Ode to a watch, a motorbike and Lawrence of ArabiaT 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.

Ode to a watch, a motorbike and Lawrence of ArabiaThe association of the Oxford watch with the celebrated architect Nicholas Hawksmoor is speculative, as is normal in marketing situations like this one. Paul was casting around for meaning and considers that the elder Christopher Pinchbeck was a near contemporary of Hawksmoor (c. 1661–1736), architect of the Clarendon Building and All Souls (pictured right), and that there is a good chance that they knew each other. Almost certainly Pinchbeck would have known about Hawksmoor, if not the other way round. Expressed in marketing-speak, the watch is deemed to carry forward the spirit of Hawksmoor ‘with its bold and contemporary appearance’.

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.

Ode to a watch, a motorbike and Lawrence of Arabia

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.


By Helen Burford-B...

Is it too much to ask to have British spelling in Oxford Today? "Jewelry" indeed! Pinchbeck might be as English as steak-and-kidney pie, but the OT apparently isn't!

[John Garth, Oxford Today digital editor, replies: We actually gave the British spelling in one instance and the American one in another. The latter has now been brought into line with British standards.]

By Robin Phillips

Was this the Brough Superior that Lawrence was riding when he crashed (May 1935) and subsequently died? Neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns's research into motorcyclist deaths later led to the invention of crash-helmets.

By D. R. Evans

Always interested to read about such matters, since George Brough (whose company made the Brough Superior), who was a great friend of Lawrence's, was my great uncle.

By James Steadman

Lawrence was a close friend of Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte. In Michael Holroyd's biography of Shaw he writes of Lawrence's death in 1935: "The facts, as the Shaws understood them, were that he had been racing home from Bovingdon Camp on his Brough Superior 'Boanerges', a motorcycle ... that the Shaws had given him". If so, then it was not one that Lawrence had bought himself.

By Giles Emerson

This is generally a delightful article in all respects. My great uncle once saw a picture of a Brough motorcycle and it was enough, of spires and wit, to keep him dreaming of the good times ahead. I always enjoy the details in these kinds of accounts and how sometimes they tally with a good idea and replicate in time: pinchbeck from stream to dial, as it were.

By Carl Calvert

Three points: the first is that the father of a friend of mine used to maintain Lawrence's Brough (he had new one's fairly frequently) and said of Lawrence, 'A funny little man but he always tipped me half a crown.'
Secondly I rode my old BMW bike along the road where Lawrence had his accident on my way to Cloud's Hill and prior to any upper speed limit; the 'dip in the road' certainly restricts visibility and travelling at n (where n is greater than 70 mph) makes cresting the ridge 'exciting'.
Finally, the Brough Superior SS100 is now manufactured in France and the UK distributor is in Salisbury.

By Julian Roach

One of GB Shaw's more sensible campaigns was for simplified English spelling. American spelling usually, and commendably, makes at least a nod in that direction. The position of English as a world language will be easier to sustain if we give up a foolish jingoism about our often absurd - and often historically unjustifiable - spelling. The greengrocer's plural s, on the other hand, is not what we should expect in OT.