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The Cathedral Clock

The Cathedral clock

On entering the Cathedral by the main doors, you are in the narthex, with its marble floor and walls and great organ overhead. Traditionally occupied by penitents and catechumens awaiting baptism, here the Paschal Candle is lit from the new fire at the start of the Easter Vigil. Between the narthex and the nave, where the marble floor gives way to wood-block, is the organ screen, supported by twin red granite columns, and from the arch between them hangs the Cathedral clock.

The clock was designed by John Marshall, at that time the Cathedral architect and head of the firm of Bentley, Son and Marshall. It was one of the last projects he undertook before his death on New Year’s Day 1927. The clock was made in 1924 by Messrs Dent and Co of Cockspur Street, Trafalgar Square.

Dents were chronometer, watch and clock makers to King George V, the Queen and the Prince of Wales. They were also primary standard timekeepers at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and made ‘the Great Clock of the Houses of Parliament’ - more generally known now as Big Ben. The Cathedral clock is made of mahogany, painted and gilded, and decorated with six scallop shells (the symbol of both St James and of pilgrims) with a winged hourglass below. It was paid for by a single donor, Mr E M Barker, and cost £264 - about £9,000 today. The bell above the casing originally rang each hour with a single note on the half hour - thus reminding both worshippers and clergy of the time. This mechanism was subsequently disconnected. On the afternoon of 24 September 1924 the clock was slowly raised into position using a light rope and tackle. But suddenly one of the ropes snapped under the strain and the clock crashed to the ground. Fortunately, there were no injuries but, although the glass face was not even cracked, the mechanism was badly damaged. After repair by Messrs Dent it was again raised to its present position (this time using a stronger rope) in February 1925.

It was initially expected that the proximity of the main doors and the vibration of the grand organ directly above would cause problems with the time-keeping. But after a month it was reported that the new clock was deviating by only twenty seconds a week. Sadly the Blitz and more than seventy-five years constant use have taken their toll and the clock is now considerably less reliable than it used to be.

Patrick Rogers