In 1747, William Hutton, a twenty-four-year old journeyman framework knitter at Nottingham, bought a silver watch for 35 shillings. 'It had been the pride of my life, ever since pride commenced, to wear a watch', he later remembered in his autobiography. The watch turned out badly.It went ill. I kept it Four years, then gave that and a guinea for another: which went as ill. I afterwards exchanged this for a brass one, which, going no better, I sold it for five shillings, and, to close the watch farce. gave the five shillings away arid went without for thirty years.
Hutton's reminiscences tell us three important things about watches and those who wore them in eighteenth-century England. First, although Hutton was only a humble framework knitter, he was able to acquire two expensive silver watches in the course of four years, and also to realize some of their value when be disposed of them. Second, wanting to own a watch was an expression of sartorial aspiration for young working men like Hutton, and owning one was in large part about display. Third, the watches Hutton bought were disappointments as timepieces, although it was many years before frustration at their functional shortcomings finally conquered his desire to own one.
Few autobiographies survive from the eighteenth century like William Hutton's, written by someone who began life as a working man. So unusual is their survival that they provide little help in establishing whether Hutton's experience with his watches was typical of the generality of working people, or whether it was altogether exceptional, evidence of the aspirational cast of mind that propelled him later in life to a successful career as a Birmingham book dealer. Probate inventories--lists of possessions drawn up after the owner's death for inheritance purposes have been the main source used by historians to provide evidence of what people owned. They are of little assistance here. They deal mainly with the wealthier half of the population and survive infrequently after 1740. There is, however, one other, less familiar means of finding out what working people owned--the lists of things stolen from them that survive in the records of the criminal courts. They show that William Hutton was not exceptional. By the later years of the eighteenth century, ordinary men comprised a majority of victims of watch theft whose cases came to court, drawn from among the small farmers, day labourers, artisans and petty tradesmen who comprised the bulk of the male population.
The records of prosecutions for theft have a tendency to over-represent valuable items that were more attractive to steal. Nevertheless, there were thousands of prosecutions for thefts of things worth considerably less than William Hutton's five shilling brass watch. Watches were consistently the most valuable item of apparel stolen from working men in the eighteenth century--more valuable than other expensive items of clothing such as coats and waistcoats, cloaks and gowns. This was because the cases which housed the watch mechanisms were made overwhelmingly from silver, despite...