Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Medieval Clock Of Salisbury Cathedral


J. Connell has asked if we had any information concerning the clock at Salisbury Cathedral which is reckoned to be the oldest existing clock in England. Well, Salisbury is just outside "the patch" for collecting and research by the Warminster And Wylye Valley Society For Local Study, but we do have a leaflet about this clock within our collection of ephemera. The leaflet is not dated as such, but from reading it we can deduce that the leaflet was probably produced in 1956, the same year that the clock was completely repaired and restored to its original condition.

The leaflet reads:

This Clock is the oldest existing clock in England and almost certainly the earliest remaining mechanical clock in virtually complete and working condition in the world. It was made in or before 1386 as the Cathedral accounts for that year include a document concerning the provision of a house for the clock keeper. At the time Ralph Erghum was Bishop. He was translated to the see of Bath and Wells in 1388, and four years later there is a record of a clock in use at Wells. A careful comparison of the two clocks has revealed that they were almost certainly made by the same craftsmen. It may, therefore, be assumed with some confidence that craftsmen employed by Bishop Erghum to make the Salisbury clock were later re-employed by him after his translation to Wells and made the clock for the Cathedral. Both clocks were constructed entirely of hand-wrought iron. They were originally controlled by a verge escapement and foliot balance, but to increase their accuracy were altered at some later date by the provision of a pendulum escapement. They had no dials, but while the Salisbury clock struck only the hours the later Wells clock also struck the quarters.

The Salisbury clock was originally housed in the detached Bell Tower which stood near the churchyard wall opposite the north porch of the Cathedral where it struck the hours on one of the bells. In 1790 the Bell Tower was pulled down by Wyatt and the clock moved with its bell to the first stage of the central tower of the Cathedral itself. There it continued to work until 1884 when a new clock was installed. The old movement remained in the tower unnoticed, no particular interest attaching to it owing to the erroneous belief current at the time that there were several older clocks in existence.

In 1929 the clock was "rediscovered" and thoroughly investigated. It was not long before it was established without doubt as being the earliest clock in England. In 1931 it was cleaned and set up in the north transept, but not in working condition. In 1956 it was completely restored to its original condition by the replacement of what was left of the pendulum part by a verge and foliot balance such as it originally had. The balance can be recognised by its alternating "fly wheel" action. The newly made parts, handwrought like their predecessors, are coloured dark green so as to distinguish them from the original parts. New weights were made in the Cathedral workshop. The clock was then set up here in the nave and connected to the Bishop's Bell which in former days was used to warn the Bishop of approaching times of services in the Cathedral. The cost of this restoration was met by the Friends of the Cathedral.

Thus this clock which was made nearly 600 years ago and struck the hours for 498 years is now after a lapse of 72 years, once more in complete and working order. It has been calculated that it must have ticked more than 500 million times - a great tribute to the workmanship of those who made it.