Watches and clocks played an important role in the history of Kays. Their mail-order business grew out of the nineteenth-century watch club system, and they liked to trace their history back to a watchmaker’s firm established around 1794.
A lot of the customer testimonials printed in Kays’ 1893-4 catalogue are connected with watches. A favourite of mine is from a Mr John Hunt, Traffic Manager, London and North Western Railway, Longsight Station. Mr Hunt comments on how well Kays’ ‘Patent Lever’ watch withstands railway employees’ ‘rough work of jumping on and off the wagons, etc.’
I suppose I like what this says about the watch’s important qualities: being sturdy and suitable for people who did physical work. Though I’m never really sure how much to trust Kays’ ‘testimonials’ as genuine expressions of customers’ opinions.
The connection between Kays, clocks and railways comes up again in their catalogue of Spring/Summer 1907. This contains a large picture of a clock at Paddington Station — ‘considered the finest Railway Clock in London’, and made by Kays.
Technical details are provided — pivots, pinions, bearings, escarpments and dials — and we are assured, in case the picture has not convinced us, that ‘the Case is a very handsome structure, supported by two massive carved Brackets and surmounted by elegant wrought iron scroll work’.
For some time, watches and clocks seem to have played a very important role in Kays’ brand identity. At the beginning the Autumn/Winter 1927 catalogue, a page on Kays’ history is focussed almost entirely upon this aspect of the business:
We have been supplying Watches and Clocks since 1794, and when one thinks of the generations of people who have lived and passed away since then, this is a very arresting fact.
We never advertise in the Press, but rely solely on the recommendations of our Patrons to their friends, yet no Firm in the Country has a greater reputation for Watches and Clocks.
Many generations have sent their orders to us when requiring time-keepers, in fact, we have families on our books to-day, who have been to us, grandfather, father and son, and many of them are still placing repeat orders with us.
Some of Kays’ boasts do not give an entirely good impression. A page from their catalogue of Spring/Summer 1932 proudly announces that ‘we recently received an order from the Italian Government for several thousands of our “Standard” Railway Levers for use on the Italian State Railways.’ This was at a time when Mussolini was ruling Italy as a fascist dictatorship.
I do like the behind-the-scenes picture of Kays’ watch factory, though.
In Autumn/Winter 1933, they claim, somewhat predictably, that one of their watches can survive being dropped from an aeroplane:
3,000 feet high without the slightest harm to movement, case or glass, and still “on time.”
Every detail designed with the sole object of making it impervious to such extremely rough and hard wear as would destroy the usefulness of an ordinary watch.
The Paddington Station clock continues to feature, as in this page from Kays’ Spring/Summer catalogue of 1952:
It’s ‘still going after 50 years’ and is described as ‘the largest triple-dial clock in Britain’. But, in contrast to earlier catalogues, a number of the clocks actually for sale on this page bear brand names other than Kays’. There’s a ‘Smiths’ “Victory” alarm’, an Ingersoll alarm clock, and, in the bottom right, a Bentima ‘thirty-hour timepiece’.
Kays brand image was changing. They had become less concerned to suggests that they themselves were responsible for the production of the items they sold.
The watches section in the catalogue for Autumn/Winter 1961 is dominated by other brands. Kays advertise their role not as a manufacturer, but as a supplier of credit to allow their customers to buy nice things. As several pages explain, ‘all these wonderful watches [are] available on KAYS “Continuous Credit Plan”‘.
Please let us know whether you think they would survive rough jumping.