Who Will Make Them Tick Again?

A new centre dedicated to horology is an unmissable chance to keep the nation’s town clocks working

Daisy Dunn

A Commons report reveals that Big Ben’s clock urgently needs a £29.2 million restoration. With “structural defects” to the clock tower, the bearings in poor condition, and the gunmetal hands at risk of dropping off, the clock may need to be put to sleep for four months as a rescue operation is performed. 

The last time Big Ben ceased to chime — for cleaning in August 2014 — we couldn’t keep our eyes off it. With its long hands hovering at 12 o’clock, it was a sleeping beast, over which little men clambered with ropes, like the citizens of Lilliput.  

There is something about a stopped clock. When Big Ben falls silent, the space beneath it becomes eerie and hollow, as though someone has paused the CD at a dinner party, leaving nothing to absorb the awkwardness of human sound.

We are so accustomed to the chimes ringing out over Westminster that the silence is strangely compelling. When a smaller municipal or parish clock stops, the buzz of those living beneath it may ebb away to more depressing long-term results.  

Communities were once held together by their collective sense of time. At one point in the 18th century, people were taxed on their watches and domestic clocks, leaving many to resort to consulting the nearest clock tower to keep time. There was no scrambling about, heads stooped, eyes averted from other people’s movements. The town clock carried workers and worshippers from morning to night in mutual purpose. Young television viewers of the 1960s will remember Trumpton Town Hall Clock, “Telling the time for Trumpton.”

In a world of watches and phones with digital clocks, there is obviously no longer the same need for town and village clocks. In that sense Big Ben, too, has lost its function — yet few would dispute the need to preserve it. The justification for the expense of doing so — the history, the science, the monument’s ability to symbolise the throbbing heartbeat of British life — ought to be applied more fervently still to our little city clocks, which are falling silent at an alarming rate.At a recent count, four out of five of Nottingham’s loveliest town clocks had stopped or lost time.

Such is the speed of decline that a website was set up in 2007 to record the UK’s stopped clocks. A stroll through a single square mile of London yielded a sad total of 11. And then the website stopped too.

It is not only that, when left alone, stopped clocks can cause damage (the weights can fall over the pulleys). There are enough abandoned shops on our high streets already to make ghost towns of many corners of Britain. To abandon their clocks, too, is to despair of life’s progress. Just think of Miss Havisham: “The days have worn away, have they?”

While clock museums are still flourishing (one has just opened at London’s Science Museum), municipal clocks are in danger of becoming outdoor museum pieces without the punters to appreciate them.

Even where the inclination to keep the clocks going has not disappeared altogether, the wherewithal to do so almost has. Earlier this year, Swansea was left with eight stopped clocks when the sole horologist in the whole of south Wales was forced to hang up his apron after 30 years’ service. Swansea’s clocks only started ticking again when the 72-year-old managed to have his contract renewed.

The desperate shortage of people trained to repair and build clocks makes it incredibly difficult for town and parish councils to preserve them. 

A recent pledge of £2.8 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund for a new horology centre to be built for the British Horological Institute (BHI) before 2018 is therefore to be lauded. It offers the best opportunity in decades to reestablish Britain’s pride in horology, a craft we once celebrated.   

Some of the finest early clocks in Europe were made on British soil: the 13th-century clock at Merton College, Oxford, beneath which students perform the famous Time Ceremony each autumn, the cathedral clocks of Canterbury, Salisbury, Wells and Lincoln, and the 14th-century clock of Windsor Castle.

We even solved the “Longitude Problem”. In 1714, the British government launched a competition worth £20,000 to whoever could invent a timepiece capable of measuring a ship’s longitude to within two minutes (half a degree) of accuracy. (Pendulum clocks and pocket watches were no use aboard a swaying ship.) Lincolnshire clockmaker John Harrison and his son William invented a series of watches which were more accurate than any made to date. King George III himself tested the Harrison H5, while Captain Cook took a copy of another of the watches on his second voyage. John Harrison’s watches proved not only to give an accurate measure of longitude, but to point the way forward for British clock-making.

The Industrial Revolution quickly ushered in the need for standardised time-keeping. There was no room for lackadaisical clocks when trains began coursing past each other at high speed up and down the country. 

The trouble came in the early 19th century, when British clock and watchmakers first faced serious competition from Switzerland. Although many of the craftsmen responsible for constructing British clocks since the 1300s had in fact been immigrants from Europe, it wasn’t until Swiss watchmakers began to set up shop in London that the British business became truly assailable.

When it comes to luxury watches today, it’s plus ça change: just think of James Bond and his Rolex (the company was founded in London in 1905 but has been based in Geneva since 1919), or his swish Omega Seamaster 300 in Spectre. With the number of Swiss-trained horologists dwarfing those trained in England today, it’s no surprise that they have the upper hand.

With the opportunity for Britain to produce a fresh generation of horologists when the new BHI centre opens in 2018, it is high time to rechalk the competition. It is, after all, not our watches or even our phones, but our little Bens which keep our towns ticking.

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