Parliament Clocks

A few months ago, the Town and Manor told us that the clock bells on the top of Hungerford Town Hall had been repaired. Drawing heavily on some articles in the Hungerford Virtual Museum, I wrote something about this, which can be read here.

Some time afterwards, someone said that he thought these were ‘parliament’ clocks. I wasn’t quite sure what this term mean and thought it might have referred to the fact that they were established after the standardisation of national time as a result of the railways (however the railway arrived in the town in 1847 whereas the current clocks – the fourth – date from the 1870s). I allowed my ignorance to remain unsatisfied.

In fact, the technically correct definition of a parliamentary clock is far more precise and only applies to public clocks produced between June 1797 and April 1798. How so? This article by Don Harris, first published in the Hungerford Arcade Newsletter in June 2014 and reproduced with permission, will explain…

In 1797, in an attempt to raise funds for the early Napoleonic Wars, William Pitt’s government introduced a clock tax (the Duties on Clocks and Watches Act). With the exception of specific groups such as schools, hospitals, the Royal Family and, of course, Parliament itself, all owners of timepieces were taxed an annual fee of two shillings and sixpence for a basic watch and up to 10 shillings for a gold watch. Any clock costing more than one pound (20 shillings) was rated with a tax of five shillings. All this, of course, made owning a clock cost prohibitive for most ordinary people.

As a result of this tax, people stopped buying clocks and watches and those they already owned were disposed of, or hidden away and not used. This had a massive impact on Britain’s clock-making trade and many clockmakers and their suppliers rapidly went out of business.

Whilst the tax was current, many public buildings and institutions would have a large clock on display to the public and it was particularly common for taverns to hang one inside their premises so that you could have a swift pint whilst you checked the time. The clocks designed to hang in public places, such as taverns and other public buildings, were exemption from the tax. As you would expect, the clocks had to be solidly built and quite large in order to fulfil their role, ranging in size from 2ft to 5ft across the dial. Although the tax was repealed within the year, there are still some fine examples in existence.

Large clocks were present in public buildings before the tax was introduced and the term ‘Parliament Clock’ has mistakenly been used to refer to any large public clock, and in particular to ‘Tavern Clocks’. Strictly speaking a ‘Parliament Clock’ or ‘Act of Parliament Clock’ is a large public clock produced during the period of the clock tax.

As a horologist of many years’ standing I see many interesting clocks in my day to day work and I have the privilege of looking after the service of one of these clocks which had its original home on the wall of a tavern in Cornwall before moving to its present home. This majestic clock has a large fusse movement and verge escapement with a dial spanning some 36 inches and length of 4 feet is all housed in an ebonised case with gilt decoration depicting oriental scenes.

 

Don Harris
June 2014

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