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.

Clockmaker artisan who makes and repairs clocks

A clockmaker is an artisan who makes and/or repairs clocks. Since almost all clocks are now factory-made, most modern clockmakers only repair clocks. Modern clockmakers may be employed by jewellers, antique shops, and places devoted strictly to repairing clocks and watches. Clockmakers must be able to read blueprints and instructions for numerous types of clocks and time pieces that vary from antique clocks to modern time pieces in order to fix and make clocks or watches. The trade requires fine motor coordination as clockmakers must frequently work on devices with small gears and fine machinery.

Bellfounding is the casting of bells in a foundry for use in churches, clocks, and public buildings. The term also usually includes the tuning of the bell.

Croydon town in South London, England

Croydon is a metropolitan district and a large town in south London, England, 9.4 miles (15.1 km) south of Charing Cross. The principal settlement in the London Borough of Croydon, it is one of the largest commercial districts outside Central London, with an extensive shopping district and night-time economy.


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

Bletchingley village in Surrey

Bletchingley is a village in Surrey, England. It is on the A25 road to the east of Redhill and to the west of Godstone, has a conservation area with medieval buildings and is mostly on a wide escarpment of the Greensand Ridge, which is followed by the Greensand Way.


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]

Hadlow village in Kent, England

Hadlow is a village in the Medway valley, near Tonbridge, Kent, England. It is in the Tonbridge and Malling district. The Saxon name for the settlement was Haeselholte. The Domesday Book records it as Haslow and in the Middle Ages it became Hadloe and then Hadlow.

Clerkenwell area of inner north London in the London Borough of Islington

Clerkenwell is an area of central London, England. The area includes the sub-district of Finsbury.

Thornton Heath district of south London

Thornton Heath is an area of South London, England, within the London Borough of Croydon and the historic county of Surrey. It is 7.2 miles (11.6 km) south of Charing Cross.

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]

Carillon musical instrument consisting of several bells, often in a tower

A carillon is a musical instrument that is typically housed in the bell tower (belfry) of a church or municipal building. The instrument consists of at least 23 cast bronze, cup-shaped bells, which are played serially to produce a melody, or sounded together to play a chord. A traditional manual carillon is played by striking a keyboard – the stick-like keys of which are called batons – with the fists, and by pressing the keys of a pedal keyboard with the feet. The keys mechanically activate levers and wires that connect to metal clappers that strike the inside of the bells, allowing the performer on the bells, or carillonneur/carillonist to vary the intensity of the note according to the force applied to the key.

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.

Limited liability company US-specific form of a private limited company

A limited liability company (LLC) is the US-specific form of a private limited company. It is a business structure that can combine the pass-through taxation of a partnership or sole proprietorship with the limited liability of a corporation. An LLC is not a corporation under state law; it is a legal form of a company that provides limited liability to its owners in many jurisdictions. LLCs are well known for the flexibility that they provide to business owners; depending on the situation, an LLC may elect to use corporate tax rules instead of being treated as a partnership, and, under certain circumstances, LLCs may be organized as not-for-profit. In certain U.S. states, businesses that provide professional services requiring a state professional license, such as legal or medical services, may not be allowed to form an LLC but may be required to form a similar entity called a professional limited liability company (PLLC).

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.