Listen to the Audio Guide and discover:
- The memories of Bob White, whose father, Fred White, looked after the clock from the 1920s until the 1970s
- How the clock (which is now electronic) used to have to be wound by hand - which meant someone like Bob's father, Fred,, had to climb 121 steps every day to make sure it kept time accurately!
- What happened when the clocks went forward an hour for British Summer Time or backwards in winter for Greenwich Mean Time
- How people used to tell the time before they owned a watch or a smart phone
- How the Abbey clock was out of action for six weeks in 1949
Moving the Abbey clock
The Abbey’s clock was originally situated on the north face of the Abbey’s tower. However, in 1834, it was feared its weight might endanger the tower so it was removed to its present position at the end of the North Transept. The clock now positioned there was designed and installed in 1888.
Winding the clock by hand
The Abbey’s clock was provided and maintained by the city, rather than the church. It was driven by large weights that had to be wound up by hand. The weights were attached to long ropes inside the Abbey’s tower. Once they were wound up they began to lower very slowly. It was this energy which powered the clock, until it was fitted with electric motors at the end of the twentieth century.
Fred White was the man responsible for winding the clock and carrying out minor repairs to it from the 1920s to the 1970s. Winding the clock was hard, physical work – Fred would often take off his jacket to stop himself from getting too hot! Fred’s son Bob talks about his father’s work, and how his father came to get the job of looking after the Abbey clock
Going with Dad to work
On Saturdays and Sundays, when he wasn’t at school, Bob would accompany his father up the tower to wind the clock. In the following clip, Bob describes what it felt like to accompany his father, and the process of winding the clock.
When the clocks went forward an hour for British Summer Time or backwards in winter for Greenwich Mean Time, Fred would have to go up to the clock tower to change the time at half past one in the morning! Bob would accompany his father on these exciting occasions and recalls how the time on the clock was altered.
Caring for the carillon
Fred was also responsible for looking after the carillon, a machine which can play pre-determined tunes by causing hammers to strike the bells at certain times, a bit like a large music box. The carillon plays at one minute past nine in the morning, one in the afternoon, five o’clock and nine o’clock in the evening. Before it became common for people to own a own a watch or a smart phone, these times were to remind people to go to work, have their lunch, go home from work, and go to bed! Bob recalls what the carillon looked like and what it was like to wind compared with the clock!
In 1949, the carillon was stored under an old tarpaulin in the Abbey churchyard because of repairs to the tower. On Thursday the 6th of October 1949, the renovated carillon was tested at noon and then switched on by the Mayor of Bath at 5 pm.
Repairing the clock
Earlier in the same year, the Abbey clock was out of action for six weeks in July and August 1949. It was up and running again by the 19th of August but was running a few minutes slow. After cleaning, it was expected that it would revert to its former accuracy after one or two days. This was soon put right and, as Bob explains, it wouldn’t have been running slowly for long under his father’s watchful eye and attentive hands.
We hope you have enjoyed this audio guide to the Abbey clock. If you would like to go behind the Abbey clock and see the mechanism which Bob and his father used to wind, why not book a Tower Tour?