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James Ritchie & Son clockmakers

James Ritchie & Son clockmakers
James Ritchie & Son clockmakers
This exhibition looks at the history of a significant Edinburgh working family who put their mark on all areas of the city from swimming pools to parks and city landmarks: the clockmakers of James Ritchie & Son.

James Ritchie was born c1780 and although he was not born in Edinburgh, he started his career in watchmaking around 1799 when he was apprenticed to James Howden who had a successful business at 3 Hunter Square. He started his own business at 29 Leith Street in 1809 and in 1819 took over the business of Joseph Durnward at 2 Leith Street, who had qualified in his trade in 1775. And so began the start of the Ritchie firm.

James Ritchie was admitted as a Burgess of Edinburgh on 18 April 1814, as his wife Sarah who he had married in 1804 was a native of Edinburgh. By 1838 the business had moved to 25 Leith Street occupying the shop at ground level and 3 basement flats which were used as the workshops for over 100 years.
In 1839 at the age of 11, his son Frederick was admitted as a partner and all their clocks were inscribed James Ritchie & Son.

The mechanical side of clockmaking gave way to the increasing use of electricity and the Ritchies were leaders in this new field. Alex Bain who invented the first electric clock and Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, were among the Ritchies’ friends. Before Bell went to America, he fitted a communication system up in the family home allowing Mrs Ritchie when entertaining her lady friends to tea in the drawing room, to summon the maid from the basement. She didn't require anything, she just wanted to impress her friends!

The company flourished under Frederick's leadership and the firm gained a worldwide reputation in 1861 for their construction of the One O’clock Gun time system. A master clock on Calton Hill was linked by an overhead electric cable to a clock at Edinburgh Castle. This enabled the One O’clock gun to be fired automatically at one o’clock. The electric cable linking the cable to Calton Hill was 1,225 metres long. It passed over the Waverley Valley without any support at a height of 73 metres.

Frederick died in 1906 and the business continued with William his eldest son managing a new branch shop at 131 Princes Street. Two other sons of Frederick, James and Leone continued working in the main shop in Leith Street. Leone continued to run the business until retiring in 1953. With the sale of the shop in Leith Street, his nephew, Bertie Mitchell continued the business from a shop in Little King Street. Later the firm moved to larger premises at 56 Broughton Street.

Bertie was the last family member to run the company. It continues, still bearing the name and in 2019 moved to new premises in the Drum Estate on the outskirts of the city.

Explore this exhibition and find out how one family made Edinburgh tick!