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'Just a Lump of Stone'

From The Barwicker No. 63
Sept. 2001

Barwick-in-Elmet church clock with its famous red face, is just a lump of stone. We glance at clocks in public buildings rather than study them and I had always assumed that Barwick clock had a permanently inscribed face, but I was wrong. The timepiece is a rough blank circular stone on which is painted the clock face, activated by a movement manufactured by William Potts and Sons, the world famous Leeds clockmakers, established 1833.

Barwick's growing prosperity in the early and mid 15th century, resulted in the possible replacement of an earlier 12th. tower. This new west tower was built in two continuing stages, most probably in the reign of Henry VI. The clock was added over three centuries later in 1769, at a cost of 28.(see note) This was at a time when few householders in rural Barwick would have possessed a clock or watch.

The church clock must have had a tremendous impact on the village, re-inforcing the church's nodal position at the frontier of technology. It must have had a similar effect to the introduction of stained glass windows in the medieval period, when, in a visually deprived world, people came from miles around to see the coloured pictures on glass .

The church clock would have generated considerable interest in the area. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as man's life was increasingly regulated by mechanical measuring devices, there would have been many a sermon delivered on the importance of using our time wisely and mention made of the evils of procrastination and sloth! The clock would have supplemented the Rector's hourglass.

I think we have underestimated the significance of church clocks to earlier societies. Church became more central to life because people had to look to the tower to discover the time. It also made individuals think increasingly about their own mortality as they saw and heard their lives being ticked away, high above them. Each minute is one less and what then? Church clocks had an immense theological and political statement to their times.

Potts of Leeds installed the present church clock in 1889 at a cost of 120; part of the original wooden pendulum of the earlier clock still exists, fixed to the wall in the tower. The electric drive mechanism, which powers the strike and chimes mechanism, was installed in 1981 and the self-contained clock winds itself. Mr Clive Whittaker of Barwick, has the responsibility for re-adjusting the clock forward and back for British Summertime. The recently completed renovation of the clock has cost 2300 and the rector, Roger Wild, has been delighted by the strength and support of the community appeal to help fund the work. The freshly painted clock will improve the appearance of the village and enhance the work of the Barwick-in-Bloom organisation. This year (2001) Barwick is Yorkshire's entry in the Britain-in-Bloom competition.

Villagers have shown great interest in the re-painting and been intrigued to see Kevin Ireland, the Potts engineer, swinging from his bosun's chair, suspended from the roof, as he worked on the clock. He had the daunting task of climbing to the top of the tower to fix the support ropes for the chair, before descending the steps to pull himself up the wall from the ground, using a single leg sling and pulling on a rope. The roof overhang and various obstructions on the wall like light fittings, made this a difficult task, as he tried to get as close to the wall as possible, for ease of working and stability.

Kevin Ireland's Time!
Kevin Ireland's Time!

His first job was to measure up the clock face and check that the circles, figures and minute inscriptions were accurate, before removing the hands. The minute hand is four feet and the hour hand two feet eleven inches long; both have to be painted gold. The clock face had to be cleared, removing all the paintwork and cleaning the surface with a wire brush before applying undercoat and final topcoats.

Kevin made his own giant aluminium compass or trammel specially for the job, with holes pierced precisely, to indicate circle and figure placements. Having painted the clock surface red, indicating the ecclesiastical patronage of the Duchy of Lancaster, he marked out the outer circle, painting in the 60 minute marks in gold leaf. Precision is essential to ensure that there are 60 minutes painted and not 63, as at one Yorkshire church. Care is also needed to differentiate the Roman numeral XII at the top of the hour from the figure I to avoid the appearance of XIII, which has also happened elsewhere.

Special cardboard templates were made for the figures, which are always re painted exactly as before, unless the client specifies otherwise.

The clockface is eight feet six inches in diameter. Ideally it should be situated higher up the tower, as the usual ratio is ten feet of tower height to one foot of clock diameter. The large dominating clock face is bold and easy to read, but it means once the engineer has worked on one side of the face he has to come down to the ground then climb the tower to move the chair position, before descending the steps to pull himself up again to work on the other side. He has to be fit as well as skilled in order to carry out this arduous work.

Kevin first worked on the church in 1976 and now treats the clock as an old friend. He explained that achieving exact timing is a matter of trial and error. On the pendulum a small brass weight and film case sit side by sidegathering the dust of ages, making theircontribution to achieving perfect balance. The annual service keeps the mechanism in good repair, but dirt is the worst enemy sticking to oil and forming an abrasive agent. Ideally clocks should run dry in a good clean environment.

Horologists work with materials designed to resist the ravages of time, to mark the passage of time. In the impressive tower and belfry I gazed at the ancient stones, six bells and clock mechanism built by hundreds of anonymous craftsmen over the centuries. Their work has survived their passing, enriching our culture. Engineers are proud of their skill and often personalise their work, it is important that they blend into the history of what they create and maintain. Kevin painted his name on the back of the newly renovated hour hand. He has left his mark for posterity, as we all do, to show that we have passed this way.


Just before this article went for publication, we received a communication from Andrew Vevers of Sheffield who has been in touch with the Society concerning his research into his family history. Some of his forebears came from Barwick parish, including Richard Vevers of Scholes, whose 13 page will was dated 1766. One item concerns the gift of 50 "for making a handsome face or dial plate " to the church clock, with any surplus from the funds to go to poor housekeepers of the parish who did not receive alms. We thank Andrew for his 'timely' contribution.
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