Salisbury Cathedral Clock

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

The Ticking of a Clock

It was not until the nineteenth century when clocks became the norm for telling the time. Previously, as far back as the thirteenth century, civilisations used sun dials in order to tell the time. The Greeks and the Romans frequently used sun dials and evolved them to become more accurate to tell the time.

Salisbury Cathedral Clock

Salisbury Cathedral Clock is claimed to be the oldest working clock in Britain dating back to 1386. It is made from hand-wrought iron and was created by three horologists (the study of measurement of time) Johannes and Williemus Vrieman and Johannes Jietuijt of Delft.  What some may find unusual about the clock is that it has no face and was designed to only strike at the hours to remind local parishioners of service times. This design was first introduced in Salisbury itself and was a very new concept. Standardised hours had never been used before but rather increments based on the four seasons as seen in when sundials were the usual method of keeping time.

The Cathedral clock has a large, iron-framed movement with few moving parts. It is also known as a ‘turret’ clock which measures at 1.29M by 1.06 and standing 1.24 high. The frame is held together with steel tenons and wedges in much the same way that timber structures were being built as nuts and bolts were yet to be invented. It is also separated into two sections, both of which are named. The right-hand section is known as the ‘Going Train’ while the left-hand section is known as the ‘Striking Train’. The mechanics behind the clock has been designed so that each section is driven by falling weights which must be wound up every day.

A Restoration Project

The Cathedral itself has been restored and rebuilt three times since its creation with the first restoration undertaken upon the advice of Henry VI, who wished for a lager chapel. The biggest restoration came in 1884, during which the tower was demolished and replaced with a newer model, a gift from the officers and men of Wiltshire Regiment. The old clock was left to deteriorate and was only rediscovered in 1929. It was partially restored and placed back on public display. It was not until 1956 that the clock was fully restored to its original condition and set up in its current position.

However, it was after the disassembling and restoration that the age of the clock was questioned. With records confirming that the cathedral itself was built in 1386, it was only the design of the clock itself that was debated. Similar clocks were discovered in the UK and Europe with similar designs dating back to the 1500s insinuating that the original clock may have been removed and replaced 200 years later. This 45-year period of inactivity between 1929 and 1956 has led to debate for the title as the World’s oldest working clock as well as having no dial or hands limiting it to not being able to tell the time in a traditional sense.  Despite being the centre point for many debates, the cathedral and its unusual clock continue to draw visitors and both are still as intriguing as they were when newly built in the fourteenth century.

To hear more about the history of clocks, listen to our podcast!

By Alexandra Lettington

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