Street View: 17 Supplement
Address: 65 Cheapside
John (from 1872, Sir John) Bennett started his career in Cheapside between 1839 when the shop at number 65 was still occupied by Rigge & Co, perfumers and cutlers, and 1847 when the Tallis Supplements came out. Before that, he had a shop in Stockwell Street. According to the ODNB, he was born in 1814 in Greenwich, the son of John and Elizabeth Bennett.(1) Father John was a watchmaker and John junior continued in that line of business, first in Greenwich where he assisted his mother after she became a widow, but later on his own account in Cheapside. He married Agnes Willson in 1843 and the couple had three children, Alice, John and Juliet, as we can see from the 1851 census. In 1861, the family no longer lives above the shop, but in Camberwell. Son John has unaccountably been given the name of Thomas, but we’ll assume that is a mistake by the census recorder. In 1871, Agnes and Juliet are still living in Camberwell, in the appropriately named Pendulum Cottage. Agnes is still called ‘wife of watchmaker’, but John is not there.
He is back, however, in the 1881 census; Agnes and John are then living at Glen Druid, Park Road, Chislehurst. Agnes dies in 1889 and in 1891, John is found as a widowed and retired watchmaker boarding in Rotherfield, Sussex. So far an ordinary family history, but for the fact that John is boarding with the ‘widow’ Aimée (also called Annie) Guilbert, originally from Guernsey, his long-time mistress with whom he had seven children: Lillie, Lionel, Violet, Rose, Horace, Gerald Munro and Douglas Thurlow. They all took the surname Guilbert [thanks goes to Margaret Burns for help with the names of the children, see comments to this post]. There are two probate records, the first one in 1898 for Sir John Bennett of 135 London-road St. Leonards-on-Sea who died 3 July 1897. Probate is granted 1 February to Henry Hewitt Bridgman, architect, and the estate is valued at £463 19s. 6d. A year and a half later, however, a second probate record can be found for Sir John (no mistake it is him; same address, same date of death), but now probate is granted to Edward Jones Trustram, solicitor, the attorney of Aimée Guilbert, spinster. The estate has dwindled to £88 9s. 6d.(2) A notice in the London Gazette of 29 September 1899 asking all creditors of the estate to contact Trustram declares that Aimée Guilbert was named executrix in the will. I bet that did not go down very well with the children from his marriage with Agnes.
Interesting as his private life may be, I will now go back to his shop in Cheapside. As can be seen on the vignette on the left, Bennett was “watch maker to the Queen”, “clock maker to the Royal Observatory”, and sold “foreign clocks French Swiss and American”, besides chronometers and Sheffield plate. He went into advertising in a big way; no opportunity was overlooked to promote his business. A large number of his advertisements included pictures of the various watches and clocks he sold. The 1851 Exhibition warranted a page-long advert in the official catalogue. Please note the illustration of the shop front.
But making watches and selling them in the shop was not the only activity of Bennett. He gave lectures, for instance in Leeds, where in 1856, he not only treated his audience to an explanation of how watches were made, but also to his opinion why Switzerland was so far ahead of England in producing good watches. He ascribed their success to the education of the people, the subdivision of labour and the extensive employment of women who were particularly well-suited for the delicate work of watch-making.(3) In an interview with The Pall Mall Budget, quoted in The New York Times of 5 January, 1887, Bennett is asked about this Swiss supremacy and he alleges that even when watches are called ‘English’, they frequently contain Swiss movements. He also claims that the value of the Swiss export of watches to England amounts to one million pounds per year. He was also in favour of the adoption of the metric system where, once again, Switzerland is quoted as an example of its convenience in manufacturing.(4)
His career in politics started with election as councilman for the Cheap ward in 1860. In 1871, he became sheriff of London and Middlesex, but he was, however, thwarted in his attempts to become an alderman and he stood unsuccessfully for parliament three times as a Liberal. Some of the failures were undoubtedly due to his flamboyant personality which showed not only in his outspoken ideas but also in his dress and public appearance. In the Lord Mayor’s show he tended to appear in a velvet jacket and a broad-rimmed hat, seated on a white horse, and receiving more applause than the Lord Mayor himself.(1)
The business became a limited company in 1889 and that was also the year in which Bennett’s involvement in the business ceased. The shop was put up for sale in the late 1920s and the shop front decoration, including the Gog and Magog figures, was carefully removed and taken to America where part of it now graces the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.(5)
(1) Richard Harvey, ‘Bennett, Sir John (1814–1897)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2125, accessed 3 April 2013]. See for more information on the Bennett family here.
(2) England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1898 and 1899.
(3) W.H.J. Traice, “Education of the artisan, and employment of women” in Journal of the Society of Arts, 4 April, 1856, p.349-351.
(4) Journal of the Society of Arts, 11 March, 1864, p. 277; and idem, 13 may, 1870, p. 581.
(5) See here for photographs of the restoration project.
You may also like to read the post on Eddels and Kerby at 64 Cheapside, which gives information on Bennett extending his 65 Cheapside shop with number 64, or the post on Crown Court where information is given on a burglary from Bennett’s shop.
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