Sophia Metcalfe, born 1881, was the daughter of Ralph Metcalfe watchmaker and jeweller at 168 Scotswood Road, Newcastle and apprenticed to her father 1895-1899. She married John William Clark of Crawcrook whose family were also watchmakers.
Now I will commence at the beginning of my apprenticeship at 14 years of age. I was never idle one moment and we were always busy. At that particular time my father had 3 shops, 166-168 Scotswood Road (the principal one), another on Elswick Road and one nearer the Scotswood works. My cousin William Ruddick managed the latter, along with Lizzie [elder sister], who was the first lady watchmaker, and Ralph [brother] was in the Elswick Road shop with my assistance.
Father had three men in his shop besides himself and always had three apprentices. In those days apprentices got 2 and 3 shillings per week. I know I only got one shilling for a year or two, however it was not a crime, because men like Dad had paid premiums to learn the trade.
Now I must not forget to tell you that we had all the principal clocks in the Town to wind in those days. It took Ralph, Ruddick, Talbot, and my father one day every week for this duty. Let me see if I can remember a few of them. I do know that Dad did the big houses at Gosforth himself, because they were his Club friends. – There was Dick Thornton who had 12 clocks in his house, Sir Riley Lord had 20, and another gentleman named Bell had 14 clocks. The others were winding the following :- The Crow’s Nest; The Empire; Clayton Street clock at the Fish Market; Vincent, the nut King, who had umpteen clocks; Turk’s Head Hotel, The Collingwood Hotel & Vaults, all the clocks at the Elswick Works and Dunstan Hill big clock which was a huge job, which took three men at a time to wind it. My father made new hands for this big affair, also for Clayton Street & Vincent’s. I wish I could remember the dimensions of those hands, but of course you see I was only interested in our clock going around as quickly as possible in those days. I often wonder if there are not one or two clocks left with R Metcalfe on the dials.
Now I must tell of some particular work we had on hand at that time, bookmaker’s belts. The Gosforth Races was the biggest event of the year, as it is yet to the town folk. I don’t know whose suggestion it was to have belts made of coins, but I do know they were made in the first place in our back shop; we had a tremendous rush for them; belts with four rows of pennies, each penny had to have a small ring soldered on each end and then they were attached together with other rings between and then silvered and strapped onto belts.
My work in this department was the blow-pipe which I did not dislike when I had not to hard solder them. The only job I did not like was having to scratch and brush the pennies before silvering them; they were dipped in sour beer. It was wonderful to see them coming out of the silvering pan and thrown into fine saw-dust and then shaken over the gas burner to dry thoroughly. A preparation of the silvering compound was given to each customer.
We had not finished them all for the first Race Week they were ordered; there were three to be finished for the Thursday, so Dad promised to take them up on that day. Well he took the mater and I with him, and shall I tell you what we wore that day. We each ( the ladies) had a wonderful frilly creation of flowered muslin with a belt of pennies and a 5/- piece for the buckle; our hats were a round straw with a strap of pennies, and bangles of farthings (silvered) also brooches of the same, two farthings joined together, so we were a silvered advertisement for the famous shop.
Mind you, neither of us could be bribed to go back the next year. Well Dad was handing his belts out to his customers when up stepped “Robert” [the bobby] and asked him for his license. Now, Dad with all his knowledge had not dreamed of that (a hawkers license), so the bookies did not get their belts after all. They had to be put back into the case and taken somewhere in Gosforth to be called for. I wonder how many bookies still have their coin belts, because they would last for a life time. I do know we were the first to make them.
I remember we continued to make them for a year or two. Brooches & bangles were made in galore from coins, some defaced and initials put on them; others were cut out with a fret-saw, & so on until we were stopped for defacing “The King”! We must not deface the royal head. Well, there were other hobbies.
Ralph [brother] was very fond of painting at this particular time and Dad encouraged him and also competed with him to paint the best picture. It was a water colour and Dad’s attempt being so poor, he did repeat the experiment, but Ralph did and ended up drawing two life size portraits in oils of my father and uncle; they were wonderful.
The next hobby undertaken in the back shop was the wood carving; some beautiful work being done by Dad and my step-mother; he doing all the figures and she the fancy work and scrolls. The house we lived in at this time was 8 Rye Hill which had eleven rooms, two reception rooms which were furnished entirely in oak carved by the parents. The outcome of all this was pupils, one or two of whom became quite famous. One I remember was a Miss Cowen of Stella Hall, Blaydon, who was also an expert in leather work.
Well, even this wonderful work came to an end and the last hobby attempted was fiddle making. There are sure to be some of Dad’s fiddles knocking about somewhere, because his name was inside them and everyone he made was judged and passed or condemned by an expert, Mr Mayson of Manchester, who became a great friend of ours. He had a large music establishment in Manchester and he had written a book on the subject for beginners (fiddle making) which we borrowed from the library. This hobby became widely known and brought all sorts of people to the shop, even “Whist” who contributed a column “Looking Around” in the Newcastle Journal for many years, came along and wrote a glowing account of “The old curiosity shop” on Scotswood Road. He also became a regular visitor to our home in Rye Hill (Mr McDonald was his name).
Now I must tell you of the beautiful times we had in this house, of course all this time I was learning the trade of watchmaker and jeweller. I could clean 4 watches a day quite easily when I was 16. I had a bench in the front shop at the main window and used to take the watches to pieces, clean the parts, put them all under a glass cover; then fitting them when the workmen were coming along the road from the works; hundreds of them in those days and of course I had crowds watching the lady watchmaker. Some of them could not resist waiting until they saw the job completed and the watch ticking. At my side was a man who did the turning; his work was always interesting and at the other front window were two other men working.
Dad would do a special chronometer job which always drew a crowd, he was so amusing and made people laugh with his little finger nail on his left hand, which had grown until it formed itself into a small cup which he used to hold all the tiny little screws, which he had extracted with a fine pair of tweezers.
In the back shop we always had two clock men and a jeweller, so you can picture a very busy, prosperous shop. The house we lived in was only 3 minutes’ walk from the shop.
Whilst I write this it is thirty two years since we lived at 8 Rye Hill, may I just picture it over again for a minute. In the basement there were two kitchens and a breakfast room; on the first floor, a dining room and a bedroom; on the second floor (mid-way) a bathroom and a separate lavatory, then up 4 stairs also on the second floor were two bedrooms and a drawing room; then up a further four stairs led to another bedroom. Then at the top of the house were two spacious attics, both good bedrooms. The drawing room was beautifully furnished in oak, some fumed and some black; there were no covers anywhere. The piano was a Hamilton grand (Waddinton) with 3 pedals. It was in this room most of my time was spent. My brother Harry was learning to play the violin at this juncture and I had to practice with him for two hours a day, half an hour in the early morning, half an hour at dinner time and one hour at night. I was very pleased when he got past me, so that I could not accompany him; at least he said I could not. What tempers we used to have some mornings and how often that fiddle was brandished round my head and quietly we used to quarrel in case Father heard us because he slept on that floor and would listen to the music! However they were delightful times, although we thought we were ill-used. I simply cannot tell you of all the parties we had because there were so many.
If any of my Dad’s friends had sons who were going abroad, or returning, or 21st birthdays and their houses were not convenient, then the affair was sure to be held at No 8. Also at this time there were many foreigners visiting the Elswick Works, especially Japanese and I remember many Chileans also, so we must have been building ships for many countries, as it was nothing to see batches of Chinamen going along the road. They always wandered into the “Old Curiosity Shop” and then to No 8; my Dad used to delight in teaching them to sing and dance. Their favourite song being “Oh dear, what can the matter be “. We always got a nice present sent to us after they had returned home again; coins were no object, there were always boxfuls of them in the shop.
We often had staying with us for three weeks at a time, a Danish captain, whose boat I remember was called the “Primula”, a merchant vessel. We used to give him the first floor to himself and his friends. During his stay the parties were numerous. He used to love to hear me sing that cheap little song “Call me back again” [Will ye no’ come back again?]. He even took a copy back to Denmark with him, where I could have gone myself had my father consented.
At this time I was 18 and nearing the end of my apprenticeship and feeling discontented because I knew I was making heaps of money for the firm, but very little of it was coming my way and I was kept very busy. I was up at 7 a.m. to begin the day, musically. I was in the shop from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. and 12 p.m. on Saturdays, with half a day off on Wednesday. I was not allowed out during the week, unless I accounted for every action, of course, this lead to telling fibs and getting permission to go to friend’s houses and places of amusement which were never visited. All my pals had their freedom except myself, so when Dad saw my dissatisfaction, he bought me a bicycle and took me to a singing mistress, Miss Mimi Beers, to give me more interest.
Now I did enjoy myself for 12 months but when my 19th birthday came, I asserted myself and after a fearful set to, proclaimed my desire to work for someone else. I was engaged by John Dick & Co in Grainger Street, as a journeyman watchmaker, and I will always remember my interview with Mr Dick who was a broad Scotsman. He first of all asked me if I was afraid of men, don’t laugh, please. I answered as demurely as I could, NO! his eyes twinkled as he replied,” Oh, well I can trust my men, because they’re all Scotsmen, but the apprentices”. My father only made one condition with him, which was that I should be supplied with my own set of tools, so I got a champion set on the quiet. I had not to mention this favour to the men.
Now began for me my happiest days since childhood. I had a bench between two young men, who soon became rivals for my favour, but like most young ladies I preferred the older men. The head watchmaker, whose name was Clark, was a queer old chap with a wooden leg and always came to work in a grand temper. He had fought in the Boer War, when the Boers had wiped out a number of our men on the battle-field. I was horrified at his attitude because our family were staunch tories. At that time I did not know the name of socialist or communist; he was one of the latter, I should say. However I got used to him and became quite friendly with his garden which was situated in the Fenham district.
He brought me a buttonhole EVERY MORNING and my two young swains used to rush for the vase to put it in. I often feel sorry when I think how I used to treat those boys. One of them lived at Whitley Bay and the other at Heaton and I used to fetch them both up with their bikes to meet me in Rye Hill, and of course, I was always surprised to see them. It generally ended in the three of us biking up to Mr Clark’s garden. How he used to chuckle when he saw us, but how pleased he was when my time was up in the shop. He said he would not be responsible for any more lady watchmakers in his shop.
These were also the days when I spent every holiday with my relatives at Tudhoe [Durham]. I could write a book about those holidays because they were crammed full of enjoyment. I was always popular, not only with the opposite sex but I had some wonderful girl friends. My first chum after school days was an Irish girl, Teresa Brennan, who emigrated to America when she was 17 and became very well to do, I believe. Then there was Lily Robson and her sisters in Grove Street, who were my cycling companions and Gertrude Coates who accompanied me to my singing classes. Last but not least, my friend till I was married, Louie Berkley, who married a friend of Dad’s (Mr Jameson of Ryton). In fact all of my friends married so well that I never saw them again. – I was the unlucky one, so you see how unprepared I was to meet MY future.
I managed a branch shop for my father in the Grainger Arcade and met another Scotchman who walked me out. I shall never forget our first walk we walked the full length of Jesmond Road that night without saying a word and then I remember asking him if he was enjoying himself. He was surprised at the question, however, he was a real good sort, who used to spend money in galore on a Saturday night.
I had my holidays too with his people in Scotland, but !!! that was the finale for me. I did not like him in “his own toon” so just waited a decent time afterwards before giving him up. I had a wonderful time in Broughty Ferry, their nearest town was Dundee, five miles away. T Ellis lived away up on a hill and down below was the beach, so it was both country and seaside. My dearest friend during my stay there was Tom’s cousin, May Buick, who was a typist in town. She is now married to a Mr Wright of Carnoustie and very well off, I believe. We corresponded for years, but there, everything wears off in time, however, thank God, memory still remains.
Sophie goes on to describe her holiday at Broughty Ferry in detail and then she tells how she met her future husband Jack Clark (who was the nephew of Thomas Clark watchmaker of Crawcrook), on the town moor during Race Week.
Your father was working on the buildings in the Town [he was a joiner] and living at Ryton with your auntie Hannah, just the two of them in their own house in Beech Grove Terrace. They had living with them Mr Milton Simpson, son of J.B. of Wylam Hall and brother of Colonel Frank Simpson, who now owns the Hall, and Milton has an estate at Beal. Mr M was, I believe, a very profitable boarder and would have liked Hannah into their home as housekeeper, after M got married, but H was always too independent and liked being her own mistress, so she kept her house until your Dad and I got married. I’m quite convinced that our marriage was a terrible blow to Hannah, especially marrying me, a town girl, who could neither bake nor cook, nor wash. My accomplishments counted as nothing to her but they certainly counted later on, as I will show.
Well to go back to our first meeting; “we met t’was in a crowd”. Louie B and I were great toffs that night, as we had had the trains taken from our King Edward Hall dresses and made into walking length which of course, was almost touching the ground, in those days. My dress was red silk with overlace of black, the bodice of which was a wonderful creation of cream lace and ribbons, with a very large black crinoline hat covered with red roses. It certainly makes one shiver in this year 1930, to think of such a description. Louie was in an entire blue silk creation with monster blue hat to match; she was always overdressed and struck one with awe because of her height too.
It happened that night Jack should have with him a very tall chap whose name was Bobbie something and he paired off with Louise very nicely. After we had sat in the motor cars for I am sure, almost an hour, I took Jack over to Heaton (where we then resided) and Louie took hers to the West End, where she resided (Hawthorn Street). When I bade mine good night he wrote my address down on his shirt cuffs, but I never expected to hear anymore of him. Louie had made no arrangements with hers, she rarely did with a pick up acquaintance; so we just went on our own sweet way until 5 weeks had gone over when I received such a sweet little letter from Jack at Ryton, asking me to write back, which I did to Mr J ----- ETC ETC, as he had forgotten to put his surname. It caused some remarks from the rural postman who was also a Jack Clark and a lecture from his sister for picking up chance acquaintances, however that was the beginning.
We did not see much of each other but were wonderful sweethearts, for Dad was so quiet and gentle and such a change to the town boys, who were always chaffing me about how long I would have the country boy.
Now these were the days when my step-mother and I were like sisters because I was beginning to give up old friends and went about with her to the theatres and Churches etc; when I was disengaged. It was a sore point with Louie too but I could not shake her off; she would turn up every Wednesday to see if Jack could bring her a boy, which he eventually did, to my great relief, and which ended for her quite happily.
I had such a bother to get Jack to visit our house because he was so shy and reserved. After a long and continual summer, I don’t think he would ever have come but the winter nights drove us inside. I had gone with him for at least 6 months before I knew what his occupation was and the matter was keep bothering me to ask him, in case he was a PITMAN (poor, despised pitmen what could we do without them), however we did not appreciate them in our life. I had never seen one of them in his work rig out. We got them into the shop on Saturday nights and judged them by their rough accent and their gullibility, but that was all we knew about them. So you might guess how dreadful it would be if Sophie got one of that species; I must give him up if that were so.
Well at last I screwed up sufficient courage one night to ask him and was quite relieved to hear that he was a house joiner and my father was also satisfied because, I do believe, he thought he would get a help mate in one of his hobbies which at this particular time was fiddle-making.
Time went on, my dear, and at last we were married and settled at 3 Nineth Avenue, Heaton with my family, as I was still a help to them. I was managing a shop in Second Avenue, close to the house and still helping Harry on with his music lessons, and Jack was here, there and everywhere at his jobs. Then out of work. Oh! Those out of work days, what a lot of them we did have to be sure. It was a strike and there was no dole money, nor assistance of any kind but just a few shillings each week from the Society. Now we would have been alright at home but it happened that Jack only understood his own work and desired nothing further, so when my father asked him to help in the back shop he refused. Well that was the finish, we may as well get out of No 3 and we did so. I can scarcely recount all that happened to us after that. You were with us then, wanted or not wanted. We just seemed proud of other people’s pride in you, if you can understand what I mean. I had very little to do for you because the Mater and Ruth were your nurses, so of course I had not the patience nor yet the strength, as I was never robust. I only weighed scarecely 7 stone after you came, Tom. I remember at this time we paid a visit to Barmoor or Clara Vale, I think, to be correct, where uncle was manager at the time and auntie Nance was the same weight as I, so you can picture us both being dainty once upon a time (HOW LONG AGO IT SEEMS TODAY). I am 10stone 6 lbs now I believe or somewhere near and auntie will be much heavier than that.
Well, Dad got a pick up job or two so we got a room from Ralph [her brother] at Wallsend; he had a little shop to pass his spare time in so I of course got busy and helped in diverse ways to repay them. I even plucked up courage to go and ask my father for the tools I got at J Dick’s establishment. That was how I had my own set of punches etc etc which I would not have had otherwise. He (my father) gave me the offer again of leaving Jack and taking you home. He said that Jack would never be able to keep me and I often wonder what would have happened had I accepted. However, I refused and not long afterwards Dad got a real start again at Wigham Richardson’s [ship] yard and we got our first house at Vine Street, Wallsend and were comfortably settled before Nora came, 1 year and 9 months after you. I remember we got £40 worth of goods which gave us 2 rooms. We had 3 rooms and bathroom for 6/- a week (upstairs flat) and what happy times we had to be sure. Dad worked right up till Mabel came on the scene 14 months after Nora, who was nothing like walking, so I had a handful, but by this time I was an expert house-wife thanks again to auntie Hannah who was my tutor and oh ! what good neighbours I had. There was Mrs Grieves who had been very well to do before her marriage also she had three boys who adored our babies, especially Nora whom they brought up. She was an ideal baby who never cried, so of course they preferred to look after her. You were the man then with two maidens to look after and all the messages to run.
Unfortunately Sophia Clark (ne Metcalfe) never finished her life story, she died in Aug 1930 but her memory lives on in her son and daughters and of course she left her story of what it was like to work as a lady watchmaker at the end of the 19th century in Newcastle on Tyne.
If you would like to read more about women in the Clock and Watchmaking trade or apprenticeships in general in the trade, please refer to my new book "Early Clock and Watchmakers of the Blacksmith's Company - Keith Bates"
Keith Bates is an amateur horologist who has been researching clocks, watches and chronometers and their makers for over 30 years.