Eddie Mence recalls his time spent in Clerkenwell as an antique barometer restorer.
“Whenever I say I was a barometer restorer I get blank looks,” says Eddie Mence, 69, who was born in Archway and grew up in Holloway. “I’m old enough to remember trolley buses on Holloway Road, but not trams.”
Barometers are a weather forecasting instrument invented in the 17th century by the Italian Evangelista Torricelli but by the mid 20th century there were still several barometer factories in Islington. Eddie spent 25 years working as an antique barometer restorer with O Committi & Son when they were based at Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell. He was made redundant in 1993 – although the company is still operating, (see www.comitti.com). Eddie then did a degree at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan) and took a job in the civil service.
“Antique barometer restoration was very specialist work. I was taught at the bench by colleagues, it was hands on learning. There were no apprenticeships. Its heyday was in the 1970s, there was so much work. At Comitti we had an attic in the factory with racks of barometers of about 80-100 years old waiting to be restored. They’d mostly come from big houses in the late 19th century. It was a job I enjoyed. The main department had five or six restorers, three French Polishers and two in the wood mill,” says Eddie who left Archway Secondary Modern (now Mount Carmel) at 15.
“I was the tea boy at Radio Technicians in Upper Street and heard a chap from Reynolds Son & Wardale, who’d come in to buy a record player for his daughter, complain he couldn’t get staff for his factory. So I looked up his number and phoned him up. I was there from 1966-68 at Perceval Street, off Goswell Road. One day a man wearing a bowler hat came and took an inventory as the company was going into insolvency, so I left for Comitti.”
Eddie worked at Comitti from 1968-1993. He shows a photo of himself at the workbench, in checked shirt and cloth apron, concentrating as he tightens the cottons on the pulley of a barometer so it would be able to record changes in pressure again. “They’d come in a mess with bits falling off and the veneer peeling. I’d resilver the dials and restore the brasswork all by hand. Most of the barometers had cheap wood for the frame and then expensive veneers – rosewood and marquetry on top. It could take a week or two to repair. I wasn’t paid a lot but had a lot of job satisfaction.”
One of the unusual aspects of Eddie’s job was that: “We saw a doctor every month for a urine sample. One chap wasn’t very clean working with mercury and he got the shakes, because it damages your central nervous system. He got better, but he had to become a packer.”
Eddie still has all his tools at home, including a pinion screwdriver, pliers, hammer and a bradawl used to tighten the spindle, though he admits he never uses them now. And of course in his home there’s a barometer. “It’s a Reproduction Admiral Fitzroy’s barometer (which Comitti made) designed to save lives at sea because of bad weather. There used to be one in every shipping port,” says Eddie.
It’s curious to think how many links Islington has to sea safety. As well as barometer factories where Eddie worked, in the previous century Samuel Plimsoll, who devised the Plimsoll line to indicate a ship’s safe load line, had goods yards at King’s Cross and his brother’s coal office was just off Upper Street. The Victorian MP and social campaigner also had a street named after him near Finsbury Park.
If you have a story to share about your working life in Islington we’d love to hear it. Please call Andrea at Drovers Centre on 020 7607 7701.