The clockmaker

The clockmaker

Henry Wedson was a clockmaker, and a picksome craftsman of the best sort, gifted with sharp eyes, agile fingers and an acute mind. I encountered him in his tranquil workplace in a Gloucester suburb forty years ago, and spent an unforgettable hour in his company.

It is too often said that, living as we do in an era of mass production, we have but a vague, romanticised notion of traditional crafts, their associated skills, and the way in which they have served society. That may in a sense be true, but a lot of the ancient crafts survive, and we can learn to cherish them. Across Europe, and from Ukraine to America, many a town is still home to clockmakers of the old stamp, with their quiet workrooms commonly hidden away behind the glittering shopfronts where the electronic timepieces of our own age are loudly displayed. And there, just off a Gloucester side street sat such a craftsman, Henry Wedson, at his worktable, contentedly humming to himself while he worked his wonders. And up against the wall stood his pride and joy, a fine old long case clock made by John Leumas of London, recording the passage of time as quietly and meticulously as it had done for a century and a half; Henry had chanced upon it in his youth, standing neglected and unwanted behind a down-at-heel saleroom; for a few pounds he had acquired it and from then on, over the years, he had restored it to the condition in which it had left John Leumas’ hands so long ago.

At the time when the Leumas family first made its timepieces in London, in the reign of George III, pendulum clocks of one sort or another had already existed for centuries. They dated back to the pioneering work of Galilleo Galilei in Italy who in 1550 studied the motion of a hanging lamp in a cathedral and was inspired to design the pendulum as a dependable means of marking the steady passage of time. By 1656 Christian Huygens of Holland had built a pendulum clock that showed an error of only one minute a day. But the quest for dependability brought with it in many places refinement in the design of such timepieces, as did the pressing need for trustworthy chronometers to ensure safe navigation of the oceans. Wben John Leumas entered clockmaking, the form of the long-case pendulum clock was still true to a style that had evolvd in Cromwellian times, but the quest for perfection had continued. Ultimately it would become possible in the laboratory to build pendulum clocks that to all intents and purposes were wholly free of error. All these things and more I learnt from a single visit to Henry Wedson, a generation ago.

Another three decades were to pass before I found myself in Gloucester once more, and sought my way back to the Wedson workplace. Henry had long passed away, but his son William, fittingly married to Mary, continued the tradition. Henry’s charter from the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers stood still hung on the wall, with William’s alongside it, and opposite to them the Leumas long case clock stood in its familiar place. But the hands and the pendulum stood still and the mechanism was silent. I raised my eyebrows – was it perhaps in need of repair? William shook his head, and Mary took up the story.

Henry, as she recalled, had over the years become old and frail, and had ultimately passed away on New Year’s Eve, 1979. Only hours beforehand, William had helped him down to the workplace, to wind up the Leumas clock once more, so that at midnight it might strike for the coming of the New Year, a moment that Henry was, alas, not destined to know. Only hours later, William returned alone to the workplace, stopped the clock, and took away the key.

I asked why.

William said: “His very heart and soul went into this clock. Not only that, but so did his failing strength on that last evening as he wound it up.”

“So now it’s silent for evermore?” I ventured.

“No” said Mary, and I recall that she smiled. “Every few years, on New Year’s Eve, we open it up just before midnight and set the hands at a few minutes to twelve, then we set the pendulum in motion. After that we wait until it strikes midnight. It isn’t just a clock striking, you see. It’s the energy of Henry’s own hands, still stored there, still welcoming the New Year with us.”


Photo credit: Baker’s watchmaker shop, Southgate Street, Gloucester by Jim Linwood (Creative Commons 2.0)

One comment on “The clockmaker
  1. greyhares says:

    That’s a lovely story Graham. It’s a strange and perhaps nonsensical thing in the digital age, but I feel the same way when editing another person’s writing. I always try to reuse/reorder the words as they typed them – and sometimes even individual letters – and not simply overwrite them – as it feels like I have preserved the writer’s original energy in some way.

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