Jason Clarke Antiques

George IV Chondrometer or Corn Balance by Watkins & Hill of Charing Cross


For sale, an early nineteenth century chondrometer or corn balance by Watkins & Hill of Charing Cross, London.

The English chondrometer was devised following an Act of Parliament on the 1st of January 1826 introducing the imperial form of measurement under George IV. This steelyard type scale was primarily used as a measure of the bulk density of grain and therefore quality of the product.

To use the scale, the brass measuring cylinder was placed upon the scale arm and filled to the brim with a sample of grain and levelled using a straightedge known as a strickle. The weight was identified by means of the sliding weight on the arm of the scale and was repeated a number of times to ensure accuracy of measurement. The outcome would determine price and space required to store the crop in question.

This early example is of superb quality and is housed within its original mahogany case with original instructional label to the interior of the lid, giving bushel conversions for seventeen different types of seed. The scale is constructed from a turned brass stand, brass measuring cylinder and scale arm engraved with measurements in pounds and signed to Watkins & Hill, Charing Cross, London. The weight is incorporated onto the arm and is further engraved with, “pounds per Bushel”.

The company of Watkins and Hill traces its roots back to the apprenticeship in 1737 of the renowned scientific instrument maker, Francis Watkins under a Nathaniel Adams. Watkins was granted his freedom of The Spectacle Maker’s Company in 1746 and opened premises using the sign of Sir Isaac Newton’s head in Charing Cross. Shortly after, he took on Addison Smith as an apprentice (later to become his son in law) and with whom he was to form a life-long partnership and or business relationship with shops in both Charing Cross and The Strand.

By 1758 the equally famous Dollond family had entered into a partnership agreement with Francis Watkins for the marketing and selling of the new lenses that solved the issue of both chromatic and spherical aberration encountered in telescope lenses, and Watkins as part of the deal, helped fund and arrange for the patent to be lodged.

The ensuing saga and various court proceedings are well renowned for the ferocity with which Peter Dollond sought to protect his father’s patent following his death but suffice to say that the messy business was to some extent career defining for both Watkins and Smith as their close involvement and the continuing repercussions of the argument about Dollond’s rights to the achromatic lens patent dragged on for the rest of their lives and beyond.

Watkins was a shrewd businessman and whilst being one of the foremost scientific instrument makers of the period, he also took a keen interest in property. It was more likely this latter interest that allowed Watkins to retire in 1785 to Richmond with his wife. Without an heir, the business was taken over by his nephews Jeremiah and Walter and they assumed ownership of the Charing Cross property and various other assets upon Francis’s death in 1791.

 Just seven years later in 1798, Walter also died at Charing Cross from apoplexy and Jeremiah continued to run the family business until his own death in February of 1810 whereafter the business continued under family ownership beginning with Jeremiah’s widow Charlotte, then a John Watkins and finally Francis Watkins III. This younger name sake of the company’s founder was of too young an age to immediately take the reigns of this prestigious company and it was supported through this period by William Hill, a long standing employee of the Watkin’s family (since 1798) and his support was the reason for the resulting partnership.

The partnership of Francis Watkins III and William Hill was certainly effective from the early 1820’s and Watkins himself became a respected expert in his field. Completing his studies at the newly formed London Mechanic’s Institution, it was there that he nurtured a growing interest in electromagnetic science and the company’s output by the late 1820’s was starting to reflect the growing enthusiasm for the subject. By 1828, Watkins had published his own work entitled, “A Popular Sketch of Electro-Magnetism or Electro Dynamics” which was received with much enthusiasm by the scientific community for the ease with which it explained the subject to the interested enthusiast.

The dissemination of science to the masses was a cause which was beginning to gain much traction during the second quarter of the nineteenth century and it was in this environment that the partnership of Watkins & Hill began to thrive. Their voluminous catalogues of the period (with a special focus on electro-magnetism) were eagerly consumed by the public and institutions alike and Watkin’s successful publication was a useful draw for the business. He had also become the ‘curator of philosophical instruments and apparatus’ to the new University College, London a year before in 1827.

Watkins and his enduring interest in the science of electricity had established himself and the company with some of the leading scientists of the age and the likes of Faraday, Babbage and Wheatstone were all known to have been familiar with him. In 1833, he organised a meeting which was attended by Daniell, Lardner, Pepys, Phillips, Turner, Moselely and Faraday to inspect two inventions which induced electricity from magnets and which were invented by Joseph Saxton and Hippolyte Pixii. The former of which, Watkins and Hill produced for retail.

With the level of approbation that the company received, it continued to thrive until the death of both partners, Hill in 1846 and Watkins in 1847 but it remained a going concern under the stewardship of an Abraham Day on behalf of Francis’s widow Mary-Ann Watkins.

Francis’s son Francis Burton Watkins seems not to have aspired to the same career as his father and no records exist of his involvement with the company although the slow demise of the Charing Cross area and the rise of new companies such as JJ Griffin and Elliott Brothers must also have been catalysts for the inevitable fate of the company. Abraham Day is unlikely to have been seen in the same light as the company’s namesakes and although it lasted long enough to have exhibited with some success at The Great Exhibition, by 1855-56 Mary-Ann had taken steps to negotiate a deal with Elliott Brothers for the taking over of the business and its premises, a deal which was concluded in 1857 and saw the end of this remarkable century old family business.  

This chondrometer is likely to have formed part of the early output of the Watkins & Hill partnership given Watkin’s growing specialisation into the production of electro-magnetic scientific apparatus during the late 1820s and early 1830s. The name of Robert Brettell Bate is perhaps more synonymous with the production of these instruments given his close association with the board of excise but this is also represents an example of this instrument from a superb London maker of equal standing and pedigree. The partnership of Watkins & Hill is perhaps less well known than the company’s founding father Francis Watkins but they existed during an equally interesting period in the history of science which signified the opening of the subject to the masses and saw the focus of intellectual endeavour turning rapidly to the subject of electricity.

Circa 1826-1830   

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