A clock on a wall

I NOTICED THAT A CLOCK on the south wall of the nave of St Mary’s Church in Ashwell (in Hertfordshire, north of Baldock) bore the makers name “JJ Dison, Potton”. Being by nature curious, I wondered whether any trace of JJ Dison remained in Potton, a small town in Bedfordshire, about nine miles north of Ashwell. So, off we went to Potton, and what we found there was delightful.

In the tenth century, the town’s name was ‘Potun’ and in the Domesday Book (1086), it was listed as ‘Potone’. These names are derived from the Old English meaning ‘farmstead where pots are made’. During the Middle Ages, the Tudor, and Stuart eras, the Market at Potton was one lof the largest in Bedfordshire. This declined after the Great Fire of 1783 during which much of the centre of the town was destroyed. In 1797, the Shambles (a market area including brick buildings) were erected, but these fell into decline in the 1930s. A smaller version of the market building was constructed later, and this now serves as the town’s library. The two women working there were friendly but knew nothing of the clock makers of Potton They sold me three fascinating books that contain historic photographs of Potton.

Today, Potton, which once had its own brewery, is now a commuter town. Its station, first built in 1850, is on the former Great Northern Railway. Currently, commuters can travel into London on trains that terminate at London St Pancras.

We wandered around Potton looking at various old buildings and enjoying a coffee at a pleasant café that had only just reopened after several months of having been closed because of the covid19 pandemic. A pleasant walk along Church Causeway brought us the parish church of St Mary’s, perched on the highest spot in the town. Its construction began in the 13th century and many additions were made in the centuries following. As with so many churches we have visited recently, it was locked up. We walked around its exterior, admiring the many decorative gravestones in the crowded cemetery that surrounds it. We returned to the centre of Potton along the causeway, crossing a couple of fast-flowing streams along the way. These waterways are part of the Potton Brook network, tributaries of the River Ivel, which is itself a tributary of the River Great Ouse which flows into The Wash.

Well, enough about Potton: you must be wondering whether I have forgotten JJ Dison. I have not, but there is not much to say about him, but more than I had expected to discover. James Jeremiah Dison thrived in the early 19th century. His exact dates are not known. Amongst the Potton churchyard inscriptions (pottonhistorysoc.org.uk), there is one for ‘Jeremiah James Dison’, dated 29th September 1844, when Dison was aged 35. His wife, Jane (née Edwards) died in 1840, aged 31. The couple had two children, named George and Sarah.   

Dison is listed (www.clockswatches.com) as working both in Cambridge and Potton. The British Museum contains a beautiful printed watch paper (an ornamental paper place inside a watch case by the maker or repairer of a watch) which informs us the JJ Dison was a ‘silversmith and jeweller’ as well as a ‘clock & watch maker’. It also mentioned ‘jewellery &c carefully repaired’. In a directory of Potton (in a “Directory of Bedfordshire”) dated 1839, JJ Dison is listed as a watch and clock maker at Bull Street. There was another member of his trade, Mr Henry Reynolds, at Moon Corner.

The National Archives in Kew contains an undated will prepared by JJ Dison, which has within its wording:

“Jeremiah James Dison of the towne of Cambridge in the county of Cambridge watchmaker…”. Whether Dison lived both in Potton and Cambridge, it is not clear. However, the watch paper and the clock in Ashwell’s church suggest that at the very least he worked there. Also his burial in Potton, rather than Cambridge, suggests that his main residence might well have been Potton. That he worked in Cambridge is suggested by a post placed on a watch collecting website (https://mb.nawcc.org/) in which the collector noted that he had acquired a watch “…sold by John Dison Cambridge…”.  Another website (i.collector.com) listed:

“Late 18th Century pair cased Pocket Watch, J J Dison, Cambridge, number No 570, the pierced and engraved cock to a Roman enamel dial with later hands, both cased marked for London, 1789, Makers mark W L …”

It might be coincidence or possibly more than that, but James Jeremiah was not the only Dison working on timepieces in the east of England. There was Joseph Dison of Whittlesey and Thomas Dison of Biggleswade. Biggleswade is close to Potton and Whittlesey is just north of Cambridge.

The clock at St Mary’s in Ashwell is a product made by JJ Dison in Potton. A small plaque, which I was unable to read, the clock being too high above the ground, suggests that the timepiece was a donation to Ashwell’s church. Whatever its origin and story, seeking out its maker has been fun and introduced us to a pleasant town not far from London, which we hope to visit again.

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.