Turret Clocks

Melvyn Lee

  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)

Turret 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 made by hand and eye before the advent of modern mathematical aids, turret clocks can be accurate to within two seconds of atomic time. These early clockmakers really were the nuclear scientists of their day.

Guidelines for Conservation of Turret Clocks

stpancrasclock The author with Thwaites & Reed’s team of clockmakers, conservators and apprentice give scale to St Pancras Station’s original Victorian clock following a full restoration.

The amazing skills of past clockmakers are still available today: blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, artists, and metal workers can replicate those skills using modern equipment on traditional materials.

If conservation is maintenance and repair in the manner of original manufacture, then 100 per cent conservation is possible. That is not to say that every element must be preserved as it is, but where replacement is necessary to keep the clock working, the new component should be made to match the original.

This conservative approach underpinned traditional maintenance and repair for centuries, long before conservation philosophy was formally adopted by the wider conservation movement in the Athens Charter of 1931.

By the 1960s conservation was just beginning to affect how clocks were maintained and it dovetailed with the traditional methods of manufacture and maintenance which the older clockmakers understood and practiced.

The Venice Charter, which was adopted by ICOMOS in 1965, outlined some key issues that still underpin conservation philosophy today, including the concept of cultural significance. In particular Article 5 states that conservation is facilitated where a monument performs ‘some socially useful purpose’.

What clearer example of useful purpose could there be than a working public clock before the advent of personal timepieces? Now with GPS time on every mobile phone, the functional value of a public clock may be tempered, but its functionality remains intrinsic to its significance, and this should be reflected in the mode of conservation.

Guidance and agreed standards for the repair and conservation of clocks remain sparse. Many of the oldest turret clocks survive in parish churches where they are cared for by declining congregations and their diocesan advisors.

Often these churches have lost the people who funded good maintenance and who took an interest in the church clock. New approaches have led to the slow destruction by piecemeal encroachment of electric and electronic aids, and bell captains are often the only regular visitors to the clockroom.

Alarmed by reckless damage to its clocks, the Council for the Care of Churches issued guidelines in 1983 which banned the practice of total electrification and required any electrical aids to be removeable without damage to the original clock.

These guidelines remain current best practice, despite being challenged by advocates of electric and electronic aids. Large and diverse institutions such as the church organisations and railway companies inevitably have periods when there is poor stewardship, and that interval, often measured in decades, can break the chain of conservation maintenance.

However, provided the clock is left alone and neglected, it will not rot away, and with a few days’ work, the massively overengineered mechanism can be brought back to life.

It was after all, made to last the life of the building. Turret clocks which are owned by private estates, building preservation trusts and national heritage bodies like English Heritage, Cadw and Historic Environment Scotland tend to fare better, as the owners are more likely to have an interest in the clock itself.

All their work contributes to good practice and draws stakeholders’ attention to the economic benefits that accrue from conserving original features such as clocks: conservation and profit are not incompatible.

Large building conversion projects can lead to property developers being encouraged by planning permissions and listed building consents to restore clocks and make provision for future maintenance.

High profile cases draw attention to the importance of saving historic turret clocks, such as one at the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield (illustrated) which was converted to offices and commercial use, and Sugar House which was converted to apartments.

What makes conservation work an asset instead of a cost will be the quality of workmanship it reveals, delighting the casual viewer and bringing a sense of quality and desirability to the project.

Standards in clock conservation are influenced by the various organisations who fund the work. These include grant-aiding bodies such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, building preservation bodies, central and local government and even developers.

Many clocks require funding separate from the main building works, and some charities such as Heritage of London Trust offer grants for the conservation of particular features that would not otherwise be conserved.

While commercial developers might not at first sight be obvious funders, their planning consent can be tied by the local authority to the restoration and repair of particular features either as a condition of consent or through a formal planning obligation.

Known as section 75 agreements in Scotland and section 106 agreements in England and Wales, these obligations can require the developer to pay for the initial upfront costs of restoration, and lay the foundations for efficient future maintenance.

Local authorities have to fund the conservation of those buildings in their care which are listed, and as turret clocks have a social and public use, public funds may be used to provide conservation of a high standard.

Compliance and Self-Regulation

threetraingravitymechanism A very large three train gravity mechanism from the late 19th century constructed in 1887 in the Sugar House, a former factory which is now residential.

The lack of traditional apprenticeships has led to a lowering of standards. Typically, these would have been five to seven years and would usually have been followed by 10 years of journeyman experience.

Strict rules would have been instilled from the start, and compliance with them would have been second nature to a time-served apprentice.

Over this period the apprentice deals with several hundred clocks with all their differences, and there is no substitute for this level of experience.

However, it costs about £80,000 to carry an apprentice at a living wage for a minimum of five years, and Thwaites & Reed is now the only company still offering a traditional five-year apprenticeship programme.

The British Horological Institute offers distance learning courses only, and the clock world is now mainly staffed by repairers for whom the current academic and short courses are attractive.

Some owners use sub-contractors from the building trade but this is not generally an appropriate alternative as the building industry operates to very different criteria. In particular, clockmakers expect their work to last beyond their own lifetime and provide maintenance for longevity.

One consequence of this decline in standards is the increasing use of electric and electronic products which automate the winding and regulation of historic gravity clocks. These aids stop the clock from talking to the owner – a really odd concept.

Gravity clocks work very slowly and adapt to the building over decades. When a clock bell strikes, the common parlance is that the clock ‘speaks’, and in the same way, if a clock needs maintenance it will always slow down to tell anyone prepared to listen that it needs attention.

It will do so without damaging itself. With few exceptions modern aids force the clock to continue to work without addressing the underlying problems. The clock mechanism is designed to operate on gravity alone, and instant electrical power can do long term damage to it.

Apart from the mechanism, which is the heart of a gravity clock, the dials and hands are more likely to be treated sympathetically. However, also part of the dial work is a set of motionwork gears behind each set of hands.

For a clock under attack from a non-specialist engineer, the final nail in the coffin is the removal of these motionworks. Thereafter the only method of using the clock is an electric or electronic device bolted on to the hands, which might in turn have to be replaced because they are incompatible with the torque of replacement drive units.

A time-served clockmaker would see how the dial was made, how it was fixed to the wall or installed, what materials were used, whether it had internal counterpoises, whether the dial if round is convex hand plannished or modern GRP, whether the colour is correct, and so on.

Under the commercial pressures of scaffold costs, contract margins and funding, compliance and self-regulation are vulnerable.

Help can be at hand from the funders and from conservation officers of central and local government. The most effective protection of good conservation to a high standard is when the clock becomes a public amenity which is treasured by those who use or see it on a daily basis, or where the clock is considered a marketing aid for a development.

Big Ben is the icon of Britain, and we should endeavour to ensure all turret clocks remain as local icons, in use and functioning properly.

Recommended Reading

Basic guidance for custodians of turret clocks can be found on the advisory website, turretclocks.com

Guidance note for Turret Clocks, Church Care (Council for the Care of Churches), London 1983


The Building Conservation Directory, 2022


Melvyn Lee, is a chartered secretary and director of Thwaites & Reed. His responsibilities include five-year apprenticeships in clock manufacture and maintenance, providing a lifetime of skill which can be built on up to expert level (Dreyfus scale 5), and incorporates conservation best practice for thousands of clocks built and cared for by the company.

Further information


Before Big Ben: Pre-Victorian Turret Clocks and their Preservation



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