The Friary Clock Tower

Around ten years ago, searching for a suitable topic for a Christmas meeting, we invited Colin Walton to come and talk to us about the Lichfield Clock Tower. Colin and his family had settled in Lichfield in the 1980s, living on The Friary, close by the Clock Tower. Drawn to it, he found himself its honorary custodian, holding the keys and climbing the tower regularly to wind the clock mechanism. After ten years had elapsed, we thought it was time to invite him to return for our September meeting and to update members on his activities and the health of the clock. Yes, he's still winding it, with three helpers now and yes, the clock continues to run well.

For those of you who didn't attend his last talk, of which there may be many, or have forgotten the details, here's a brief recap. Currently owned by the City Council, the Clock Tower was originally located close by Jones's Garage at the junction of Bird Street and St John Street and dates from 1863, although pressure for a public timepiece arose from 1856. At that time, we think that a number of designs were contemplated. We know of one which generally resembled the Albert Memorial in London; overly fussy and no doubt quite expensive. The City Fathers opted for a more straightforward stone tower or, more strictly, a brick tower clad in stone. (Yes, the tower itself is brick built). The location was on the site of the Conduit Lands Trust's Crucifix Conduit and a fountain was incorporated in the base of the tower wall to serve residents.

Colin could not tell us who designed the Tower, nor does Pevsner's Guide to Staffordshire give us any clues; in fact the Tower is not referred to at all in that book. Architecturally, it is an interesting building as there are no identical elevations. Originally, clock-faces occupied only three sides. The fourth was installed some years after the originals following complaints that some residents could not see the time from their homes! Originally gas lit, electric lighting was installed many years ago. A walk around the Tower (braving the traffic) will also reveal a number of plaques, including one referring to the original establishment of the Crucifix Conduit in 1301 and another, dated 1927, referring to the Tower's relocation.

In the 1920's, the arrival of the motor vehicle rendered the main roads through the City inadequate for the task. The Clock Tower's location at a particularly narrow and increasingly busy road junction became a problem. Perhaps today the solution would be to demolish it and widen the road. The enlightened City Councillors decided to dismantle it stone by stone and brick by brick and then rebuild it at a new location. It may well have been part of a job creation scheme for out of work labourers. At the same time, the clock mechanism was overhauled by Potts of Leeds. However, we do not know who originally made the clock mechanism. Colin's best guess is that it was a Birmingham company. The three 1864 bells were also recast at this time. Each is inscribed, including one for Mr G. F. Hall, the Chairman of the Council Estates Committee and one for the Town Clerk, Mr W. Broxon. Hidden in the Tower is a long pendulum, for our clock is in effect a giant 'grandfather' (or longcase) clock.

Colin took us on a photographic journey, climbing the ladders up inside the tower. The first impression was that it is quite a constricted space. We explored the clock mechanism and watched it in action. Colin explained that it had the benefit of a sophisticated "double three legged gravity escapement". He was impressed by its reliability and accuracy. Wound and reset about once a week, (winding takes eight minutes), it only loses about 5-10 seconds in that time.

Many of us pass by the Clock Tower each day. Perhaps we take it for granted, but like all buildings in the historic centre of Lichfield, it has a tale to tell. It's a tale of forward thinking citizens, who not only provided an effective timepiece for residents, but resolved to relocate it and thus save it for the benefit of future generations. It's all credit to Colin, that he has carried on the tradition of care and concern for this part of Lichfield's history over many years.

Roger Hockney
September 2018