In modern warfare the ‘leather strap’ and’ ribbon band’ watch became key to synchronising manoeuvres and coordinating troop movements. Pilots also found them more convenient than pocket watches.
By the end of the war, almost all enlisted men wore a wristwatch, and after they were demobilised, the fashion was set. The British Horological Journal wrote in 1917 that "...the wristlet watch was little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now is seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire".
By 1930, the ratio of wrist to pocket watches was something like 50 to one. However, there is an earlier story to add to this accepted ‘Swiss’ narrative. English Wristwatches: The Untold Story, the second in a series of booklets by seasoned horology dealer and consultant David Penney, is a brief account of the genesis of the modern wristwatch as it evolved in Britain between the 1870s to 1910.
The popularity of racquet sports, equestrianism, the bicycle and sailing were a primary driver. So too were the colonial campaigns in Burma (1885), Sudan (1898) and the Boer War. What started with leather ‘converters’ made to hold a small fob watch ‘for hunting, yachting and cycling’ was followed by less cumbersome watches with added wire lugs that could take a one-piece strap.
In particular, the book provides a welcome focus on the pioneering Coventry firms of Rotherham & Son and WH Williamson, Nicole Nielson and JW Benson in London and the Lancashire Watch Company whose watches were cased up for the wrist after bankruptcy in 1910.
If you can find them, surviving examples of these watches are still available for modest four-figure sums. This 24-page booklet is just £15 plus postage from David Penney.