VIP visit to St Mary’s clock

Horological experts at St Mary’s.  Left to right: Richard Stenning (reviver of the Frodsham watch company), David Rooney (author, “About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks”), James Nye (Chairman, AHS), Jon Betts (Vice-Chair) and Keith Scobie-Youngs of Cumbria Clocks

Keith Scobie-Youngs of Cumbria Clocks brought some of his colleagues from the committee of the Antiquarian Horological Society to see the St Mary’s clock, which Cumbria Clocks maintain. Numerous horologists over the decades have looked at the clock to try and determine its age and origin, given its similarities to those in Wells and Salisbury cathedrals.

Keith’s analysis of the clock’s structure concludes that it is the oldest of the three, as there are features of the other two which appear to be derivations or improvements, making it the oldest tower clock in the country.  His detailed analysis was published in a paper in the society’s journal, which may be viewed here. The experts debated whether it might be the earliest in the world, although the clock in Padua is a contender for that title, but as the Wells clock is in the Science Museum and the Salisbury clock on the cathedral floor, the St Mary’s clock is certainly the oldest tower clock in its original position.

As for its origin, there is reason to believe, Keith thinks, that it may have been bought second-hand from Hampton Court Palace. The clockmaker who installed ours in 1561-2, Lewis Billiard, was apprenticed to the royal clockmaker Alan Bawdyson, and it’s known that the Hampton Court clock was replaced shortly before that date. So perhaps our clock was once a royal clock.

Our visitors were interested in the main clock mechanism, the Quarter Boys addition of 1760 and the (relatively recent!) electric automatic winding system. They also enjoyed a wonderful view from the roof of the tower, lingering long enough not to be deafened during their descent through the bell chamber as the clock struck twelve! They agreed that it would be of interest to try and assign an exact date by a process of carbon-dating. This will be pursued; while it might be inappropriate to take samples from the frame, there are old pinions in the church’s artefacts collection (in the cabinet below the Burne-Jones window) which could be tested.

We posed the riddle of the clock striking thirteen, but our experts solved this in a trice – either it was jumping from twelve to one, or from six to seven (in fact it was the latter, and this has been fixed). The Quarter Boys linkages have perished and were due for repair before the pandemic lockdown caused a delay, but they are now provisionally programmed for work in January 2022.

Jonathan Betts, one of our visitors and previously senior specialist in horology at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, has written a biography of the horologist and naval officer Rupert Gould, who was responsible for the rediscovery of the Harrison chronometers in the observatory – perhaps the most important development of clocks for maritime navigation.  Gould’s grandparents, Thomas and Eliza, moved to Rye in 1867 to teach at the schools in Mermaid Street (now the boys’ club) and Lion Street (the Kino and St Mary’s centre).  Their son William, Rupert’s father, played the organ in St Mary’s from the age of 12 and Rupert records that the swing of the clock pendulum was very distracting if you were playing to a different tempo. Indeed it is true today, and the clock is often stopped during festival concerts.

This week the clocks went back an hour. Easily dealt with; stop it the night before and restart at the right time, except that the long bamboo pole with which to catch the pendulum is very unwieldy, especially at night if it has to be disentangled from the foliage and flowers of a wedding surrounding its usual resting place! A suitable Halloween activity…

Image Credits: Andrew Bamji .


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