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Pre-pendulum clock

Category

Horology

Date

circa 1400 - circa 1500

Materials

wrought iron

Order this image

Collection

Cotehele, Cornwall (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Cotehele, Cornwall, South West, National Trust

NT 347888

Caption

This clock is said to be 'the oldest known pre-pendulum domestic clock still in its original position. It is certainly old, medieval or early Tudor. Instead of a pendulum it has a foliot-and-verge mechanism. This is a horizontal bar with weights at the end, which swings from side-to-side. The wooden upright to which the clock is attached is relatively modern, suggesting that the clock has, at some point, been re-positioned. It is similar in style to a number of medieval church or monastic clocks, but no domestic examples are known, casting doubt on the assertion that it originated as a domestic clock. A description of Cotehele appears in Queen Charlotte's journal, following her visit with King George III in 1789, but she does not mention the clock. On 19 November 1814, the Reverend Thomas Byrth wrote a description of Cotehele for the Plymouth Literary magazine, 'Over the west end of the Chapel, is a small turret, surmounted with battlements and pinnacles, and containing two apartments for bells.' It is curious that the clock is not mentioned. The guidebook, ‘Cothele on the Banks of the Tamar’ (c. 1840) states: 'The curious works of an ancient clock are under the bell tower'. In 1846, following a tour of Cotehele, Rachel Evans referred to ‘an ancient clock in a neighbouring recess tolls the hour of vespers’. In 1887, Venning described it as: 'a clock said to be the oldest in Cornwall.' It is also mentioned in The Connoisseur Year Book 1956, in an article by Geoffrey Wills: 'Behind a door at the west end is the movement of a turret clock, which retains its original foliot balance, a device in use prior to the invention of the pendulum, and is the only such clock so far recorded in this original condition. It has suffered surprisingly little wear or damage during its lifetime of about five centuries. This may be accounted for, perhaps, by the fact that it has been in use only occasionally. It was not working in 1833, when seen by the correspondent of Gentleman's Magazine. It was never provided with a dial or hands, but struck hourly on a bell which is still in the bell-cote above it'. (T. R. Robinson: Horological Journal, Dec. 1953. Vol. 95. page 818).

Summary

Wrought iron Pre-pendulum clock mounted on an oak beam. Late medieval. The Hour wheel is turned by a rope and falling weight. It makes one turn in an hour and drives the escapement wheel. The escapement or ‘crown’ wheel is turned by the hour wheel. It also gives impulse to the verge and foliot, which controls the ‘Going Train’ to keep time. Given a steady impulse the freely suspended foliot will oscillate at a constant frequency as long as the size and disposition of the weights is constant. The cam turns with the hour wheel to raise the lifting piece and therefore also the locking lever on the hour, to unlock the ‘Striking Train’. The flail (driven by the great wheel) is released. The great wheel turns when the striking train is unlocked, and it has eight ‘pins’ to actuate the bell lever. The count wheel is driven by the great wheel, and it determines the number of strikes. The flyvane steadies the speed of the striking train. The stop on the lifting piece arrests the striking train. To prevent the clock from striking, the flail is lifted and rested in the hanging hook. This clock is said to be 'the oldest known pre-pendulum domestic clock still in its original position. It is certainly old, medieval or early Tudor. Instead of a pendulum it has a foliot-and-verge mechanism. This is a horizontal bar with weights at the end, which swings from side-to-side. The wooden upright to which the clock is attached is relatively modern, suggesting that the clock has, at some point, been re-positioned. It is similar in style to a number of medieval church or monastic clocks, but no domestic examples are known, casting doubt on the assertion that it originated as a domestic clock. A description of Cotehele appears in Queen Charlotte's journal, following her visit with King George III in 1789, but she does not mention the clock. On 19 November 1814, the Reverend Thomas Byrth wrote a description of Cotehele for the Plymouth Literary magazine, 'Over the west end of the Chapel, is a small turret, surmounted with battlements and pinnacles, and containing two apartments for bells.' It is curious that the clock is not mentioned. The guidebook, ‘Cothele on the Banks of the Tamar’ (c. 1840) states: 'The curious works of an ancient clock are under the bell tower'. In 1846, following a tour of Cotehele, Rachel Evans referred to ‘an ancient clock in a neighbouring recess tolls the hour of vespers’. In 1887, Venning described it as: 'a clock said to be the oldest in Cornwall.' It is also mentioned in The Connoisseur Year Book 1956, in an article by Geoffrey Wills: 'Behind a door at the west end is the movement of a turret clock, which retains its original foliot balance, a device in use prior to the invention of the pendulum, and is the only such clock so far recorded in this original condition. It has suffered surprisingly little wear or damage during its lifetime of about five centuries. This may be accounted for, perhaps, by the fact that it has been in use only occasionally. It was not working in 1833, when seen by the correspondent of Gentleman's Magazine. It was never provided with a dial or hands, but struck hourly on a bell which is still in the bell-cote above it'. (T. R. Robinson: Horological Journal, Dec. 1953. Vol. 95. page 818).

Full description

Wrought iron Pre-pendulum clock mounted on an oak beam. Late medieval. The Hour wheel is turned by a rope and falling weight. It makes one turn in an hour and drives the escapement wheel. The escapement or ‘crown’ wheel is turned by the hour wheel. It also gives impulse to the verge and foliot, which controls the ‘Going Train’ to keep time. Given a steady impulse the freely suspended foliot will oscillate at a constant frequency as long as the size and disposition of the weights is constant. The cam turns with the hour wheel to raise the lifting piece and therefore also the locking lever on the hour, to unlock the ‘Striking Train’. The flail (driven by the great wheel) is released. The great wheel turns when the striking train is unlocked, and it has eight ‘pins’ to actuate the bell lever. The count wheel is driven by the great wheel, and it determines the number of strikes. The flyvane steadies the speed of the striking train. The stop on the lifting piece arrests the striking train. To prevent the clock from striking, the flail is lifted and rested in the hanging hook. Cecil Clutton described the clock in ‘Antiquarian Horology’ (September 1962): “Cotehele House, in the County of Cornwall, is a remarkably complete late medieval manor house. It was the home of the Mount Edgcumbe family until it was acquired by the National Trust in 1947. The clock in the chapel attached to the house is century younger than the famous pair at Salisbury and Wells, but it has considerable claims to fame in its own right. After Salisbury and Wells it is the oldest British clock. Unlike them, it is completely original. With the exception of the foliot weights and possible the foliot suspension, nothing has apparently been altered or added. [The cam has been replaced]. It can almost certainly claim to be the world’s oldest larger-than-domestic clock with its original verge and foliot escapement. It is also the oldest survivor of a type of English clock that continued into the early eighteenth century (that is, the type with the trains laid out in a single vertical line, between two pillars). The clock can be dated with considerable accuracy to the last decade of the fifteenth century, which is the date of the chapel. The clock stands in a niche resembling a contemporary fireplace, from which runs a shaft in the thickness of the wall to accommodate the ropes and weights, and connecting with a bellcote on the apex of the roof, where the bell is rung by the clock. There is no dial, nor ever was. The metal frame of the clock is fixed to a stout wooden post, which is fixed in turn to the wall at the back of the niche. The preservation of the clock, like so much else at Cotehele, must be attributed primarily to the care and conservatism of successive Mount Edgcumbes, for without the latter it would certainly have been scrapped or converted to pendulum long ago. Possibly this might still have happened, had it not been for the upside-down layout of the clock, with its escapement only a foot or so above the ground, which would make a pendulum conversion extremely difficult to effect. Anyway, the fact is that it never was converted, and although it could just about be made to tick, the clock probably ran itself to a standstill, one, or even two hundred years ago. I believe it was first recognised for what it is by Mr. Christopher Thomas of Barnstaple in 1952. I first saw it in about 1955 when I took with me Mr. Ilbert and Mr. Howgrave Graham. The two great horologists agreed that the style of the clock was consistent with a later fifteenth-century date, especially in view of the circumstantial evidence of its contemporary housing. At that time the clock had a forlorn appearance and I determined then that if ever it lay in my power I would do what I could to bring about its restoration to working order. This has now been achieve through the interest shown in the clock by the National Trust and the skill of Messrs. Thwaites & Reed. In 1962 the clock was dismantled by Messrs. Thwaites & Reed, and possibly left its home for the first time, to travel to Bowling Green Lane. Here Mr. Buggins has planned its restoration with all the skill and good taste one would expect of him. Despite considerable wear in the pinions they were found to function quite satisfactorily and as they may have a century of useful life still before them it was wisely decided to leave them. The verge is suspended from a swivelling hoot, which may have been substituted for an ordinary cord suspension; all the same, there is no evidence of conversion, and its originality cannot be ruled out. All the wheels are, naturally, of iron. Rebushing has been executed throughout in steel. The tooth forms provide the outstanding technical interest of the clock. The escape wheel has long, thin, heavily undercut teeth engaging smoothly with curved verge pallets. The arc of the foliot is about 60 degrees, and each double swing takes about 12 seconds. The escape wheel has 25 teeth and revolves once in 5 minutes. It carries a fairly normal pinion of 8 engaging with the main wheel of 95 teeth, making one revolution an hour. The main wheel carries a rather crude release lever for the striking which, rather surprisingly, and equally crudely, incorporates a warning system (other warning systems of the date also exist). The arm which drops into the locking plate is carried on a separate bracket on the side of the upright frame…The main wheel of the striking train has 48 teeth, and 8 lifting pins riveted to its outer edge. The arbor projects through the frame and has on its end a pinion of 8 driving the locking plate wheel of 78 teeth. This latter wheel and the pinion meshing with it have teeth of isosceles shape, very similar to those on the Dondi clock. It has been suggested that Dondi never intended the teeth to be isosceles, and only showed them thus schematically. His manuscript itself shows fairly conclusively that this is not so, but the cotehele clock provides an additional proof. What is not clear is why this curious and highly frictional gearing was used for this pair of wheels only. Possibly because they move slowly and were erroneously considered to have great strength, although in justice to them it must be allowed that they have worn remarkably well. This form of gearing needs to be oiled, owing to the amount of friction between the teeth. The teeth on the main wheel are again of fairly normal form and engage with a lantern pinion of 6 mounted on an arbor which carries the locking arm. This arbor revolves once per hammer lift and carries a wheel of 40 teeth driving the fly lantern pinion of 12. The fly arbor projects through the wooden board to which the clock is fixed and rotates between it and the wall – a prudent means of keeping it as far as possible out of harm’s way. All the wheels have hammer-forged crossbars. Conventional clocks are (rather surprisingly) employed on the winding barrels. The frame and all brackets are squared and wedged. The clock is wound by short and rather inaccessible capstans (perhaps another reason for its having been allowed to remain inactive for so long).” Cecil Clutton F.S.A., 1962. The traditional description of the clock as 'the oldest known pre-pendulum domestic clock, still in its original position' has often been called into question. The Reverend Byrth in notes, in The Plymouth Literary Magazine (19 November 1814): 'Over the west-end of the chapel, is a small turret, surmounted with battlements and pinnacles, and containing two apartments for bells.' In c.1840, the Reverend Arundell writes, in 'Cothele on the Banks of the Tamar': 'The curious works of an ancient clock are under the bell tower'. He does not specify if the workings were assembled, nor does Venning, in 1887, who refers to 'a clock said to be the oldest in Cornwall.' It is also mentioned in The Connoisseur Year Book 1956, in an article by Geoffrey Wills: 'Behind a door at the west end is the movement of a turret clock, which retains its original foliot balance, a device in use prior to the invention of the pendulum, and is the only such clock so far recorded in this original condition. It has suffered surprisingly little wear or damage during its lifetime of about five centuries. This may be accounted for, perhaps, by the fact that it has been in use only occasionally. It was not working in 1833, when seen by the correspondent of Gentleman's Magazine. It was never provided with a dial or hands, but struck hourly on a bell which is still in the bell-cote above it'. (information derived from T. R. Robinson: Horological Journal, Dec. 1953. Vol. 95. page 818).

Provenance

Until recently, it was thought that the clock was installed by Sir Richard Edgcumbe (d.1489) although there is no firm evidence to support this theory. More research is needed.

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