Royal Courts of Justice
Designer: George Edmund Street (1824-1881)
Maker: Potter & Sons
Set in motion December 1883
The Strand, London
"By a coincidence ..., the new clock and bells at the Royal Courts of Justice were set going on the second anniversary of the death of George Edmund Street, the architect of the building" ("Royal Courts of Justice Clock.") [Commentary continues below. Click on the images to enlarge them, and mouse over the text for links.]Victorian Web in a print one.]
We learn at the beginning of the report that Street's son had been asked to the little ceremony, but had been unable to attend. After introducing those who did attend, and mentioning that the clock is about a hundred feet from the pavement and reached by as many as 186 steps, the Times reporter goes on to describe its face as being 8'6" in diameter, with "the divisions (short bars of iron) marking the minutes in the outer circle." These divisions are, the reporter says,
of the same width as the white spaces between, and any one who takes the trouble to watch the minute hand steadily for at most half a minute will see it jump forward and cover exactly either a minute bar or a half minute space, as the case may be. This arrangement, effected by the employment of Messrs. Gillett and Co.'s [this was the company that made the mechanism] patent remontoire train has, therefore, among other advantages, that of making it possible for a watch to be set to a second by this clock. The invention was first applied in the construction of the Manchester Town-hall clock, made about four years ago by this ﬁrm. By casting the iron dial in one piece the danger of segments breaking away is obviated, and strength is further given by bolting the two dials through the "drum" with strong iron tie-rods.
The reporter continues by explaining that the "square ornamental drum" of the clock is made of gun metal, while the glass is actually made up of "plates of opal glass, which are set in a starshaped iron framework."
"The Clock and Bells at the Royal Courts of Justice" (on the front cover of the Illustrated London News, 29 December 1883). The day of the inauguration, showing the invited guests watching while "The surveyor severs the cord that holds the pendulum and sets the clock machinery in motion at noon." They are also shown waiting for the first strike, and going up to see the bells and hammers.
Especially fascinating now was the method of illumination at that time:
To illuminate the dial there are four horizontal gas pipes, with 11 jets altogether. Perhaps at once the most ingenious and the most simple thing in the beautiful mechanism of this clock is the automatic gas regulator. The idea. has been carried out before, but, as a clockmaker has remarked, only by the use of a barrowful of wheels. Mr. Gillett has devised a means of regulating the gas top by the rotation of two small wheels acting on "eccentric" calipers, so that as the days shorten, the gas (which is never quite let out) shall be turned up earlier, or, as the days lengthen, later, night by night throughout the year.
More details follow, about the wheels, wires, winding-gear and pendulum: we learn that the clock's mechanism can be studied from the clock-room in the tower because (as shown in the Illustrated London News illustration) it is inside a sort of "cupboard" with a glass front and sides, and that the bells, with their "St Mary of Cambridge" chimes, are housed in the belfry above. The report concludes, "The clock is guaranteed to keep time within one second per week, and it is stated that a clock made by this firm for Manchester has not in six months varied as many seconds."
Curiously, perhaps, the Times says nothing about the casing, apart from mentioning the "ornamental drum." But, fortunately or unfortunately, The Building News did. What it said annoyed its maker, Thomas Potter, considerably. He wrote indignantly, in a letter which appeared the following week (24 January 1879):
Sir, — In your impression of Friday, January 17th, you give a description of the work at the east block of the New Law Courts, in which you state the clock-cage to be by Mr. Benson. This is an error as it was made and fixed by us to the design and order of G. E, Street, Esq., R.A., and so far as we know Mr. Benson has nothing to do with it. There is also an error as to the door furniture, which you say is by Mr. Lever. We are the makers of it.— We are, etc., Thomas Potter and Sons.
South Molton-street, London, W., Jan. 18. ["The New Law Courts," p. 107]
Indeed, it was well worth putting the record straight. Today it is the appearance rather than the precision of the clock that excites admiration. It is such an attractive piece of High Victorian Gothic. On each side, time moves around amid representations of the sun and moon, enclosed in circles amid scatterings of stars. Suns stud the base as well, and above is a Gothic gable, complete with a trefoil, metalwork crocketing, and two spiky sun-topped finials, one for each side. Round the top runs a delicate metalwork balustrade in a fleur-de-lys design, with two more finials towards the road.
The whole design is exuberant, only somewhat more restrained than the one prepared by William Burges, dating from his own unsuccessful bid for the commission (see "Unexecuted Design"). It appeals not just because it demonstrates the "[f]ine quality of execution throughout [the Law Courts] despite the size of the building" (listing text), but, more than that, because it shows the architect's engagement even in the smaller elements of his most important commission, and the great skill of the craftsmen he chose to execute his designs. Street has put his characteristic stamp on it, and, thanks to Thomas Potter and subsequent careful conservation, this "signature" has defied the passage of time.
"The New Law Courts." The Building News. 24 January 1879. 107. (Copy kindly provided by Patrick Carson.)
"Royal Courts of Justice Clock." Times. 19 December 1883: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 24 March 2016.
"Unexecuted Design for a clock tower for the proposed Law Courts (Royal Courts of Justice), Strand, London, featuring figures representing the signs of the zodiac, the planets and the months." RIBApix. Web. 28 March 2016.
Last modified 11 September 2020