A Blue Plaque in honour of the 18th Century watch- and clock-maker, Larcum Kendall, was erected in 2014 at his birthplace in Charlbury, Oxfordshire.1
As I discovered during my research in preparation for applying to the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board for its support for the project, there is actually precious little information about Kendall’s life. None of the horological institutes could come up with anything at all in their libraries and other records, and there is certainly nothing of historical relevance here in Charlbury. The Senior Curator of Horology at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, Jonathan Betts, had compiled an outline life history for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB),2 but that was essentially it as far as public domain information was concerned.
So what do we know about the man? According to the ODNB entry, Kendall was born on 21 September, 1719, in Charlbury which, if interpola-tion back from 1801 is anything to go by, probably had a population of less than 900 at the time. It was a largely self-sufficient little market town, with the Victoria County History3 recording that inclosure of its common fields was already under way, albeit in a piecemeal manner.
Kendall’s father, Moses, was a mercer and linen draper in the town, and it would appear that he had been able to improve his lot from that of his father before him – also called Moses – who had been a brick-layer. As their marriage record shows, Moses the mercer married Anne Larcum on “the eighteen-th day of the fourth month (commonly called June)... one thousand seven hundred and eighteen”. Larcum was the elder of two sons for whom records have been identified. It is likely that Moses had been able to better himself through his Quaker associations, with their philosophy of mutual assistance.
Again referring to the ODNB, Kendall was apprenticed for seven years to the London-based watch- and clock-maker John Jefferys on 7 April, 1735, his parents having moved back to live in central London some time earlier. Jefferys himself had a Quaker background, but it is unclear if he was an active member during his life. On Jefferys’s death in 1754, Kendall apparently took over his workshop, although he had effectively become what today would be called “self-employed” once his apprenticeship had ended.
His principal client through the 1740s was another very important British clock-maker, George Graham, for whom Kendall produced specialised escapements—a critical component for highly accurate timepieces. When Graham died in 1751, the experience that Kendall had gained over the previous ten years stood him in good stead for the rest of his career.
His big break – at least in terms of public recognition – came in June 1765, when he was one of the six “experts” chosen by the Board of Longitude to assess John Harrison’s explanation of how his H4 timekeeper was constructed, and how it worked. Kendall was one of three professional watch- and clock-makers in the group, the other two being his work associates, Thomas Mudge, and William Mathews. In her book Longitude, Dava Sobel provides a detailed, if perhaps somewhat imagined, account of the proceedings.4
With the Board of Longitude requiring that a copy be made of H4, the ODNB notes that Harrison recommended Kendall as being the person to do this, and that Kendall for his part was not happy with H4 professionally. The ODNB entry states that he “agreed to make the copy ‘part for part’, but made it clear he had little faith in its design; he would make no guarantees of its good performance”.
The result of two and half years of work, the copy (K1) was in turn assessed for its likeness to H4 in 1770. By all accounts, it was a masterpiece, with the Board of Longitude paying Kendall £450, plus an extra £50 for the work involved in adjusting it for accuracy, and for taking H4 to pieces in the first place. K1 was taken by Captain Cook on his Second Voyage, and proved so successful that he called it his “trusty friend the watch”.
Kendall’s next commissions from the Board, K2 and K3, were aimed at simplifying Harrison’s original design. In the event, neither was as reliable as H4 or K1. Captain Constantine Phipps took K2 on his voyage to the Arctic, and Captain William Bligh took it on his “eventful” 1787-89 voyage in HMAV Bounty. Cook took K1 with him in Resolution on his Third Voyage in 1776. K3 went with Captain Charles Clerke in Discovery, and then with Captain George Vancouver in his world voyage in another Discovery.
From the completion of K3 in 1774, until his death on 22 November, 1790, it would appear that Kendall focused predominantly on the retail trade, producing high-quality timepieces for sale by others. The ODNB entry for him summarises his capabilities: “The quality of his work was second to none, but he never showed any real ingenuity of his own. He was primarily a watchmaker to the top retail trade, producing first-rate products to the design of those with greater imagination”.
Few examples of Kendall’s watches have survived—even fewer bear his signature. No portrait of him is known to exist, although it is perhaps not surprising given his social status as a working watchmaker.
Kendall died at Furnival’s Inn Court, London, and was buried in the old Quaker cemetery in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey.5 His will,6 prepared only two weeks before his death, left his financial assets in trust for his younger brother, Moses, who was also responsible for the auction of his workshop equipment and household goods by Christies just before Christmas, 1790.
His obituary published shortly after his death by the Gentleman’s Magazine provided a resumé of Kendall’s career, together with a fairly flattering appreciation of his nature. “Mr. Kendall was brought-up a Quaker... But though he left the Quakers, and never dressed like them, he never quitted that simplicity of manners for which that sect is so generally admired: and a man more inflexibly upright, either in person, word, or deed, perhaps scarcely ever lived”.7
L Kendall, a Switzerland-based watch manufacturer,8 has no connection at all with the 18th Century specialist. The use of the name is merely a marketing ploy, the company’s owners apparently having bought the rights to the name—which begs the question: “From whom?”
1.Cook’s Log, page 6, vol. 40, no. 1 (2017).
2.The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a complete update and overhaul of the old Dictionary of Biography. It was released in 2004 both in hard copy and online. The online version is updated as new information is located. Visit: www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/49742
3.Victoria County History. Volume X: Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1972.
4.Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The true story of a lone
genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time. Fourth Estate. 1998. All of the sources listed in the bibliography date from the last 60 years or so.
5.The ODNB incorrectly says that no record of his burial could be found.
6.His will was written on 6 November, 1790, and proved on 8 December. PROB 11/1199/65. Held at The National Archives (TNA), Kew.
7.See page 42 in this issue.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 4, volume 40, number 2 (2017).