Helsby families of Liverpool case makers and their marks

Discussion in 'European & Other Pocket Watches' started by John Matthews, Jul 16, 2019.

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  1. John Matthews

    John Matthews Registered User
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    #1 John Matthews, Jul 16, 2019
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2019
    I recently had cause to read Priestley's account of 'The Helsby Family', part of the chapter covering the Liverpool & Prescot Trade in his definitive reference British watch case marks. I was left with the impression that the relationship between the various members of the family and their contribution to the business, were not fully understood. Given recent threads where Helsby cases have figured, I decided to do some further research and I thought others may be interested in what I have discovered - it is rather long!

    As background, I started by reading Ridgeway & Priestley's account of the Liverpool case makers. In the 1773 Parliamentary Report, that included a review of active goldsmiths and silversmiths, seven silversmiths from Liverpool were identified sending items to Chester for assay, of these two (John Wyke and Thomas Green) were identified as watch case makers. In total, R&P identify 24 case makers operated in and around Liverpool in the 100 year period prior to the publication of the Parliamentary Report. Not all of these have identified maker's marks and relatively few examples of their work survive. Those that do, only carry a maker's mark indicating that they were not sending their output for assay.

    The 1773 report led to the formation of two new assay offices at Birmingham and Sheffield with a requirement for all local workers within 20 miles (later extended to 30 miles) to use their local office. The rule was not applied to existing offices like Chester, so Liverpool makers were not required to use the Chester office. Prior to the introduction of the Plate Duty Act (01/12/1784), which was designed to raise taxes to finance the war with France by requiring duty to be paid and items stamped with a duty paid mark, relatively few Chester assayed examples exist. The introduction of the duty, with severe penalties for failure to comply, had an immediate impact and in the first 12 months records show that 836 cases were assayed.

    Almost immediately tension between the Chester Goldsmith Company and the Liverpool watch case makers appears to have arisen. Correspondence describes incomplete items were being submitted and the makers were informed that such items would not be assayed. However by 1798, when the duty on cases was repealed, 84 22K gold cases and 18,321 silver cases had been assayed. It is of passing interest to note that at the time of writing (2004) R&P record that none of these gold case had been identified.

    In 1843, there is evidence of further tension between the Chester Office and the Liverpool makers. Specifically the makers were accused of sending items containing elements made from lower purity than the standard and trying to conceal individual items of inferior standard within a batch of items of the correct standard. Subsequently, in 1856, a Parliamentary Select Committee was established to review the future of the provincial assay offices. The Select Committee was also charged to investigate accusations of incorrect assaying and that false punches were being used on gold wares in Liverpool.

    Giving evidence to the Committee, Ralph Samuel, vigorously defended the domestic Liverpool trade and its connection to the Chester Office. (It is of note had a decade or so earlier, he had been one of the case makers who had been warned by the Chester Office.) R&P record part of his submission as follows.

    Ralph Samuel reported that a great many uncased watches or movements were being sent to America where they were encased in gold cases, many of which bore fraudulently forged London and Chester marks that were punched with an 18 carat mark on 9 carat gold. The Americans who had visited Liverpool were willing to place large orders for lower standard gold cases provided that an 18 carat mark could be placed upon them.

    This is the only time I have seen the latter accusation and I can make no comment as to its accuracy.

    Against this background, I turned my attention specifically to the Helsby business and commenced with the maker's marks that were registered with the Chester Assay Office as recorded in R&P. This publication is more comprehensive than Priestley as it includes marks that are not found on watch cases and also the dates when individual makers submitted items for assay as recorded in the Plate Duty Books (PDBs). The PDBs are essentially day books, of which there are three. These cover the periods, 1784-1809, 1809-1837 and 1838-1840, encompassing the active period of the Helsby families. From these records it is possible to set boundaries for the periods when makers were submitted items for assay, but unfortunately the maker's marks that were used are not recorded.

    The two marks that relate directly to Thomas Helsby for which there are PDB records are [TH] – used by Thomas Helsby when he was essentially working alone, for which records exist for 1793-1811 and [TH&SON] – registered to Thomas Helsby & Sons with PDB records for 1816-1827. There is also [TH&CO] which appears to have been in use from 1816, for which no PDB records exist. The mark has a registration address that was occupied by the Helsby's in 1827.

    Helsby Family - Priestley003-2.jpg Helsby Family - Priestley004-2.jpg

    Helsby Family - Priestley007-2.jpg Helsby Family - Priestley006-2.jpg

    The other mark that is familiar to watch collectors is [T,H/J.H] for which there are no records in the PDBs. Note that the registered mark is not [TH/JH] and marks of this form, without the two separating periods should, in my opinion, be viewed with suspicion. The authentic mark is recorded by R&P as being registered to Thomas and John Helsby at 26 Vauxhall Road, Liverpool. This location was occupied by Thomas Helsby from 1807 to 1820. It is important to note that a precise date of registration is not provided. Cases are known from 1815 onwards. As with [TH&CO], there are no PDB records, I infer that for both marks the items were submitted in the name of Thomas Helsby.

    Helsby Maker's mark001-2.jpg

    Concerning John Helsby, there has been speculation as to who he was and how he was related to Thomas Helsby. It is often suggested that he was his son by his first marriage. The Liverpool Museum database records that Thomas married Margaret Goodwin in March, 1794. The marriage was short-lived as Thomas married Ann Smith on the 28 December, 1800. I have been unable to find any record of offspring from his first marriage.

    James Helsby, possibly Thomas's elder brother, is recorded as a watch case maker living at the same address as Thomas in 1796. An alternative that has been suggested, is that the mark may actually refer to Thomas and James. On balance, I think this is unlikely, given that this is the only reference to James and if indeed the name on the registration is John. However, James, had a son, John, who was born in 1790 and it is possible that he may have joined Thomas Helsby and would have been of an appropriate age by 1815 to be the co-owner of the mark.

    By his marriage to Ann, Thomas had 9 children, viz. Thomas (1802), Richard (1803), John (1804), Ann (1806), William (1807), Charles (1808?) and Eleanor & George (twins in 1809). [The year for Charles is in some places recorded as 1818, but I believe this to be a transcription error as it is in contradiction to later trade directory entries.] Given that John would only have been 11 in 1815 – he is unlikely to have been the John in the registration. In fact I believe John did join his father's business, but trade directory entries from 1824, record that he was a book-keeper. Prior to John joining the firm it seems possible that his elder brothers, Thomas and Richard, had joined the firm in their early teens at the time the firm became Thomas Helby & Sons.

    R&P, and subsequently in Priestley's section in his account of the Liverpool trade, make reference to John Helsby thought to be the son of Thomas, born in 1797 by his first marriage. Priestley continues 'John eventually carried on in his own right up to 1862.' and refers to the census records. However, these records show that the John Helsby who became a well established watch case maker and gold assayer, was not born in Liverpool. Unfortunately, the census records of 1851 & 1861 are not consistent with regard to his birthplace. In 1851 it is recorded as Preston, and in 1861 as Cheshire. I believe the inference that this John Helsby was the son of Thomas by his first marriage, is only based upon the year of his birth – further investigation is necessary and the original census records need to be examined, but on balance, I think the inference is not substantiated.

    The John Helsby of these census records is recorded in the Chester PDBs for the period 1830 to 1835 and has a registered mark [JH] – a mark I have not encountered. He is, however, recorded back to 1820 in street and trade directories, but there are no corresponding records of items being submitted for assay. This seems to me to be anomalous and I wonder, even if he wasn't Thomas's son, whether he may have been the [J.H] in the [T,H/J.H] and the items were submitted by Thomas Helsby, as the senior partner, and recorded as such in the PDB records.

    Helsby Family - Priestley005-2.jpg Helsby Family - Priestley005-3.jpg

    Given that for the time when [T.H/J.H] was active, the mark [TH&SON] registered to Thomas and his sons and [TH&CO] were also active, my personal view is that the two most likely candidates for 'J.H' are John the son of James, or the John Helsby from the census records; for the moment I am not persuaded that this was his son by an earlier marriage.

    From albeit limited exposure to examples in the hand, my perception is that the early output of the Helsby's, is of very high quality and carries a genuine set of Chester marks, however, the [T.H/J.H] mark, with and without the periods, seems to be one that is not uncommonly found on American gold cases that carry faux marks. I should add, notwithstanding the submission by Ralph Samuel, the comment often made by Graham, 'the fact that it is an American case carrying faux marks, does not imply that the quality of the work is inferior'.

    To end I have a question and one observation ...

    If an order for gold cased Liverpool watches was placed, say in the 1830s, directly from America, with no English agent, would it have been legal for those watches to be exported directly to America, without being assayed?

    My observation is that we are perhaps often too quick to deride the Chester Assay Office records and any derision directed to the period covered by the Plate Duty Books is, in my opinion, not deserved.

    John
     
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  2. Allan C. Purcell

    Allan C. Purcell Registered User
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    Nice piece of research there John. One small point about these cases, as you probably know not all the cases went to North America, many went to South America. I say this because the Helsbey brothers had outlets in Argentina, Peru, and Brazil, according to the bankruptcy documents. I cannot find my copy at the moment or where I posted it on here, but their names are given.
    Regards,
    Allan.
     
  3. Allan C. Purcell

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    IMG_7370[1].JPG Found it on the net.
     
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  4. John Matthews

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    #4 John Matthews, Jul 16, 2019
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2019
    Allan - yes I have found the entries in the London Gazette November 1831 to June 1832.

    upload_2019-7-16_17-18-37.png

    It is suggested that James Gooden Helsby may have been the son of Thomas by his first marriage - the Gooden being taken as a re-spelling of the maiden name of his first wife, Goodwin. There is a later trade directory entry as a watch maker in 1837. Earlier there are references to James Gordon Helsby as a watch case maker - which may have been the same person. Unfortunately, I have not seen the original references and I am unable to confirm these suggestions.

    I think it likely that Thomas the younger and John in the notice are sons from his second marriage to Ann.

    John
     
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  5. DaveyG

    DaveyG Registered User

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    For an added bit of interest (maybe) have a look at this thread 'here' . Following this I did do some research into the Helsby family which, true to form I currently am unable to locate. However, the one thing that sticks in my mind is that members of the Helsby family emigrated to and farmed in Peru.
     
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  6. John Matthews

    John Matthews Registered User
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    Dave - Thanks for the link - I see the Chester 1825/26 case carries the mark TH&CO.

    I found a trade directory entry for 1829 that has Thomas snr's sons, John, Richard and Charles holding pastoral posts at St Stephens, Liverpool and residing at the family home.

    It would be very useful if we could determine when the South American businesses were established. It certainly would appear from the Gazette notice that, Thomas the younger had the connection with Peru, but I am struggling with the James Gooden Helsby and the John Helsby in Brazil. I wonder if James Gooden Helsby was actually Thomas snr's brother, who was residing in Trueman Street with Thomas snr in 1796 and John was his son.

    Too much missing information.

    John
     
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  7. John Matthews

    John Matthews Registered User
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    opps I guess that should be Argentina, as unlikely to be small settlement of Buenos Ayres on Trinidad & Tobago ....

    upload_2019-7-16_23-35-35.png

    Dave Green has provided a links to Helsby family members in South America and further searches confirm that the name was relatively common in Chile. There is reference to Alfreso Helsby (1862-1933) considered to be one of Chile's greatest painters and the son of British born William Helsby, the pioneer of Chilean photography. The latter unlikely to be Thomas senior's son who was born in 1807, but I suppose there could be a link to the Liverpool family who clearly had South American connections.

    John
     
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  8. John Matthews

    John Matthews Registered User
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    I have now identified James Gooden Helsby, his occupation and a connection with Chile. I am yet to identify how he was related to Thomas Helsby - given their connected working lives a relationship seems probable, but yet to be established.

    I have a record of JGH marrying Sharon Stephens on 21 April 1818. His age at the time would be that to be expected if he was Thomas's son by his first marriage, so this cannot be ruled out. The marriage is however recorded at St Peters in Leeds. They were subsequently resident in Liverpool and a son, Thomas Columbus, was born in 1824. Interestingly, I could not find any further records of children until Rosetta Gooden Helsby was born in 1833 - I infer that this was the period when JGH was in Latin America. Rosetta died young in 1834, On both the birth and death record JGH is identified as a watch maker. A further son, John Stephens Helsby was born in 1835. I have a trade directory entry for JGH, watch maker at 7 Elliott Street in 1837.

    The connection to Chile is provided through his youngest son, John Stephens Helsby, in the 1871 census record which identifies his children born in Chile and his occupation as a retired photographer.

    upload_2019-7-17_16-52-43.png

    This new information answers my question ...

    JGH was not Thomas's brother.

    Given the occupation of John, I am left considering whether this pioneer was William the son of Thomas, born in 1807 - the dates fit, but this is pure speculation.

    John
     
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