Smith of Derby- a lesson in horology

st pancras

Design sketch for the clock at St Pancras

After our visit to Strutt’s the next part in our busy day took us to Smith of Derby, a family owned clock making business that goes back five generations. We had already seen one of their tower clocks lit up by the morning sunshine set in a bed of pinkish stone on Derby Cathedral as we ate our breakfast of eggs at Jack Rabbits. Smith of Derby make and care for 4,500 clocks in sites around the world, including the clock on St Paul’s and the new clock at St Pancras, the brief for which posed particular technical and aesthetic challenges. They were also responsible for the world’s largest solar powered clock – called ‘The Beacon’ at the University of Baghdad. Our taxi driver knew much about the history of the firm and their part in the identity of Derby. President of the company Nick Smith and Technical Sales Engineer Martin Butchers welcomed us and gave us a tour of the manufacturing and repair work that happens on site. It became clear that Smith of Derby work on an incredible range of clocks each week, of every scale, style and client- from village clocks in Anlaby, outside of Hull to pit clocks above the race track at Donnington to ornate gold hotel clocks in the United Arab Emirates.

Each member of staff is trained in a variety of skills and manufacturing techniques so they can participate in every aspect of the production process. The workshops were filled with clock parts, sketches of designs and machinery for testing. Each room in the factory allows for focus on a particular part of production and they aim to minimise the time that finished work remains on site. One workshop was designed for the design, modification and repair of mechanical clocks, and was also the site for training apprentices- filled with mechanisms, testing machinery and old clocks so that staff could learn how they worked. Martin had salvaged old clocks and their exposed mechanisms showed the intricacy of the engineering. The site itself was logically organised in relation to their production processes and clearly legible even to someone new to the site.

The first John Smith was apprentice in the firm founded by Master clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst. Whitehurst was a member of the enlightened and educated Lunar Society and was a contemporary of Derby artist Joseph Wright. Soon after the death of  John Whitehurst III, John Smith founded Smith of Derby. In 1984 Smith of Derby relocated from their original site at Queen Street in the city centre to a site close to the River Derwent and Darley Abbey in order to accommodate their growing business. The new site gave them the capacity to rethink how they organised their manufacturing processes. This site visit was our first contemporary factory visit and it was fascinating to understand how concepts such as the vertical factory and lean manufacturing have not only shaped the processes on site but have allowed Smith of Derby to remain in the business of time.

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