East Brent History Portal

St Marys Church - Birdcage Tower Clock

01 Nov 2012 Article No: 56

Entering by a low door at the bottom of the tower and switching on the lighting we see a stone spiral stair-case winding its way upwards out of sight. The steps, repaired with cement sometime ago, are rather narrow and care has to be taken when ascending and descending.

Holding onto the rope “handrail”, that winds around the centre column, ascend 46 steps to reach the bell-ringing chamber door. Opening the door and stepping inside, the steady deep clunk of the clock can be heard coming from the room above.

Diagonally cross the ringing chamber, avoiding the bell ropes, to wooden steps ascending to a trap door in the ceiling. Up the 12 steps, push up the trap door, switch on the lights and step into the clock-room. There, on an ancient wooden support structure made from recycled roof beams (no expense spared in the old days!!), is the clock of a type known as a “side by side birdcage”.

Birdcage is the name given to a frame made, usually by a blacksmith, of wrought iron in the form of a large cage supporting the trains of gears. This clock has two trains, the “Going” (moving the clock face hands) and the “Striking” (rings the bell), and are arranged side by side, hence the name.

Other features of the clock, such as the “recoil” escapement driven by a pendulum, no easy way of adjusting the time if slow and the lack of a method of “maintaining power” during the winding of the “Going” train, suggest that it was made in the early 1700’s.

This clock came second-hand to East Brent, probably around the mid 1800’s. Was this a new feature for the Church or did it replace an existing clock? Church clocks pre-1700 usually had no hands or dial and only struck a bell at the hours and, some, at the quarters.

Brent Knoll church had a “Strike Only” clock and therefore it can be assumed that East Brent also had the same type.

So, there it was, the “new” clock. Was it a blessing or a curse?

This type of clock was known for its poor time keeping and difficult to maintain.

A Mr. Ronald Yeoman (who lived in a small cottage next to The Riggs House on Church Road - now replaced) made replacement parts in 1950 and so he must have been keeping the clock going at that time and for a few years after.

Over the next 50 years the clock became more and more difficult to keep going. Then, in 2005, a generous donation was given to enable the clock to be repaired and cleaned.

In July 2005 the clock was dismantled and taken away, and 4 months later brought back and re-assembled. What went away encrusted with hardened oil and grease and rust returned with a green painted frame, iron gear wheels painted black and gleaming brass gear wheels.

So, there it is, the restored clock. Is it a blessing or a curse?

At this time the people then taking on winding the clock had no instruction book to use and no experience, so this was for then quite an experience!

The striking and going trains are driven by lead weights suspended on steel cables that drop down some 50 feet in the tower, taking 3 days to reach the bottom. This clock is wound every 2 days so as not to wear out the winders and to correct the time. The aim is to keep the time to within less than one minute of the most accurate time.

The hours are sounded by a hammer, controlled by the striking train, striking the tenor bell.

When winding the going train, the winding action opposes the force of the driving weight and the clock stops. How was this problem solved in the past? As for now, a “maintaining power” system was devised, comprising of a 9lb brick on the end of a piece of string. This is hooked onto the largest gear in the going train during winding. Crude, but effective.

From the going train a horizontal shaft, that rotates at one revolution per hour, leads to a set of gears on the east wall of the clock-room. These gears reduce the 1rev/hour to one revolution every 12 hours. Through a large hole in the 3½ feet thick east wall a 2 part concentric shaft leads from the set of gears to the rear of the dial. The outer shaft drives the hour hand and the inner shaft drives the minute hand.

When the clock was re-installed in 2005 it was discovered that the east facing wooden dial was in a very bad state due to weathering. Therefore, with the aid of another donation a new glass-fibre dial was commissioned and was duly fitted in April 2006. The wooden dial was octagonal in shape and some 12 feet across the same as the new dial.

Many church clocks today have had automatic electric winding added.  However, it would seem to be more fitting to continue the tradition of the last 200 hundred years to wind the clock at St Mary’s manually.

Therefore, if there anyone who would like to join the existing band of winders and take care of a 300 hundred years old clock they would be most welcomed and it's only takes 15 minutes to do.  Thank you.

*** Please see the Galley for photographs of the Tower and Clock ***

By. George Frost - February 2013


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