Monday, December 5, 2022



Clock and bull story

Like my previous post, this is another Victorian shop facade that caught my eye on a rainy day in Bedford not long ago. Actually it was the clock and its accompanying bull that attracted me first. ‘A fancy job,’ I thought to myself. ‘I wonder if the shop below belonged to a jeweller.’ Jewellers often combined their craft with that of clockmaker and would put a clock on their premises as a way of showing off their wares while also attracting attention. The building did indeed house a jeweller, and was built in 1878. The style is unlike that of Adkin’s building in my previous – Venetian Gothic has been replaced by a version of what became known as Queen Anne – red bricks, terracotta decorative panels, and a lot of fancywork using special bricks to form pilasters, pediments, keystones and other details. The gable is still elaborate, but this time in a classical way, in contrast to the Gothic form of Adkin’s building. There was once a figure of Father Time in the niche above the clock, but he seems to have been overtaken by the very time he represented, and is no more.

As for the clock, it certainly worked for me in that it attracted my attention. The fancy gilded decoration. and the iron scrolls around the edge of the case do the business, as does the golden bull. What is he doing there? Was the building later home to a butcher? Well, the occupant’s name was John Bull, so this imposing creature is a rebus, a symbol of the family name, not an indication that this address was once home to a butcher (although, as it happens, it was). Pevsner tells us that he is a replacement. So someone has been caring for this elaborate bit of street decoration, although not to the extent of getting the clock to show the right time. Accuracy in timekeeping was of course a major concern to clockmakers like John Bull. Apparently there was once a vertical pole set behind the clock, with a ball set near the top of it. At precisely 10.00 am every morning, the ball slid down the pole, striking a bell in the process. The mechanism was activated by an electrical signal from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, thus providing guaranteed accurate time, from which locals could set their watches. Alas on the day I took this photograph, the clock did not display the correct time, but maybe this lapse has by now been rectified.


hels said...

Have you seen many large clocks poking out off the shop wall like this one? If it was to help the locals set their watches each morning, then the bigger the better.

Chris Partridge said...

John Bull's firm moved to another site but unfortunately closed last month after 200 yrs trading,
A local architecture guide calls the facade "clock and bull". Ha!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: Thank you. Ha! Indeed. Great minds think alike. Or maybe, less than great minds come up with obvious puns. 'How long did it take you to come up with that?' people say, with the implication that my efforts are laboured. But in truth very little labour is involved!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Lots of big sticking-out clocks survive on UK High Streets. Back in the 19th and early-20th century, many people had no watch, so public clocks were hugely useful.