The Old St. Paul’s Church Clock

Since the mid sixteenth century, the tower of St Paul’s Church has acted as the bell-tower of the Abbey across the churchyard. For an unknown period, but at least from the beginning of the 19th Century, it has held the town’s clock.

The “Henry Weight” clock in the Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury was commissioned in 1859, replacing an earlier clock of which little is known. The earlier clock appears in a number of engravings, and had diamond-shaped faces. Like the Weight clock and its modern replacement, one face was towards the Tolsey Gate and Market Cross. We can reasonably assume that another faced North towards the Abbey. The South and West sides of the tower do not have clock faces.

Henry Weight was a Clockmaker in Malmesbury whose premises were where Griffin Alley meets the High Street. Malmesbury did not have its own iron foundry until Ratcliffe’s Westport Ironworks was opened in Foundry Road in 1870, so the cast frame must have been made elsewhere. The major clock-making works of Wasbrough, Hale of Narrow Wine Street, Bristol, has been suggested as a possible supplier but no definite connection has yet been made.

The clock is of a variant of the “Birdcage Frame” type known as a “Posted Frame” – so called because of the elaborate cast-iron corner posts. If you look closely you will see that the posts and the end bars are all cast as one piece. The captions “H WEIGHT 1859 “and “MALMESBURY” appear on the upper and lower bars respectively.

The mechanism has three trains. The centre, “Going” train operated the hands, controlled by the huge pendulum which now hangs from the wall. It is calculated that this completed 18 full swings, across and back, each minute, regulating a pinwheel escapement. From the Museum side, we see the back of the clock, where the clock-keeper would, each week, wind up the weights that kept the whole thing going, and check that is was telling the right time by looking at the setting dial. Note anything odd? The hands on the setting dial rotate anticlockwise! Corrections were made by attaching a special key to the centre of the dial and physically moving the hands. A friction-clutch – visible through the window from the foyer- allowed this. From this side of the clock you can also see the bracket that once carried bevel gears. These drove a vertical shaft up to the “motionwork” on a higher floor of the tower behind the faces of the clock.

On either side of the going train are the chiming and striking trains. Hours were struck on the Tower’s largest bell, weighing in at just over 11cwt (562 kg) and sounding F#. Quarters were a two-tone “ding-dong”. We cannot be sure which of the tower’s other four bells were used, but we have a choice of G#, A#, B and C# – try it at home and see which sounds best!

By the end of the 1940s, the clock was beginning to show its age and needed repair. The weekly rewind was also a bit labour-intensive for the post-war world. At around the same time (1951), three more bells had been added to the tower’s ring, D#, E# and F#, which could now accommodate a full “Westminster” chime for the quarters. All in all, it made sense to replace rather than repair, and a new clock, with “Westminster” chime and automatic winding, was commissioned from John Smith of Derby. This provides timekeeping to this day.

Mr Weight’s clock remained in the tower until 1985 when ownership was transferred by means of a “faculty” from the Diocese to the Friends of Athelstan Museum. Enthusiasts dismantled it in situ, the components were cleaned and refurbished by RAF technicians at the nearby Hullavington base, and the whole was reassembled in the Museum with the help of the Salisbury Conservation Laboratory and an expert from Swindon.

Barry Dent

Saint Paul's Church Clock © David Forward

Saint Paul's Church Clock © David Forward

20 August, 2014

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