of his colleague in office.”

So why was John Holman kept in the dark about town affairs? Let me give you a clue: it was not because he was a Lewes clockmaker. In ‘Some Lewes Men of Note’ it states that he: “Always espoused what was called the Liberal cause with the greatest ardour. It is recorded that during the election of Henry Shelley, esq of St Ann’s in 1802, Mr Holman was one of his most active partisans, and his house was covered with placards, of the various meetings attended and addressed by him. Mr Shelley retained his seat until 1807.

“When Mr Scarlett was a candidate for the representation of Lewes, Mr Holman again espoused the cause with the same warmth… he had his window frames painted scarlet and his door scraper purple, so that he might scrape his shoes on his enemy’s colours every time he passed in and out of doors.” The painting of his door frames is mentioned in his obituary. He was not ashamed to show his true colours.

John HolmanJames Scarlett was unsuccessful during the election but very popular. On Monday 10 June 1816, the Sussex Weekly Advertiser records a meeting of the ‘Lewes Roast Beef Club’ which was a political debating society where James Scarlett was presented with a gold snuff box by the ‘Ladies of Lewes.’ The paper goes on to say: “Mr Holman sang an occasional song (written by a member of the club) which was rapturously encored.” It’s clear that Lewes Clockmakers were pillars of society. They were skilled in their trade and took an active part in the affairs of the town.

In 1803 during the time of Napoleon’s threatened invasion, Lewes Clockmaker John Holman was instrumental in forming a Volunteer Corps, for coastal defence. He enrolled over 200 men to protect the coastline around Lewes in just three days.

Why not pay Bill Bruce a visit at WF Bruce Antiques, 5 North Street, Lewes and follow him on Instagram and LinkedIn from this article? He has lots of antique clocks including longcase clocks made by William Kemp and John Holman, lantern clocks, mantel clocks and an extensive library.

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