Tue, 14 Nov 2017
St Bartholomew's Hospital Alms Houses turret clock has recently undergone a complete restoration. Retired engineer and clock enthusiast, David Pratley, who carried out the work on the mechanism, writes about the challenges involved in restoring the clock to its former glory and keeping it going for many years to come.
A bit of history
The St Bartholomew’s Hospital Alms Houses clock is thought to be one of the oldest turret clocks in England. The original building is reputed to have been founded by King John in the 13th century, and was originally intended to house priests and poor brothers. It was, at that time, referred to as King John Almshouses. The actual alms houses date from 1698 and were reconstructed from an earlier building of 1618.
Newbury was a prosperous town in the years from 1690 to 1840, mainly due to it being halfway between London and Bath and also en route north to south with a crossing over the river.
Visitors through the town brought great wealth to the area. There were at least 12 coaching inns here and some like the Chequers, Bacon Arms and the Queens still exist today.
There were also at least 70 clock and watch makers working in and around the Newbury area during this period. Seven of them had premises in Northbrook Street and several others are listed as working in Bartholomew Street and Cheap Street, with one in the Arcade, which was originally called Whirlegig Lane.
We know the Bartholomew Clock dates from at least 1698 and it is quite possible that it is even older, as there is evidence that the clock originally had a verge and foliot escapement, which is the earliest type of escapement. The diamond-shape dial would almost certainly have only had a single hand due to its shape and also the early age of the clock.
It is unfortunate that we are not able to ascertain who actually made the clock, but it is quite obvious that it is entirely blacksmith-made. The hammer marks and the marking out of the teeth positions on the gears etc, can be clearly seen. As a matter of interest, blacksmiths who acquired these particular skills, were known as whitesmiths.
Not surprisingly, a clock of this age has had alterations and repairs over the years, which include the conversion from the verge/foliot escapement mechanism to a pendulum.
In my opinion, this conversion was either the work of Thomas Crofts or John Joyce, since both of these Newbury watch and clock makers were involved in making and repairing turret clocks, hence the job of converting the escapement to a pendulum would have been well within their capabilities.
There are very few verge-foliot clocks still in existence. There is one at Cotehele House near Saltash, Cornwall, which is completely original. You will also find one in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral – this is thought to be the oldest working example in the UK, with an unsubstantiated date of 1386. However, the actual foliot escapement is a modern addition. During my research of the clock, I came across a totally original verge foliot clock, which has certain features that are similar to the St Bartholomew clock. This clock is in the British Museum and dated 1600-1620. It was found in Dover Castle in 1851.
Thomas Crofts senior is listed working 1759 to 1789, as a maker of clock watches and turret clocks. He had premises in Northbrook Street and eventually went into partnership with his son Thomas, who had premises in Bartholomew Street.
The company was eventually granted a license to trade in Newbury in 1797. In 1827, Crofts charged 15 shillings to clean the clock in the alms houses and also around this time they made the clock for Kimbers alms houses in Cheap Street for £65 (now demolished).
John Joyce was born a little later, in March 1813, the son of a Boxford farmer. He is listed as working at 46 Northbrook Street, 1839 to 1866, employinig two clock makers and one apprentice, Edward Frome, born in Buckinghamshire.
In 1866, Joyce moved to Donnington Square having passed on the busines to Alfred Stradling. John Joyce was well known as a local preacher and died in 1896.
Repairing the clock
There is a brass plaque mounted next to the clock, which states that it was restored in 1972 by JD Owen, HV Beer and WJ Hassell, a local plumber. For a turret clock to run for 45 years with very few problems is quite remarkable and is a credit to their workmanship.
However, after running for so many years the clock now needed a complete overhaul, which included the dial that had suffered badly from the effects of the weather.
The job of making a new dial was undertaken by Chris Hardy at his joinery works. The wood he used is called Accoya, which has remarkable levels of stability and is also resistant to rot and warping.
The actual painting of the dial and gilded roman numerals is the work of Paul Hetherton from Froxfield and is again a superb job, which should last for many years to come.
Chris assembled the scaffolding and remounted the dial with the valuable help from his father Dave.
And now the techy bits
It was found that all the bearings had excessive wear and some had worn completely through onto the wrought-iron frame, which meant that all the shafts had to be skimmed in a lathe to remove the wear.
In addition, new bearing bushes had to be made to suit.
In order to prolong the life of the bearings, I chose to use a high-quality phosphor bronze instead of brass, which is the usual material used.
The winding drum itself is not original, as at some time in the past the shaft has been cut off and forced in to a replacement wooden drum. This crude repair has become loose creating a massive hole in the wooden drum and it’s just amazing that the winding mechanisms still worked.
The shaft was set up in the lathe and skimmed to remove the wear and housing was made to suit the restored shaft.
It was also found that a steel sleeve, which had been welded to the frame, was being used as a front end bearing of the drum, along with a steel spacer, plus a horseshoe-shaped piece of brass rod.
The actual job of reassembling the clock was not without its problems, mainly due to the clock frame not being square.
An additional challenge I faced was that it was not possible to take the entire clock home to work on. This, of course, meant that there was quite a bit of backwards and forwards to my home to make the necessary adjustments.
However, after about a month of intense work and long hours the clock is now running and seems to be keeping good time.
I consider it to be an honour and a privilege to have been asked to restore the clock. A very interesting project, even if it was quite stressful at times.