John Dyson (1845-1916)
Watchmaker and Jeweller

John Dyson (1845-1916)Round the corner from the teeming crowds of shoppers in the Trinity Centre, in the quiet lower end of Briggate you will find one of Leeds’ unique historic buildings, a survival from the first golden era of Leeds shopping: the gilded, elaborate Time Ball Buildings, with its two great clocks, one presided over by Father Time complete with scythe and the warning ‘Tempus Fugit’ – Time flies’. For more than 100 years this was the base of the iconic business which John Dyson, ‘practical watchmaker and jeweller’, founded in 1865. Its glittering automated window displays and the high tech mechanism of its two ‘time balls’ drew the crowds. Dyson’s was a favourite meeting place, and it was an easy step into the rich, gleaming interior where ‘diamond rings from £1 to £100’ were on offer, alongside other treasures.

John Dyson got a feel for the luxury end of the market from his father Robert, who had come to Leeds in the 1840s as an apprentice in the fur trade and went on to run a fur warehouse in Briggate, selling sables and sealskin coats, boas and muffs. John was his only surviving son (three siblings died in infancy), born in Aberford but growing up in Leeds around Buslingthorpe and North Street, and later, as Robert’s business thrived, moving out to the newly built Woodbine Terrace in semi-rural Headingley. John did not follow in the fur trade but trained in his teens as a watchmaker and jeweller. When he was only 20 he set up in business in Mill Hill, and five years later moved to Briggate (no 26), creating a smart new shop and workroom from an ancient building close to the busy junction with Boar Lane, newly widened and upgraded.

In 1872 he married his long-term sweetheart, Lucy Anne Hobson from Woodhouse. Her father worked at the Woodhouse chemical works producing sulphuric acid (the ‘Chemic’ pub provides a reminder), while she like her mother and sister did other people’s washing – a tough existence. Marriage brought a new way of life. The family story is that it was Lucy Anne who encouraged John Dyson in his ambitious plans to expand the business, and it was her later good luck at the gaming tables of Monte Carlo (what a change from the washtub!) that provided the cash for extravagances like Parisian chandeliers for the shop.

In 1877 John Dyson took over the adjoining building (no.25). He introduced a novel mechanism for raising and lowering his costly window display each day, and installed a ‘time ball’ outside, linked electrically to Greenwich, which would drop spectacularly each day at 1 pm, a landmark event. So Leeds townspeople could correct their watches to London time – ‘railway time’. The new time-ball was hailed by the papers as unique in the North of England, a symbol of Leeds moving into the modern age.

Business boomed. Working class incomes were increasing: even the less well-off could afford a watch, a clock, an engagement ring. Dyson offered instalment plans, and special gifts for loyal customers to mark weddings and christenings. He catered for the top end of the market too, dealing in expensive jewels, custom-made clocks, artistic bronzes and elaborate table-ware. By 1881 he was employing ten people and had ambitious plans. He took on a third shop (no.24) and in 1887 began major alterations, adding a tall bay window with a dome, a new double-faced projecting clock, illuminated at night and topped by the specially commissioned figure of Father Time, and to crown it all a second, huge 3-foot time ball. The 1889 Guide to Leeds included a picture of the shop in all its elaborate splendour. Over the next years the interior was refitted in gleaming mahogany and glass to provide the ultimate shopping experience.

Meanwhile John and Lucy Anne had moved out of Leeds to Weeton, where they lived in some style with their four children. John Dyson played a major part in community life there, was a prominent Freemason in Leeds, and active in the National Association of Goldsmiths in London, as well as involved with a number of charities – a busy successful life. He died in 1916, a wealthy man. Two of his sons had joined the business, one specialising in horology the other in gems, and their children were involved in managing the firm even when it was sold in 1970. The shop finally closed in 1990. Its stock, a treasure house of precious objects collected over the century, was sold over two days at Sotheby’s – the end of an era.

John Dyson’s Time Ball Buildings survives as part of the Marriott Hotel, occupied now by an Indian restaurant but fortunately listed and protected, a spectacular reminder of the city’s prosperous past.

Eveleigh Bradford
March 2018