Thomas Loomes is a name well-known to those with an interest in the history of British clockmaking. He is not famous, in the sense that Royal Clockmakers such as Thomas Tompion were famous, but he was an important figure in the early years of the trade in London. He made lantern clocks, which was virtually the only kind of clock made during this early period – he was born about 1628 and died in 1665. There is one ancient report of a bracket clock by him, but this is likely to be simply a mis-used term to mean lantern clock. He worked at the famous (or later infamous) premises in Lothbury known by the sign of the Mermaid.
The Mermaid might have been a tavern, but was more likely just a large premises where the business of clockmaking was carried out on the ground floor, and the staff members mostly lived in house, with additional rooms rented out to occasional visitors. The Mermaid is first documented as a clockmaking premises during the 1630s (but probably in that same trade in the 1620s), when it was occupied by the Selwood brothers, William and his younger brother, John. At that time there were probably no more than half a dozen clockmaking ‘houses’ in London, each run by a master with a staff of several workmen assistants (usually known as journeymen or sometimes called ‘servants’, the term meaning employees), as well as a handful of apprentices, youngsters between the ages of about fourteen and twenty one, who worked for next to nothing in order to learn the trade. Apprentices were always considered a cheap form of labour. In the 1620s it is doubtful whether the number of qualified clockmakers employed in the trade exceeded twenty.
To be able to ply his trade in London a master had to be a freeman of a City Company, which gave him the ‘freedom’ to set up in business. This was the official position, though many traded without it – some were prosecuted for doing so, but others got away with it. Some early clockmakers were members of the Blacksmiths’ Company, but membership of any Company would do, and it happens that the Selwoods were freeman of the Clothworkers Company – probably by virtue of the membership of their father or some other relative. The Clockmakers Company was established in 1631, supposedly formed to try to protect native British workers from cheaper or allegedly inferior work being peddled in unfair competition by foreigners working in London, principally Frenchmen. In actual fact many of those who between them formed the Clockmakers Company were themselves French, and for the next twenty years or more ‘foreigners’ dominated the Company proceedings, bending the rules to suit their own advantage and rotating the senior offices amongst their own clan. Strict rules about how many apprentices a master could employ were broken by the Company seniors and enforced against the common membership. Many clockmaking houses were based closely on family relationships – brothers, sons, sons-in-law, brothers-in-law, nephews, uncles – and each family group would find ways to bend the rules as best suited the family as a whole. The Company also controlled ancillary workers such as engravers, watch case makers, spring makers, perhaps even brassfounders.
William Selwood joined the Clockmakers Company in 1633 (though was making clocks well before that date, probably as early as the late 1620s); his younger brother, John, joined him a little later, about 1640. They had between them several apprentices, some taken with the approval of the Clockmakers’ Company and some taken earlier through the Clothworkers Company. Like so many other clockmakers, they probably also had apprentices employed without any kind of official consent. The Selwoods made lantern clocks, which were (pretty well) the only kind of domestic clock known at this time.These clocks seem to have born William’s name, as master of the business, though one is known signed by John. Amongst these apprentices were some who themselves later became well known as lantern clock makers, principally Thomas Loomes, Thomas Knifton, and Edward Norris. Thomas Loomes was probably related to John Selwood through Selwood’s wife, Dorothy Brooks, whom John married in 1642. The Mermaid was one of the major centres of lantern clock making for nearly half a century, till it finally closed in dramatic circumstances in 1666.
John Selwood died in 1651, quite a young man of about thirty-eight, apparently childless; William died early in 1653, a bachelor, aged about forty-six. This left their former ‘senior’ workman, Thomas Loomes, in sole charge of the Mermaid business at the early age of only twenty five after only three or four years of qualified practice, a cause of envy for some more senior clockmakers elsewhere, who were less fortunately placed. Thomas Loomes’s lantern clocks probably date from 1653 or later, as he would probably not have been allowed to sell his own clocks when working under William Selwood. Of course, Thomas Loomes still had not only his own apprentices but those of the two deceased Selwood brothers, meaning that we was considerably over quota, an irritation to the senior members of the Clockmakers’ Company, who felt they might themselves find ways to circumvent the system themselves but could not tolerate it in others.
The Company irritation at Loomes was aggravated the very next year, 1654, when Thomas Loomes married Mary, the twenty-year-old daughter of Ahasuerus Fromanteel, master of a thriving clockmaking house in Mosses Alley in Southwark, south of the river Thames, where he was more or less beyond the control of the Clockmakers’ Company. This was the same Fromanteel who was shortly (a year or two before 1658) to become the most famous clockmaker of all time in so far as he was responsible for making the first clocks in Britain to be regulated by a pendulum. All previous clocks were controlled by a balance-wheel regulator, which was less exact as a timekeeper. The two houses of Fromanteel and Loomes were thenceforth combined, the one outside the law as far as the Clockmakers’ Company was concerned, the other flouting it.
Add to this brew the fact that politically the Clockmakers’ Company was controlled mostly by Royalists (included amongst them the officeholder of ‘Royal Clockmaker’ named Edward East, believed to have been a practising Catholic), many of them of French origin or extraction, of Roman Catholic origin or belief (public or concealed), whereas Loomes and Fromanteel were of Protestant origin, had very strong Cromwellian links and even gave them financial support, and here was clearly a recipe for disaster. The years of 1653 to 1657 were ones of increasing strife between the two factions.
South of the River, Fromanteel could to some extent go his own way regardless of the Company, whose authority did not extend that far. But he could not legally trade within the city. To get around this he traded both from his own premises at Bankside and through Thomas Loomes’s house at the Mermaid in Lothbury.
To trade within the city Fromanteel needed freedom of the City of London, for which he needed to be put forward by a city Company. The hostile administration of the Clockmakers’ Company were never likely to do that – he had been a member of the Company for twenty-four years already and had still not been proposed by them for City freedom. Instead he was uniquely sponsored for City Freedom in January 1656 by no less a person than Oliver Cromwell himself, who wrote a letter which ‘ordered’ the Court of Aldermen to grant his freedom. This they did at once, as not many defied Cromwell. The Clockmakers Company must have been fuming. Fromanteel became a City freeman in spite of the Clockmakers’ Company, not because of it.
In his famous advertisement of a couple of years later (1658) for his revolutionary new pendulum clocks, which he claimed ‘go exact and keep equaller time than any now made’, Fromanteel offers these for sale made by himself ‘who made the first that were in England’ . ‘You may have them at his house on the Bankside in Mosses Alley, Southwark, and at the sign of the Maremaid in Loathbury, near Bartholomew lane end, London’. This advertisement appears in the same issue of the journal ‘Mercurius Politicus’, which reported Oliver Cromwell’s funeral.
Matters came to a head in 1656, when a considerable group of thirty three ‘rebels’, headed by Thomas Loomes and his father-in-law, Ahasuerus Fromanteel (now a full freeman of course and the more able to make a fuss), signed a petition to the Lord Mayor complaining about the unjust administration of the Clockmakers’ Company, especially that, whilst the Company was formed to keep out foreigners, Frenchmen were ‘admitted to rule the Freemen’. The rebels included: Fromanteel himself; his son-in-law Thomas Loomes; his brother-in-law Andrew Prime; Richard Beck and Simon Dudson, who were former Selwood apprentices at the Mermaid; watchmaker John Drake, a Blacksmiths’ Company member for over half a century already and a man with a fiery temper and a colourful turn of phrase, who at one time called on of the wardens ‘a turd and a shitten fellow’.