The watch repairer of West Hampstead and Auroville in India

TODAY, I WAS WALKING ALONG Mill Lane in West Hampstead when I spotted a plaque almost hidden in a doorway. It commemorated a craftsman who used to work in the building. I wondered why anyone had bothered to put up a notice to remember him.

Mill Lane connects West End Green (in West Hampstead) with Shoot Up Hill, which is a stretch of what was once the Roman Watling Street. West End Green was known as ‘Le Rudying’ (a name given to a woodland clearing) in the 14th century. By 1534, the area around the Green was known as ‘West End’. Currently, this green is a part of the district of West Hampstead. Although not so named until later, Mill Lane existed in the Middle Ages. A detailed map published in 1870 reveals that at that time, there were scarcely any buildings along it.  It was not until the late 19th century that Mill Lane began to be lined with houses and shops. A pub on the lane, The Alliance, bears the date 1886, suggesting that before that time there was not sufficient local population to warrant building such a large hostelry.

It was the doorway of number 54 Mill Lane that caught my attention. Number 54 is sandwiched between AK locksmiths Ltd and Computer Clinic. Its shop front has frosted glass. It is the window of an office connected with St Johns Wood Cars, a taxi and private vehicle hire company. The commemorative plaque that I noticed is close to the doorway that gives access to a staircase that leads to the upper floors of the building.

The wording on the commemorative plate reads:

“Clifford Norman Bowler, watchmaker and jeweller, lived & worked here. 1899-1993. A Mill Lane tradesman for over 67 years.”

Well, 67 years is a long time and no doubt Clifford (1899-1993) was a well-known local. Articles published on the Internet (www.watchrepairtalk.com/topic/3184-clifford-norman-bowler-watchmaker and westhampsteadlife.com/2014/01/15/a-moment-in-time-on-mill-lane/9921 ) show that that Clifford was a remarkable member of his profession. Clifford was born in Northumberland in July 1899 and served in the Machine Gun Corps during WW1. By 1926, he was on the Electoral Register, registered as residing at 54 Mill Lane, and in 1929 he married Mabel in nearby Willesden.

He bought the shop on Mill Lane for £100 in about 1926 after leaving the army and having worked for a while with other jewellers and watch-repairers in Manchester. His shop used to be painted red and has been immortalised in a documentary film shot for Channel 4 by a local film-maker, Conrad Blakemore, who currently teaches at the City Lit college in London. His charming short film “The Watchmaker”, a working day in the life of Clifford Bowler,  can be viewed on YouTube (https://youtu.be/BU2nOQwxiWw). In it, Clifford, a charming old man, explains that he left the army in 1919 and began learning watch-repairing in Manchester. Faced with a wage cut, he asked his brother, who was already living in London, to find him some premises. The shop he acquired in Mill Lane was already a watch and clock repairing business. The £100 he paid for it included much equipment required for his trade.

Clifford’s father was a professional banjo and mandolin player. Clifford and Mabel had two children. One of them, Norman Clifford Bowler (born 1932), has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by having a career in entertainment. Between 1961 and 2012, he appeared in many plays mainly on television.

Although his watch repairer father probably had nothing to do with India, Norman Clifford did forge a connection with the far-off country. In 2011, Norman Clifford recorded “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in Bristol. Incidentally, Coleridge’s remains lie in St Michael’s Church in Highgate, where my school used to attend services regularly. The recording was made by Norman Clifford to raise money for a school, The Aikiyam School, in the settlement of Auroville, which is close to the city of Pondicherry, a former French colony, in the south of India. A website (lanternmanproductions.bandcamp.com) that gives access to the recording also notes:

“After falling ill a number of years ago, Norman, as part of his recuperation began to spend time in the warmer climes of Southern India with his wife, Diane. As a result, he became directly involved with The Aikiyam School as a teacher of English and Drama. As the years have gone on, Norman spent more and more time in India, only returning to England to spend time with family and friends, and raise money for the school with poetry readings and personal appearances.”

Clifford is privileged to have met Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) and The Mother (Mirra Alfassa; 1878-1973), Aurobindo’s spiritual companion/muse, and there exists a recording (www.aurovilleradio.org/satprems-my-burning-heart-a-reading-by-norman/) in which he describes his impressions of her.

When I chanced upon the almost hidden memorial to a watch and clock repairer in Mill Lane, little did I expect to discover a connection between a somewhat non-descript shop in West Hampstead and the south Indian utopian settlement of Auroville, where we have some good friends and have visited a few times. Well, they say that ‘curiosity kills the cat’. Luckily although I am curious about what I see whilst out and about, I am not a cat.