A BUNWELL WATCHMAKER and his fighting sons
At Norwich in 1849 Hannah Smith from East Harling gave birth to an illegitimate son. This child, George William Gates Smith, was brought up by his grandparents at the Trowel and Hammer beerhouse, East Harling. He learnt the trade of a watchmaker. In his early twenties he married Mary, a Londoner by birth. They began a family soon after their marriage, and were to have fourteen children.
At Michaelmas 1871 they moved to Wymondham, where G.W.G. Smith began in business as a watchmaker and jeweller at Market Street. His trade was successful, despite at least one theft of jewellery from his shop, and a period when he had to close as the authorities dug up his shop floor to get at a faulty sewer. He also carried on business at East Harling in the 1880s, and by 1887 was also an optician at Wymondham. He established a ‘Watch Club’ as a means for poorer people to obtain watches.
A musical man, G.W.G. Smith played the violin and was leader of a string band. He also performed in amateur dramatic entertainments. He was a member of Wymondham Rifle Volunteers, and won a prize for shooting.
In the late 1880s business became difficult, cash flow being a problem. Several customers only paid up after being taken to the County Court, and G.W.G. Smith’s own creditors were pressing him for payment. He tried to obtain more customers by advertising that having added new machinery he was in a position to do ‘every class of repair quickly, and equal to the London houses, at half the usual charges’. However, after twenty-one years occupying the same premises, G.W.G. was forced to leave when the shop and house were bought by a rival watchmaker.
The family moved to New Buckenham in the early 1890s. Business was slow, and G.W.G. travelled the villages seeking work. He could not earn enough to keep his large family, and by 1894 they were said to be existing in ‘semi-starvation’. He resorted to pawning customers’ watches to temporarily raise money to live on. Although he did his best to redeem and repair them, he got deeper in debt, and in a period of only twelve months pawned 78 watches. This eventually led to his being arrested at Norwich whilst travelling to the annual training camp of the Volunteers. He pleaded guilty when the case came to court, and was sentenced to one months’ imprisonment. This was a relatively lenient sentence. The judge may have been swayed by G.W.G. telling him that starvation had compelled him to pawn watches, and also by the fact that his numerous dependants were likely to be put in the Workhouse whilst he was in prison.
A tremendous gale in 1895 blew the roof off the Smith’s cottage at New Buckenham, and the family was forced to seek refuge in an unoccupied house.
A MOVE TO BUNWELL
In the late 1890s they moved to Little Green, Bunwell. G.W.G. Smith continued his watchmaking business, and also his music, leading a string band at Bunwell.
At the time of the Boer War he and Mary had seven sons belonging to the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Norfolk Regiment, serving with the colours. Queen Victoria being informed of this, instructed that a cheque for £5 be sent to Mrs Smith at Bunwell ‘as a mark of the Queen’s appreciation of this interesting record, and in the hope that it may be of some temporary assistance to her’.
Around 1914 G.W.G. moved from Little Green to Cordwell. He died in 1927.
Ten of his sons fought in the First World War : Charles William, Sidney George, Percival John, Ernest Guy Patrick, Reginald Arnold, Albert Cyril, Donald Oscar, Thomas Malcolm, John Montague, and Ronald Ivan David. One of these fighting sons, sapper John Montague (“Jack") Smith, died of wounds and was brought home for burial in Bunwell churchyard. Another, Ernest, a regular soldier since 1893, served in France, Belgium and Italy, was awarded the Military Cross, and retired as a lieutenant-colonel in 1932, being honoured with the Order of the British Empire. He then had a building business at Poringland.
A SON SUCCEEDS HIS FATHER
G.W.G.'s son Ronald continued the watchmaking business at Bunwell. Known to village boys in the late 1930s as "Clocky" Smith, his house at Tollgate had a large clock on the outside, advertising his trade. Musical like his father before him, Ronald taught music, giving piano lessons in the village.
Today the village has no watchmaker. Most of the specialised trades and occupations which for centuries provided (sometimes precarious) employment for people in a village community have disappeared.
John Herne, April 2013.