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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 August 2007, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Time stands still
Defunct clocks from around the UK

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Engineering work starts on Big Ben on Saturday, silencing its famous chimes for a few weeks. But other public clocks have been stopped for much longer.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, observed Austrian novelist Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach. Telling the correct time just twice a day is all thousands of public clocks across the UK ever do these days.

Having fallen into a state of disrepair, many no longer work or have been removed from buildings. It's a sorry state of affairs for a country so well-endowed with historic public clocks.

Behind the clock face of Big Ben

Ever since King Charles II founded the Royal Society and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1660, timekeeping has been of national interest. Few other nations can compare to the UK in terms of quantity, quality, engineering and design.

And the UK is home to many of the world's finest - and most famous - public clocks. There's Big Ben, the astronomical clock at Hampton Court and the medieval clock at Salisbury Cathedral, believed to be the oldest working clock in the world, to name but a few.

But they are about more than just timekeeping for the British, say experts.

"With public clocks it's about so much more than just the practical side of things," says Peter Sully, who has worked for 27 years at one of the world's leading clockmakers, Smith of Derby.

"A public clock is a local landmark, it represents a sense of community and civic pride and those values are as valid today as they were in years gone by."

Stop the clocks

There are several reasons why many public timepieces are in such a sorry state. Some were ignored or ripped out when buildings were developed from their original use.

Bow Rd, Picture by Rob Smith, stoppedclocksgmt.co.uk
Redundant? (Picture by Rob Smith)
A lack of cash in the public and private sectors means their maintenance has slipped down the list of priorities and too often no one wants to take responsibility for their upkeep. "The saddest of the stopped clocks are those on church towers. Yet public clocks started as church objects, and some dating from the 17th Century are still in use," says Sir George White, keeper of the Clockmakers' Museum.

Their precarious state became clear to website designer Alfie Dennen while walking home one day. He needed to know the time but all the public clocks on his route had stopped. When, on further investigation, he counted 11 stopped clocks in the space of just one square mile in London, he decided to do something.

He's now set up a site called Stopped Clocks where people can post locations and pictures of such clocks. He hopes the site will be a space for people get together to campaign for their local stopped clocks to be repaired.

BIG BEN UNDER REPAIR
Big Ben's famous face reflected
'Bongs' will fall silent from 11 August until September
Clock itself will stop for few hours that day
And abseilers will give clock faces their five-yearly clean

"Counting all those stopped clocks got me thinking about our rich analogue past and how it has been forgotten in the digital age we now live in," he says.

"The UK is the epicentre of global timekeeping but clocks are also about so much more. They are part of the community, part of being British. For us punctuality is very important. They also bring people together through their imaginations. A ticking clock is used by artists and film makers to represent so many things."

If his previous projects are anything to go by, public clocks will soon rise up the national agenda. Mr Dennen is the man behind the hugely successful website werenotafraid.com. It was set for people to post pictures and messages of support after the 7 July bombings in London, and was phenomenal success.

Mark the millennium

But while many public clocks have been neglected, the care of some is testament to how important they can be to a community.

Picture by Rob Smith, stoppedclocksgmt.co.uk
Marking time on Whitechapel Rd (picture by Rob Smith)
Until earlier this year, when an auto-winding system was installed, the clock at St David's church in Neath, Wales was still wound by hand. Two council workers were sent each week to do the job, which involved climbing into the tower. It was a task that took over an hour.

"It took considerable manpower and money to keep the clock going but we never thought it was a waste of time or resources," says a council spokesman. "The clock is about more than just telling the time, it's the centrepiece of Neath and the heart of the town."

The millennium also sparked a revival in the people's desire to see public clocks which has continued ever since, says Mr Sully. A number of new clock towers were erected to mark the change from the 20th to the 21st Century.

But with most people owning a wristwatch or mobile phone to tell them the time, are they still needed?

Picture by Rob Smith, stoppedclocksgmt.co.uk
Rob photographed this Bond St gem when it was out of action
"Absolutely," he says. "People don't realise how important they are until they stop. Often you look at a public clock first and then at your wristwatch without knowing you're doing it.

"They still matter to people and I know this because of the amount of people who report stopped clocks to us."

But artist Rob Smith, who photographs the capital's defunct clocks, hopes they stay broken. "They mark on their faces the time at which they broke - for me they link these places in London to particular times. And I love the idea they might just be broadcasting misinformation to an unsuspecting public."


Below is a selection of your comments:

I am from Worsley originally. There is a lovely clock on St Marks church that chimes 13 at 1pm. This was because the Duke of Bridgewater's canal workers used this as a sign to go back to work after lunch and said they missed one "bong". I am glad to see that working when I visit family. I use many outside clocks to tell the time as I often forget to put a watch on. We have a chiming school clock near to us and our friends have a church clock near to them. It's always handy when you are out in the garden or have the windows open to hear the chimes telling you what time it is.
Lee Russell, Huddersfield

I stopped wearing a watch a few years ago as an experiment. It has hardly ever caused me a problem as there are timepieces of one sort or another everywhere. Sad to see ones that are neglected though - like a violin in a glass case. There was a local campaign here to persuade Tesco's to maintain their clocks - four on a spire, all wrong and showing different times.
Stephanie, Cambridge

As a little girl I would go with my grandfather on a Sunday evening up the village church tower to wind the clock. It used to fascinate me: the huge heavy key to unlock the church (and church tower), the very steep, narrow winding staircase, often very cold because of the thickness of the stone, the huge key to wind up the clock itself, like in a very old motorcar or an airplane. It was hard work, but I loved it as a child. He kept doing it until his death at the age of 92. I often wonder who's doing it now - I was there on Saturday, and heard it strike. I'd love for another little girl to have the experiences I had.
Liz Round, Manchester, UK

This morning, I looked up at the clock on one of the shopping centres on Ealing Broadway, cycling to work. I thought briefly I must be strangely late, but it's either 25 minutes fast or stopped at 9.15. I'll look on my way home. I can't remember the last time I saw its mechanical figures in motion, striking the bells.
Stu Maddison, Ealing, London

The clock in the clock tower at my old grammar school is still operated by an annually nominated student, as it has been since it was built many years ago. It was always fantastic to go up into the rickety tower and wind the huge cales and counterweights. No doubt health and safety will soon put paid to this fine tradition.
Ross, London

I believe the reason for so many clocks standing dormant is due to the fact that there are very few horologists left to maintain them. It is a very specialist area, and finding someone restore or repair even a grandfather or longcase clock is increasingly difficult.
James Jacob, Preston

The best thing about municipal clocks is the size. It's magical to actually see the hands moving due to the size of them.
Andie Riley, Leeds, England

Another case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Public clocks have a value far beyond telling the time but you cannot put a price on that.
Colin, Lincoln, UK

I seem to remember reading (quite a while ago) that there were laws in place governing the upkeep of public clocks, and I believe it was down to the owners of the building where the clock was installed to maintain it. If this ever existed and has not been rescinded perhaps we should enforce such a law.
Adrian Clarke, Coventry

I recall from when I was in the police force in Bristol years ago that all stopped clocks on public display, whether on shop windows or outside, had to have their hands set to 12 and that it was an offence against the Town and Police Clauses Act not to do so. I see that Big Ben is complying fully.
Graham Webb, Truro

The clock on the Friern Barnet Town Hall (one of the few public buildings built during World War II, I understand) was thoroughly reliable until the building was flogged and converted a year or so ago. It has now stopped, short, presumably never to go again. Shame on the developers and landlord, who have no doubt made a mint from their acquisition and won't make sure the clock is wound and maintained.
Richard, London

Big Ben is not a clock, so how it can have a clock face as described in your article is beyond me. Big Ben is the bell, the clock is the clock of the clock tower.
Dominic Kua, Nottingham

Years ago, I was told by one of my junior school teachers that Big Ben is not the name of the clock, but the name of the bell inside the clock. The clock as a whole is just called the Great Clock. Yet everyone seems to refer to the clock in general as Big Ben. Was my teacher wrong?
Kate, London

I often used to see digital clocks at railway stations in need of repair - not working at all or with certain parts of the digits off or on permanently sometimes making it harder to tell the time. Those places need to keep clocks in working order.
Richard Tinsley, Christchurch UK

I am reminded of the campaign waged in 1951 by the Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times against the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Andy Clerkin. The clock outside his coal merchant business in Pearse St was not working. For ages the column bore the headline ACCISS - Andy Clerkin's Clock Is Still Stopped. There was even an ACCISS salute that readers were encouraged to use if they met Mr Clerkin in the street: one arm extended vertically and the other out horizontally.
Joe Kerrigan, London, UK

Our parish church clock chimes. It's a very reassuring sound in the small hours of the night when sleep will not come. During the day, I often use the chimes to tell the time. Although I have to admit to also checking my watch after hearing the chimes.
Sue Whitlock, Silverstone, England

I first noticed this when I was a boy in the 70s. Seems like there were a lot more broken back then.
Anant, London

How can you tell the clocks in the pictures have stopped?
Ian Clarke, Cardiff, UK

Because if you look at the pictures again in 10 minutes they will still be in the same place.
Aaron Beatty, Edinburgh

Ian, good question. Each of the clocks on the site have been snapped by an authenticated individual i.e. their identity is recorded on-site. The validity of the clock being stopped is directly related to the level of trust being an authenticated individual engenders; in other words, it's reputational. Trust relationships are what govern bloggers and other individuals who are clear on their identity, and need their readers to trust them. In short, though, you don't know these clocks are stopped, but every effort at ensuring there is an authenticated trust relationship.
Alfie Dennen, London




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