© Donn Haven Lathrop 2008
Sometimes the Index to the BULLETIN can be more of an impediment and an
irritant, rather than a help when one is looking for information. In
1993 I began looking for information on women involved in clockmaking,
and found five entries in the Index; one of them a query about Hannah
Montandon and her husband. Nothing under distaff, female, wife, sister,
or daughter---except for George T. Daughters---which and who was no
help at all. Another one was my own request for research assistance.
The response to my request for assistance was interesting: Out of some
35,000 members, only four bothered to respond.
However, there was one intriguing entry---
WOMEN WATCHMAKERS LATE 17TH CENTURY NUNS SR 9 88 437
---on my computer screen when I called up the Index, but it had to wait a
bit until some 1,000-odd other names had been collected and listed.
Further, the 'SR' indicated that the entry referred to a review of
another publication, which means all sorts of delays in getting
something one wants to read yesterday! Patience paid off, and the
article by Mr. C. C. Baines finally came to hand. The rest of this
story is based primarily on his article in the March, 1960, issue of
Antiquarian Horology, and bits and pieces gathered from further
research. Quoted material is from Mr. Baines' article.
Anne and Elizabeth Adamson were evidently the daughters of an English
Roman Catholic who refused to attend the services in the Church of
England. England's "official" religion had always been Roman Catholic,
or it at least it was until Henry VIII decided to get his own way by
going his own way. For the next two hundred and fifty years England's
dominant religious factions ranged through Catholicism, Anglicanism and
Protestantism---each of these factions naturally being quite sure they
and only they held the truth. Religious factionalism killed kings and
peasants, resulted in Cromwell's Protectorate, the emigration of the
Puritans, and culminated rather viciously in the reigns of James II of
England, and Louis XIV of France as they tried to force Catholicism on
In the waning years of the 17th century, a Thomas Adamson is listed as a
watchmaker in Burnley, just north of Manchester, but there is no way of
discovering whether he was the father of these two sisters, or whether
they were apprenticed to him. It is of interest that an Adamson, ___, a
full century later, is listed in Baillie as Clockmaker to the French
Mr. Baines writes that the sisters were 33 years old (were they,
perhaps, twin watchmakers?) when they entered the convent, and the
convent diary on the day of their entry in 1689 includes the statement:
"Sister Anne Teresa, alias Adomson, was very expert in making of
watches of al sortes & her sister in studding of caises."
The sisters of the order were known by the English as the "Blue
Nuns" because of their blue ceremonial cloaks, while the French referred
to them as 'les filles Anglais' evidently because the majority
of the nuns were from England. Many Roman Catholics fled England for
France in the last days of the reign of James II---by this time the
Catholics were in their turn suffering the same persecutions by the
Protestants that James II had imposed in his efforts to force Roman
Catholicism on his subjects.
James II wasn't very popular---he'd run for his life from England to
France at the end of 1688 because it was either that or lose his head.
At the same time, there was a flood of skilled workers and
intellectuals running in the other direction. Louis XIV (the badly
inbred 'Sun King' who was to cause a great deal of trouble on both sides
of the Atlantic for many years to come) had revoked the Edict of Nantes
in 1685, and began persecuting the Huguenots (Protestants) almost as
viciously as had the Spanish sovereigns and the Church in the
Inquisition nearly two hundred years earlier. The English historian
George Trevelyan wrote: "The sum of human misery thus wantonly brought
about is horrible to contemplate. In the course of years some hundreds
of thousands succeeded in escaping, mostly into England... A large
proportion were artisans and high-class merchants who brought to the
lands of their adoption trade secrets and new production methods."
Becoming a nun was evidently an expensive proposition---the sisters promised
to pay [on] "their entrance to Religion two hundred pounds starling for
them both ..." which sum was finally paid two years later, along with
"twenty pistoles (a Spanish gold coin worth about $4.00 in 1960)
for the care of the pipe organ."
Very little can be learned about the financial aspects of the sisters'
watchmaking activities inside the walls of the convent---convent records
are 'open' (within strict limits) to the public---and they evidently
did not publicize their efforts in the trade any more than was
absolutely necessary. The trade guilds of Paris "did not allow
foreigners to practice in the City unless they had exceptional influence
or paid heavy fees to enroll in a guild"---which wasn't very much
different from the situation in English guilds at the time. Privileges
in the trades were extended to certain groups---particularly religious
organizations---whereby 'foreigners' were allowed to work, free of
police or guild control.
The Blue Nun's sources of supplies, particularly for making
watches---"remain a mystery." Whether they did piece-work for other
makers in Paris, or obtained their materials from England, they
obviously required a well-supplied workshop, in terms of both tools and
materials. Some watchcase materials---such as shagreen---were not
expensive goods, but there are records that thieves broke into the
convent in 1702, and apparently made four more attempts in later years
to steal whatever valuables---perhaps raw gold or silver, or finished
cases and movements done in precious metals---were to be found in the
It is most likely that the sisters' income derived from piecework for
Parisian makers and from their own work, which they could sell to
wealthy English expatriates who had followed their deposed King to
France. There are records that daughters of the one time English Roman
Catholic nobility were sent to the convent to be educated, and several
English ladies of high degree were boarders. These nuns may well have
'removed themselves from the world', but the world they had left behind
seemed to crowd in upon them and influence their lives through their
customers, fellow French makers, and boarders in the convent.
Of the intervening years, full of wars and the ascendancy of Anglican
England in the world, there is little information on the Blue Nuns
until: "In 1704 Sister Anne lost her reason but recovered 18 months
later." Sixteen years later she was appointed Vicaress, a post she was
to hold to within a few months of her death in October, 1729, at the age
of 73. Her sister Elizabeth had died twenty one years earlier at the
age of 51, which probably put an end to their 'movement and case
partnership' twenty years after it first began behind the walls of the
convent of the Blue Nuns. The Blue Nuns remained in Paris until the
time of the French Revolution, when they were driven back to England,
where the order finally disappeared completely in about 1810.
BAINES, C. C., A Seventeenth Century Nun Watchmaker, Antiquarian Horology, March,
TREVELYAN, George M. A History of England, Doubleday & Co. Inc.,
Garden City, New York. 1953.
Return to Page Two of the late Donn Haven Lathrop's three main pages.
original version of this page
if it still exists.
To comment on this page, please