Clock Watching

clocksAt Brasenose, we embrace both modern and traditional aspects of Oxford’s unique academic experience. The latter category includes the College’s heritage assets which are held in trust for the benefit of future generations. In August, Thwaites & Read were called in to conduct a horological muster of the belfry and four antique clocks. This concern can trace their antecedents to 1610 and has a strong claim to be considered the world’s oldest clock manufacturing company. The firm are entrusted with maintaining many of the most historic timepieces in Europe, including London’s iconic Big Ben. The College belfry houses a large eighteenth-century stationary ‘calling’ bell controlled by a powered clockwork mechanism and a smaller manual bell operated by a hand rope. The calling bell is rung to announce dinner time and Sunday services in chapel. It is set for a cycle of 210 peals which takes exactly five minutes to complete.

Both bells passed muster with no reported problems. Matters were not as straightforward in respect of the timepieces. A regency ebonised table clock, kept in a small dining room, performed well a year after Thwaites & Read carried out a major restoration. An eighteenth century French gilt clock, not currently on display, was diagnosed as requiring similar work. Attention then centred on a longcase clock which dates from the late seventeenth century. The mechanism, case, and hands are all in good original condition. Following restoration, it was installed at Brasenose in 2012 as a bequest of farmer, philanthropist, bibliophile, and former student William Delafield (1957, Geography). The clock’s square dial bears the name of John Trubshaw, who was a noted London dealer. Its mechanism and case, however, were manufactured separately and the movement may even be the work of Thwaites & Read.

The longcase currently resides in the Senior Common Room on a carpeted floor. Its clockwork mechanism is sensitive to temperature and movements in the carpet, which interfere with time-keeping , the date function, and the lantern bell’s hourly chiming. An individual walking past might easily perturb these inner workings. In consequence, the clock often has eccentric opinions as to Brasenose time and exhibits internal inconsistency between it’s dial reading and chimed hours. A further symptom of irregularity is reposed in the pendulum. When keeping good time, this oscillates noiselessly within the case. During periods of contrariness, however, the pendulum strikes both sides. Melvyn Lee, owner of Thwaites & Read, refers to this as the clock’s ‘bonk’. At a very early point in the longcase’s history, groves were carved in an effort to mitigate the pendulum’s maverick bonking tendency.

Assisted by Alex, in the fourth year of a five-year apprenticeship with the company, Melvyn re-set the mechanism with the aid of a microset precision timer which measures beats per hour. During the countdown to four o’clock, he pointed out a feature of the clock face’s brass cartouche: four cherubs in clouds that occupy the triangular spandrel space between the round dial and its square enclosure. Then at 4pm precisely, the longcase chimed exactly four times.

Clock manufacturers were among the first craftsman to apply scientific methods to the improvement of technology. Among the College’s Fellows, the longcase has attracted particular interest from Engineer Professor Guy Houlsby and Physicist Professor Jonathan Jones, who acts as Brasenose’s unofficial longcase clock curator. Professor Houlsby plans to design a small plinth (attached directly onto the floorboards) to provide a much firmer base, properly adjusted for alignment.

At the conclusion of the muster, which was supervised by our Steward Julie Sturgess, Melvyn Lee assessed the current state of Brasenose’s horological heritage portfolio as follows: ‘The clocks here are in fantastic condition, they just don’t keep very good time!’

Read the Prospectus

Follow us on Twitter

Follow us on Twitter for news from students and tutors, Schools Liaison and other interesting things