Public clocks that changed the world

PUBLISHED: 13:00 06 April 2018

Elizabeth Tower, which houses the Big Ben bell in Westminster

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The role of the public clock in the development of our communities has been much overlooked, argues devoted horologist PIERS FORD, as he argues why they chime with all of us​

As a child, I had no idea that everybody felt a little bit proprietorial about Big Ben. I didn’t know that when people spoke about it, they were actually referring to the Great Clock of Westminster, and that Big Ben was really the name of the bell that struck the hour. I thought of it only as the clock that seemed to greet me personally on exciting trips into central London, almost appearing to hover on the skyline as the car approached Parliament Square from any direction, then suddenly towering vertiginously above as we drove past the Houses of Parliament and I craned my neck to appreciate its thrilling height.

Gradually I came to understand its wider significance as a symbol of democracy, its monumental status as a Blitz survivor, ringing out its chimes of hope to far-flung places around a war-torn globe, and its role as announcer-in-chief of countless new years. Thanks to Blue Peter – and the intrepid John Noakes, who else? – I also learned about the old pennies that regulated its pendulum, the extraordinary mechanical ballet of the movement as it swung into action ahead of each quarter-hour, and the marvel of a machine that could keep such perfect time as the quartz-based age of electronic timekeeping took hold around it.

I discovered that the clock which instilled in me a life-long fascination with civic timepieces and was seemingly ancient to my childish eyes, was in fact, for all its precision-engineered beauty, practically an arriviste in the tradition of European public time-keeping that stretched back to the 13th century.

As early as 1340, for example, the Welsh bard Dafydd ap Gwilym denounced his local clock as “A gloomy mill grinding away the night” – a portent of today’s rural incomers who insist on silencing church clocks at night because the chimes invade the peace they have fled the city to enjoy.

In 2015, Lars Boerner and Battista Severgnini published an academic paper examining the role mechanical public timepieces played in the growth of European cities between 1200 and 1800. In Time for Growth, they concluded that the public clock was one of the most significant examples of general purpose technology in the last millennium.

They traced the impact of the clock on productivity – in simple terms, helping merchants and traders to refine and compartmentalise tasks, and regulating the time-keeping of the population more effectively – through seven centuries. One of their key findings was that a group of cities defined as early-adopters between 1283 and 1450 showed growth differences of around 30% between 1500 and 1700.

“Clocks… had relatively low maintenance costs and were rather robust,” they wrote. “Thus, once implemented, clocks were used and maintained by the city population over many centuries. Furthermore, clocks were non-exclusive public goods that were easy to understand and use by the whole city population.”

For centuries, public timepieces have served those populations as gathering points, sounded curfews and provided a framework for the daily activities being played out beneath their inscrutable gaze. If they could talk, they would all have stories to tell, of the communities they have supervised, of the trysts taking place in their shadow, of the benefactors who financed them, and the ghosts that haunt them.

They have rendered the essentially mechanical into a richly romantic asset. How many of us have never, at some point, for some reason, arranged to meet “under the clock”?

The records attached to British public clocks are testament to their contribution to the fabric of our towns and cities. In 1450, the mayor of Canterbury, William Benet, bequeathed 4s 4d a year for the maintenance of the clock at St Andrew’s church. The following year, the churchwarden’s accounts at Walberswick in Suffolk note a payment of 11d to a clockmaker for repairs.

Clocks could also be symbols of patronage, and of services withheld. Richard Goslinge donated a timepiece for Fulham church in 1664, on condition that he was exonerated from serving the parish in any public office. Meanwhile, the people of Bermondsey in south London are denied the privilege of telling the time at night by the clock of St George The Martyr in Borough High Street: while three faces are white and lit, the fourth facing them is black, obscure from dusk onwards, because that belligerent parish refused to contribute to its cost.

Horological lore piles up. The ghost of Jane Seymour is said to glide around the clock courtyard at Hampton Court Palace, where Cardinal Wolsey died on the stroke of eight, well aware that his home and its famous astronomical clock were now in the hands of its new owner, Henry VIII. The clock adorning Trinity College, Cambridge, sound the hour twice. A traditional undergraduate race, immortalised in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, must be complete before it has struck its last note. Nearby at Grantchester, the church clock inspired Rupert Brooke’s immortal, homesick lines:

Stands the clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

Such potent nostalgia is probably preferable to the stern admonition issued by another church clock at Furneux Pelham in Hertfordshire: ‘Time Flies: Mind Your Business’.

Yet for all this, Big Ben is the one that tugs the hardest at public affection. Henry IV was known to have paid a man called Thomas the princely sum of 13s 4d a year to maintain the valued public clock at Westminster. Its descendant has not always been quite the timekeeping paragon of legend. In its early days, it was particularly prone to erratic striking – on one night in 1867, the capital was introduced to the startling hour of 37 o’clock. Things have settled down since then and mechanical failure has been an astonishingly rare event.

Those relatively low maintenance costs, also alluded to by Boerner and Servergnini, will sound enviable to the ears of today’s parliamentary authorities as they wrestle with a vast restoration project which includes major repairs to the Elizabeth Tower, now the formal name for the elaborate edifice which houses Big Ben.

Estimated costs had doubled at the last count to £61 million – most of that required for the fabric of the structure, including the re-glazing of the clock’s four iconic faces and the Pugin-designed metalwork that help to make it one of the most recognisable and loved public buildings in the world. And this, of course, is the reason why it is currently shrouded in scaffolding and acres of plastic sheet, depriving selfie-takers of one of the sights they have come to London specifically to capture, just one of the four faces at a time being allowed to peep out while the work proceeds.

While the clock-keepers at the Houses of Parliament will also take the opportunity to carry out much-needed restoration to the movement, the most controversial news came in August last year: Big Ben itself, and the bells that ring the quarter hours, would have to be silenced for the anticipated four-year duration of the project. Questions were asked in Parliament, and Theresa May huffed that “It can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years”. High feelings were mollified by the concession that the clock would be able to chime on ‘special’ occasions – as indeed it did on New Year’s Eve.

And there’s the rub. One person’s special occasion is another’s idea of hell. Big Ben remains the sight that I instinctively seek out in London because in many ways it still means to me exactly what it did 50 years ago. It’s my clock. The idea that it should be misappropriated – and doubtless the pressure is already being applied – to ring out for the Brexiters on March 29 next year is beyond endurance. So I’ll be turning traitor until the hysteria has passed, and seeking out another public clock somewhere in Europe, in whose shadow I can raise a defiant glass instead.

Piers Ford is an arts writer and journalist

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