A timely skill: Remembering Bungay’s clockmakers

Archibald Brown in his workshop, St Mary's Street, Bungay, c. 1950.

Archibald Brown in his workshop, St Mary's Street, Bungay, c. 1950. - Credit: Archant

Chris Reeve recalls the centuries-old tradition of clockmaking in the Waveney valley.

At Christmas time, Tchaikovsky's magical Nutcracker ballet delights audiences of all ages at London's Covent Garden and other theatres. The most thrilling moment is when the tall clock in the corner of the Stahlbaums' drawing room chimes midnight. Suddenly the room is transformed with giant-sized furniture and toys, and the glittering Christmas tree begins growing higher and wider, nearly filling the entire rear of the stage while we gasp in awe. Clara's Nutcracker doll, Hans-Peter, comes to life, and engages in a victorious battle against the Mouse King and his army - and then he and Clara are whisked away on a sleigh to the Kingdom Of Sweets.

It's the chiming of the clock that introduces these scenes of wonder, and longcase clocks continue to exert a magical fascination for children and adults today. It's partly their shape, with a prominent head and face, looking quaintly human, so they are affectionately nicknamed 'grandfather' clocks. But they have other interesting features - handsome carved wooden cases, resonating chimes, erratic behaviour, and the internal compartment where the weights and pendulum hang, often used as secret hidey-holes for all sorts of treasures. The doors have a lock, so no-one has access without the key. I can remember that when I was working in the Clock Museum at Bury St Edmunds, on Angel Hill, Colonel Ashton, the previous curator, used to hide bottles of his favourite tipple inside these compartments so he could enjoy a secret nip on quiet winter afternoons.

It was at the Clock Museum that I first became fascinated with longcase clocks. It had a superb collection of rare and beautiful designs, dating from the 17th century, their combined chorus of ticking sounding like the murmuring of innumerable bees. So soporific was the effect, that on winter afternoons when we had few visitors, I sometimes nodded off, for unlike the Colonel I had no nip of whisky to brighten my spirits. All the clocks grew much noisier at noon, some had musical chimes as well as the striking bell, and we timed them to go off at different intervals so that visitors could enjoy a variety of ding-dongs and melodies, one after another.

I acquired my own long-case only three years ago, from George Norman the specialist clock dealer based at Needham in Norfolk. I was particularly keen to have a clock made in Bungay, as it's my native town, and George had one by Daniel Dade to show me. But it was a little plain and puritanical for my taste, so he showed me another, made by Philip Poll around 1820, the hood crested with carved foliage, and the case made of a rich brown fruit wood, thought to be apple, which is quite unusual. The dial has a painted design of brightly coloured birds pecking at wheat, and the door has parquetry inlay and boxwood stringing. And I knew it was 'The One'.

'Old Poll', as I refer to him, now occupies a corner of the sitting room, with a distinguished presence, a cheerful tick, and a solemn and imperious chime. He is not so much a piece of furniture as a member of the household, and can't be ignored because his bell resonates throughout the rooms on every hour.

Once a week, usually on a Sunday morning, at 10am, the hood window and door are opened, I insert the winding handle into the clockwork and chiming holes and slowly and carefully raise the heavy lead pendulum to the base of the dial again. It's a ceremony I always look forward to, because it brings me into regular and close contact with a loved and respected friend.

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The reason why Poll is usually wound at 10 am is because this is one of the times when his hands are far enough away from the clock winder to prevent damage. The hands are unusual, made from brass, delicately engraved and gilded, so I am careful to avoid colliding with them, especially as George told me this had happened with a previous careless owner.

Philip Poll was one of a family of horologists, son of Robert Poll of Wissett near Halesworth, who later moved to Norfolk. Robert died in 1815, and his will describes him as 'Robert Poll of Metfield, formerly clock and watchmaker'. He was the son of another Robert, active 1741-1771, who had a clock business in Harleston, a few miles down the road from Bungay.

Philip was born in 1775, and having been trained by his father, established his own business in Bungay. An advertisement in the Ipswich Journal, November 21, 1801, states: 'Apprentice wanted by P. Poll and Co., Bridge Street, Bungay'. This indicates that he already had other assistants, one of them perhaps his son Robert, who, in an 1839 trade directory, is recorded as a watch and clockmaker in Bridge Street. So it seems likely that he took over the management of the workshop when Philip grew old, and then died in 1846.

Bungay was able to accommodate a number of clock and watchmakers, and more than 20 flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Following the Great Fire of 1688, the town had been completely rebuilt and modernised, with large and elegant shops and houses, spacious streets, cobbled road surfaces and a wide variety of businesses and amenities, becoming one of the most prosperous market towns in the Waveney region. Bridge Street, close to the river navigation, was one of the principal shopping thoroughfares, and several clockmakers established businesses there in the Georgian and Regency periods, including William Field, Edward Mills, and Enoch and Richard Carley. Some of them were superb craftsmen. William Field advertised in the Ipswich Journal, October 6th, 1750, that he was newly established in Bridge Street, where 'he designs to sell, make and mend Clocks and Watches as neat as in London'.

Early Bungay timepieces were made in the town, with only the cast metal corner spandrels and bells being bought in. The engraving of the dials was carried out by itinerant craftsmen travelling from town to town. After 1800, parts tended to be purchased from larger workshops, and assembled locally, including weights and pendulum bobs, while painted dials were made in Birmingham to the customers' designs. Throughout the 18th and 19th century cases continued to be produced by local cabinet makers, mahogany being fashionable for the gentry, and 'country oak' for more modest homes.

Bridge Street had also been connected with the tanning and leather industries from medieval times which greatly contributed to the town's prosperity. One of my reasons for buying a clock made by Philip Poll, was because my ancestor, John Rising Reeve, had a tanning and shoe-making business in Bridge Street at the same time that Poll and his family were there.

I like to think that the two families were on friendly terms, that Philip and John supped pints of beer and mardled together in the Chequers pub, while their wives sipped tea at home in the parlour, and discussed the latest bonnet fashions. Perhaps John purchased a fine clock from Philip, similar to my own, and the little Poll siblings had their boots and shoes made by John Reeve. And at Christmas time the two families might stroll the short distance together to the church, through the snow-filled streets.

In death, some of them were as close neighbours as in life, for they are buried only a few yards apart in St Mary's churchyard, where their names can still be deciphered on the worn and crumbling stones.

One of the last clockmakers in Bungay was Archibald Brown, who had inherited the role from both his father and grandfather. From about 1830, the family had premises in St Mary's Street, with a shop at the front and a small workshop to the rear. A lucrative part of their trade was clock-winding, visiting the owners of large houses and country mansions every week to regulate and wind their timepieces.

The landed gentry could be very demanding. Archie recalled a day when a smart carriage drew up outside their shop, the occupant slashed on the window with his whip and when his father William ran out he bellowed: 'Brown – the dining room clock is five minutes slow!' and drove off. So William had to pedal his bike the two and a half miles to the house, to set the clock right.

The grandest stately home near Bungay was Flixton Hall. Archie recalled that it had 25 eight-day clocks, as well as alarm clocks and personal watches, so a total of up to 60 timepieces might need winding and attention. It was devastating news, when in 1950, he learned that the owner, Major General Sir Allan Adair, was obliged to sell the Hall due to crippling death duties, and later the entire building was demolished.

Aha ! Eleven o'clock. Time for coffee and a mid-morning break. What an orderly household Old Poll maintains with his efficient habits, and commanding chime. Just as he has done for nearly 200 years.