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Larcum Kendall - Honouring Charlbury’s Favourite Son

 

 

Despite a paucity of any hard evidence whatsoever, it has long been regarded as an indisputable fact in Charlbury, that this North Oxfordshire town was the childhood home of the 18th Century’s master watch- and clock-maker, Larcum Kendall.  

 

The cottage on Market Street, where common knowledge avers that he and his parents lived, was demolished in the 1970s to make way for what is, today, the town’s Post Office.  The sole artefact that was recovered from the debris – and is now held safely in Charlbury museum – was a small pane of window glass.  To my knowledge, no-one has ever examined it in detail to confirm (or otherwise) its age, but as far as native Charlburians are concerned, it was where Kendall lived, and the glass came from the cottage.  Proof enough! 

 

Kendall’s name also lives on in The Corner House, a former fairly grand residence on the crossroads in the centre of Charlbury that was given to the townspeople in perpetuity in the 1940s.  Today, it acts as a centre for meetings and other activities, as well as housing the town’s library; one of its rooms is called “The Larcum Kendall Room”.

 

Until 2012, that was more or less it as far as commemorating Kendall was concerned.  However, the recently retired curator of the museum – Ron Prew, a lifetime town resident – clearly had been working on the possibility of establishing some-thing more permanent, more visible, to honour the man who left Charlbury to become a key figure in maritime exploration and, more importantly, safety at sea. 

 

Thirty or forty years ago, Charlbury was a small and fairly self-sufficient market town, probably much as it had been since the 1700s.  Located in the triangle between Witney, Woodstock and Chipping Norton, it had a comprehensive range of shops, and enough pubs to cater for all tastes.  In the 1700s, the weekly markets thrived, as they had done since the town was awarded its Charter by King Henry III in 1256. 

 

For a long time, glovemaking was one of the town’s principal industries, and although several communities in North Oxfordshire are renowned for the Quaker clockmakers who worked there, so far as we know Charlbury did not have any history of this.  What it did have, however, was a very strong Quaker tradition – one that survives to this day – reaching across society from the likes of the Spendloves and Albrights, who were merchants and industrialists, right down to the labouring classes. 

 

Kendall’s father, Moses Kendall, was a mercer from Charlbury, although his father before him was a London man.  This information we know from the Quaker witness document that records the marriage between Moses and Anne Larcum, which took place on 18th June, 1718, in Chipping Wiccombe (now Chepping Wycombe), Buckinghamshire. 

 

Ron Prew, with Simon Walker and Prof. Evans behind, alongside the blue plaque to Larcum Kendall

 

Fast-forward to early 2012, again.  Ron Prew raised the question of organising a blue plaque for Larcum Kendall at a meeting of the Charlbury Society, of which I was then chairman.  Established in 1949, the society’s constitution includes the requirement “To promote local amenities, and to foster a general pride and interest in the character and appearance of the town”, so the committee agreed that this idea was well worth pursuing. 

 

The first port of call was to submit a proposal to the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board, which to date has been involved in installing over 80 plaques throughout the county.  Interestingly, one of these plaques in Claydon celebrates the Knibb family of clockmakers, who were active in what is referred to as “the Golden Age of English clockmaking” in the late 17th Century. 

 

The scheme’s requirements are quite stringent, focusing on “promoting recognition and awareness of people, places and events that have been of lasting significance in the life of Oxfordshire or more widely”.  In addition, it will consider proposals for a plaque only for individual people who “must be demonstrably eminent in a public sphere and/or otherwise had an impact or done work worthy of lasting recognition”.  As far as we were concerned, Kendall fulfilled both conditions, a view with which the Board fortunately concurred, although only after expressing reservations that the building on which we were proposing to site the plaque was not the original. 

 

With that stage in the process successfully completed, we then had the task of raising the money needed to bring the project to fruition, since the Blue Plaques Board acts only as a facilitator-the organisation that proposes a plaque has also to secure the funding to have it made and installed.  Again, we were fortunate in this respect, with donations from Charlbury Town Council and two local charities covering the costs for us. 

 

Then came the task of agreeing on the wording to be used on the plaque itself, with suggestions and counter-proposals e-mailed back and forth between ourselves and the Board’s permanent secretary, Eda Forbes.  Finally (and this gives an idea of the time it can take for these projects to come to fruition), in February 2014, the design was agreed and sent to the Derbyshire-based foundry that makes the blue plaques.

 

 

Guest of honour, Jonathan Betts

 

Unveiling day was Saturday, 3 May 2014.  It proved to be a fitting finale to the work that had gone into the project.  Guest of honour was Jonathan Betts, the Senior Curator of Horology at the Royal Observatory Museums in Greenwich, and Master of the Worshipful Company of Clock-makers that year.  He delivered the principal address.  Ron Prew, whose original idea had sparked the project, unveiled the plaque itself.  The ceremony was held in the museum garden since Market Street is narrow and we were concerned over safety with a crowd of people standing and watching what was going on. 

 

Today, the plaque is positioned high up on the wall of the Post Office, the closest we could get to the Kendall cottage.  It reads

LARCUM
KENDALL
1719-1790
Celebrated
Watchmaker
appointed by the Board of Longitude
to make the
chronometers used by
Captains Cook and Bligh
in the South Seas
lived near here
as a child

 

A fitting tribute from Charlbury to the man who helped put the world on the map. 

 

Simon Walker


 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 6, volume 40, number 1 (2017).

 

 

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