Just as Otay was leaving San Diego, the man who was responsible for what is probably the most famous public clock in the region was arriving. The clock has, in fact, gained a national reputation, at least among clock folk.
He was Joseph Edwardus Jessop, a 39-year-old English watchmaker and jewelry store owner, who packed up and left Lytham (near Blackpool) with his wife, Mary Carter Jessop, and their seven children in search of dry-weather relief from his serious asthma. Before selecting Southern California, his family chroniclers say, Joseph Jessop had also considered New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, after studying weather reports in his dozens of foreign newspaper subscriptions, including the San Diego Union. But some acreage in what is now Scripps Ranch had proved irresistible to him, even sight unseen. And he and the family arrived in New York on the Cunard line, then took a series of trains across the country.
To be a gentleman farmer was Joseph Jessop’s plan, with perhaps a little watchmaking on the side. For he had been led to believe by the traveling real estate agent who had sold him the property – “a man with a beard,” as his son Alonzo recalled in an oral history he recorded for the San Diego Historical Society – that it was possible to cultivate that terrain.
What happened next is, apparently, a variation on a common turn-of-the-century California land-deal theme.
“When they got there, it was night,” says his 46-year-old great-grandson, James Carter Jessop, a fifth-generation jeweler (his great-great-great-uncle, George Jessop, was in the business in England), and what they found in the morning when it got light was just rocks smaller than boulders, but bigger than pebbles.”
“We were too trusting,” noted Alonzo in his oral history, “and believed everything we heard. And with the little funds that [father] had, the first thing we knew we were busted.”
So Joseph Jessop went to work for K.C. Naylor, at the time one of the big downtown San Diego jewelers. And 10-year-old Alonzo and his 14-year-old brother, Armand, went to work doing farm labor for E.W. Scripps on his Miramar Ranch.
For extra money, Joseph Jessop also did freelance work, rowing out to ships that had anchored in the harbor to check on their chronometers. These are the extremely precise timekeepers that sailors used as a navigating tool because longitude can be determined by them. Navigation is, in fact, one of the main reasons why we really did need to learn to keep accurate clock time. Before the chronometer was invented by the 18th-century British clockmaker John Harrison, dead reckoning, based on educated guesswork, was one of the rather risky navigational methods employed at sea, as the term itself inadvertently implies.
In three years Joseph Jessop had saved enough to open his own downtown jewelry store at 1317 F Street. Alonzo recalls that their next-door neighbors were a barber and a real estate agent and that the wooden floor of the shop smelled of wine – the previous tenant had been a barman. The senior Joseph actually took up residence there, living in a small room in the back of the shop, along with Armand, who at 17 had become his apprentice. Only on the weekends did father and son go home, a rough, three-and-a-half-hour horse-and-buggy ride away, where Mary Jessop had given birth to three more children.
Eventually, six Jessop sons joined the business, each one specializing in a piece of the trade – clocks, watches, jewelry, engraving, optical work (lens cutting used to be a part of a jewelers business), and finance. The Jessops prospered. In 1901, they moved to Coronado; and as successful businessmen everywhere often did, they went into real estate. All told, they built 35 houses there. The shop moved to a better location too – 910 Fifth Avenue; then, a little later, 952 Fifth Avenue. A 1903 photograph shows four of the brothers in a row, each one bow-tied and sitting at a bench with the tools of his trade in front of him. Brand-new black mantel clocks are lined up on the shelves behind them.
An earlier shop photo of what came to be called J. Jessop & Sons shows the outside of the shop and an advertising sign over the door – a clock in the shape of a giant pocket watch and, below that. A pair of giant spectacles, complete with eyes, like the oculist Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’s sign in The Great Gatsby that Nick Carraway rightly finds so ominous. Later, a bigger pair of seeing eyeglasses was posted above the door. But Jessop pere had an even grander advertising scheme in mind for the future. In 1907, the great Jessop street clock was completed and installed on the sidewalk outside the store.
The clock stood in that spot for 20 years. It has since been moved – twice – along with the business. The first relocation, in 1927, was to 1041 Fifth Avenue, and it was a relatively easy undertaking, according to Jessop’s son Joseph Jr. (1898-1996), whose chronicle of the clock appeared in an issue of The Journal of San Diego History in 1987. “Labor was cheap and plentiful,” he wrote, “and the whole town became involved, not only with volunteer help, but an oversupply of sidewalk superintendents,” who watched as the clock inched down the block all in one piece, In 1985, when it was moved for the second time, to Horton Plaza, the task was much more difficult, requiring its complete disassembly and the use of trucks and cranes to maneuver it into place.
You can see the far-famed clock at Horton Plaza today. It’s there in the middle of the hubbub, looking too dignified, too formal to be flanked, as it is, by wagonloads of tourist T-shirts. Painted glossy black and gold, insured for $1 million (and valued at twice that), it has a magisterial air; yet it’s full of whimsy too – like somebody’s ancient eccentric great-uncle who has come overdressed to the carnival.