Gillett & Johnston

Last updated
Gillett & Johnston
IndustryBell and clock manufacturing
FounderWilliam Gillett
Croydon, Surrey
Area served
ProductsBells, tower clocks, carillons
Gillett & Johnston's bell foundry, c.1920, showing molten metal being poured into a crucible Gillett & Johnston foundry.jpg
Gillett & Johnston's bell foundry, c.1920, showing molten metal being poured into a crucible

Gillett & Johnston was a clockmaker and bell foundry based in Croydon, England from 1844 until 1957. Between 1844 and 1950, over 14,000 tower clocks were made at the works. [1] The company's most successful and prominent period of activity as a bellfounder was in the 1920s and 1930s, when it was responsible for supplying many important bells and carillons for sites across Britain and around the world.


A successor company continues operation in Bletchingley, Surrey, under the Gillett & Johnston name, engaged in clock-making and clock and carillon repair.


Clock on Manchester Town Hall made by Gillett & Bland, predecessor to Gillett & Johnston Manchester Town Hall Tower.jpg
Clock on Manchester Town Hall made by Gillett & Bland, predecessor to Gillett & Johnston

The company traced its roots to a clockmaking business established by William Gillett in Hadlow, Kent, in the early 19th century. In 1837, Gillett moved his business to Clerkenwell, London; and in 1844 to the site in what later became known as Union Road, Thornton Heath, Croydon, which would remain its home for the next 113 years. Charles Bland became a partner in 1854, and the company subsequently traded as Gillett & Bland. In 1877, Arthur A. Johnston (c.1851–1916) bought a partnership, and shortly afterwards extended the company's output by establishing a bell foundry. The business became known as Gillett, Bland & Co until Bland's death in c.1884, when the name was changed to Gillett & Co. The name Gillett & Johnston seems to have been used from around 1887. [1] [2]

Arthur Johnston's son, Cyril Frederick Johnston (1884–1950), joined the company in 1902, became a partner in 1907, and took over the firm following his father's death in 1916. [3] He developed an interest in the theory of bell-tuning, and greatly expanded the bellfounding side of the business. In 1905 he redeveloped the works, and installed a large vertical tuning lathe. [4] He was particularly interested in the manufacture of carillons, which presented special problems of tuning distinct from those of church bells. [5]

During the First World War, the factory suspended its regular business and became involved in the manufacture of munitions, employing over 1,250 men and women. [1]

The firm became a limited liability company in 1925, initially trading as the Croydon Bell Foundry Ltd (although the name "Gillett and Johnston" still appeared on bells). [6] It reverted to the name Gillett & Johnston Ltd in 1930.

Cyril Johnston resigned as managing director in 1948, following disagreements over company policy, and died suddenly two years later in 1950. [1] [7] Following his departure, Henry Michael Howard took over, and some bells were cast in his name. [7] [8] The business also now diversified into other engineering activities, and new subsidiaries (Microcastings Ltd and Bourdon Tools Ltd) were established. [4] However, it experienced financial difficulties, caused in part by changing architectural tastes, and a falling-off in demand for traditional tower clocks and cast bells. In 1957 the business was taken into receivership and the works were closed down. [7]

Successor company

The business was sold in 1958 to the Bath Portland Group, which already owned Synchronome, a rival office clockmaking company. [4] [7] For a few years, the tower clock side was established in Wembley as Gillett-Johnston Clocks Ltd. [7] In 1962 it was bought by Cecil Hector Coombes (d. 1972), who had previously worked for Gillett & Johnston in Croydon. He returned the firm to Croydon in 1963 as Gillett and Johnston (Croydon) Ltd, basing it first in Clarendon Road (1963–1970), and then in Sanderstead Road (1970–2012). In 2012 the company moved to new premises in Bletchingley, Surrey. It remains in the Coombes family, and undertakes clockmaking, and the restoration and maintenance of tower clocks, carillons and bells. [1]

The Gillett & Johnston clocktower in Union Road, decorated for peace celebrations in 1919 at the end of the First World War Gillett & Johnston tower.jpg
The Gillett & Johnston clocktower in Union Road, decorated for peace celebrations in 1919 at the end of the First World War

Union Road site

The company occupied the same site in Union Road, off Whitehorse Road, Thornton Heath, Croydon, from 1844 until the closure of the works in 1957. In 1868 a tall clock tower was built as a "working advertisement", and to provide a facility in which newly cast bells could be tested: this became a prominent local landmark. [1] Each of the clockfaces was different and unique. [9] A carillon manufactured by the company was installed in the tower in 1920. After the company's closure in 1957, the premises were given over to other industrial uses. The main buildings, including the clock tower, were eventually demolished in 1997, the clockfaces having been removed and placed in storage. [9] After some years standing vacant, part of the foundry building found a new purchaser in 2003 to become a church of the Emmanuel Inspirational Church of God. [10] The greater part of the site is now occupied by a self-storage facility.

The "Mail Coach" pub on the corner of Union Road and Whitehorse Road was renamed "Ye Olde Clocktower" in memory of the firm and its works.


Surviving records of the foundry include a register of bells cast, 1877–1919; notes relating to work on bells, 1879–1907; and 17 volumes of bell tuning books, 1907–1951. They are now held at the Museum of Croydon (ref. AR 1). [4] [11]

Notable commissions

The John Wanamaker Memorial Founder's Bell, Philadelphia, cast in 1926 The John Wanamaker Memorial Founder's Bell.jpg
The John Wanamaker Memorial Founder's Bell, Philadelphia, cast in 1926
Schoolchildren posing in 1958 beneath the Freedom Bell, Berlin, cast by Gillett & Johnston in 1950 Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-P047199, Berlin, Schoneberger Sangerknaben.jpg
Schoolchildren posing in 1958 beneath the Freedom Bell, Berlin, cast by Gillett & Johnston in 1950



Clock on Shell Mex House, London, made by Gillett & Johnston, 1932 Shellmexhouse.jpg
Clock on Shell Mex House, London, made by Gillett & Johnston, 1932

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Anon. "The history of Gillett and Johnston". Gillett & Johnston (Croydon) Ltd. Retrieved 10 June 2011.
  2. Elphick 1970, pp. 169–70.
  3. Elphick 1970, p. 170.
  4. 1 2 3 4 "Collection AR1 - Gillett and Johnston". Museum of Croydon Collections. Retrieved 16 April 2016.
  5. Elphick 1970, pp. 173–4.
  6. Bliss and Sharpe 1986, p. 31.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Elphick 1970, p. 175.
  8. Dalton 2005, p. 972.
  9. 1 2 "Gillett & Johnston Foundry, Union Road". London Borough of Croydon. Archived from the original on 23 September 2005. Retrieved 30 April 2016.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  10. "Emmanuel Inspirational Church of God". Archived from the original on 18 January 2003.
  11. Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1994). Records of British Business and Industry, 1760–1914: metal processing and engineering. Guides to Sources for British History based on the National Register of Archives. 9. London: HMSO. p. 31. ISBN   0114402329.
  12. "Dove Details". Retrieved 1 March 2019.