Coventry’s first clockmaker was William Watson who had a workshop in the city in the 17th century but it was not until a hundred years later that the trade blossomed. In 1747 the company of Vale and Rotherham was established in Spon Street. The premises was set up in the way that early factories throughout the Midlands began, as a collection of small workshops under one roof (like Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory where Birmingham “toys” were made)
Craftsmen rented space from the owners and sold their finished goods wholesale to their landlords to be sold on to individual customers. It was not until 1889 that the factory was converted into the type of building that is understood by the word today.
By the 1840s watchmaking in the city had grown so much that the original craft quarter around Spon Street was unable to contain it. Workshops sprang up in Chapelfields and Earlsdon, two adjoining areas of town. Streets of old watchmakers’ houses still exist in both.
One of the leading watchmaking families in the city was Player. By the 1870s there were members of the family living at five houses in Craven Street, Chapelfields and workshops on the top floor of the buildings opposite.
The industry flourished until it faced imports of cheap watches from Switzerland and the USA. Coventry’s product remained a hand-made, labour-intensive business but continental producers took advantage of cheaper automated processes. In a bid to counteract the impact of foreign imports the Coventry Movement Company formed in 1889 to produce cheaper workings that could be placed in hand-made cases but the plan failed. By the start of World War I the industry was almost gone.
When Coventry Council wanted to give Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) a wedding gift in 1948 it was no longer possible to find all the necessary parts for one watch being made in the town.