Key dates

Early clocks

We have various references to a clock in the church. In the churchwardens' accounts for 1460 there is an entry which reads 'item: pd for repairing the clock to a man of Colchester 3s 4d'. In an inventory of church goods made in 1552 a 'Sanctus bell' and 'the clock' are mentioned. Between 1624 and 1633, Jacob and Matthew Day were paid for various works associated with clock and chimes, similarly with a Thomas Rush between 1661-1674.

The accounts have the following entry for 1679: "... to my son Henry Winstanley for paynting and contryving ye Dyall and motion in the church - £8-0-0" (Henry's father, also Henry, was churchwarden). Tradition has it that Henry Winstanley's elaborate clock had a set of hammers which played chimes on the bells and boasted a dial which indicated the rising sun and moon. Winstanley, who was a Saffron Walden man and Clerk of Works at Audley End, is credited with the building of the wooden, lead-covered spire and vast lantern which was added to the church tower in the 1680s.

Winstanley's spire seen from the south-west The tower with Winstanley's spire and lantern. It has been suggested that he designed the spire as an experiment for the design of the original Eddystone Lighthouse of which he was the architect; he and the lighthouse tragically perished in the Great Storm of 1703. Winstanley's spire seen from the west

From St. Laurence, Foxton in Cambridgeshire we have the following enigmatic reference "A clock from Saffron Walden (Essex) was installed in the tower in 1723." Unfortunately there is no further detail - does this refer to a clock that had previously been in the tower at Saffron Walden or was it from elsewhere?

From annual invoices presented to the Churchwardens by the sexton, and ringer, Samuel Francis between 1820 and 1848 we have firm reference to a turret (or tower) clock, Francis being paid a guinea a year for the winding of it from 1821/2. We also have records of the sexton being paid by the ringers themselves for "ringing ye bell" (ringing up the 4th prior to Tuesday practice and services) - this is documented elsewhere as the "quarter bell". These records go back to 1818 and provide further evidence for a clock, with chimes.

It is not until 1823, however, that we have detailed information regarding the clock - local tradition, though unsubstantiated, tells that the movement of the clock replaced in 1823 was installed at Littlebury, where, opposite the church, Winstanley had built his 'House of Wonders'. 

History of present turret clock

The present clock was installed in 1823 by Thwaites and Reed of Clerkenwell, London (who claim to be the world's oldest clock manufacturer), at a cost of £240 'to include fixing'. The clock had a simple 'ting tang' (2-tone) chime - evidence of the fitting can still be seen on the clock frame. The hour was struck, as now, on the tenor (note D) - the quarters probably being chimed on the 4th.

Clock with case doors open Thwaites clock

Within a year of its installation it is apparent that there was dissatisfaction within the town that the bells could not be heard clearly such that the churchwarden and organist Thomas Frye wrote a letter of complaint to Thwaites; their reply can be found in the Essex archives and reads (the word preceded by a "?" is difficult to read and a best guess):

London Decr 7th 1824.


Yours of yesterday’s date was duly received and are much surprised at the account of the clock which we feel convinced can only arise from bad management on the part of the person who has the care of it. When the clock was left it was as perfect and safe as any clock can be, but we are fearful the person who has the care knows nothing at all about clocks of that description. Our clocks are so made that with common care, they cannot fail. We have been given to understand since we left the clock the bells have been lowered and of course the hammers must have been fixed by someone, and it is a matter of very great doubt to us, if they are at all correctly done. We had placed the bells in such a situation that had they been suffered so to have remained the bells would have been well heard over the town, the hammers when left raised at each stroke near 4 ?In. From accounts we have heard that’s not now the case, – the bells we understand was lowered on account of some whim of the bell ringers. We beg to say that bells are hung exactly so in nearly all the new Churches in and about London. We beg to suggest for you approbation that Mr Rogers be requested to inspect the clock and if he points out anything in it whereby the clock is failing from our neglect or inattention it shall be immediately set right at our expense but if the contrary be we trust if we are called upon to set it right we trust if the fault is not ours if called upon to set it right we be paid for so doing.

Of course we shall have no communication with Mr Rogers that he will be strictly impartial on the subject.

Front page of letter from Thwaites dated 7 Dec. 1824

letter from Thwaites

It is not entirely clear as to what the bellringers of Richard Miller's time were accused of having done and we do not know how the situation was resolved.

In 1825 we have John Stokes agreeing to keep and maintain the church clock and chimes in good order for the space of seven years at ten shillings a year, 'lines and causalities excepted'.

In 1826/7, Samuel Francis is paid 2s for "cleaning the rubbish out of the clock chamber". We have contiuned reference to his winding it until 1848.

After only eight years, in 1831-32, the clock was dismantled and stored in the then Council Chamber above the south porch while the tower was restored, Winstanley's spire removed and the present 193ft. spire added. Upon completion of the building work, Daniel Kent was employed, at a cost of £20, to make necessary adjustments to fit the clock into its new position. He was also paid four guineas a year to maintain the clock. 

At a Vestry meeting in 1847 it was ordered that John Kent, who was responsible for the clock's care, 'should take the time from the station at Wenden' (now Audley End) (from the early 1840s Greenwich time was signalled daily at noon to London railway terminals, and train guards, who carried accurate watches, would check the times of stations' clocks en route), thus indicating the move of Saffron Walden to standard time (later known as Greenwich Mean Time).

Responsibility for the upkeep of the clock passed from the churchwardens to the town council (or more properly the local board) at some point - assumed to be some time after 1858 with the coming of the Public Health Act of that year which gave local authorities powers to provide public clocks. From 1867 we have the following letter from the Churchwardens to W.B. Freeland, clerk to Saffron Walden Local Board:

Saffron Walden, June 26, 1867.

Dear Sir,

We find that the lattices laid on the roof of the Church as a pathway to the Clock are worn out and that the lead is injured by the constant passage over it of persons sent by the Local Board to attend to the Clock.

As we have not any funds wherewith to supply new lattices or lead we are obliged to request the Local Board to supply new lattices and to repair the lead where injured and we have to ask that this may be done without delay.

Yours faithfully, Jos. Le C. Taylor and Chas. M. Wade. Churchwardens.

This letter confirms the change in responsibility for the clock and also makes clear that access to the clock, and one assumes the bells, at this time was from the chancel stairs and over the [south aisle] roof and so to the tower.

Close up showing Thwaite's inscription Inscription plate added by J James in 1875

In keeping with the fashion of the times, a new set of chimes was ordered and installed in 1875 by the local clockmaker John James. The chimes originally composed by Revd Dr Joseph Jowett (Regius Professor of Civil Law) for Great St Mary in Cambridge and adopted in 1859 for the new clock at the Palace of Westminster (where Big Ben hangs) and thereafter known as Westminster chimes are perhaps now the most popular and ubiquitous chimes worldwide. At the time Saffron Walden had eight bells and the chimes would have been rung on bells 3, 4, 5 and 8, (today's 7, 8, 9 and 12) with the 8 also being used to strike the hour. Note that 1875 is the same year that the bells ceased to be a ground-floor ring - it seems likely that work on the clock and the addition of the present ringing chamber in which it resides occurred in parallel. At the same time it is thought that the clock weights were moved alongside and above the clock, rather than directly below, as previously (one assumes that until that time the weights would have been visible from the tower porch and ground-floor ringing chamber - which now became the main entrance to the church) - the restricted space for the weights means that the clock needs to be wound twice a week.

The augmentation to twelve bells in 1914 enabled the chimes to be rung higher up the scale thus giving a separate hour bell. It is assumed that the chime hammers were moved to strike on the new bells at this time.

The chimes are rung on bells 3, 4, 5 and 8 (notes F#, E, D and A). The tenor (12 - note D) is used to strike the hour.

Westminster chimes is cleverly composed; although each quarter is different, over the four quarters, the bells are rung in the same sequence twice (as outlined below), thus optimising the size of the barrel governing the chimes, which revolves twice each hour.

Quarter 1: 3,4,5,8

Quarter 2: 5,3,4,8   5,4,3,5

Quarter 3: 3,5,4,8   8,4,3,5   3,4,5,8

Quarter 4: 5,3,4,8   5,4,3,5   3,5,4,8   8,4,3,5

The clock was silenced in 1973 when the spire restoration began but only reconnected in 1989 (some nine years after the completion of the building work and the recommencement of ringing). At that time they sounded through the night, to the distress of some of the neighbours, one of whom made a point of telephoning the Rector at three in the morning to say that he (the complainant) had been woken by the clock and did not see why the Rector (who lived on the other side of the town) should not be woken up too! Night silencers were installed so that the clock did not chime or strike between the hours of 22:00 and 08:00.

The clock continues to keep good time - it loses or gains, in a good week, around 10 seconds.

Bellringing connections

There have been close connections between the clock and the bellringers. As mentioned above, John James the watchmaker and jeweller in King Street was responsible for installing the chimes and for winding the clock. In around 1870, as told by HC Stacey, his son Arthur James and friend Alfred Pitstow arranged to take on this job [winding the clock] in the evenings. He and Alfred, who were about the same age [12], went up into the belfry together and having wound the clock, tied the clappers of two bells and taught themselves at a tender age to pull bells without making noise either to annoy residents or to lead to their discovery.

The self-taught Arthur and Alfred went on to be part of Walden bellringing history. Arthur, who succeeded to his father's watchmaking business, married Ernest Pitstow's sister Annie. In time, Leonard Pitstow learnt the trade from his uncle Arthur and succeeded to the business. On the death of Mary, Leonard's wife, the business passed to his fellow director Brian Newman. A James Jewellers Ltd. remains a Saffron Walden family business and the clock is today maintained by Brian's son Howard who in 2010 became one of the youngest Master of the Company of Clockmakers.

Howard Newman (Master of the Company of Clockmakers (2010)), Director of A James Jewellers, and responsible for the clock today. Howard Newman winding the clock


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