BRITISH HOROLOGICAL INSTITUTE
SOUTH WEST BRANCH
Cornwall, Devon and the Taunton postcode area of Somerset
SOUTH WEST BRANCH
BRITISH HOROLOGICAL INSTITUTE
Horology is the art and science of making, restoring, repairing and servicing mechanical and electronic timekeeping and measuring devices.
The was founded in 1858 and is the national organisation which sets standards for training, and regulates the profession by grades of qualification.
The BHI also encourages a wider interest from the general public by associate membership. The well-supported and active South West Branch of the BHI, was formed in 1990.
are usually on the first Wednesday of most months, 7:45pm –
The South West Branch has also set up The Westcountry Horological Trust to offer assistance to deserving persons who wish to undertake horological training or improve their skills. Please click on the “Trust Fund” link on the left for further details.
PHILLIP JOHN GALE FBHI
11th October 1947 - 21st February 2023
It is my sad duty, but an honour and a privilege, to write the obituary for Phillip John Gale FBHI who died peacefully, after a short illness, on 21st February 2023. His death represents a great loss to horology. He belonged to that post-war generation of craftsmen, who still went through long apprenticeships to gain their skills, and honed them further as effective journeymen.
I was fortunate in that Phil took me under his wing while I studied the BHI Distance Learning Course. Phil was always a great talker, and during that time I learned not only those aspects of horology and bench work that one never finds in books, but also, of his life in snippets of anecdotes. Because it came in snippets I have not been able to assemble the full story in any authenticated chronological sequence; any errors are entirely my responsibility, for which I apologise.
Phil was born in Guildford on 11th October 1947 and spent his school days at North Mead Primary School and Larch Avenue C of E Secondary School, which later became Bishop Reindorp School. I remember Phil telling me that he originally wanted to be a silversmith. For some reason there was no training available locally and instead he became apprenticed at Stevens the clockmakers in Guildford in 1963 and attended Hackney College to study the BHI horology course on day release for the next four years. By his own account homework was often done at the last minute on the train into London. Although it seemed an almost Dickensian existence in the Guildford workshop, he obviously had an aptitude and acquired a good grounding, working on clocks, watches, automata, musical boxes, barometers and bird boxes. After five years and two further years as an improver, Phil applied for a job as a civilian instrument maker at the REME workshops in Aldershot. His former boss didn’t want to lose him but couldn’t match the pay of £23 a week.
Phil worked for a number of years at the REME where his experience extended from military issue watches and office clocks, to all manner of instruments, instrumentation, calibration and optics that were in use by the armed forces – speedometers, binoculars, rangefinders – you name it. He also witnessed the (what we would now call tragic) destruction of countless fusee dial clocks, the cases being burnt and the brass sent for scrap, as government offices moved to electric clocks. Again he felt he was being held back by being too good at what he did and hence too valuable an employee to lose; but this was never reflected in better pay. He eventually became responsible for writing some of the technical manuals describing the procedures for overhauling all sorts of equipment.
Phil married Sally, in 1971 and after four years at the REME, while they were holidaying in Cornwall, Phil passed a factory in Bodmin advertising for instrument makers. He called in and was offered a job. Realising they would never be able to afford a house in Guildford, he took the job and they moved to Bodmin in 1975 to work at Flann Microwave. His work there involved, amongst other things, precision gold soldering waveguides, in which the solder flowing around the inside corners had to be radiused to fine tolerances. He was also taking in clocks to repair in his spare time at home and soon they were in a position to take out a mortgage and buy a small property in Nanstallon and so began their long association and involvement in the Bodmin community. Later they bought a tumbledown cottage with a few attached fields at Criggan, moved into a tiny caravan on site, and while Phil continued to work at Flann Microwave, evenings and weekends were spent rebuilding the cottage. Although there are too many anecdotes, both humorous and disastrous, concerning this period to include here, one of Phil’s mottos was Carpe Diem and I believe he could not have survived those intense times without living by that motto, and without Sally by his side. Suffice to say the project was eventually completed and they settled into their home and workshop. After 15 years with Flann the time came to return to clockmaking full time with a move in 1990 as a self-employed clockmaker to the prestigious clockmakers Galbraith’s who had opened a premises in Fowey. Although self-employed he was put in charge of overseeing the workshop. Some years later he left to set up as an independent clockmaker in his own workshop at Criggan and never looked back.
Phil was always an active
member of the BHI, becoming a fellow in 1994. He joined the AHS,
and the NAWCC. He became a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of
Clockmakers in 1999, Freeman of the City of London in 2000, and
Liveryman of the WCC by 2002 when I first met him among the
membership of the South West branch of the BHI. He seemed to me
extremely knowledgeable and was always bemoaning the lack of
apprenticeships and youngsters coming into the trade. I was by no
means a youngster but being in need of a change of career I
plucked up the courage to ask him if he would take me on as an
apprentice. He was reluctant, but said to come and see his
workshop – but if I had acid hands, to forget it. I didn’t
have a clue what he meant. Well we hit it off; he took me on as a
sort of 9 to 5 Saturday apprentice, and we became great friends.
Anyone who knew Phil will testify that he was a great talker. I learnt as much, if not more, from his digressions and anecdotes as from what he first had in mind to tell me. He could talk all day until he would say: “Well, I had better show you how to do something, I suppose” - and in the 10 minutes before I had to leave for home, he would demonstrate something that now, 20 years later, still takes me all day and three goes to do successfully. Despite that, one of his other mottos, which I believe he picked up from Galbraith’s, was “If it’s not good enough for The Queen, it’s not leaving this workshop.” He was chuffed and amused when what he taught me resulted in my being awarded the BHI bronze medal, the Poole Silver Cup, and being employed – albeit briefly – at Buckingham Palace.
But although I did quite well under his guidance, I would never in a lifetime be able to match, or even come close to, his absolute mastery of his craft. To be with him and watch him at work was to witness the frequent transition from his chuckling over the retelling of an anecdote, to his swivelling in his chair, back to his bench, when a Zen-like calm would spread over his face in an expression of totally relaxed concentration and utter competence. Often I would need to phone him with a problem I had – before and long after qualifying. He had the phenomenal ability of describing over the phone, as a detailed, verbal, technical drawing, the part I was having trouble with and what I needed to do about it.
Phil had no pretensions and none of the wrong sort of pride. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and he seemed to know everyone. He had a lot of high-end clients and high-end jobs having worked on Quare, Knibb, Tompion and Mudge clocks in his time. But he was never too proud to take on a 1970s German mass-produced clock for a neighbour, or a friend’s neighbour. And although in recent years he had narrowed his field of work to mostly high-end jobs, his craftsmanship and knowledge covered all aspects of horology and allied items. He was, I think, one of the very few people in the world who could overhaul singing bird boxes, including re-feathering the birds – and for that work he had clients from around the globe. But they were skills he was happy to share and desperate to teach and pass on, and I for one shall be ever grateful for everything he taught me, and for all his support and encouragement.
Horology was not his only interest of course. Like many of his generation he had been a train-spotter and loved steam engines and any aspect of heavy engineering. But also the fine arts; and history in general and of Bodmin in particular with his long involvement with the Bodmin Museum; and almost anything concerning the skills, history and traditions of Old England in its industrial age.
Phil was ever optimistic and positive, characterised by his cheery nature, his generosity of time and know-how and his willingness to get involved, both in local and in national affairs. He lived by his motto ‘Carpe Diem’, and seize the day he did – usually with both hands. And he was a kind and considerate man, never forgetting to call, visit or write to the bereaved partners of friends and colleagues who passed away – of whom there have been quite a few in recent years.
But the main love of his life was his beloved wife, Sally, who predeceased him suddenly and unexpectedly by just a few years. I think that broke his heart. One could not think of either without the other. Having been together since she was 14 and he 16, they remained childhood sweethearts all their lives. He was my master and they were both my friends, and I shall miss them both. His funeral was held in Bodmin on 7th March 2023. There was standing room only and a letter of condolence from the Mayor of Bodmin. I quote: “On behalf of Bodmin Town Council Staff and Councillors, I would like to offer my sincere condolences at the sad passing of Phil Gale. Phil gave selflessly of his time and energy, not just in his dedicated role as Chairman of the Bodmin Town Museum but also in his commitment to countless other people and organisations. I don’t think anyone fully understands exactly how much he has given to his community. He supported and worked closely with the staff and councillors at the Council and was considered a genuine and kind friend to many here. He will be very sadly missed. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and all of the groups that he supported.”
He lies buried beside his beloved Sally.
Photo: At Upton Hall when George Thomas received his Bronze medal. Phil Gale on the right.