Walking along the High Street I looked at the time. "I wonder how many other people still check the time by using that clock" I pondered.
The clock in question belongs to the jewellers, Payne & Son, one of the oldest families of jewellers in England.
They began their trade in 1790 in Wallingford and gradually opened branches northwards towards Oxford before opening their southernmost branch here in Tunbridge Wells in 1870.
The shop at 3 South Grove Terrace - as 37 High Street was then called - was purchased by William Payne and he dispatched his son Thomas Payne to Tunbridge Wells to administer it. The building was fairly new when William Payne purchased it, having been built only 20 years prior on the site of South Grove House by William Willicombe. There is a very similar terrace on The Pantiles, also built by Willicombe, and interestingly has the same cast iron ballustrading at first floor level. See if you can spot it on The Pantiles when you next visit.
The shop thrived and Thomas Payne continued as a jeweller and watchmaker here until his death in 1886. During his final years of ill health he enlisted the help of his brother-in-law Sidney William Allen. This partnership was commemorated with the mosaic step which you can still see today.
Today just the Oxford and the Tunbridge Wells branches remain in business and both are still being tended by a Payne, ours by the seventh generation Michael Payne. So, how has the business survived for this long? What is its secret? Simple. Quality.
This is most evident in the most famous bit of bling in Tunbridge Wells, the Mayor’s chain and badge of office. When Tunbridge Wells Borough Council was incorporated in 1889 the newly-elected Mayor, John Stone-Wigg, being the very generous man that he was, commissioned Payne & Son to make the chain as a gift to the borough. It was designed by the Mayor himself and is formed of twenty three links, comprising of eighteen 18ct gold TW monograms supporting five enamels showing the Arms of England, Kent, and Sussex, the see of Canterbury, and the rose of England.
One of the many benches that craftsman work at inside Payne & Son.
If not the Mayoral chain then the clock is probably the most beheld piece of hardware that Payne & Son has created. Imagine how many people over the years have walked under that clock on their way to work and checked if they were on time. John, who has worked at Payne & Son for 27 years, winds the clock a couple of times a week with exactly fourteen clockwise rotations of the large crank, any more and all the weights and cables fall off and he really doesn’t want to have to go through that again.
The clock during the Coronation.
The clock is supposed to be an eight-day mechanism but as the shop front was changed many years ago (you can see the old window in the photograph to the right) the clock’s weight cable had to be re-routed and as this lengthened it it made the clock more of a six-day clock. The weight is in the basement of the shop and falls about 12 feet during a cycle. It was made by Payne & Son themselves and as you can see from the black and white photo it once carried a rather large crown atop it, although this was only for a short period during the Queen’s coronation. The crown is still in the shop today, safely stored down in the basement.
As it has so much character the shopfront has been used in a few television broadcasts. The first was in 1987 when the Post Office ran a national advertising campaign to show that their High Street branches stayed open longer than banks, the shop was dressed up as a Post Office for the day complete with a fake postbox outside. The shop was also used for an episode of "Perfect Scoundrels" starring Peter Bowles, but perhaps most famous of all was the shop being used by John Cleese in a Yellow Pages advert from 1996 - "Got any antique diamond rings?". Apparently the staff still get asked that to this day.
This strange item is a bowl of shellac, it is used to hold onto jewellery when engraving and polishing.
Even more intriguing is the fact that this shop - that hundreds of people walk past every day - has its very own Chalybeate Spring. Yes indeed, right there in the basement is a specially constructed channel carrying our local spring water along.
I guess you're wondering if there is an eighth generation of Payne ready to take the business well into the 21st century. It turns out that yes there is. Although still only at school the business looks like it'll be in safe Payne hands for very many years to come.