Telling “the solemn message of the flight of time”
This is the second in the series of articles aimed at giving locked-down parishioners insights into aspects of the Church that go on behind the scenes. Again, I have chosen a subject that does have a visual aspect and thus appears to be at odds with the series title, but in this case there’s a twist…
The present clock was installed in 1892 but there is evidence of earlier devices.
This article comprises 4 sections:
- An exploration of the clocks that may have been installed in Nantwich Church prior to 1892;
- A description of the events that led up to the installation of the present clock in 1892;
- A description of the present clock;
- A bonus section for those of you who get that far!
NB: There is some uncertainty and, whilst I have drawn some conclusions from the evidence I’ve found to-date, it is possible that I am way off the mark in at least some areas. Should you have any additional information, or can cast a different interpretation of the evidence I have found, please let me know.
Pre 1892 – To See or Not to See?
If you look at this engraving which was published by Alexander Hogg in the 1780–90s you will see a clock dial on the West End of the Church to the upper left of the central window.
All traces of this clock’s installation are no more, both inside or out, but this is hardly surprising given the major works carried out between 1854–61 under Gilbert Scott, which included significant changes to the West End and its window.
So, what, if anything, do we know of this clock?
The historian J. Platt wrote in his book, “The Histories and Antiquities of Nantwich in the County Palatine of Chester” (published in 1818), that:
The western end of the church, was formerly ornamented with a dial of a most singular description; its form was orbicular. But “Like the baseless fabric of a vision,” it had disappeared, and not a wreck is left behind. Within the orb of the dial, at the top, was a sun rayonant; underneath, “solem quis dicere falsum audeat.” [Who dares say the sun is wrong?]. On the border was another inscription, thus “Honor DoMIno pro paCe popVLo sVo parta.” [Honour to the Lord for peace obtained for his people]. It appears that the letters in capitals were intended to record the date of its erection, MDCLVVI. Frequent examples occur, in which the wit of earlier days was thus displayed. May not the words “pace populo suo parta,” have a reference to the restoration of King Charles II?
James Hall, writing in his “History of the Town and Parish of Nantwich in the County Palatine of Chester” (published in 1883), referred to Platt’s History and stated:
The latter inscription was a chronogram; the Roman capitals (MDCLVVI) being intended for the year of the coronation of King Charles , to which event this quaint conceit referred.
This information, together with the assumed date of the engraving given its publication date, suggests that the dial actually disappeared sometime between the late 1700s and 1818.
NB: The possible implication from the image of the sun on the dial, and the inscription beneath it, that this dial was actually a sundial, rather than the face of a mechanical clock, can be discounted as a sundial would not be placed on a West facing wall – the place for a sundial would be on the South wall of the church.
So, what became of the clock mechanism itself?
In an article in a book in the Chester Records Office [source unknown], written around 1891–92 (assumed from the dates in its first paragraph), we find:
THE CHURCH CLOCK
The old Church Clock—or the Church old Clock—is silent, having done its work for 128 years, as appears from a brass plate bearing the Churchwardens’ names and date 1763. The most striking feature of the old clock was its striking the hours. It had no other feature, for it had no face; and the mechanism for striking the quarters has long since disappeared, leaving only a record of what has been.
It has been constantly asked why we cannot have a clock to be seen as well as heard; and what is to be done, has become the question of the hour. For the old-fashioned mechanism is not only out of date, but it is hopelessly worn, so as to be beyond patching, and not worth repair. A new Clock is wanted which can be guaranteed to keep exact time, and to make it known all over the town, by striking the hours and the half-hours. It is also suggested that a skeleton dial may be placed in the Western Belfry Window to be seen from the Square, and other parts of the town. A clock with one dial, 6 feet in diameter, to strike the hours and half-hours, would cost about £100. If the quarters were also to be struck, the cost would be about £35 more.
Will somebody hand down his name to posterity by giving a Clock to the Town? Failing this, it is suggested that subscription be asked throughout the town. It is thought they would be willingly given, so that the solemn message of the flight of time shall be sounded forth to all from the Clock in the Church Tower.
From this, we see that the “old Church Clock” struck the hours (and presumably did so up to the 1890s) but could not be seen and that it was installed in 1763. This date suggests this “old Church Clock” could be the mechanism behind the “orbicular dial”. However, the fact that this clock struck the hours and previously struck the quarters is intriguing; it is quite unlikely that any clock at the West End of the Church would have its own bells as they would be almost impossible to hear outside without louvres of which there is no evidence in the engraving, so was it the same clock or not?
Could it be that at some stage the mechanism for the clock with the “orbicular” dial was moved to the tower, where there were then 6 bells (installed by Abraham Rudhall in 1713), and was it then augmented to strike the hours and quarters but not given the dignity of a new face?
To perhaps help us determine what happened, we see in Hall’s History, that:
Another minute in the Town Book, in the handwriting of the Rector, the Rev. John Smith, mentions projected alterations in the Church, that were most likely carried out.
“At a Vestry held this Day, 7th Jan. 1770, in the Parish Church of Nantwich, it is agreed that the Church Wardens shall (as soon as may be) lay before the Gentlemen of this Town estimates for erecting a New Door at the West End of the Church; & it is likewise agreed that the Rector of Nantwich, for the time being shall have the use of the new erected Pew, in place where the Old Clock stood in lieu of a Pew in the South Gallery now belonging to the Rectory, which Pew is to be disposed of for the Benefit of the Parishioners of the said Parish.”
[Signed] John Smith, Rector, et al
Yet another “Old Clock”!
So, could it be that the clock installed in 1763 was actually a “New Clock” which replaced the earlier clock that once drove the hands on the “orbicular dial”? Could this earlier clock perhaps even date from as early as the seventeenth century given its implied reference to 1661 in the inscription on its dial? Could this old mechanism have been removed as part of an earlier reordering of the west end of the church and its dial removed at a later date?
Referring back to James Hall’s History we find he asserts (sadly without reference to any sources):
Perhaps few towns in England had greater cause to be thankful for the Restoration of the Monarchy than Nantwich; and here, in commemoration of King Charles’ Coronation Day, (St. George’s Day, the 23rd April, 1661), that day of universal rejoicing, a curiously constructed Dial was placed on the west front of the Parish Church.
Which supports the theory that there was a clock (or at least its dial!) installed in the seventeenth century, but without supporting evidence, it is difficult to be sure. What we can be sure of is that any vestigial evidence of a clock at the West End of the church would certainly have been tidied up by Gilbert Scott by 1861.
Let us now explore if there is any evidence of an earlier clock than the present 1892 clock being placed in the tower.
Whilst repairing the floor in the area of the present clock’s weights box, early in the present Millennium, the bell ringers found quite a bit of debris resting on the corbels that hold up the ringing chamber floor. One piece was massive and perched precariously over the Curate’s Pew! On extraction of this item, we found it to be a broken piece of sandstone that appears to have been originally cylindrical in shape. There is a triangular indentation at the top which suggests this piece of stone was not just leftover construction material, but that it could have once been a clock weight. Assuming the piece of stone was once round, the indentation would have been a hole which could have held a hook “cemented” in place with molten lead in much the same way as the old railings were fixed around the churchyard. This stone can be seen in the following photograph (the pencil is 7½ inches long):
The presence of this old clock weight, if that is what it was, would suggest there was an earlier clock in the tower than our present clock, as, whilst we are familiar with workmen leaving stuff everywhere (buried in gardens, under floors…), it is unlikely anyone would go to the trouble of lugging this heavy lump of stone up the tower just to leave it there!
So, taking all the above into account, was this the pre-1892 clock situation at Nantwich?
A clock with an orbicular dial was installed at the West End of the Church in or around 1661.
A new clock with no face was installed in the Tower in 1763 which indicated the passage of time by striking the hours and quarters on the bells.
The old (1661) clock mechanism was removed by or around 1763 (and certainly prior to 1770), and the external orbicular dial of this earlier clock was removed perhaps at a later date (and certainly by 1818).
- In the early 1890s, people were exploring the replacement of the “unseen” 1763 clock.
Or do you think differently? Can you find any more references to clocks at Nantwich which will help us in our understanding?
1892 to the Present
As we have seen above, a plea was made in the early 1890s to have a clock that could be “seen as well as heard”. So, what happened next?
The following handwritten Vestry note, also found at the Records Office in Chester, sheds more light:
1892 March 17th
At a Vestry Meeting of the inhabitants of Nantwich held pursuant to Public Notice in the Church House Vestry Room for the purpose of considering the proposal to purchase a clock to be placed in the Church Tower and if approved to authorise an application for a Faculty and other proceedings necessary for the purpose.
Rev FG Blackburne Rector in Chair
Mr Pierce Mr Hensley Mr Stubbs Mr Grocott
The Notice convening the meeting having been read and the posting of it having been proved, it was moved by Mr Pierce and seconded by Mr Grocott that the proposal to purchase a Clock to be placed in the Church Tower be approved and the application for a Faculty for the purpose be authorised.
Foster G Blackburne
So, it appears the money was found, all they needed was a Faculty and then, presumably, the work could begin…or perhaps not…as, on 16 April 1892, a mere 30 days later, a service of dedication for the New Clock was held! The associated service sheet, see photograph below, records that the [clock] bells were to be struck [presumably for the first time] at 5:45[pm] on that Easter Eve. It also suggests that the work was done before all the money had been raised, as there is a request for “Donations to the Clock Fund”!
The Present (1892) Clock
The present clock is a large, three-train, quarter chiming clock with a double three legged gravity escapement, made by Joyce of Whitchurch in 1892. It is believed that the Joyce family began clockmaking in the 1690s and they certainly played a major, if unsung, role in the technical advancement of turret clocks.
The clock mechanism is located in its own “clock box” in the Ringing Chamber, vertically above the Rector’s Pew, and about level with the clerestory windows.
Joyce’s first catalogue, c1892, explains the merit of these clocks:
A good turret clock should combine the greatest accuracy of rate with durability of material, and should be affected as little as possible by external influence.
The greatest accuracy of rate is obtained by Lord Grimthorpe’s Gravity Escapement. By this means the pendulum received impulse from two gravity arms alternately on each side, and as these arms are lifted to exactly the same height by the going train of the clock, the arc of the pendulum would not be affected by whatever amount of stress may be put upon the going train of the clock.
The pendulum bob of a turret clock with gravity escapement should not be less than 2cwt., and in a very large clock not less than 3cwt.
Edmund Beckett Denison (later Edmund Beckett, 1st Baron Grimthorpe of Grimthorpe) designed the double three-legged gravity escapement for the clock installed in 1859 in the [now named] Elizabeth Tower of the Houses of Parliament, which strikes Big Ben (among other bells). So Nantwich’s clock has a famous elder sibling!
The term “three-train” refers to the three parts of the clock that are separately wound, viz.: the main part of the clock which keeps the time, the “timekeeping” or “going train” (the middle part of the clock in the photograph); the “hour striking train” (the left-hand part of the clock); and the “quarter striking train” (the right-hand part of the clock). The three square-sectioned spindles for winding each train can be seen at the front of the clock and an indication of the size of the winding handle can be seen etched into the front of the clock box.
The black slanting shaft rising from the “going train” turns once an hour and drives the hands on the external clock face which is higher up the tower. The three thin cables rising from the cable drums of each train, which are not all so easy to see as the one on the hour train, go to pulleys right at the top of the tower and are then attached to heavy metal weights which descend in a “weights box” next to the clock. Our weights don’t just descend from the clock as they would then dangle into the church and perhaps menace the Rector!
The “double three legged” escapement is at the back of the “going train” and is seen in more detail in the following photograph. The pendulum, which weighs 2cwt., hangs from the thin flexible metal strip at the top of the escapement (something else to worry the Rector beneath?), and takes 1¼ seconds to swing. The two curved black “gravity arms” hanging from the top of the escapement interact with the shiny six-pronged star-shaped wheel to drive the clock.
Setting and Winding the Clock
The setting dial on our clock is marked “JOYCE WHITCHURCH 1892” and you will be amused to see from this closer photo that it rotates anti-clockwise and only shows the minutes. The setting dial helps in setting the clock to the right time by the use of a small spanner on the centre spindle once the main gear has been temporarily disengaged. This would be used for large corrections such as the change to accommodate British Summer Time.
You will note though, that our clock is rarely more than a few seconds out during the week. David Allman, one of the bell ringers, has been winding the clock for over 50 years and is very particular that the clock strikes accurately. The clock is wound twice a week, almost invariably by David, and is set to run a few seconds fast over the week so that it can be reset to the second on Sundays by stopping it briefly via the Escapement and avoiding the need to use the Setting Dial. The Yellow line seen on the inside of the clock box in the photograph of the whole clock would tell David when the clock weights were fully wound by matching tapes on each cable – but he rarely needs this as he already knows the number of turns exactly!
David used to synchronise the clock with its sibling, “Big Ben”, until that clock was put out of commission by the building works on the Elizabeth Tower. Pending resumption of Big Ben’s chimes, our clock is being synchronised with a Radio Clock using the “The Time from NPL” (NPL being the National Physics Laboratory in Cumbria which replaced the Rugby time signal a decade or so ago).
Striking the Hours and Quarters
The clock strikes 5 of the 8 bells in the tower: the hour is struck on the tenor, the heaviest bell, and the quarters are struck on the second, third, fourth, and seventh bells of the octave (in E Major). The quarters are struck by a mechanism that looks a bit like the innards of a Swiss musical box, with lugs on a drum depressing and releasing levers which pull linkages, causing hammers to strike the bells. This mechanism can be seen at the right of the main photograph of the whole clock above, and in more detail in the photograph below:
The Hour and Quarter striking mechanisms have to be manually disabled whilst the bells are raised and being rung “full circle” for services and practices.
Other Aspects of the Clock
The clock is adorned with a dedication plaque that records that it was supplied by John Palin of Nantwich but does not record who paid for it. Presumably, no one person came forward to “hand down his name to posterity by giving a Clock to the Town”!
The clock has only one face, which, as suggested in the article from the Records Office, is located in the Western Belfry “window”. This can be seen in the following photograph.
Maintaining the Clock
Joyce’s Red Book (Contracts for winding and/or maintenance of tower clocks) shows that Nantwich had an initial contract with them to “Clean & keep in order tower clock” involving 5 visits per annum, later changed to 3, for an annual cost of £4. The clock is now inspected and oiled once a year by Smiths of Derby who bought out Joyce of Whitchurch in 1965; in 2019 the single maintenance visit cost nearly £300!
One of the benefits of having to wind a clock regularly, apart from the exercise, is that the clock is looked at frequently. Our clock is not hidden away and rarely visited, as is sadly the case for many of its now-electrified counterparts. Its technical beauty is often appreciated and any changes in appearance, function, or performance can be detected quickly by David and dealt with in a timely fashion.
As a bonus for those of you who have read to this point, there is a record of the “First air raid warning” in Nantwich on [Tuesday] 25 June 1940 written in pencil in the clock box. It is believed this was written by air raid watchers posted on the tower roof. An actual air raid took place over West Bromwich and Walsall that night and it may be that this is what was observed.
David and Judith Allman: for their research at the Chester Records office which uncovered the items relating to the installation of the present clock, and the photograph of its Service of Dedication.
Steve and Darlah Thomas: for the use of some of the material and the technical aspects of our clock from their book on the clockmakers Joyce of Whitchurch (see “Further Reading” below).
All other photographs, copyright Stefan Zientek.
J. Platt: “The Histories and Antiquities of Nantwich in the County Palatine of Chester” (1818)
James Hall: “History of the Town and Parish of Nantwich in the County Palatine of Chester” (1883)
The Turret Clock Keeper’s Handbook (Fifth Impression, 2007. ISBN 0-901180-32-7), published by the Antiquarian Horological Society, is freely available to download from the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers website at: https://cccbr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Turret-Clock-handbook.pdf. This book contains a wealth of information on the history, development, care and maintenance of Turret Clocks, including the type we have at Nantwich.
Steve and Darlah Thomas’s book, “Joyce of Whitchurch, Clockmakers 1690–1965” (ISBN 978-0-9573733-1-0), gives a lot more information about the history and development of clockmaking by Joyce, and contains photographs and descriptions of many more of Joyce’s clocks. Their website is at: http://inbeat.org/ where you will find this and other books they have written about clockmaking and clockmakers.
22 April 2020