T E Lawrence claimed to have raced and beaten a Bristol Fighter on this Brough Superior
By Richard Lofthouse
The University of Oxford Shop in the High Street has climbed well above the merchandising cloud base in recent years, signing up artists and craftsmen to produce very attractive items such as wooden carvings and ceramics, with minimal or cleverly integrated ‘branding’. The point is to shun a gaudy association while still providing the usual (and expected) range of college scarves and sweatshirts.
One of these recent associations is with Lincoln-based English watchmaker Harold Pinchbeck, resulting in the Hawksmoor, a handsome, 41mm diameter wristwatch that can be ordered either as a quartz (battery) watch or with a Swiss automatic movement, starting from £1,200.
We don’t normally write about such objets in Oxford Today because it might seem overly commercial, but in this case it is an interesting story — not least because pinchbeck has unexpected meanings. As a noun, it refers to an alloy of copper and zinc once used as imitation gold for cheap jewellery, while as an adjective it means a sham, or artificial or tawdry substitution of the real thing. That made us chuckle.
Paul Pinchbeck and his business partner Jason Edwards confirm that the infamous alloy was indeed the creation of one of their watchmaker forebears, Christopher Pinchbeck (the Elder, 1670–1732), subsequently exploited commercially by Christopher Pinchbeck (the Younger, 1710–1783). During the 18th century it had its uses, notes Paul — ‘Wealthy aristocrats would get imitations of their real jewellery made up for the Grand Tour, fearing robbery… So it wasn’t all bad.’
He adds that there is also a Lincolnshire village called Pinchbeck — the name original meant ‘minnow stream’ — and that this may have been the original source of a family name with a later geographical and historical locus around Hull.
The company name, Harold Pinchbeck, is based on Paul’s grandfather (1892–1957) who revived the watchmaking tradition of the family only to see it fall away again after the Second World War. Inspired to revive it again, Paul notes that he was determined to act slowly and authentically rather than just go to an Asian supplier and apply the Pinchbeck name alone — which could too easily have conjured up the adjectival meaning of the word.
To that end, Paul cites the huge engineering heritage of Lincolnshire, with its roots in the agricultural revolution and associated machinery and pumps, cranes, excavators, threshing devices and steam engines. Looking out from the cathedral as we talk over lunch, the surrounding landscape is farming land for as far as the eye can see. The cathedral sits wonderfully perched atop a sharp ascent, the approaching road appropriately — if somewhat redundantly — named Steep Hill.
Almost miraculously, some of the crafts people who supply Pinchbeck are also improbable survivors of that great heritage, from a two-century-old brass dial maker who used to make gauges for steam engines, to the Devonshire supplier of the leather watch straps, Tanner Bates, and local Lincoln engraver.
The other intriguing but speculative Oxford link to Pinchbeck is the legendary figure T E Lawrence of Arabia fame (1888–1935). Just a few doors down from Pinchbeck’s base next to Lincoln cathedral is a plaque to Lawrence, who lived on Steep Hill from August 1925 to December 1926 while based at nearby RAF Cranwell.
The unforgettable image is of Lawrence tearing around the hedgerows on his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle. The T E Lawrence Society website records:
‘Lawrence bought a new Brough Superior motorcycle to celebrate his return to the RAF and it was on this 1925 SS 100 named George V that he made many journeys around the countryside for the pure pleasure of riding… The A15 between Sleaford and Lincoln is most probably the stretch of road where he claims to have raced — and beaten — a Bristol Fighter on his motorcycle.’
There’s a circularity in all things to do with Pinchbeck. The Brough motorcycle brand (the name is pronounced ‘bruff’) has also been revived recently as a very bespoke, high-end motorcycle brand, with Pinchbeck the supplier of a special Brough watch. It leads Paul and Jason to wish that they could prove that Lawrence had owned a Pinchbeck watch.
Anyway, Pinchbeck are as English as steak-and-kidney pie and they tick all the boxes for a craft revival approach to University merchandising — the latter term almost demanding revision to something else, like craft affiliation. Certainly that is what the traditionally painted dial and sapphire glass of the Hawksmoor watch seems to merit — it’s a long way distant from sweatshirts and baseball caps.
T E Lawrence image from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence; Hawksmoor Towers at All Souls courtesy of Oxford University Images / Toby Ord; photograph of Hawksmoor watch provided by Harold Pinchbeck Ltd.