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JONATHAN OTLEY, CLOCKMAKER AND GEOLOGIST, 1766-1856

NB these notes were written by Brian Wilkinson, October 2004, and are presented here with his kind permission.

Infrequently, from humble beginnings, come individuals who rise to eminence in the arts and sciences. In 1766 Cumberland and Westmorland were the birthplaces of two such men, John Dalton of Eaglesfield and Jonathan Otley of Loughrigg.
John Dalton became an eminent scientist and the propounder of the atomic theory. A marble statue in Manchester, where over 40,000 mourners attended his funeral in 1884, commemorates him.
Jonathan Otley lived and worked in the Lake District as a self-taught horologist, guide, surveyor, map-maker, meteorologist, natural historian and geologist. He corresponded with the eminent scientists of his day and was visited by many of them. At the age of ninety years Jonathan died in Keswick and was buried in Crosthwaite Churchyard. His memorial is a simple slate plaque and a flight of stone steps, Jonathan's Steps, on a building close by the Moot Hall.
Dalton and Otley met, corresponded and admired each other's work. Dalton became internationally famous, whilst Jonathan lived and worked in semi-obscurity. Otley became known as The Father of Lakeland Geology and, according to a contemporary, the townsfolk were overcome with grief at the news of his death.
Jonathan Otley was born at Scroggs, formerly known as Nook House, built towards the end of the 17th century of a firebeam design. In Cumbrian dialect, scroggs means stunted bushes and low brushwood.
Jonathan's mother was Widow Satterthwaite, formerly Grigge. The Otleys had lived in the parish for at least two hundred and fifty years. Father Jonathan and his wife Jane had three children, Edward, Jonathan and Jane. Edward and Jonathan died childless.
Jonathan's father was a wood sieve or basket maker and farmer. Young Jonathan attended a dame school at Lane Ends, Elterwater and schools in Langdale and Ambleside, but his education was interrupted by spells of working with his father and uncle. The schooling gained outside the home appeared to be of little value to Jonathan, but his father, a man of superior education and taste, taught him Latin and mathematics.
Jonathan was of a shy and retiring nature, with a slight speech impediment. He was extremely inquisitive and took watches and clocks apart to find out how they worked. He was able to replace the parts without any pieces left over! He spent many hours cleaning and repairing timepieces, often delivered and collected by passing pack-pony drivers.
Jonathan's shyness hindered him in his courtship of a local girl, Ann Youdale. Despite having engraved both his and Ann's name on a silver coin, she fell for the charms of Mr Bowness, a local blacksmith. Years later Jonathan's niece enquired as to why their names were engraved on the same coin. Jonathan replied:-
I loved her, but the blacksmith beat me.
According to J Clifton Ward:-
Clearly the smith understood the value of striking the iron while hot, while our friend's geological hammer had scarcely as yet been wielded.
Jonathan decided to leave his home and, at the age of twenty five years, he gathered up his belongings and crossed Dunmail Raise. Perhaps unrequited love had a part in Jonathan's decision to leave Loughrigg, but it is more likely that business reasons prompted his departure. No more do we hear of love, but of the geologist and guide wedded solely to nature and the hammer.
As he came over Castlerigg, the scene he saw was later recorded in his Guide, A Concise Description of The English Lakes, the Mountains in their Vicinity, and the Roads by which they may be Visited, arguably the best written Guide of the many published about the Lake District.
Surmounting the cultivated ridge called Castlerigg, at one mile from Keswick there is a full view of Derwent Lake, with part of that of Bassenthwaite, the town and vale of Keswick, with its surrounding mountains. It was here that Mr Gray (the poet Thomas Gray) on leaving Keswick, found the view so enchanting, that he had almost a mind to have gone back again.
As Jonathan descended the hill from Castlerigg he came to Toll Bar Cottage at Brow Top, the home of a Mr Younghusband. There Jonathan rented a room and paid his host one shilling a day, all found. When he suggested that Sundays be thrown in, his landlord countered with,
No, no, man. We boil the pot on Sundays.
Jonathan lived there for five years, with his room and workshop looking out on the old coach road.
Jonathan then moved into a cottage in King's Head Court in the premises that became known as Jonathan's Up the Steps. He worked there as a clockmaker (Penfold in The Clockmakers of Cumberland, 1977, states that there is no evidence he ever made a clock, but writes a whole page about him, nevertheless) and as a local guide.
Jonathan was an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable guide, and delighted his guests, for that is how he treated them, with his knowledge of geology and the flora and fauna of the Lake District. How he managed to clean any clocks or fettle any watches is difficult to understand, as he was continually on the fells, investigating and noting; or down by the lake, recording all that he observed.
Jonathan's interests were manifold, and all carried out with the care and precise accuracy in recording for which he had become well known. He was interested in the varying water levels of Derwentwater, and cut a mark on the rock, a step, below Friar's Crag to establish data levels.
Jonathan was fascinated by the appearance at intervals of Derwentwater's floating island, opposite Lodore. He took samples of the gas buoying up the island on two occasions and asked John Dalton to analyse them.
In the early years of the 19th century the Enclosure Acts gave Jonathan the impetus to learn surveying. He surveyed much of the Lake District and made the first map of the area, later to be incorporated in his Concise Guide. He was consulted by many, including the Ordnance Survey as to the names of the various mountains and by G B Airey, the Astronomer Royal, concerning the well on Great Gable.
Jonathan's Guide, first published in 1823 and used by John Ruskin among many others, was, to quote from Jonathan's preface,
... not a compilation from the labours of others; but the result of actual observation.
The Guide was concise and authoritative, published in eight editions and with an eventual print run of nearly 8000 copies.
Jonathan was a pioneer in geological knowledge in the Lake District. He laid the foundations on which later geologists built. Professor Adam Sedgwick of Trinity College, Cambridge told the Geological Society of London in 1831 that Jonathan had been the first to recognize that
the greater part of the central region of the lake mountains is occupied by three distinct groups of stratified rocks of a slatey texture.
Jonathan called these the clay slate, green stone and greywracke divisions. The first represented the Skiddaw Slate, the second the volcanic series of Borrowdale and the third the Coniston limestone. This classification is the basis of all geological knowledge in the district.
Jonathan was a thinker, a reader and a listener, rather than a talker. But, Ward notes, at the end of a conversation he would give his opinion in such a manner as to show that he had grasped the whole matter. Jonathan preferred to worship his God in the same manner as he lived his life, quietly and alone. He always sat in the same pew in Crosthwaite Church, the pew that is next to a pillar, with room for only one.
Although shy, he was quite fond of society, and especially so of some of the ladies of his acquaintance. He would go for a picnic with a large number of friends and gaily bring the hostess on his arm into the ring when the cloth was spread.
Jonathan never forgot his first home and would spend two or three weeks at Scroggs every year. He said that it was not much of a holiday, because on hearing of his presence watches and clocks came from far and near for his attention. Scroggs had been left to Jonathan on the death of his parents and he later sold the cottage, with about fourteen acres of land, to a relative for a sum between L400 and L500.
Well into his eighties, Jonathan came to realize that his active life was coming to an end and that he could no longer 'clomb the steps' to his workshop and cottage. He held a sale of his books, botanical and geological specimens, watchmaker's tools and instruments 336 lots in all - which realised only L20. Fortunately, some of Jonathan's instruments have survived and are displayed in the Keswick Museum.
On 27th April 1852 a Keswick physician, Dr D R Leitch, was rowing a boat near Friar's Crag when he saw a small, bent figure carefully picking his way over the rocks below the Crag. In his book Memoirs of Jonathan Otley, he wrote,
The feeble veteran (Jonathan was 86 years of age) - feeble, but not unhealthy or infirm - was slowly picking his way with the help of his staff in the light of the setting sun along the shore to this ancient record (the step).
The step is still to be seen, and nearby several KUDC Chairmen and Town Mayors have had their own initials recorded for posterity with slate tablets recording low levels of the lake.
In 1853 Jonathan rented a cottage next to Pettitt's the Photographers in St John's Street, Keswick. There, in the care of his niece Jane, he spent the last three years of his life.
Ward tells of the touching occasion when Professor Sedgwick came to visit Jonathan for the last time. Jonathan was helpless and speechless from paralysis, but conscious and able to recognise his old friend. Jonathan's right hand was clasped between the hands of the Professor and, after a solemn silence, Sedgwick burst into tears and falling to his knees, said,
Jonathan, I'll pray with you.
At five o'clock in the afternoon of the 7th of December 1856, Jonathan died, having nearly competed his ninetieth year.
Jonathan had made his own will, disposing of some L3000, 'with all legacies to be paid within three months'. In today's money, his estate would amount to nearly L150,000. Jonathan had managed his finances well and left an immeasurable amount of knowledge to posterity.
The slate plaque affixed to a wall close by Jonathan's workshop and home is inscribed:
HERE LIVED / JONATHAN OTLEY / 1766 - 1856 / GEOLOGIST & CLOCKMAKER / A HUMBLE STUDENT OF NATURE / AND SCIENCE WHO LABOURED / FOR HIS FELLOWS

Acknowledgements

Thanks and acknowledgements for assistance in the writing of this article are due to Tim Harris of Scroggs.

REFERENCES


Clifton Ward, J: 1876 (16 October): Report of a meeting of the Keswick Literary and Scientific Society

Smith, R Alan: 2000 (Jan-Feb): Jonathan Otley; A Pioneer of Lakeland Geology: Geology Today (Blackwell Science)

Wilson, Tom: 1955: Jonathan Otley, Keswick's Back-Room Boy: Keswick Reminder

Bott, George: 1994: Keswick; The Story of a Lake District Town: Cumbria County Library & Cumbria Supplies & Chaplins of Keswick

Lietch, D R: 1882: Memoir of Jonathan Otley: (Keswick)

Carruthers, F J: 1975: Lore of the Lake Country: Hale, Robert and Co (London)

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