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Saturday, 14 December 2013

WILLIAM EDWARD ACRAMAN (1799-1874) AND THE SWISS WATCH



In 1820, Daniel Wade Acraman sent his son William (my 3x great uncle) around Europe on the then-fashionable Grand Tour. Daniel had made his money with a foundry started by his father. Daniel himself was about to patent a new kind of chain cable, and under his management the family business would flourish to become one of the biggest in Bristol, where they supplied chandlery for the ship-building industry.

Daniel Wade Acraman’s memorial in St Stephen’s Parish Church, Bristol (photo by Bob Speel )

In time, when William took over the reins, Acramans would themselves become the owners of ships, importing luxury goods from all over the world and exporting British products to the colonies. But for now it was his father’s money which was paying for the cultural completion of twenty-one year old William’s education with a journey through the scenic wonders and architectural antiquities of the old world.

They kept in touch by letter, and a fellow descendent of Daniel’s has sent me a transcription of one of his letters to William during the trip. Mail was nothing new by the early nineteenth century of course, but I do marvel at the logistics. It was by no means certain that any given letter would find its intended recipient in the unreliable travel conditions of the time, and post was generally sent well ahead on the itinerary to await the arrival of the traveller. Daniel’s letter opens with a summary of recent correspondence in case either party has missed anything:
Dear William,
My last was to Naples dated march 23rd. Concluding you will return to Rome in time for this, I shall direct it there. Yours to your sister and myself of the 22nd ult. came home safe.

Pompeii, rediscovered in 1748, was why Grand Tourists went to Naples

It’s nice to think that William was in Naples thirty years before his sort-of cousin by marriage Thomas Richard Guppy went there to transform the marine engineering industry in the city. (I wrote about Guppy’s Neapolitan impact here recently – the relationship is tenuous: Thomas married Henrietta Jennings whose sister Caroline married my 2x great grandfather William Castle, whose sister Mary married William Acraman two years after his Grand Tour.)

There’s no mention of Mary Castle in this letter, dated 17th April 1820, although Daniel does report the impending marriage of a family friend Philip  and, in the same breath, information about a forthcoming Batchelors’ Ball. (Philip may have been Philip Protheroe, later a partner with Guppy’s father Samuel in a soap-manufacturing venture – the Bristol business community was a small and close-knit one.)

Otherwise, the big news is that William is to be allowed to take stock in the family business, effectively becoming a partner. His 80-year old grandfather William Acraman, who started the firm and after whom he is named, has approved!

Acraman’s Store, No.1 Quay, Bristol, built c1830 when the family business was thriving with William Acraman’s involvement

William's father Daniel is only 45 years old but in poor health and unable to make the trip with William as he would have liked. He expresses envy of his son's journey:
The illness I have is so great that at times I am quite done for ... I need not say what joy I should receive if I was with you, but that being impossible I must look forward to the gratification of seeing you safe at home.

William is on his way home, from Naples north to Rome and on eventually, the letter makes clear, through Switzerland, and
I suppose by the time you get home you will know how to value your little bed and English fare, although you must be amply repaid by the sights you have seen.

Daniel has a favour to ask of William during the Swiss leg of his homeward journey.
Your aunt wishes you to buy her a watch about five or six guineas when at Geneva, without a chain, to hang using her Figure of Time. You will do this or not if you find it convenient. Mary [William’s sister] likes her watch and we all thought it quite large enough.
So Swiss watches were already objects of desire in the early nineteenth century.

A Staffordshire watch holder of the nineteenth century – the watch sits in a pocket behind the aperture, the dial visible without the need for a chain. Perhaps Mary Acraman had such a holder with a figure of Father Time.

Since, passing through Geneva, William was obviously returning to England by land rather than sea, it seems unlikely that he would get home to Bristol in time for the Batchelors’ Ball on 1st May that year. Perhaps, if he did, it was there that William Acraman met his future wife. She would certainly have been dazzled by his fresh travellers’ tales.

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