Manuscript Collection: William Claggett

Fri, 03/31/2017 - 11:37am -- mfarias

In the Harrison Room of the Redwood Library there stands a clock that was crafted by one of colonial America’s most well-known clockmakers: William Claggett. While few of his clocks are still in existence, they are remembered today for their craftsmanship and invention. His mechanical developments led him to expand his scope of influence from clockmaking to watches and compasses and to public exhibitions in Newport and Boston. According to an invoice in one of our manuscript collections, he even found time to accept an appointment by the Rhode Island General Assembly to engrave and print paper currency to prevent counterfeiting.

16 Bridge St. Newport, RI (Photo credit: Explore Historic Newport)

William Claggett was born in 1696 in Wales. He eventually immigrated from Wales to Boston, Massachusetts and left Boston for Newport around 1716 with his wife Mary Armstrong (b. 1696) who he married on October 21, 1714. They purchased their house on 16 Bridge Street in Newport in 1725, next door to William's father, Caleb Claggett. The house still stands today, although much altered. Mary died around 1727 and he married again to a woman named Rebecca, who is named in his will. Claggett had at least five children, including a son Thomas (1730-1767) who was also a clockmaker and a daughter Mary who married James Wady of Newport, another clockmaker. Also mentioned in his will are two other daughters, Hannah Threadkill and Elizabeth Claggett and a son named Caleb. Claggett died on October 18, 1749 and is buried at the Common Burial Ground in Newport.

 The Claggett Clock in the Redwood collection has been dated to multiple periods in Claggett’s life. In 1979 Simon Nager determined the clock was from around 1740. A more recent analysis, done in 1991 by Ralph E. Carpenter, dated the clock further back in time, to around 1728. The clock was originally owned by the Stanton family and was inherited by a descendant, Bishop Samuel Babcock, who donated it to the Redwood in 1948. It is a tall case clock with japanned decoration on poplar basewood. The japanned black laquer case is decorated with gilt foliage, birds, and figures of people, inscribed William Claggett, Newport. Among the legends of clocks still believed to be in existence, there is a story of a loyalist family who fled to Canada with one before the Revolution. According to the legend, it is still there today.

 Full image (left) and Inscription above face (above) of Claggett Clock, 
From the collection of the Redwood Library. 

Claggett’s work as a craftsman and businessman in Newport recommended him to the Rhode Island General Assembly when they were seeking assistance preventing counterfeit currency. Howard Chapin published an article for the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1929 in which he asserted that William Claggett had been involved in printing paper currency, but there was no definitive proof at the time. That changed around 1996 when Richard L. Champlin, a former Librarian of the Redwood Library, discovered a small invoice confirming what had been suspected for some time. He wrote an article in the 1996 Spring edition of Newport History: Journal of the Newport Historical Society and then donated the invoice to the Redwood.


Invoice to Colony of Rhode Island for William Claggett,
From the collection of the Redwood Library. 

In his article, Champlin notes that the invoice is small, no more than six inches by five inches, and is both invoice and receipt. The document is dated April 30, 1748 and lists the Colony of Rhode Island as the debtor for the services listed, which includes: dating the plates, fixing the press, whiting ditto, 25 bushels of “Coles,” “Inck,” the use of the room, and printing 2000 sheets. On the reverse side is an authorization to pay Claggett for his services signed by John Gardner (1679-1764), General Treasurer, and Thomas Richardson (1680-1761), who succeeded Gardner in 1748. Below the list of services and fees is the signature of William Claggett, signaling his receipt of paymentfor his services. Thus the legacy of our clockmaker was expanded definitively to include printer, engraver, and aid to the government of the Colony of Rhode Island.