The first clock
St Martin's had a clock projecting into the street as early as the 17th century. It is referred to in Eboracum, a history of York originally published by the local historian Francis Drake in 1736. 'In 1668 a new clock with dial which projects into the street was set up in this church at the charge of the parishioners; which since has had several reparations'. We can rely on Drake's testimony - he knew St Martin's well and very likely saw the dial in its original form. The church accounts for this period are lost, so we do not, for example, know the maker. His date differs from that of 1688 given by Thomas Gent in his 1730 history of York, but the earlier date is that generally accepted. Gent, who came to York in 1724, offers the interesting detail that the 'curious' dial was decorated by an Archimedes pointing to the sun, though whether that was true from the beginning or only after the work in 1726 (see below) is unclear. This was a period in which public clocks were being installed in many towns and cities; Boston got the first public clock in North America in 1668. Intriguingly, there is a hint in Drake's reference to a 'new' clock that it might possibly have replaced an earlier one. That would almost certainly have had a striking movement only, with no dial. But it probably indicates only that this a was a new feature of the church, and if Drake had any information about an earlier clock he would surely have included it.
Fortunately we do have accounts for 1725 onward, in time to record that in 1726 the church 'paid several bills for the dial £52 4s 9½d'. Unfortunately these bills are not itemised, so once again we have to fill in the gaps. There are references in 1728-30 to Mr Terry clockmaker so it is likely that he was the main contractor. John Terry installed the 1716 clock on the Debtor's Prison in York. Later accounts make a clear distinction between dial and bracket (ie the exposed parts over the street) and the clock mechanism itself. But we know from these later bills that over £52 is an unlikely expense for dial works alone, so it seems probable that the clock movement itself was replaced or extensively repaired at this time. Whatever was wrong even these works were not sufficient, because subsequent to a payment to Mr Terry of £1 11s 6d in 1728 for winding the clock he was paid 14s in 1729 and then in 1730 'Mr Terry for several times mending the clock £1/1/- More to Mr Terry at the Dial 10/6. For [prin?ings] at altering the dial 10/6. Mending the clock more to Mr Terry 4/-. There is a sense here that Mr Terry was out of his depth, or at least that the churchwardens were losing patience with him, and it is not a great surprise to find that the next clock entries refer to a different, and more notable, York clockmaker Henry Hindley '1732 Paid Hindley for cureing the dial £2. Paid Hindley for mending the striking part of the clock £1/14/6. Rope for the clock 4/6. 1733 Mr Marsbrother 3 yrs salary for winding the clock due Lady Day last £6. Gilding the hoop pointers of the dial 10/-. Hindley's note for removing the clock £2/5/-. For painting the rod from the the clock to the dial 2/-'. These items give only hints as to what was actually wrong and the remedial works attempted, but the reference in 1733 to 'removing the clock' without any associated item for replacement or refitting could possibly indicate a realignment of the mechanism. Whatever was done seems to have worked, because aside from the salary to the clerk for winding there are no further expenses for some time.
In 1740 we have another puzzle. 'Mr Sunton for Drinkings when the Sun Dial was put up 3s 10d. Mr Simpson for the Sun Dial £6 6s.' This could conceivably be a reference to replacement clock dials decorated with a sun motif. But perhaps we should not be too ready to rule out the possibility that it really was a sundial as we would understand it today. The only way of accurately fixing time was by the sun and stars, and before the introduction of the electric telegraph it had to be done locally. So although there would have been no purpose in a sundial for public timekeeping it could serve as a calibration device, and high on the south side of the tower was a possible location. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support either supposition.
In 1742 Mr Hindley was back overhauling the clock at a price of £10 15s 6d with an extra 3s 6d for clock ropes. If this was really the first time that Hindley had given the clock a thorough service for nearly 10 years the clock had served well. Surprisingly, though, that is the last we hear of Hindley in connection with St Martin's - he lived until 1771 and in 1751 built a clock for the Minster, but perhaps he was too busy, or thought by then too expensive. Instead, a Mr Smith appears on the scene, being paid 12s in 1749 for mending the clock and 3s 6d in 1750 for mending the clock hand.
The 1754 clock
Evidently Mr Smith's reports on the state of the clock were not encouraging, because in 1753 there was a parish meeting which 'agreed to make a new clock and put it up'. It was paid for by public subscription. Mr Smith was paid £30 for the new clock and in an interesting touch it was agreed to let Mr Smith take the old one in exchange for his taking care of the new, the parish to provide cords only. This would have been a good deal for the parish but it seems not to have been put into effect because Mr Smith was paid regularly for cleaning the clock, and other work, until 1767. There was another £24 16s spent on the 1754 work besides Mr Smith's bill, including it seems replacement dials and £11 3s 6d for painting (this presumably includes gilding).
Another new dial and decoration
Another famous York clockmaking name make a brief appearance in 1769 and 1771 when Mr Thornton was taking care of the clock, but in 1776 a new name, that of John Agar, appears. He was to have lasting influence, though ironically not on the clock movement itself, for in 1778 the parishioners agreed that as the clock was 'much out of repair there should be a new clock case, dial and ornaments'. This is the first clock dial and bracket for which we have illustrations, though much later, or a description, and presumably it was he who commissioned the figure on top of the drum who is now the only remnant of the 18th century clocks of St Martin's. Even then, a mystery surrounds the figure. It is clearly that of a naval officer, and what he holds today is a very strange and crude representation of a cross-staff, held in the wrong position and cradled in cupped hands that seem designed for something else. The cross-staff was long obsolete in 1778, and a clock and instrument maker would have known that. This gives credence to the description of him in an 1818 guide book as holding a quadrant, which is a much more plausible instrument for a navigator dressed in contemporary uniform. The same source states that the quadrant 'always points to the sun', suggesting that it revolved every 24 hours. If it is true that the figure originally held a quadrant then the so-called little midshipman in the collection of the National Maritime Museum offers an intriguing hint as how he might have looked, though the York figure would probably have held the quadrant to his face as he followed the sun.
In view of the considerable sums regularly laid out on clock repairs it is a little surprising to find that Mr Agar's bill in 1779 was only £6 17s 8d. Other repairs were being done on the church at the same time and it is not possible to distinguish in the amounts paid to other craftsmen those which might relate to clock works, but they included a carver. There are further payments to Mr Agar, of 15s plus 2s for clock cord in 1780, £3 14s 6d in 1782. Perhaps work was done in stages, but it is also possible that as the firms employed were prominent local businesses, often based in the parish, and St Martin's was the civic church, work was done either without charge or for reduced payment. Agar was paid for looking after the clock in 1786 and 1787, but there was more extensive work in 1796 when Agar was paid £4 15s 6d for gilding and £4 11s 2d for painting the clock. There is no indication that the clock mechanism itself had significant work until 1801 when Mr Agar was paid £9 3s 6d for mending it and again in 1805 £4 6s for cleaning and repair. The clock mechanism had been made in 1754, so it isn't surprising to find £13 16s 8d paid in 1816 to a new name, Mr Richardson. That presumably extensive overhaul sufficed until Barber, Cattle and North were paid £6 1s 6d for repairs in 1834.
The Cooke clock
In 1855 it was agreed that the time had come for a completely new clock. Thomas Cooke, the leading instrument and clock maker who was based in Coney Street next door to the church, was asked to undertake the work. This was to be for a 8-day winding, striking the hours and quarters, a new frame and self-acting gas lights. The admiral was to be retained. This is the first clock of which we have proper details and although the mechanism itself was lost in the fire of 1942 it was presumably similar to other clocks of his which still exist. The bracket and ornamentation looked much as they do today though much more of the decoration was of wood, and the dial was lit by gas jets with distinctive 'bats-wings' which were probably flues for the gas fumes. The whole was completed in 1856 and cost £180.
The city Board of Health had agreed to pay for the illumination, leading to an understandable row when it failed to function as hoped. In 1858 the Town Clerk wrote making clear that unless a 'satisfactory arrangement' was made before the next meeting of the board in six days time they were likely to withdraw funding. Just what the problem was and what remedial measures were taken is not clear but it seems that there were problems of sooting and damage to the dial suggesting difficulties in regulating and positioning the jets. One must also wonder how reliable a self acting system may have been in an era when street lighting was usually lit by hand.
The next maintenance and repair bill on the church books was in 1873 when T Cooke and Sons were paid £38 for cleaning, repairs and alterations. Any hopes that these would remedy all the problems were clearly disappointed because in 1882 there began a discussion over what should be done. Cooke's first suggested some general cleaning and repairs for £18. Clearly, though, the church had learnt from experience that it was unwise to embark on work without first checking whether it was really going to put everything right, and there were further proposals from Cooke's, each progressively more expensive, so the final quote was for £62. Details of all these proposals can be found here. All this was paid for by public subscription. More repair and redecoration was carried out in 1908 as part of the restoration of the east front of the church.
Although the church clock already struck the hours and quarters, there is no reference to a chiming mechanism until 1925, when Mr GJF Newey was paid £73 18s to install new Westminster chimes. He had probably already done the 1908 work, having effectively replaced Cooke's as the local clockmaker by 1900 or earlier. Installing chimes will have been a major project as it required the design and manufacture of a separately wound linked drive. GJF Newey's son Roland, with a little help from grandson Geoffrey, wound and maintained the clock until the bombing in 1942. The clock mechanism was completely smashed in the ensuing fire when it fell through the floor of the tower, and the drum and ornaments were badly scorched.
To learn about the clock today see this page.