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Cottingham, Edwin Turner (1869 – 1940) MODERN TIMES

Cottingham, Edwin Turner (1869 – 1940)  MODERN TIMES

 A new biography , Any comments, criticisms, amendments welcome (

Edwin Cottingham would not have wanted to be a man before his time. He was a man on time. He also has a strong claim to be the most eminent man born in Ringstead in the nineteenth century. His story may not have the elements of tragedy like that of William Weekley Ball and Lydia Attley but by intelligence, skill and hard work he became an important and respected man within his chosen profession. On his death he was praised for his work by Cambridge University but during his lifetime he was cursed by some of its students as we shall hear.

William Cottingham was born in Ringstead in about 1828, the son of Thomas and Susannah. Thomas was an agricultural labourer and the 1851 Census has the couple living with their five children. It is a family similar to many others in the village except that William, the eldest at twenty-three, is described in the Census as a ‘Cordwainer’.

A cordwainer is often said to be just another name for a shoemaker. In the Ringstead census, however, it is only used on a few occasions among all the shoemakers. An alternative view is that a cordwainer was a maker of fine or luxury shoes. Perhaps William, or his father, is emphasising that he is a craftsman and something above a jobbing shoemaker. Living next door, on one side, lives John Roberts with his wife Alice, a ‘Church Sunday School Mistress’. On the other side lives Herbert Abington, son of a Baptist Minister, a ‘Tea Dealer’ and later to be a Chemist. These are likely to be families with learning and aspiration.

Some time after this, it seems, that William junior spends some time in London for he marries Harriett Frost at St Mary’s Church, Whitechapel in Middlesex on 1st November 1859. Harriett had been born in Langford in Norfolk in about 1837 and in 1851 she is living in Whitechapel with George Weston and his wife as a ‘Monthly Nurse’. George is a delivery clerk yet, although they have no children, he has a general servant as well as Harriett in his household. They seem to disappear in 1861 but by the 1871 Census George, at sixty-four years’ old, is alone and an ‘Almsman’ in the Licensed Victuallers Asylum’ in Peckham. He was born in Kent and there are number of entries in that county‘s criminal records for a ‘George Weston’. Is it the same man? Whatever the truth, there seems to be a story to be told – but by somebody else.

A ‘monthly nurse’ was usually an untrained helper, often an older woman, who looked after a woman for a short period after the birth of her baby (i.e. a month). This does not seem to be the case here but as we have not found the Weston’s in the 1861 Census we cannot be sure. Did William meet Harriett when he went up to Whitechapel to get work or to improve his skills? There is a long established shoe-making industry in the area and we know that other shoemakers from Ringstead ended up in London In 1851, Henry Manning, another shoemaker was living in Lower Belgravia Street just a mile-and-a-half across town

However they met, by 1861 William was back in Ringstead with his young wife and their two sons, Joseph and William. Joseph is five years old so, if the marriage is correct, he predated their wedding by three years. Ten years later and Joseph is not with the family but there three new additions. William is called Willie Frost Cottingham and there are also Letitia (7), Herbert C. (4) and Edwin T. (1). Later Jessie and Annie completed the family. William, the father, is now a shoemaker among shoemakers.

It is Edwin T Cottingham whose life is our subject and it is made all the more remarkable by its start which was not unlike many others in the village.

Perhaps we ought to first clear up the ‘Turner’ which was the Christian name of his mother’s brother and is likely to have been a family name. He was born on 9th April 1869. It is said that after leaving school he was apprenticed to a tailor. The phrase ‘after leaving school’ seems an obvious one but it was just two years before Edwin’s birth that:

Close to the church there was built, in 1867, a very handsome and commodious school, with master’s residence which serves for this and the adjacent parish of Denford, the site being presented by George Capron Esq. and the expense defrayed by contribution, assisted by Government grant.

An Education Act was passed in 1870 which was the first step in bringing in compulsory attendance for children between the ages of five and twelve. It was also unusual in that female householders could stand and vote for the School Boards that were set up where there insufficient school places provided by the churches and other charitable organisations. Edwin was one of that first generation of working class children to benefit and it seems that he made the best use of his opportunity. He was not the only one, for his brother, William Frost Cottingham is shown in the 1881 Census as, at twenty years old, a teacher in Gloucester.

How long his career in tailoring lasted is not clear but it was not measurement of cloth and inside legs that was to be his life’s work. By 1891 he and his older brother, Herbert had moved to Thrapston and were lodging with a widow, Elizabeth Read and her two grown-up children. The two brothers were both “Watch Makers”. Herbert, soon changed his career and by 1901 he had moved to Corby where he is a ‘Commercial Traveller in the Boot Trade’ .Edwin, however, had found his life’s work.

The brothers had been working for Augustus Allen, a Watch and Clock Maker in Thrapston. He had been born in Kenninghall in Norfolk in about 1811 and married an Alice Clark, who was born in North Shields in 1839. We do not how or when Augustus came to Thrapston but he is already there in 1841 and his trade is set. Through a series of Post Office and Kelly’s Directories he continues as a watchmaker and jeweller for over forty years. The last time I have found him as a watchmaker, ‘employing one man’, is in the 1881 Census where he is living by himself in Market Place, two doors away from the White Hart. A little mysteriously, Alice is living as a lodger in Twywell and shown as a retired tradesman’s wife. In the meantime they have had a large family of some eight children including four boys. For whatever reason none of them took over the family business and by 1890 Augustus is shown as a ‘Private Resident’.

There seems to be a gap of some ten years in this for Edwin was only some eleven years old in 1881. It may be that Augustus employed a manager to whom the two boys worked initially. At the moment we can only guess at the exact path of Edwin’s remarkable rise to competence and maturity.

In 1894 Edwin married Elizabeth Smith and locally people would have said that he had made a “good marriage”. The Smith family were Engineers and Iron Founders, originally from Stamford, who traded under the name of Smith &Grace. Elizabeth’s father, George was a partner in the family firm which was a significant local employer. He was a man of some wealth.

Mr Allen retired and Edwin took over his shop and business. It seems likely that Smith money was involved in the name ‘Cottingham’ going over the shop window in Bridge Street and in the purchase of 3 Midland Road, The Limes, as Edwin and Elizabeth’s family home. The 1911 Census, completed by Edwin, tells us that it had seven rooms, excluding any bathroom or scullery. The house was just around the corner from the shop and he could go from one to the other through his garden, which also contained his workshop.

Edwin outside his shop with the clock he designed for Thrapston Church. The Rector is on the left and I believe that Edwin is the man standing next to him (although could he be the man in the white coat?)

With the kind permission of the Antiquarian Horological Society

Many of the life stories on this website, such as those of Herbert Abington, William Mitchell and Richard Warren show the way the new science and thinking moved the old established rural world into the new industrial age. With Edwin Cottingham, we see the move from Victorian science into the world of Einstein.

Edwin must have looked set fair to continue a comfortable life as a small town watch maker, repairer and seller. It was a life and a standard of living that many people in Ringstead would have envied. He had made good. But Edwin was a more ambitious and talented man than that. His skill and reputation would take him half way round the world and make him a figure of national importance in his chosen field. His story takes us well out of the nineteenth century so we will tell it briefly.

We cannot be certain as to the extent of Edwin’s education but must presume that it started and ended at Ringstead School. Nor do we do the training he received under the guidance of Mr Allen. We do know, however, that he must have been a gifted and diligent pupil for he rapidly became a clockmaker of note and one well away from the normal domestic field. In this the engineering influence of his in-laws must have been important. It seems likely that he also had some influence of their business. Although never a shareholder of the family firm he was party to an agreement to form the new company of Smith & Grace Screw Boss Pulley Co. Ltd. As part of its new incarnation it took the power to:

….carry on at Thrapston in the County of Northampton and elsewhere in England the business of an Electric Light Company.

It was the bringing together of his clock-making, engineering and electrical skills that led him to comparative fame and fortune.

One of his first ventures in this new field was to make for Thrapston Church a clock with a chime regulated electro-magnetically. He also became fascinated by astronomy, one of the most ancient sciences but reinvigorated by the new discoveries of chemistry and physics. It was also one in which the very accurate measurement of time became of paramount importance. On March 12th 1905 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

By 1909 he was being asked by the Society to report on the state of a Harrison Clock. This was published in the Astronomical Society’s monthly newsletter and in the Horological Journal. It must be remembered that Harrison’s great importance had been that he had designed and made a chronometer which was so accurate that it could be used in precise navigation and in the scientific measurement of the earth and particularly of longitude. Cottingham was from similar roots to Harrison and had the same mixture of theoretical and practical skills. He made a clock for Edinburgh Observatory around the year 1916 which had electrical components. He was helping to move time measurement to the next stage of accuracy and reliability.

It was an exciting time for scientists and engineers and Edwin must have spent most of his waking hours in reading, inventing and making clocks and scientific instruments. He was fascinated by everything mechanical and in 1910 bought a second-hand motorbike. It is suspected that he took this to bits and was involved in the design of the Clyno Motor Cycle, originally an offshoot of the Smith family business. He also designed, made and had manufactured scientific recording instruments.

It must have been at about this time that Edwin cleaned the clock of Trinity College Church in Cambridge. There had been a tradition for students on the day of the Matriculation Dinner to try to run around the Great Court of Trinity, some 341 metres while the clock struck 12 o’clock (in fact it struck 24 times). This event was made famous worldwide by the film Chariots of Fire where the future Olympic athletes, Liddell and Abrahams raced each other. The At Random column of The Observer later observed:

To change the pace of a public clock is akin to the sin of removing one’s neighbour’s landmark and the famous horologist who has just died, Mr Edwin Cottingham, played at least a small part in deranging records. In tending the clock of Trinity Church, Cambridge, he speeded it up slightly, spoiling the sport of the undergraduates…

In fact, no-one was then able to beat the chimes until Lord Burghley in 1927. That is why we must assume that E.T. Cottingham’s careful work was cursed by a generation of students.

Where was his wife, Elizabeth, in all this? The couple had one child, Leslie Guy Cottingham, born in 1897. Was she a clock widow while her husband beavered away in the shop and workshop or attended the Masonic Lodge meetings? Did time pass slowly for her?

The nature of time itself had changed. In 1843 Mr Hill a beer-keeper in Ringstead had escaped a conviction at Wellingborough Petty Sessions for selling beer after ten o’clock, when it was found that the church clock had not been working on that evening. In 1910 Edwin is paying Thrapston Post Office and annual rental of £5 for the 10 a.m. time signal to be transmitted by a single wire circuit to his premises. He was also the second person in Northamptonshire to be granted a wireless licence so that he could receive a time signal from the Eiffel Tower. In 1914 his set and aerial, along with all other domestic radios across the country were confiscated for security reasons, whereupon Edwin started making a crystal set.

He continued to work on Greenwich and Admiralty chronometers during the First World War. He also became more and more involved with Cambridge University Astronomy Department. This led to a project that was, perhaps, the pinnacle of his career. Rather as Captain Cook had gone to the South Seas as part of an expedition to view the transit of Venus across the Sun in order to discover the true distance of the latter from earth, Edwin was to go south to view a total solar eclipse as part of a Cambridge University expedition to prove, or otherwise, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Cambridge University and the Royal Astronomical Society had set up a Permanent Eclipse Committee. This had decided to send a party to Principe, a Portuguese island in the Gulf of Guinea to view the eclipse of May 28th/29th 1919 to test:

….the deflection of a ray of light by a gravitational field. As predicted by the theory of relativity.

Professor A. S. Eddington and E.T. Cottingham were the observers. Edwin was responsible for much of the calculation and for the clock mechanism on which the camera was mounted. Although, on the day, they encountered some thundery weather there was enough clear sky for the measurement to take place and Einstein to be proved correct.

On 14th July 1919 Edwin, with Professor Eddington, returned home on the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s ship Deseado. In November 1919 H. H. Turner from the Oxford University Observatory wrote to The Times about the expedition in which he recorded:

….And it is a pleasure to acknowledge the great assistance of Mr. E. T. Cottingham, a clock enthusiast of great skill with mechanical parts.

Edwin was fifty years old. Through the inter-war years he continued to work on scientific clocks and instruments including a new clock for the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. He retired from active business in 1928 but continued to dabble in clock making.

He died on March 20th 1940. His obituary in The Times concentrated on his technical achievements:

He had a wide reputation for scientifically built instruments with special pendulum compensations and airtight temperature-controlled cases. One such clock, which was used as standard timekeeper at Greenwich Observatory, had a guaranteed mean daily variation of not more than one-hundredth of a second. In partnership with Messrs. C. Mercer and Sons, St. Albans, noted chronometer makers, Cottingham produced three more astronomical clocks. One went to Hong Kong Observatory, and one was exhibited at the Palace of Industry in the first British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The clocks are believed to be the only English refler escapement clocks in existence.

Other obituaries were by friends and colleagues and said more about him as a man. His great friend David S. Torrens wrote in the Horological Journal

He was the most modest and unassuming of men, who had never learnt the art of displaying his accomplishments to the crowd. He was at his best in the workshop in the company of some appreciative friends.

The obituary in the Royal Astronomical Society journal was written by Professor Eddington, who first wrote of his work for the University:

To Cambridge Observatory he was a good friend and benefactor. For more than thirty years he was in fact, if not in name, an honorary keeper of the clocks, visiting them regularly and freely undertaking their cleaning, repair and adaption for varying needs.

He also records in a sad but revealing note:

The first clock which he made was the Thrapston church clock, including the whole chiming mechanism. It was his favourite “child” and his last exertion, though ill at the time, was to put it forward for Summer Time in 1940.


On a sunny Autumn day in late October 2010  I wandered the streets of Thrapston looking for the shop of Edwin Cottingham. I tried the coffee shop, the library, the solicitors, the jewellers, the street cleaner who was known to have a lot of old postcards. None knew where the shop had been. In fact, none of them had heard of Edwin T Cottingham. Eventually a man did confirm that he had vaguely heard of him and he might have had the last shop befor the mini roundabout.

The shop, somehow, did not look substantial enough and I could not find the tiles with his name on which were supposed to be on the floor of the doorway. They were not under the large doormat but there seemed to be some slabs beneath that. Perhaps they were under them. I took a photograph of the premises without much hope but at home that evening I compared it with the picture shown in the text which is from Dennis Jones's booklet. Sure enough the features matched: the split front windows; the loaf shaped top to the columns; the high wall at the side. Cottingham, Watchmaker and Jeweller is now the Bonoful Balti Hut. I must go back and peek under the slabs laid under that doormat to see if E.T Cottingham still has a foothold in Thrapston.


 Edwin Cottingham's former shop (taken 27th October 2010)



Censuses (Ringstead) 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 (

                (Thrapston) 1871, 1881, 1891. (

                Thrapston 1911 (

Ringstead BMD

Post Office Directory 1847, 1869, 1877 (

Kelly’s Directory 1890 (

E.T. Cottingham F.R.A.S. Dennis Jones [Reprinted from Winter 1991 issue of Antiquarian Horology (The Antiquarian Society)] Northampton Reference Library

Obituary Notices: Fellows Monthly Notices of the Royal astronomical Society Vol 101 p. 131 (

User: Carcharoth/Article incubator/Eddington experiment ( (Chariots of Fire).

The Times. June 4th &November 18th 1919; September 21st 1922; March 23rd 1940 (via Cambridgeshire Libraries online).

The Observer. March 31st 1940 (via Cambridgeshire Libraries online).

Reader Comments (2)

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January 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren from office cleaning

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