This clock is a significant example of clock and furniture making in the early years of Colonial Australia. The marks inscribed on the face of the dial, 'Oatley, Sydney, No. 19, 1822', enable us to establish both the date and the retailer of the clock but unfortunately the makers of the clock mechanism and the cedar cabinet which houses the clock is less clear. While the origin of the clock's mechanism is still unknown Anne Watson believes the case might have been made in the workshop of the colonial cabinet-maker Lawrence Butler some time after his death in 1820.
James Oatley came to Sydney after having his death sentence for theft reduced to transportation. He had been a watchmaker in Staffordshire, England, and after he arrived in the colony in 1815 found his skills were highly sought after. He was first made Keeper of the 'town clock', and in 1818 Governor Macquarie commissioned him to install the turret clock at Hyde Park Barracks. Oatley, like many other commercial watchmakers, did not hand-craft all the parts in his clocks; instead it seems his main role was putting together the imported parts and tuning the mechanism. The turret clock in Hyde Park Barracks for instance shows the inscription of Vulliamy, a well known London clockmaker.
In 1821, Oatley was granted a conditional pardon, by which time he was already managing one of Sydney's first clock and watchmaking businesses. This was just as well for in 1822 Thomas Brisbane, the new Governor, had appointed James Robertson as Keeper of the town clock. Oatley petitioned Brisbane about losing his position and perhaps as a result was approved a grant of 300 acres of land in the Hurstville region of Western Sydney. The suburb of Oatley still exists, reflecting the importance of its colonial history.
Many early colonists benefited from these early grants but James was no pastoralist and appears to have carried on with his successful watchmaking business. From the twelve or so known examples of his work it is clear he produced clocks in styles that range from dwarf clocks, made in the American style, to both 'short' and longcase clocks.
Oatley is now regarded as one of Colonial Australia's most important clockmakers and surviving examples are justifiably prized by collectors and heritage institutions alike.
Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator, January 2010
Fahy Kevin, 'James Oatley & His Long Case Clocks', Australiana, February 1992
Fish Peter, 'Collectables' in 'Money Manager', The Sydney Morning Herald, September 11-17, 2002
Hatton D. J., Mr Oatley; the celebrated watchmaker, published by D. J. Hatton, 1983
Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June, 1833
Watson Anne, 'Early Colonial Furniture', Decorative Arts and Desugn from the Powerhouse Museum, Powerhouse Publishing, 1991