Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Clockmakers’ Museum

Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury EC2V 7HH
Wednesday March 26th 2014

Before I start: a bit about the Guildhall where we spent our morning.  Elsewhere in London or the country this building would merely be the Town Hall for the local area, and those vary between huge imposing Victorian edifices, Thirties utility façades  or mid-20th Century promotional re-builds. And yes this Guildhall serves the same purpose as most town halls – the local HQ from which policy and practice about the different localities within the area are managed, but because the ‘Square Mile’ has UK and global significance the Guildhall somehow has a greater aura about it.  The origins of the building date back to 1411 though both the Great Fire and the Blitz led to damage and reconstruction. The historic Guildhall is now part of a much larger and later complex, two sections of which we visited today.

I also don’t need to remind you that the Corporation of London is very well endowed. However the  Clockmakers  Museum
 Is one of its more modest visitor attractions.  It is tucked into a corner of the building housing the Guildhall Library and feels quite cramped; there were eight visitors including ourselves and it got a bit jostly round the 14 or so glass cases. The museum is an illustrated history of clock making and of the Clockmakers’ Company (Guild) founded in London in 1620 (Royal Charter 1631), which is of course quite late as guilds go. While it is linked to the development of clocks, watches and other time measurement it is not simply a history of the mechanics of clock-making and I personally would have welcomed some more detailed explanations of different mechanisms and why pendulums or ‘escape’ wheels or ‘springs’ might be important or innovative.

Having said that, the clocks and watches on display are very pretty. We decided that watches had gone through much the same evolutionary process as the mobile phone only over a longer period of time.  What started as large, clunky and not altogether reliable  time-pieces were gradually refined into a smaller more portable product s (still worn on a chain or fob); as these became more available/affordable watches became larger and more ornate (there is a one cabinet with quite a lot of bling).  The wrist watch and strap seem to be a 20th century thing.  Even during that era when watches started to be mass produced  and London was no longer a ‘brand leader’ in this field what were once ‘gimmicks’ or exclusive selling points  (World Time, water and shock resistant ) eventually became common place too.
The early vitrines show paintings where the ’great and the good’ (as depicted by Holbein – see last week!) have table clocks or watches in their pictures and London along with other central European cities such as Vienna and Augsburg started their own clockmakers guilds, as opposed to belonging to the Blacksmiths!  Watches have always been a form of jewellery and early examples were lockets with pictures or hair locks. However the Great Fire of London, along with destroying so many churches, destroyed half the Company’s workshops.  Nevertheless,  the next  50 years  seem to be considered the ‘Golden Age of  Clock making in the UK) with examples of  Thomas Tompion's work. 

On displays are clocks which run for a year, still running (and ticking and striking melodiously) after 300 years – undoubtedly craftsmanship of the highest order. Tompion certainly hit the big time (pun intended) and found himself hanging out with the celebrities of his day, Wren and Flamsteed amongst others. He also inspired and nurtured more clock making talent.
By Case XI (Roman clock type numerals being totally appropriate here) the domestic time pieces were getting bigger again, sometimes in order to incorporate more ornament and of course each piece was unique and personalised.
By the 19th century and with more world-wide production going on most clockmakers had moved to Clerkenwell; the museum has a display of hunters and half-hunters, expressions I had heard in Victorian novels but never quite comprehended. Well, the museum was not about to enlighten me, but the internet did. Effectively watches were worn in top or other pockets and for those chaps who went hunting the watches were fully encased to avoid damage ; occasionally there was a small opening in the middle where a glimpse of  clock ‘hands ‘ was enough by which to tell the time thus ‘half-hunters’.  These are handsome and ‘manly’ timepieces as opposed to some of the prettier smaller and more ‘ladylike’ versions from earlier.

Like many of the Guilds and Livery Companies, the Clockmakers had by the late 19th Century increased their charitable works and set up an Asylum for 23 Male and Female Pensioners of the trade..  asylum in this sense meaning ‘retirement dwellings’ of which you might well be in need after years of looking at small scale mechanisms.  By the 20th Century London had faded from the world stage as a clock making force, unable to adapt to mass production, but the Company continued to sponsor and encourage innovation (more handy chronometers). The display cases finish with collections of watch keys and other ‘accessories’ – how annoying if you lost your watch key, not unlike being ‘locked out’ of your phone perhaps.

There is much to admire here in terms of skills and adornment – the twin attributes of a good clock maker whether he is working on a delicate watch or an impressive long case clock.  

PS A timely reminder - clocks go forward tonight  - rather me than the museum curators.

1 comment:

  1. A book about the Freedom Pass is due to be published by Bradt Guides in October. Would Ladies Who Bus like to contribute an article on their activities and how it was made possible by the Freedom Pass?
    If so please contact me, the author Mike Pentelow ( or the managing editor Anna Moores (