John Poole was an English Marine Chronometer Maker rated a little below the elite makers such as Arnold, Earnshaw, Frodsham, Kullberg and Dent. One reason why he didn’t quite reach the highest echelon was his relatively short working life – he died aged just 49. Nowadays, when Poole chronometers come on the market any brief biographical details added to the watch’s description almost always include this or something similar: John Poole took his own life in 1867, shortly after winning the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition.
Much as I’m fascinated by old clocks and watches, I’m even more intrigued by the people who made them, and I’m always surprised to see it when a note of this type is merely copied/pasted and no attempt has been made to understand the ‘why’ behind the factoid. After all, in the more straightforward society of Victorian England, what on earth would induce a prize-winning man with a successful business and thriving family to commit suicide?
Having found no indication of the circumstances of Poole’s death in existing horological research resources/writings, I set about solving this mystery myself. I’m pleased that I’ve been able to provide answers, but saddened by Poole’s situation, even at this distance in time. My findings are reported in my article on John Poole, published in the August 2016 issue of Clocks Magazine.
The Marine Chronometer is an especially attractive type of timekeeper. The style of the instrument itself and the wooden storage box seem to me quintessentially English and singularly evocative of the nineteenth century. Their aesthetic merits were underpinned by functional integrity – however good one looked, it would be useless (for its primary purpose) if it didn’t perform with supreme accuracy. And the accuracy was measured stringently, at the Greenwich Trials for instance. At these, in 1845 and again in 1854, Poole chronometers were the outright winners.
Since writing the article I came across this excellent example, representative of Poole’s output:
Courtesy of Charles Miller
Eight day Marine Chronometer, circa 1855 with silvered dial signed John Poole, 57 Fenchurch Street, London, 2702, Maker to the Admiralty, gold hands with blued-steel subsidiaries, Earnshaw Escapement with Poole's auxiliary compensation set within a counterweighted and gimbal-mounted bowl within three-tier wooden box with tipsy key, with numbered maker's plate and inset handles. Offered at auction in May 2016 with an estimate of £3-5,000.