The Town Clock at St. George’s -“Does Anyone Really Know What Time It is?”

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The clock we see outside St. George’s today is a stately piece that still presides over a skyline that has not significantly changed since 1855.   Some people may see the clock as an anachronism in a day of digital watches and satellite regulated cell phones.  However, during the recent renovation we received a scathing letter from the city about the clock not working which was unavoidable due the work in the gallery. We were violating the spirit of a city/church partnership that extended back over a 150 years.  We quickly brought in Parks and Recreation officials and gave them a guided tour of what we were facing and relations improved. Even today the Circuit Court judge knows how many bells to listen for to measure his steps from his chambers to the court.  Finally, PNC employees across the street are quick to note when the clock is off.   While it may not be true as the Virginia Herald noted in 1867 that “large numbers of persons regulate their work by the clock” there are still many people that pay attention to the time on the clock.

Unlike our bell, the clock was not bought for the new St. George’s building in 1849.  The Daily Star wrote it was installed by William H. White, a clock maker in town around 1838. His shop displayed the sign of the “Gold Watch.” The Star didn’t indicate where it was installed. AK. Phillips and A. C Lucas were appointed committee in the city in that year to look into feasibility of erecting a clock, the expense of doing so and making a report. Ten years later on Sept., 19, 1848, Mayor Semple asked the City Council to consider the idea of placing a clock at St. George’s which was then under erection. Fast forward to May 31, 1850. Then the Council postponed a motion to provide $20 a year “towards keeping the Clock in the tower of the Episcopal Church” with the concurrence of the Vestry. The city records do not show a vote on the request to place the clock at St. George’s in the first place. Our Vestry minutes have been lost due to the Civil War for that period. City newspapers did not pick up the story.  It is likely between April, 22, 1849 when the Church was consecrated and May 31, 1850, when we know the clock was there, that the clock was placed in the Church.  

A city/church arrangement for the clock was a marriage of convenience for a city that wanted a clock but without its own location to house it.  It soon found an alternate location. In November, 1852 a resolution was presented to City Council to remove the Town Clock from St George’s to the new Courthouse which had been erected in that year by architect James Renwick. It lost, though a number of St. Georgians’ were for it, including Thomas F. Knox and W. S. Barton. The issue surfaced in the Council minutes for the next two years in November but was apparently dropped without vote. It is possible there were technical challenges. The Weekly Advertiser in 1854 commented that there was “no room in the new courthouse for ½ mile of rope necessary to hold the weight of the striking part.”

The city faced the ire of the public and the media when the clock was not working.  The newspapers of the period wrote scathing comments about the times it did not work and the city’s lack of attention to the clock  We know the clock was broken or had problems keeping time  during parts of the following years –  1854, 1858,  1867, 1868, 1872, 1887, and 1902.  Early on the Weekly Advertiser in 1854 called it “that Great Abortion.”  It did work during the Civil War as it marked the pace of battle and, as Harpers Magazine noted, broke the silence of the aftermath of battle.

Both the church and city were involved in the clock – it was really a partnership. It was the city’s clock; they would pay the maintenance and upkeep but the Church provided support.  One of the church sexton’s duties was to serve as the clock “tender”.  At first the city appointed a “winder” and then contracted out the maintenance work. By 1869, they combined both “winding” and “repairs” into one contract.  The Murray family through Thomas Murray (1813-1892) during the years 1837-1869 and later his son Andrew Murray were the winders. As late as 1913 Andrew Murray still held the contract.

It was not clear who in the city was responsible for the clock. Was it the council, the city Property Committee or city government in general?  In 1867, the Virginia Herald wrote “The public have a right to know which of her public officers is slow in the discharge of duty as to have abandoned time altogether.”  They claimed a year later that a non-working clock was a bad reflection on the character of the people. Words piled up, such as the city being “too lazy to keep it in motion” and the council “don’t seem to take any notice of time.”

We have no picture of the original clock. We know it had wooden dials and was an 8 day weight driven clock in the English style. The bell was driven by another system of weights was synchronized to chime on the hour. It was mounted on a wrought-iron, A frame. In 1919, the city replaced these dials with glass dials and blackened numerals. The face was illuminated with electric lights as electricity was spreading throughout the city.

In 1945, Council heard a letter from Fred Maderne from the company that repaired the clock that the clock was in “very bad need of repair with some parts so badly worn as to constitute a dangerous hazard due to the heavy weights which may fall.” They estimated overhaul and electrification $815 and for repair and continuing the operation of the clock by weights $685. Council passed a resolution to place the $815 in the 1946 budget. The clock was electrified and the weights were removed. But the clock did not chime and more importantly lost two second a minute.

In 1985, Englishman Leslie Wade was employed by the city to restore the clock. He took it apart and found in his studio that 2/3’s of the parts were missing.  He scoured the country for parts but did not have a source for the larger gears. He finally commissioned Fredericksburg Machine Shop to make the larger gears which he cut and hand filed himself. He tried to be authentic but bowed to City Council’s wishes to replace the glass dials with plexiglass, black roman numerals. He did change Roman numeral “IV” to “IIII” which he believed was the original form on the clock. It became a wound clock again with weights and hand crank all leading to a new pendulum. He built “a separate arm and base connected by another cable to trigger the bell chime on the hour.”

Wade’s work did not lead to a more accurate clock and by 1990 it was broken again. The city was faced with a series of choices – complete replacement, restoration or an electric alternative. In 1993, Wade and has partner offered to maintain the clock for $1,300 a year. While they waited upon the city’s decision, they maintained the clock for free though there were continual complaints within St. George’s concerning the accuracy of the clock. As in 1945, there was also a growing concern with maintaining the weight system due to the possibility of the weights coming crashing down.

Wade stopped doing the maintenance awaiting resolution of payment by the city. In 1995 City Council authorized the City Manager to seek estimates for replacement and electrification. By 1996, the mechanical system was replaced by one from Verdin in Ohio for about $12,000 ($4,400 contributed by the community). (George Van Sant of St. George’s helped with the fund raising).  In the end the traditional mechanical lost out to a more modernized electronic version.  However, the idea of a common time piece accessible to all still prevails.

The 1996 mechanical system is still in place, today. There is still a ritual with the city in handling the clock for time changes. They come down every spring and fall to adjust the clock so on the next Sunday at 2am the clock “springs forward” or “falls back.”  They also foot the bill for maintenance with Verdin. Earlier this year maintenance had to be done to synchronize all three faces of the clock. The city was still receiving complaints as it had 150 years earlier