The heartbeat of the house

John Ellicott clock in the entrance hall

The house comes alive when the clocks are running. The ever-present ticking is the heartbeat of the house. The job of ensuring that heartbeat keeps running falls to me. I wind the clocks every seven days, usually on a Saturday, and over the past year I have come to know and love them. It is as if they each have their own personalities! Some are quite needy and others are good solid workers, while others have a mind of their own.

There are six clocks in the house and all of them were made in the hundred or so years between 1720 and 1820. This was an exciting time in English clock making, the start of a horological ‘Golden Age’ with technical advances and superb workmanship that put England at the forefront of clock making. So much so that Louis XIV banned the importation of English clocks in 1711 in order to protect the French trade.

I monitor the clocks every week to see how fast or slow they go, how many winds they need and any other problems that arise. Each clock is wound and time set in a different way. There is a box full of different winders and keys that I head out each Saturday with to make the house feel as if it has the “still lived in feeling” that a ticking clock evokes.

Box of keys and winders
Box of keys and winders
Box of keys and winders

The Francis Gregg clock in the small drawing room is a table clock with verge and crown wheel escapement. The verge escapement dates from 13th-century Europe (Salisbury Cathedral’s clock dates from 1386 and is one of the earliest examples of a verge mechanism) where its invention led to the development of the first all-mechanical clocks.

Francis Gregg clock in the small drawing room
Francis Gregg clock in the small drawing room
Francis Gregg clock in the small drawing room

Without having favourites the most loved clock in the house is the James Smith clock in the dining room. This is the volunteers’ favourite and has the most beautiful 8-bell chime every quarter and hour-striking on a single bell. This clock has a tendency to chime the hour on either the half-past or quarter-to. Last season it was one and a half hours out from clock time to chime. Even with its idiosyncrasies it’s well worth a wait around to hear the chime on the hour where it chimes the psalm 104 ‘Oh Worship the King’. There were a number of clock makers in London called James Smith in the 18th century. It would be nice to think ours was by the most eminent James Smith who was also clockmaker to King George III.

James Smith clock in the dining room
James Smith clock in the dining room
James Smith clock in the dining room

We have two long-case or, as most people know them, grandfather clocks in the house. The one in the hall is by Henry Gamble and the other is the beautiful Japanned clock whose maker we don’t know. These are pendulum clocks and have to be completely level to run properly. With the historic, wonky floors in the house, the Japanned clock upstairs is levelled on blocks of wood. Pendulum clocks at this time had a gridiron pendulum. These use a rod made from two metals (often brass and steel) with different expansion properties which ensures the pendulum is a constant length and unaffected by changes of temperature. When winding the long-case clocks, the pendulum should be stopped and the weights observed as you wind. We have chalk marks on the case that show where the end of the weights should stop.

Japanned clock in the green room
Japanned clock in the green room
Japanned clock in the green room

The John Ellicott clock sits in the main hallway and is the house’s most accurate clock – to a minute a week. Ellicott made the most elegant clocks and was one of the most eminent English clockmakers. Although Ellicott made the clock, the movement was made by Thwaites. Between 1780 and 1785, 183 clock movements of assorted types were made by Thwaites for Ellicott.

John Ellicott clock in the entrance hall
John Ellicott clock in the entrance hall
John Ellicott clock in the entrance hall

Last, but not least is the Samuel Mortlock which sits in our library. This clock will be looked at by our horologist this winter. Although the clock is working the chime is not. It tries to strike but makes a whirring noise on the hour. The horologist comes every winter to service all the clocks for us. If they need special attention he will take them away for a more detailed look.

Samuel Mortlock clock in the library
Samuel Mortlock clock in the library
Samuel Mortlock clock in the library

Historically, the person responsible for the clocks in a house depended on what size the house was. Larger houses often employed a local clockmaker to wind and care for their clocks. In houses nearer to our scale, domestic staff were expected to look after them. It was usually the men, the women being considered not technical enough! Thankfully those days are long gone.

So, if you are around on a Saturday morning do pop in and have a look at me winding the clocks and ponder as to whom over the last 200 years has had the good fortune to wind these clocks and keep the heart of the house ticking.