The Clock That Time Forgot


It takes a boffin to know a really old clock.

Cathedral clocks are a specialism indeed: one must be an enthusiastic horologist to want to traipse up the stairs of a cathedral tower to inspect one. By the time TR Robinson ascended the stairs at Salisbury Cathedral in 1928, the brand new clock installed in 1884 was no longer a newcomer. Robinson was coming to see it at work.

So few people must go up there. When he arrived, not only was there a glorious 19th century clock, but also the skeletal remains remains of another, far older timepiece.

Everyone had quite forgotten it.

Tar-black, with fairy tale rough cogs and escapement mechanisms, Mr Robinson took one look at it and began to try to date it.

He found mention of just such a clock in the  Deeds of 1386: an old, faceless clock which made its presence known by chiming the hour through days and nights for what much have seemed to its old iron frame like an eternity.

It used the earliest form of mechanical timekeeping – as distinct from water, or sand, or sunlight – which was called a verge escapement. A wheel with teeth which measured the passing of time, tick by tick, driven by weights which hung from a horizontal bar:

Picture from gem of a book: God's Clockmaker: Richard of Wallingford and the Invention of Time by John David North

Picture from gem of a book: God’s Clockmaker: Richard of Wallingford and the Invention of Time by John David North


And TR Robinson’s discovery and detective work caused the scales to fall from the eyes of the people of Salisbury, and they realised that crouching in the corner of the clock tower at Salisbury was a treasure indeed.

It was fully reconditioned in 1956. Messrs John Smith and Sons of Derby took it into their workshops and made several visits to the Science Museum in London to compare it with other ancient working timepieces. They took off the pendulum someone had welded on at some point in the vast stretch of the clock’s life, and replaced it once again with a verge and foliot mechanism. It could even strike the hour again, after all that time.


Today it sits in the North Nave Aisle, the wonder and fascination of all who shuffle past; its owners claim it is the oldest working mechanical clock in the world. Though, to be fair, I should mention that the French brag the clock of Beauvais Cathedral was built in 1305, and the Italians claim the title for their clock in Chioggia, Italy, which was working in 1386.

It weaves its spell, after all this time. It has marked the passing of the hours for mediaeval surfs and 21st century tourists alike.

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21 thoughts on “The Clock That Time Forgot

  1. A wonderful report – I remember spending hours in the clock part of the British Museum with one of the sons and his friend when they were young. Ageless recognition of time’s fascination, and human ingenuity, what a pleasure to read about another bit of that story.

  2. I find the mechanical work of our forbearers fascinating. Maybe it is my particular lack of understanding on the subject, but I find it amazing what they were able to construct.

  3. We love all things clocks and this one is certainly a wondrous piece of work! However, I must have missed something in the reading; how does this particular clock display the hour?

    1. It doesn’t, Karen: mediaeval clocks did not have faces. They chimed the hour so that people nearby could keep track of the time. How wonderful, I always think, to have your time in the fields or the market place marked by the chimes of a clock.

      1. Ah Ha! Wonder if time would seem to pass more quickly if your clock marked only the hours? My sis has one that chimes every quarter hour. I guess I got used to hearing it when we lived both on the same level, but in this house that clock resides upstairs and I can’t say that I miss it! 🙂

  4. Kate, As soon as I saw the gears in the Reader, I knew this would be a post that I would find interesting. But what is even more fascinating is the chain surrounding the clock. Here on the other side of the pond, someone would have sued stating “the chain is dangerous”. I think it is very cool. Looks like something from the middle ages. An added bonus to your post! Patrick

  5. I would love to see this, Kate, but, my Antler Man would even more so. Once-upon-a-time he designed clocks and has, forever since, been fascinated by the inner workings. I’ll pass this on to him. 🙂

  6. What a super survival!
    We were touring Honduras and went out of our way to visit a church to see a clock that had been given by Philip II of Spain, only to find that it had been ‘tidied up’!
    Still, the town was lovely, it was Easter Week and the streets were covered in ‘carpets’ of coloured sawdust in patterns and pictures to be walked over by all the processions…but it was a pity about the poor clock!

  7. I’m not sure what I find more extraordinary, Kate, that after more that 700 years, it’s still working, or that no one junked it in the years it was neglected. Working in its favor must be that it’s a little less heavy to move than a mountain.

    1. Virginia, things get left in corners all the time in England, and then rediscovered. Today’s post – on a newly discovered fully working school air raid shelter – is a case in point! We get things out, and dust them off, and then charge people money to see them. Look at the Mary Rose….

  8. Wonderful mechanism, and one which could so easily still be relevant. No batteries, springs wearing out due to the stress, or any power other than gravity. I think a lot of Swiss cuckoo clocks operated – and may still do – on the same system. All one has to remember every few days is to pull two chains hoisting the weights which give gravity power to the clock and the cuckoo operation.

  9. Ii can’t imagine the reverence and quiet joy of John Smith and sons with their opportunity to touch and reinvigorate such a unique piece of history. The clockworks are beautiful. I’m a bit in awe myself!

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