For the love of archives
Words: Jane Audas,
writer, curator and digital producer
An unwritten prerequisite to being involved in the world of Vitsœ is that you have a strong liking for detail and an interest in how things work and why they look like they do. Customer James Nye has been involved in questioning the nature of clocks and timekeeping since he was 13. He now fills his time (full-time, and then some) working with, researching and writing about them. James is the chairman of the Antiquarian Horological Society, which has recently moved into its new headquarters at 4 Lovat Lane in the City of London.
The Antiquarian Horological Society is always known (for matters of legibility, expediency and pronunciation) as the AHS. It is a charity — nay, a learned society — founded in 1953. Its members (1,500 and counting) are people from around the world who are interested in the history of timekeeping: curators, writers, collectors and people at the business end of clocks, such as auctioneers. AHS members consider themselves the “academic lot” amongst the various clock societies. They are known for their hefty peer-reviewed journal Antiquarian Horology, produced four times a year. And an ongoing series of lovely niche lectures, on anything from ‘How to Make an Atomic Clock’, to ‘The Faking of English Watches’.
Within the society there are specialist (more specialist) sub-sections and groups. The newest of these are the wristwatch group — apparently wristwatches were somewhat frowned upon when the society was founded. There is also a turret group (people fascinated by public clocks) who, when they can, like to “go up towers.” And the electrical horology group, which James has run for 22 years, who are particularly interested in the transmission of time (or how we can have the same time everywhere and the machines we use to make that happen).
4 Lovat Lane, or 4LL (they do love an acronym at the AHS) was love at first sight. “Standing outside just evoked the right feelings for everyone who turned up,” states James. The area is redolent with the history of British clock and watchmaking; from the 17th century onwards the City was at the centre of all things telling us time.
4LL was originally two buildings: 4–5 Lovat Lane, a couple of early 19th century houses that were unsympathetically combined in the 1970s. At that point they lost their two unique front doors and gained a single door and a grim “brutalist Sarajevo-hotel style” staircase up the middle of the two buildings. The frontage is all that was left of the original architecture and it is now listed Grade II. Lovat Lane runs between Eastcheap and Lower Thames Street. It is one of those charming narrow London streets where you feel, if you looked over your shoulder, you might spot Dickens fumbling in his greatcoat for his pipe.
The AHS has gutted both buildings, built a new conjoining, sympathetic and swooping helical staircase, and spent much time and effort to make a forever home for itself. The premises will house the Society’s library and archive, provide a venue for meetings and lectures, and serve as a hub for all things horological.
For 44 years the AHS was based out in the “wilderness” at Ticehurst, East Sussex. But coming back to London makes so much sense for it, its researchers, and the volunteers who keep the society ticking. When the AHS moved into 4LL, 23 of those volunteers helped empty and transport four van-loads of books and archival material, up the stairs and into the new home. The next big job (and one already whetting the whistles of the volunteers) is to sort through and ratify the archive. And then to get it nicely organised on the shelves.
The material to be housed under the mansard roof at 4LL consists of an archive of the society itself (minutes and things) along with runs of bound magazines and journals, such as the smart royal blue cloth-bound copies of Chronos magazine from the 1950s, ‘an elegant showcase for the horological world’, which is still being printed.
There are also personal archives that have been left to the society, often by former members. James explains, “an example of the kind of archive that we end up with, is a civil servant working in defence in the Bristol region for many years. He ‘repurposed’ stationery and kept, amongst other things, a huge number of spare photocopied forms from a survey he did in the 1970s. A survey I know very well.” That collection currently sits in a pile of sturdy recycled (we shan’t say stolen) box files with evocative trade names like the ‘Swifta Box File’. Another collection to be shelved consists of what looks like a lifetime of newspaper cuttings, glued into old scrapbooks of interesting shapes and sizes. Some of these scrapbooks have their own archival nomenclature, for instance a Mr Frederickson named his first scrapbook, grandly: Clock Miscellany No 1.
At the AHS they know that all this accumulated research from many decades needs resolving into something, ideally, that can be “arranged, catalogued and sorted so that we know what we have. At the moment we have a room full of boxes, there are years of discoveries to be found.” James is hoping that eliminations and weeding will happen as they unpack the archive onto the shelves, that they will end up with “metres and metres of box files, arranged beautifully.” Don’t get him started about the quality of modern stationery. “A lot of modern box files are rubbish. All of this project is about the long term. Even down to the stationery that we use to store stuff, it’s got to be high quality and it’s got to be conservation friendly.”
They only have one actual clock at 4LL, the larger accumulations of them are in other places. A shiny museum of clocks called ‘The Clockworks’ in West Norwood, south London, houses a collection (on rather nice shelves) of electrical timekeeping and is, James says “the only museum in the world dedicated to this really narrow little story about electrical timekeeping from about 1840 onward.” The Science Museum in London houses The Clockmakers’ Museum, a collection affiliated with the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers who were founded in 1631 and where (not so coincidentally) James is Renter Warden.
James has spent very much more of his life with clocks and timekeeping than most. “I was at a school in Sussex in the 1970s where the assistant chaplain was a watchmaker. And in his house, half the ground floor was dedicated to workshop space. For those of us not so good at football or rugby, we could spend afternoons learning clock repair. I did that from age 13.” As well as learning “the conventional horological practice of bench repair,” James was given the responsibility of looking after the school’s time distribution system. “A single clock at the centre of the school sent out a pulse to lots of subsidiary clocks to signal the start and the end of lessons. I programmed that. ”Clearly his appetite for electrical horology began there and then and has been with him ever since. He became a member of the society himself when in his 30s but has been a member of the British Horological Institute since he was a teenager. Clocks take up “seven days a week, all waking hours.”
James currently finds himself at the AHS a couple of times a week. Moving the AHS into 4LL will clearly provide a focus for, and energise, the society’s various goings-on. The building itself should happily absorb all the talk and activity around the making of clocks and time, having always been a building used for both trade and accommodation. Three generations of chimney sweeps once lived there. Hairdressers and barbers, boot repairers and, finally, city loss adjusters all worked out of 4LL before the AHS moved in. James explains that it feels magical, standing on their new doorstep, listening to the sounds of the City (there is no traffic on Lovat Lane) and admiring St Mary-at-Hill, the neighbouring Wren church. The Society has found no history of clock making on Lovat Lane itself. But, as James knows well, clocks are in the fabric, history and very air of the AHS’s part of the City.