Anyone familiar with Derry city centre will know that the beautifully ornate shop front of Faller’s Jewellers on the Strand Road has been an unchanged and permanent fixture there since the height of the Victorian era.
The business has survived the economic stress of two World Wars and the Troubles. To this day, by its very presence, it provides a direct insight into a bygone era.
The story of Faller’s however is one that has its roots in the picturesque Black Forest region of south-western Germany.
Wilhem Faller was born in the Black Forest village of Schonwald in 1860. At this time the clock making industry was to the Black Forest what shirt making was to Derry. And so, Wilhelm’s father encouraged his three sons to follow him into his trade.
The Black Forest was home to the world famous cuckoo clock and there is even a strong suggestion that the first such example of it was made in Schonwald as far back as 1737. And, since the village was close to the cities of Freiburg, Strasbourg in France and Zurich in Switzerland it had a ready made market for the decorative clocks right on its doorstep. The quality of the craftmanship also made the pretty wooden time pieces not only popular in Germany but across the whole of Europe.
In 1873, at the age of 13, Wilhelm Faller entered into a three-year apprenticeship in clock making at a local factory. At the completion of his training he decided to follow his brother Stephen in finding commercial opportunities for his trade on foreign shores.
Aged just 16, Wilhelm departed Germany to travel to Ireland and met up with Stephen in Athlone, Co Westmeath.
On his departure, his father gave him a 22ct gold 10 Mark coin as emergency funding should the need arise. The coin remains within the family to this day.
In Athlone the brothers cemented the foundations of two highly successful businesses based of course on great skill but even more so upon hard work.
Wilhelm’s sales techniques became legendary and amounted to him cycling the length and breadth of the West of Ireland with the clocks tethered to the back of his bike. His ploy was that he left his goods at customer’s homes on a trial basis and by the time he returned weeks later, the families had become so attached to the beautiful clocks that they bought them.
This method of selling lasted for two years and in 1879 Stephen Faller opened his first shop near the docks in Galway city-a store which is still there to this day.
However, the previous year (1878) Wilhelm had already travelled 170 miles north to the bustling commercial hub that was Derry in that era.
Derry had grown to be the fourth largest city in Ireland and Wilhelm’s aim was to take advantage of the prosperity provided by the textile industry and strike out on his own commercial venture.
At just 18-years-old he employed the same sales techniques that had proven so successful in the West of the island-but this time he and his clock laden bicycle set off upon the roads of Derry city and county and neighbouring Co Donegal.
In 1883, now aged 23, Wilhelm made two momentous decisions. Firstly, he anglicised his name to William and opened his first business premises in Derry city at 25, Ferryquay Street right in the heart of the walled city.
However, the canny young entrepreneur still maintained his method of on the road selling and used the extensive rail network in Derry and Donegal to offload his products.
By 1897, he had six agents on the road selling Faller clocks. Now aged 37, it had been 21 years since he had arrived in Athlone but he had truly made his mark as a dedicated and shrewd business figure in the North West.
His financial status now on a very firm footing, William married at Long Tower church in on June 23, 1893. His bride was Maria Anna Loeffler, also a German from the same region as her new husband. She was also the daughter of a clock maker.
By 1901, the couple had five children ranging in age from seven to a year old. The family lived at 11, Orchard Street which has been replaced by Foyleside shopping centre.
The following year, 1902 William took a lease on land overlooking the Foyle which had become available for development. Renowned architect Edward Toye was commissioned for the job.
The construction project produced a resplendent building with elegant high ceilings allowing natural light to stream in.
It was also the case that no expense was spared on the fixtures and fittings for the new shop. A carpenter was drafted in from Moville in Donegal and he spent five months carving the mahogany counters. The prestigious firm of Templeton’s in Glasgow was commissioned to supply the display cabinets whilst ornate plasterwork defined the ceilings.
To mark his Germanic roots, William ordered a hand-painted mirror that portrayed the waterfall at the village of Schonach, four miles from his native village of Schonwald.
By the time the shop was fully fitted out, it’s said there was very little change from £1,000. Many of these original fittings are however still in use today showing that the original expenditure was a wise move and William’s business continued to prosper.
By 1914, Derry’s Strand Road was one of the city’s main shopping districts. People thronged the streets carefully dodging away from the path of the oncoming trams as they crossed the cobbled street.
The astuteness of William Faller in choosing here for his store now came into full realisation. A decade before, Faller knew that Victoria Market was going to be placed right behind his shop bringing with it a steady stream of prosperous farmers and fruit and vegetable merchants right past his front door. Life was good inside and outside of the business.
Back at 11 Orchard Street there were now nine mouths to feed-Marianna, David, Elizabeth, Emily, Louisa, Therese, Josephine and Stephen. A tenth child, Monica, was born in 1915 and by this point 16-year-old David had already begun working as a watchmaker and repairer.
Also, a relative from Germany, Matthew Faller was working in the shop as a clockmaker and living in Orchard Street with the family.
All of the commercial success was however set against a backdrop of conflict both at home and abroad. The slaughter of The Great War took its toll on the populace of the city with hundreds of families deeply sorrowed and affected by the incessant slaughter on battlefields far removed from the Strand Road.
Then, in the early 1920s on the streets of Derry, sectarian conflict saw dozens of lives claimed in the tumultuous atmosphere of the Irish War of Independence as the IRA, UVF and the British Army fought it out-often right in the city centre.
With the economic depression that followed the First World War, Derry entered a very lean period and with the partition of Ireland in May, 1921 the business hinterland of Donegal was effectively annexed off. With freedom of movement across the new frontier greatly hindered, the cross-border wholesale clock trade experienced a hefty slump.
In 1923, William’s youngest son Stephen joined the family business at the age of 15. Like his brother David he learned watch and clock making and repairing as well as jewellery making and restoration. Then, in 1931, Stephen qualified as an optician and set up his practice in the middle floor of the Faller building. In 1937, his sister Therese qualified as a dentist also running her practice on the second floor-adjacent to the opticians.
But, the spectre of global conflict again raised its ugly head and with the beginning of the Second World War, Derry found itself not only the largest convoy base in these islands, but the main American communications base in Europe.
In these situation’s it was commonplace for foreign nationals from an ‘enemy country’ to be viewed with suspicion and their loyalty to their adopted homeland to be heavily scrutinised. These doubts were often conveniently answered by swiftly interning people in prison camps.
Even though he was a German citizen, William escaped arbitrary imprisonment. An RUC officer had arrived at the shop one day from the nearby Victoria Barracks and said he would have to jail the highly respected businessman unless he became a British citizen.
Mr Faller flatly refused stating that signing a piece of paper would be very unlikely change him.
The Catholic Bishop of Derry, Dr Neil Farren, intervened on the business owner’s behalf and the RUC backed off using William’s now advancing years as reason enough to leave him be.
However, William did not live to see beyond the first year of the Second World War. He passed away, aged 80 at the family home on April 2, 1940.
The local press recorded: “The business life of Derry was largely represented at the funeral which took place on Thursday to the City Cemetery, of Mr William Faller, jeweller, whose death took place an advanced age and is deeply regretted by a large circle of friends.
“Deceased had been in business in Strand Road, Derry, for over fifty years and was one of the most highly esteemed men in the city.
“The remains were removed from his late residence, 11, Orchard Street, to the Long Tower Church, where Requiem Mass was celebrated by Rev P Dillion C.C, who also officiated at the graveside.
“Other priests present were the Rev P Devine, Adm Long Tower; Rev B Kielt, C.C. Long Tower; Rev P Monagle C.C. Long Tower; Very Rev J O’Doherty, President St Columb’s College and Rev DL McLaughlin, Dean St Columb’s College.
“The chief mourners were-David, William and Stephen Faller (sons); Mrs Madden, the Misses Lily, Emily and Terry Faller, Mrs William Griffen; Sister Mary Teresa, Convent of Mercy, Strabane; and sister Mary Francesca, O.P., Dominican Convent Naas (daughters); William Griffen (son-in-law); Mrs D Faller and Mrs William Faller (daughters-in-law).”
CAPTION: William Faller, centre, pictured with his six agents who travelled across the North West selling the company's clocks.
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