London: Clockmakers’ Museum


I quite like the City, (as in, the square mile that was the Roman city of London and is now mainly just known as a financial district) and I think that’s because I only ever visit it on weekends, when it’s deserted.  I enjoy wandering alone down the empty streets of a big city, and I love the City’s mix of history (and historical plaques, often featuring really random events or unexpectedly amusing names. I’m looking at you, Japneth Tickle!) and the bizarre (like the Cornhill Devils; super creepy, especially around dusk), which are best explored in the absence of weekday crowds.  Although most of the businesses in the area are closed on weekends, with a little hunting, I manage to find places to visit.  Like The Clockmakers’ Museum, which is open every day but Sunday.  It’s right by the Guildhall, and shares a building with the Guildhall Library.

I immediately liked it, because although it’s all in one large room, and there’s cases everywhere, they had the good sense to number the cases (assuming you know your Roman numerals), so instead of just wandering blindly around, I knew exactly where to go to view things in chronological order.  As you might expect, the museum details the history of clockmaking –  I won’t get into the whole of it here (partially because I can’t remember everything!), but one of the key events that led to the need for accurate timepieces was the age of exploration, since it was impossible to accurately determine one’s longitude without a clock (something that had far-reaching consequences for all kinds of explorers).  Although now we tend to think of Swiss watches as being the best in the world, at one time, London also had an excellent international reputation, and all reputable clockmakers were of course members of the Guild.  I’m not very mechanically minded, so even though they explained the basic principles behind clocks, the whole thing is still a bit of a mystery to me.  Even with my lack of technical knowledge, I nonetheless found plenty of interesting stuff to look at.  (Honestly, I’m probably most fascinated by how they managed to make such tiny, yet intricate watch parts.  No way could I master something that fiddly!)

My absolute favourite case in the museum was unsurprisingly the one devoted to curiosities, in this case unusual timepieces, or at least ones that had famous owners, like several owned by Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV (who died in childbirth), and various other Hanoverians.  There was a clock that worked by means of a metal marble running back and forth on a maze, which was fun to watch, and a variety of unusual clock keys. Most of the rest of the museum’s collections were magnificent pocket watches (I loved the one with a little smiling anthropomorphic moon on it) from the “Golden Age” of English clock-making (between 1600-1850). The walls were lined with long-case clocks (what I think of as grandfather clocks), most of which were still ticking away in a friendly manner; I’ve always had a soft spot for grandfather clocks, probably because of The Nutcracker.  Many of the items were originally donated and curated by a Victorian gentleman whose name escapes me, but they had included some of the original descriptions he’d written for the pieces in a little booklet under his portrait, and I wish they’d kept his rather droll labelling intact, historical accuracy be damned (which is probably the only time you’ll hear me say that)!

They had examples of the work of many famous clockmakers (I’d never heard of them, but then, I’m not a clock scholar), like Thomas Tompion, George Graham, and John Harrison, the latter of whom was the man who figured out how to make an accurate timepiece for use at sea, thus solving the whole longitude problem mentioned earlier on (for more on how calculating longitude works, click Harrison’s name for the Wikipedia explanation, because I am not about to get into science here). Of more popular interest, perhaps, was the watch Edmund Hillary wore whilst climbing Everest, holding centre stage in a case of other modern examples of the craft.

The museum had much more to offer than I was anticipating, and we spent about an hour there – admiring the many timepieces, and learning about the history of clocks (there was a fair bit of text, though those not in the industry can safely skip most of the captions on individual pieces, which typically just gave the maker and type of parts used).  It’s one of the few things open in the City on a Saturday, so take advantage if you find yourself on that side of town!  Since we weren’t allowed to take pictures, I don’t think I’ve managed to adequately capture the full array of timepieces on show, so you might well want to investigate for yourself.  3.5/5.



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