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Stoke by Clare Turret Clock

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The Oldest Clock? - An ancient turret clock in Suffolk

Drawings by Peter Haward

Published in Horological Journal July1998 

One day in 1996, Mr. Ling wound the clock, as he had done every day for the last 60 years, and his grandfather for many years before him. He looked over the carefully tended mechanism for the last time, locked the clock cabinet and climbed slowly down the narrow winding stone stairs to the doorway in the tower. He closed and locked the old oak door and made his way to the cottage in front of the church, where he had lived all his life. After handing the keys to the church warden, Mr. L. left his home and retired.

Grand-father and -son had been assiduous curators, and the clock had continued to run in their joint care for close to a hundred years, with interruptions only during their annual holidays, when it was allowed to run down. No deputy was permitted, for they were jealous of their charge and no-one had been allowed near the movement for more than a century. To their knowledge, no other living person had ever caught sight of it. None of the villagers knew how to attend to its mysteries, and it remained idle for some months after his departure.

However, one day some twelve years earlier when the keeper had gone up to attend to the bells, leaving tower and cabinet open, a certain P. Haward sneaked up the stairs, had a quick look and scuttled down again in a state of great excitement at what he had seen. He needed to be a patient man, as he was not able to pursue the matter until all was revealed to a privileged group of Ipswich branch BHI members and guests who attended a tour of seven turret clocks in August 1996, organised by the same Peter Haward FBHI.


The movement

Two flat strips of iron are bent roughly into squares, with the ends overlapped and hammered together. These form the horizontal parts of the frame, which are joined by four legs wedged to the corners at 45° (fig. 2).













Figure 2. The movement removed


The legs are decorated in an architectural style (Fig.3), reflecting the shape of a buttress and the base is splayed to accommodate the foliot (removed in the modernisation of c.1730).









Figure 3. The four legs


The going train is below the striking train, so that the replacement anchor escapement is in the centre of the movement.
The movement stands 133cm. high by 55cm. square.
Three uprights front and rear carry the arbors. One bar (on the left in Fig. 1) was added to carry the anchor recoil escapement and associated wheels; the other two are original. A bar with a threaded portion and a nut on it has been added at some time across the centre of the movement from front to back. Details of the striking train and levers are shown in fig. 4 and 5.

Figure 4. The striking train


Figure 5. Countwheel and striking levers

The appearance of the frame is reminiscent of some old Italian clocks, and the style and construction suggest a very early date (possibly pre 1500).

The surprisingly small weights are suspended by ropes from the roof of the chamber, and the bell on the roof is operated by a wire from the clock. One of the bell ropes passes through the clock case on its way from the ringing chamber in the base of the tower to the bells above. The whole installation appeared somewhat shaky and subject to unwanted movement. The integrity of the movement was unaffected by improvised repairs which had been made with pieces of wire and suchlike.

There is a single hand on a diagonal 4’ square dial, restored in 1995.


Little is known for certain of the clock’s history, except for the extraordinary story of Mr. Ling and his father who ensured that it remained unaltered and virtually unknown to the horological world since the 1870suntil now. The mechanism is older than the tower and was originally in the Priory next to the church. It is known to have been modernised around 1730. These are among the first photographs ever taken and this is the first published account as far as we know, except for a brief reference in “Suffolk Clocks and Clockmakers”

The location

The attractive village of Stoke by Clare is situated just into Suffolk on the border with Essex. The church of St. John the Baptist is typical of the smaller churches in the area, except that it fortunately escaped the attentions of Oliver Cromwell’s vandals when so many others were defaced. The rather squat square tower is now cut off from the body of the church.  


There is no doubt that this is a clock of great antiquity. There are few turret clocks originally built with a verge escapement still surviving, and the Italianate style of this one with its underslung foliot is exceedingly rare.
The clock has now been restored by Haward Horological Ltd., with the addition of electric winding coupled to the existing winding squares in order to leave the movement without further modification.

Figure 6 The clock movement fully restored with electric winding.







It could indeed be that the oldest clock in Britain still working in its original village is to be found in this little-known corner of Suffolk, telling the time after some five hundred years. Now that its value has been recognised, there seems no reason why it should not continue to do so for several hundred more.

I am indebted to:

The Rector and Churchwardens of St. John the Baptist, Stoke by Clare for their cooperation.

Peter Haward, who supplied most of the information, as well as the drawings.  



Copyright (c) 2006 Ian Coote. All rights reserved.