The Niagara Garage, Westminster


The interior of Wolseley’s Niagara Garage in 1913 (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

One of the most unusual garages in early 20th-century London was the Niagara Garage on York Street (now Petty France) in Westminster. This had been built as a panorama, and later used as an ice-skating rink.

The building, described rather optimistically as a ‘portable’ iron structure, was designed by the wonderfully-named architect, Robert Emeriti Tyler (1840-1908). Behind a neo-classical façade it included two halls, one circular and the other rectangular, each surrounded by galleries. It opened in 1881 as the Westminster Panorama with the Battle of Waterloo but was reinvented in 1883 as the National Panorama, showing the Battle of el Kebir. In 1888 it became the Niagara Cyclorama and Museum, exhibiting a cycloramic painting by Paul Philippoteaux called ‘Niagara in London’. This was enormously popular, and the building came to be known as Niagara Halls, or simply Niagara.

An American theme pervaded the Niagara:

Besides the attractions of the Falls and the Rapids visitors will find a real Indian store, such as you may see in Niagara village. Here you will be able to buy Indian beadwork, mocassins, canoes, and all manner of curios. There will be no doubt to their genuineness, for half a dozen real Indians will be at work within. A troop of negro waiters have also been imported from Buffalo, to minister to the bodily requirements of the visitor (Pall Mall Gazette, 27 February 1888, 5).

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The ticket hall of Niagara in 1888 (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

In 1893 the Niagara panorama was transformed from summer to winter by the judicious application of white paint, and in 1895 the circular central space was converted into an ice-skating rink with plant by L. Sterne & Co. The Niagara panorama was retained as a backdrop, and the gallery became a lounge.

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Fig: Skating at Niagara, with the famous panorama in the background (ILN 19 January 1895)

The skaters’ paradise closed in spring 1902, and the Niagara canvas (400ft by 38ft) was sold off for £200. The property was bought by an electric car company, the City & Suburban Electric Carriage Co., which already (indeed, since shortly after its formation in 1901) occupied a garage with an electric lift in Shaftesbury Buildings, 6 Denman Street, Piccadilly.

The use of the Niagara as a garage had American precedents. In 1897 ‘the first recorded parking garage in the United States’ had come into existence when a skating rink at 1684 Broadway, New York, was taken over by the Electric Vehicle Co., and amongst the first parking structures in Boston and Washington DC were converted cycloramas.

City & Suburban could store around 230 vehicles at Niagara, compared with 100 at Denman Street. This was undoubtedly one of the largest garages in London. While City & Suburban offered some vehicles for hire, its main business was car sales – patrons included the King, Queen and Prince of Wales – and all-inclusive garaging and servicing. Year-round garaging was a novelty in 1902:

The rapid disappearance, in the residential parts of town, of space available for accommodating our motors suggests their being housed together. So for a tariff of £12 or £14 monthly, the company undertakes to house, clean, lubricate, and generally supervise your car, supply it with current, and insure it against damage and injury. On a rather higher tariff, the batteries, tyres, and all working parts will be renewed, and you may therefore command an exclusive and handsome vehicle by day or night, with neither horse to die, nor stable to maintain (Pall Mall Gazette, 26 December 1902, 7)

After City & Suburban was wound up in winter 1903-04, the Niagara Garage appears to have been kept up by the liquidator. Throughout 1904-05 part of the premises was let as offices to a hire company, the Electric Landaulette Co., which retained its main garage in Chelsea. In 1905 the liquidator sold the business, including the Niagara and Denman Street garages, to the Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Co., a Birmingham motor-car manufacturer. Wolseley concentrated City & Suburban’s business at Niagara, opening there in 1906.


Inside the Niagara in 1913: note the car lift (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

Wolseley’s head staff were transferred to London from Birmingham. Niagara became the London Sales Depot and Garage, managed by J. E. Hutton. In 1921 Wolseley opened splendid new showrooms on Piccadilly, now the Wolseley restaurant.

Wolseley could garage 60 cars in the central space – the former panorama and ice rink – with another 50 on the gallery, plus 22 in lock-ups. The gallery was served by an electric car lift and heated by hot-water pipes. Its upper walls (where the panorama had originally hung) were plastered with advertisements – interesting, considering that the first advertising exhibition in London had been held in Niagara Hall in 1899. The complex included a glass-roofed washing space, a small repair shop which could be used by chauffeurs, a reading and recreation room with lavatories and cloakroom, and a main repair shop with trestles for cars, rather than pits. Smoking was prohibited!

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Inside Niagara in 1913, showing lock-ups on the gallery  (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

Wolseley was continuously improving its facilities at Niagara: around 1910 an underground level was created and an extra lift was installed; in 1911 it became the official RAC garage; also in 1911, it opened a Motoring School, and introduced gates by the timekeepers’ lodge which could be raised and lowered, controlling entry and exit.


The Niagara’s new underground parking level in 1913 (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

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The Timekeeper’s Lodge and barriers in 1911 (RAC Journal, 8 September 1911, 186)

In 1927 the Niagara was taken over by the Westminster Garage Ltd. It was remodelled by E. H. Major in 1928 to provide chauffeurs with first-floor bedrooms, mess rooms and recreation rooms; its kitchen served meals from 8am until midnight. The building survived the Second World War and was probably demolished around 1970.

Find out more about the history of early car parks in Carscapes: the Motor Car, Architecture & Landscape in England
Posted in London Car Parks | 4 Comments

The Story of Dunn’s the Hatter

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln


Dunn & Co. was the most recognisable chain of men’s hatters throughout the first three-quarters of the 20th century. By the late 1920s it was also a men’s outfitters. A failure to keep up with changing fashions – which no longer involved hats – led to the company’s demise in the 1990s.

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Lush, formerly Dunn & Co., Bournemouth (photo: 2010)

Mr Dunn

Dunn’s was founded by an idealistic Quaker, George Arthur Dunn (1865-1939), who was born and raised in Birmingham. Dunn’s father switched profession to a remarkable degree: leather cutter (1861), hardware dealer (1871), publisher’s manager (1881), then cigar merchant (1901). By 1881 George was working as an assistant to a hatter.

George’s wife, Lucy Day, came from Gloucestershire and in January 1886 they moved to Cheltenham with their first child. George took up work as a grocer’s assistant. The family seems to have moved briefly to Gloucester (where Ellis Randolph Dunn was born in 1886), then to Stoke Newington in north London (where Lloyd Stafford Dunn was born in 1888). By 1889 they had settled at 140 High Street, Shoreditch (now The Golden Horn / Present London). It was probably in London, around 1887, that George Arthur Dunn started his own business as a hatter, and began to open branch shops.

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Formerly Dunn & Co, Ilford (photo: 2002)

As Dunn grew prosperous on 3s. 9d. hats, he moved his family to Maida Vale and then, in 1905, to ‘The Aubrey’s’, Redbourne, Hertfordshire. The Dunns were strictly vegetarian –  rice cutlets took pride of place on the menu for Ellis Randolph’s coming-of-age party in 1907. All of Dunn’s sons refused, for ethical reasons, to enter their father’s business. Embracing ‘Back to the Land’ principles, they took up experimental market gardening on individual plots adjoining ‘The Aubrey’s’ – land jointly referred to as ‘The Four Brother’s Farm’ – refusing even to mulch their fruit trees and vegetable beds with animal manure. They were granted exemption from service during the Great War as conscientious objectors, on condition they worked as farm labourers. Somewhat inevitably, the story in the local paper was headlined ‘Cranks at St Albans’.

Dunn shared his son’s values, saying: ‘There are a great many things in my business of which I disapprove, and I am scheming gradually to get out of it, to hand it over for the benefit of those engaged in it, with a limit, I hope, to the amount anyone may make out of it before retiring’ (Liverpool Echo, 4 May 1916, 4).

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln

And so, around 1929 Dunn transferred the company to his managers. His retirement project was a ‘food reform’ hydro, the Branksome Dene Hotel in Dorset, which was ‘fruitarian and vegetarian’. Dunn died in August 1939, and his fruitarian hotel died with him.

Dunn’s Shops

At the time of Dunn’s retirement there were around 300 Dunn’s hat shops throughout the country, plus franchises. Already, despite the small size of many of the outlets, Dunn’s had branched out into men’s formal wear.

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Middlesbrough in 1923: mock-framed but no stained glass!

It was probably in the 1920s that Dunn’s developed a particularly distinctive form of shopfront which endured as the house style for many years. This had a mock-timber-framed surround, including open spandrels filled with leaded glass. Across the top of the doors and display windows, a band of transom lights was filled with stained glass, depicting the coats of arms of major British cities against a textured emerald green glass ground. Fascias were usually bookended by fluted brackets and bore rounded lettering – ‘Dunn & Co.’ and ‘Hat Makers’ – in a vaguely Celtic font.

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co, Lincoln

The shopfronts are ascribed, on surviving plans, to ‘G. A. Dunn & Co. Estate Department’, but there is no evidence that the company made a habit of designing and erected new buildings – it simply installed its shops in existing premises.

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Formerly Dunn & Co., Ilford (photo: 2002)

The olde-worlde style of Dunn’s shopfronts reveals a similar approach to W. H. Smith and Boots the Chemist. The idea of making references to cities where Dunn’s had branches – demonstrating its national reach – can be compared with Burton’s more modern-looking ‘chain of merit’. Indeed, since Dunn’s was also a men’s outfitters this might be viewed as an act of plagiarism – but listing other branches on shopfronts was common amongst multiples in the early 20th century.

The End

Dunn’s performed reasonably through the middle of the 20th century, though the number of shops had dropped to 180 by 1962. By the early 1990s, Dunn’s was facing serious difficulties. Forty shops were sold in 1991 to Hodges, who kept the Dunn & Co name. In 1994, however, a major stake was sold, and just two years later, in December 1996, the receivers were brought in to wind up the business. At that time 130 shops still bore the Dunn’s brand name – this was bought by Ciro Citterio, which itself went into administration in 2005.

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln

Dunn’s, like so many other stalwarts of the 20th-century British High Street, has left a legacy of shopfronts in a national house style, which can still be spotted – once you know what to look for!

Posted in Fashion and Clothing, Fashion Retailers | 44 Comments

The Story of “Easiephit”

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“Easiephit” shoe shops closed decades ago, but traces of the house style can still be spotted. The inverted commas were an integral part of the name displayed on shops between the wars.

The “Easiephit” brand of footwear was manufactured and sold by James Greenlees & Sons of Paisley. The founder, James Greenlees (1833-1914), was initially apprenticed to an apothecary and set up in business as a druggist. In 1858, a year after his marriage, he became a boot manufacturer. Before long James had premises on Argyle Street and Gallowgate in Glasgow. However, it was only in the 1890s – when some of James’s 11 (yes, 11) sons began to join the firm – that the business really started to make an impact on Scottish high streets.

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Greenlees & Sons began to advertise boots under the “Easiephit” trademark in the mid-1890s. In 1895 “Easiephit” horse-skin boots were being offered throughout Scotland for 10s 6d or 15s 6d. The company opened more and more branch ‘stores’. By 1904, when the latest branch opened at 64 Murraygate in Dundee, there were 15 stores in Glasgow, plus outlets in Aberdeen, Paisley, Kilmarnock, Ayr, Sheffield, Dundee ‘and other towns’ (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 October 1904, 4).

Over and above the famous horse-skin boots, woollen ‘hosiery’ (i.e. long johns and union suits) was made under the “Easiephit” brand. This was advertised in London papers and sold through illustrated catalogues by mail order. Diversification probably allowed the numerous Greenlees brothers to control separate areas of the business. Alexander and Robert Greenlees, for example, relocated to Leicester – an important centre of boot and shoe manufacture – around 1907. Perhaps they were principal buyers (‘boot factors’) for the shops and wanted to be close to the main wholesalers.

Expansion continued right up to the outbreak of war in 1914: there were 90 branches in 1908; 100 in 1909, and 130 in 1914. As yet, most of the stores were in Scotland.

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Through the Great War profits continued to rise and the company planned for the future. Just six months after the Armistice the number of branches had shot up from 131 to 200 (including around 55 in England). In March 1919 a new company was floated – Greenlees & Sons (“Easiephit” Footwear Ltd.), under the chairmanship of Harry Dunsmore Greenlees, one of James’s younger sons.

The new company sought to raise capital to construct a new warehouse in Leicester which would supply the English branches. A second issue of shares in 1920 allowed them to build a factory beside this warehouse on East Park Road – the company admitting that it wished to return to manufacturing its own products, a business model pursued by other successful footwear multiples but clearly abandoned by Greenlees & Sons at some point in the past. The company retained its older warehouse at Possilpark north of Glasgow. This had been ‘erected by the Vendors in 1910-11 on the Hennibique system of reinforced concrete’. Mouchel-Hennebique’s records confirm that this was built as a warehouse and factory of 700,000 cubic feet, designed by Wyllie & Blake.



By 1935, when 12 shops were bought from R. & J. Dick, there were 260 “Easiephit” shops. It had become one of the principal national shoe chains of the day.

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In February 1957 a bid from Great Universal Stores (GUS) was accepted. GUS had recently taken an interest in footwear retailing, having taken over the Flateau Group, with its Metropolitan Boot Co. and Henry Playfair shoe shops, in the previous year.

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There were 380 “Easiephit” branches in the UK in 1973, probably representing the peak of the enterprise. “Easiephit” makes an occasional appearance in street photographs taken in the early 1980s – then vanishes from sight. The purpose-built warehouse-cum-factory in Leicester is now a gurdwara.

Posted in Shoe Shops | 2 Comments

A Spotter’s Guide to Traditional Chemists’ Shops

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Butler, Son & Co., High Street, Leicester (1903)

The Mortar and Pestle

The mortar and pestle has been used by apothecaries, chemists and druggists for centuries to grind medicinal powders. It remains one of the chemist’s favourite symbols, depicted on shop signs to proclaim the nature of the business. A stylised mortar and pestle forms the current logo of one of Britain’s largest pharmacy chains, Lloyds.

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Dispensing Pharmacy, Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Sometimes a large mortar and pestle projects from the frontage of the building above the shop. Whether this is made of wood, stone or metal it usually has the appearance of  bell metal – despite porcelain being recognised as a preferable material from the late 18th century. Mortars often have a red cabochon affixed (does anybody know why?).

The Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius/Aesculapius

These two classical symbols are often muddled. In Greek mythology, the caduceus is the staff carried by Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Two snakes entwine around a rod, which is topped by a pair of wings. This eventually became associated with commerce.

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Lloyd’s Pharmacy, Warwick Road, Carlisle

The caduceus of Hermes is often confused with the rod of Asclepius or Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, which comprises a single snake winding around a staff. Both symbols can  be found adorning 19th– and 20th-century chemists’ shops throughout the United Kingdom.

Carboys and Carboy Shelves

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136 High Street Dorking before conversion into a barber’s shop. The carboy shelf (shown here) has been removed.

Since the advent of plate glass for shop windows around 1840 it has been common for chemists to fill carboys – large globular bottles of colourless glass – with brightly coloured liquid and arrange them on a shelf at the top of their shop windows. Sometimes the carboys are accompanied by fat specie jars, which may be elaborately gilded and decorated with arms.

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Clowes Pharmacy, Buxton

Rather than corresponding to a moulded transom bar, the outer edge of the carboy shelf on Victorian chemists’ shops was often masked by a band of black-on-gold lettering.


Robert Morris’s chemist’s shop, 59 High Street, Lowestoft, 1851

It is increasingly rare to stumble across old-fashioned chemists’ shops which still use carboy shelves for their original purpose. Often, however, when a chemist’s shop has been taken over by a different trade the carboy shelf survives, betraying its historic origins.

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Former Chemist’s, High Street, Lewes

Carboys can also be found depicted as two-dimensional symbols on signage and on window glass.

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Illuminated box sign advertised by the London  shopfitters E. Pollard & Co. Ltd., 1930s

Advertisements for Patent Medicines

From the mid-Victorian period to the mid-20th century, the façades of some chemists’ shops were covered in semi-permanent advertisements for patent medicines. These could be executed in plaster relief, in pictorial tiles (see the advertisement for Sea Breeze saline solution above) or — more commonly — simply painted onto the wall surface. An advertisement for Idris mineral water was gilded onto the glass over the door of Woodcock’s former shop in Dorking (see above).

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High Street, Berkhamsted (now an estate agent’s)


Both jewellers and chemists frequently combined their core trade with that of the optician. In each case this service could be advertised by signs depicting spectacles.

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Boots, Sheringham, Norfolk

The Green Cross

Used for many years to signal the presence of pharmacies in France and other European countries, the green cross is an increasingly common sight on British streets. It has been adopted, amongst others, by Boots.

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Lincolnshire Co-op Pharmacy, Aberdeen Walk, Scarborough.

Posted in Chemists' Shops, Spotter's Guides | 2 Comments

Charles Morrison’s Diary, September 1864

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Untitled watercolour, Gina G. Morrison, c.1900

Thursday 1st

I was pretty busy today. It was very stormy.

Friday 2nd

Very little doing.

Saturday 3rd

I was for a good while with Christina in Mr Russell’s. Mr & Mrs Russell being away at Callenish.

Sunday 4th

In the morning the Revd. Mr Oliver preached from the 10th Chapter of Matthew 42nd verse And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple verily I say unto you he shall in no wise lose his reward. In the evening he preached from the 6th Chapter of John 37th verse last clause him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. In the afternoon Captain Otho (?) gave a very nice address in the Sabbath School.

Monday 5th

It was very stormy all day it blew very hard at night.

Tuesday 6th

Mr Russell & children & I went out for a drive. We were out 6 miles on the Barvas road and when returning it commenced to rain very heavy. When we got back we were wet to the skin. I was with Brown getting the ceiling of the house white washed. We bought a carpet from Mr Russell and went home with Christina.

Wednesday 7th

I had a letter from Lexy. The Clydesdale went to Scrabster.

Thursday 8th

It blew very hard. Angus McDonald was married today a few went over to Valtos from the town but he did not ask or even speak a word about it to his brother which is greatly spoken of through the Town.

Friday 9th

The “Clydesdale” arrived at 2 this morning. I got up and was pretty busy for a short time. There came 13 or 1400 by her.

Saturday 10th

I had a drive out with Mr Russell to the Blackwater Bridge. I wrote Lexy & W.R.Sutherland. The “Clansman” went to Scrabster Roads.

Sunday 11th

In the morning the Revd. Mr Oliver preached from the 2nd chapter of Luke 13th & 14th verses And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace good will toward men. In the afternoon the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was dispensed and the service was very impressive. In the evening he preached a most excellent and his concluding sermon from the 4th chapter of Hebrews 9th verse There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.

Monday 12th

Mrs Russell Christina & I were up seeing the house. The “Clansman” from Scrabster Roads at 4 P.M. with about 400 men.

Tuesday 13th

I had a letter from Christina telling that Alexander that morning was in an awful rage and abused her and J. and her mother took her side. At night I was in Wm Robertson’s to 12 o’clock getting the bedroom papered.

Wednesday 14th

I had a drive out the Lochs Road with the Misses Pope.

Thursday 15th

The “North Star” of Peel in with meal I got 50 Bolls. I had a walk with Christina and she was telling me what Alex. was saying.

Friday 16th

A fine day. I was in the shop with Angus McLeod Carloway till ½ past 11 P.M. There was a very high tide.

Saturday 17th

Not very busy. At night Robert Gerrie & I went to Donald McKay the Kirk Officer for to get Christina & I proclaimed tomorrow in church. A very high tide.

Sunday 18th

In the morning Mr N McDougall preached from the 6th chapter of John 48th verse I am that bread of life. In the evening he preached from the 1st verse of the 5th chapter of Romans Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. In the afternoon I had a walk with Christina and Miss Smith down along the Creed.

Monday 19th

Pretty busy today. A number of Cromore people in town.

Tuesday 20th

Pretty busy. I sent up the chest of drawers to the house.

Wednesday 21st

I wrote Father. I had a parcel from Isabella Sutherland for Christina. I saw in the Glasgow Herald of the arrival of the “Morning Light” at Melbourne on July 25th.

Thursday 22nd

Not much doing. I was making up empties for Glasgow.

Friday 23rd

[Blank – the diary ends here]

Extracts from Angus Macdonald’s Diary:

Saturday 10 September 1864. Married at Valtos house on Thur 8th last by Rev. J. McRae.

Friday 16 September 1864. Highest tide I ever Saw here.

Saturday 17 September 1864. At 8pm tide even higher than last night. Had to fill up my shop door to keep the sea out.

Wednesday 21 September 1864. Murdo away

Tuesday 27 September 1864. Chas Morrison married at 7a.m. & left per St. (i.e. Steamer).

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Charles Morrison’s Diary, 15 to 31 August 1864

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Small untitled oil painting (Arnish?), Gina G. Morrison (nd, c.1890).

Monday 15th August

I had breakfast with Mr McMorland. Sir James & Lady Matheson away. Not much doing. I went home with Christina.

Tuesday 16th August

I called on Mrs Nicolson to see if she would let part of her house and she seemed quite agreeable to do it. I wrote Christina about it. I was pretty busy today.

Wednesday 17th August

Very little doing. I was at a funeral.

Thursday 18th August

Mrs Russell spoke to me about Wm Robertson’s house and I saw himself about it. I was at the prayer meeting.

Friday 19th August

Very little doing. I was looking over the book debts of McDonald & Morrison and I see Angus has not been very honourable with me.

Saturday 20th August

There was a meeting in the Court House about the Dingwall and Skye Railway. There were some shares taken. I was in Wm Robertsons seeing about the house.

Sunday 21st August

In the morning Mr Deans preached from the 3rd chapter of Romans 24th verse Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. In the evening he preached from the 12th chapter of Zechariah 10th verse last clause And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son and shall be in bitterness for his first born. At night I saw Christina.

Monday 22nd August

I wrote W.R.Sutherland. I got the goods from J & W Campbell & Co ordered by Mr McMorland. I settled with Wm Robertson for the house and went home with Christina. We have fixed on Monday 26th September as our marriage day.

Tuesday 23rd August

I wrote George Phillips and Lexy. I took a 1/3 share of a gig with Mr Russell himself taking the 2/3 the gig & horse being the one Mr McRae Sandwick has a very nice one the only one of the kind in the Island.

Wednesday 24th August

I had a nice sail to Holm along with Mrs Russell Robert & Christina Gerrie Misses Addison McIntosh & Cockburn. It was a beautiful day. I engaged Christy McLeod as a steward. I went home with Christina.

Thursday 25th August

I bought 11½ cwt fish from Murdo Kennedy Lochs. A 56 oz weight fell on my toes I got 2 of them badly bruised.

Friday 26th August

Mr Flett was buried today. I was at tea in Mr Russell’s. I went home with Christina.

Saturday 27th August

I had a letter from father and Lexy. Isabella & George Sutherland came from Edinburgh. I had a short walk with them. I went home with Christina.

Sunday 28th August

In the morning Mr Oliver preached from the 12 chapter of Matthew 31 & 32 verses Wherefore I say unto you All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man it shall be forgiven him but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world neither in the world to come. In the evening he preached from the 79th Psalm 11th verse Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die.

Monday 29th August

Isabella Sutherland and I had a walk by the castle and down the creed river. In the evening both of us were a while in Mr Russell’s and I went home with Christina.

Tuesday 30th August

I went with Isabella down the Sandwick road to Melbost and up by Stenish. We had tea with Mr & Mrs Pope.

Wednesday 31st August

Mrs Russell, Christina, Isabella & I had a nice drive to Garrabost. We went round the Parafin worksand we were back at after 3. Isabella was in Mr Russell’s with Christina at tea. And they both came down at night to the shop. This is the first time Christina was in the shop. The “Clydesdale” came in at ½ past 11 P.M. and left at 4 next morning. Isabella & George went by her it was very stormy. Rodk McKenzie & Murdo Morrison left for New Queensland. About 20 vessels came in today. My drawings for August is £78-11-6. I wrote father.

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Untitled watercolour, Gina G. Morrison (nd, c.1900).

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A Spotter’s Guide to the High Street: Jewellers’ Clocks & Time Balls

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John Bull & Co., 49 High Street, Bedford.

Just as pawnbrokers signal their presence with three suspended balls, and barbers have their red and white striped poles, so jewellers, clockmakers and watchmakers have traditionally attracted attention with elaborate projecting clocks, turret clocks or time balls. Examples can be found on high streets throughout the British Isles. You just need to look up!

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Nathan’s moved from Union Passage to Corporation Street, Birmingham, in 1887. It’s said that they brought their old clock with them. The three balls indicate that they bought old gold. Photo: 1999.

Some jewellers were particularly ambitious with their public timepieces, seeking to outdo the local competition. They wanted something eye-catching and novel.

The enormous clock projecting from John Bull’s former shop on Bedford’s High Street is topped by a golden bull with a ring through its nose, and has bulls’ heads on the sides. A bull is one of the conventional symbols for butchers’ shops, but here (obviously!) refers to the proprietor’s name. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to discover that in 1817 Bull started out, inauspiciously, in an old butcher’s shop near Ram’s Yard, with slaughter houses at the back (Bedfordshire Times & Independent, 5 April 1940, 12).

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John Bull & Co., 49 High Street, Bedford.

Bull was, primarily, a clockmaker, watchmaker and gunmaker. His sons took charge in the late 1860s and branched out, becoming ‘goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers, cutlers and opticians’. They even repaired umbrellas and parasols, and were the Bedford agent for Mappin & Webb. The clock with the golden bull was probably added when the shop was rebuilt in 1878.

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John Dyson & Sons, Time Ball Buildings, Leeds. (c. Historic England)

In 1877, on Briggate in Leeds, the jeweller John Dyson installed an electric time ball which dropped at 1pm each day ‘by a special current of electricity direct from Greenwich’ (Leeds Times, 29 September 1877, 5). Ten years later, in 1887, Dyson replaced it with a much larger ball – 3ft in diameter – on top of a domed bay window. This included a new projecting clock with a wooden figure of Father Time. Originally Father Time had an hour glass which turned ever hour, as well as the customary scythe.

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John Dyson & Sons, Time Ball Buildings, Leeds. (c. Historic England)

Dyson’s time ball was one of the largest in the country, but it was not unique: in 1873 visitors to Hull were urged to see the jeweller James Scott’s three-faced illuminated clock and gas-powered time ball at 4 Market Place (Hull Packet, 1 August 1873, 1). Another, presumably much smaller, example could be seen in the window of the jeweller and optician Henry Steer in Derby in the 1870s. In Bedford, John Bull’s sons installed a ‘Time Ball Figure’ in their window in 1888 – they entered into a five-year contract with the Postmaster General to receive the current from Greenwich, and offered to set watches to the correct time free of charge (Bedfordshire Times & Independent, 7 July 1888, 1).

Time balls remained fashionable for decades. In 1908 Preston’s installed a gilded ball on a mast above its corner premises on Deansgate in Bolton. Like many others, this dropped at 10am each morning. It was slowly wound up at 9am the following day to prepare for the next drop, and was considered the ‘latest addition to Bolton’s civilisation’ (Bolton Evening News, 8 May 1908, 5). Preston’s closed in 2016.

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G. A. Baker, Gloucester.

G. A. Baker’s novel clock on Southgate, Gloucester, was made in 1904 by Niehus Bros of Bristol. It presented a tableau of five automata – Father Time pulled a rope to ring the hour bell while figures representing England (John Bull), Scotland (‘The Cock o’ th’ North’), Wales and Ireland rang the quarters (Gloucestershire Chronicle, 26 November 1904, 3). These figures were made by the chief clerk to the Gloucester Diocesan Registry, Walter J. Lifton, who was also an amateur artist. The hour bell is suspended from a projecting clock, attached to the building by ornate iron brackets, with a small gilded ball on top – perhaps a notional time ball!


Jacob Winter’s, Stockport (Creative Commons Clem Rutter, cropped)

Baker was not the first jeweller to install automata. By the early 1870s several figures, including Gog and Magog, adorned the frontage of the watch establishment of Sir John Bennett Ltd. on Cheapside in London. The tableau, with clockwork and bells, was dismounted and shipped to America for Henry Ford in 1929. Another jeweller’s façade with automata was Jacob Winter’s in Stockport, now a pub. Around 1900 three figures were set in niches below bells. They depicted Old Father Time, a soldier and a sailor.

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De Lisle’s, Berkhamsted.

Some jewellers preferred a turret clock – perhaps more visible from a distance, though not easily viewed by window-shoppers. A turret clock and cupola over a modest mid-20th century parade of shops on the corner of High Street and Lower Kings Road, Berkhamsted, bears the name of the jeweller De Lisle & Sons. Like most of the clocks illustrated here, it has Roman rather than Arabic numerals.

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Northern Goldsmiths, Newcastle. Photo: 2000.

No account of jewellers’ clocks is complete without mention of Newcastle’s golden girl, who symbolises ‘Progress’. Dating from 1935, she braves the chill winds of the North-East by posing with her arms upstretched atop a square Rolex clock on the corner of Pilgrim Street and Blackett Street, over Northern Goldsmiths’ shop. The sculptor was Alfred Glover, and the material is gilded iron. Northern Goldsmiths advertised their presence ‘under the golden clocks’, just as H. Samuel did in pre-war Plymouth.


Brufords, Terminus Road, Eastbourne (building dated 1950)

Unfortunately, the clocks of few post-war jewellers have managed to compete with those of their inventive – and sometimes over-the-top – predecessors. A symptom, perhaps, of the increasing separation of manufacturing and retailing in the jewellery trade.


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