The Building Conservation Directory 2022

116 T H E B U I L D I N G CO N S E R VAT I O N D I R E C TO R Y 2 0 2 2 C AT H E D R A L COMMU N I C AT I ON S TURRET CLOCKS MELVYN LEE T URRET CLOCKS are clocks with large dials designed to be seen by many people from a distance. We can’t say precisely when they were first developed, but in England the earliest recorded ones could be found in cathedrals and major churches by the mid-13th century. By today’s standards these early clocks have enormous longevity: there is a 14th century working example from Wells Cathedral in the Science Museum and another remains at Salisbury Cathedral. These clocks are as much part of medieval British history as the buildings themselves, all of which will be listed as Grade I or Grade II*. From the 17th to 20th century turret clocks began to appear more widely, on town halls, libraries and all manner of municipal buildings and stately homes. In the latter they are often found on the stable block, where a bell striking the hour would govern the daily routine of large estates, because without the hum of traffic and other ambient noise, an estate bell could have been heard up to 12 miles away. As the centres of money and power moved from the monarch, the church and the landed gentry, so too did the turret clock, and in factories and military establishments clocks proved ideal for regulating the workforce by time and bell strike. However, it was the rapid growth of the railways in the 19th century that had the greatest influence on the spread of time-keeping due to the need for a national timetable with no variation of time between cities. Today, the turret clocks that survive on palaces, churches, factories, railways and municipal buildings are joined by modern statements of power and money, in banks, office blocks, and exuberant architectural tours de force crowned by ever larger clocks. It is unknown how many there are in the United Kingdom, but there are almost 6,000 listed building entries for clocks and clock towers. Furthermore, the records of the oldest clockmaker in the UK, Thwaites & Reed, show that this company alone made over 4,000 turret clocks between 1740 and 1904, and until the 1970s there were dozens of family clockmakers. A MARRIAGE OF ART AND TECHNOLOGY The development of clockmaking in the Middle Ages was made possible by earlier advancements in blacksmithing and joinery, and both these skills still form the basis of modern conservation. Some of the earliest clocks had no hands or faces and simply sounded the hours on a bell. The addition of a dial, first with just an hour hand, allowed the decorative art of clockmaking to take hold, with design and decorative work eventually becoming the major feature of a turret clock. In the 17th century clockmaking was the catalyst for advances in science and mathematics, and new refinements such as the development of accurate pendulums enabled better timekeeping. However, despite the refinements made over the centuries, a medieval clockmaker would recognise and be able to work on a clock made 500 years later, because until the advent of electricity, all turret clocks were wound up by hand, working on gravity alone. Made from materials of enormous longevity which can all be recycled and repaired to original specification, turret clocks are the ultimate conservation package. All the components, from the tip of the hands to the nut on the bottom of the gravity weights, are mechanically connected to form a single entity. The manufacture is massive, with enough redundancy built in to last several centuries. The frame will be cast or wrought iron, the wheels, brass or cast iron, the original ropes would be hemp (later wire rope), the barrels oak (later cast iron). The most delicate part is the regulator: earlier clocks would have oscillating weights while later clocks would have a pendulum. Although all the components were The mechanism of the Wells Cathedral clock on display in the Science Museum – the clock face remains at the cathedral. Dating from 1392, it is a weight driven pendulum clock and one of the oldest in the world. (Photo: Science Museum)