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It’s Instrumental

“They call me Granddad.  When it’s time to wind me up, one of them says to the other, ‘Time to wind Granddad!  Fancy calling me that when my real name is Longcase!”

As summer gives way to autumn, I thought today I’d write something slightly different from my usual posts on recipes,my latest perfume or book.  Today I am going to talk about clocks and barometers.

For many a clock, the most attention it will receive is when we enter or (as will happen in late October) we exit British Summer Time here in the UK, a practice first devised in 1916 (but over which opinion is now divided.)

Modern clocks – from the Latin cloca, meaning “bell” – were first made in the 13th century. These were monastic clocks used to summon monks to prayer. The real breakthrough in clockmaking came in 1657 when Christian Huygens (1629-1695), a Dutch scientist, built the first clock based on Galileo’s recent discovery of the pendulum.  The first Dutch pendulum clocks were the forerunners of English bracket clocks (designed to stand on a wall bracket) but from the early 18th century many bracket clocks sold in Holland had a London movement inside a Dutch case.

The earliest longcase clocks were architectural in style. Walnut veneer was used from the 1670s but between 1680 and 1720 marquetry decoration was popular.  Mahogany appeared after 1720 and mahogany country clocks are generally broader and more elaborate than their London counterparts; furthermore, it is the more slender clocks that generally command the higher prices.

The main period for serious British clock collecting covers a rather short period – from 1660 to 1720.  This was the era of the square dial or with an arched top (round 1720).  Interest then widens to include Georgian clocks and today even Victorian clocks make attractive items of furniture.

Most longcase clocks are 8-day clocks and those with ‘Westminster’ chimes never predate 1856-7 as that is when the Westminster clock tower incorporating ‘Big Ben’ was built (the bell which is currently silent because of essential repairs to the tower.)

I would like to add that while our longcase (Granddad) is a handsome beast, he is not particularly old.  According to a label inside, the clock was made in Silesia and we have no reason to believe that the clock and the case weren’t made for each other.   It was already in situ in the bungalow which my husband’s parents bought in 1938 but it is obviously older than 80 years, the decoration being very much in the Arts & Crafts style, and it is very much a country clock as the case is made of oak (making fine decoration difficult, if not impossible) but it is a handsome country clock nonetheless.  Indeed, we have never seen another clock quite like this one as it doesn’t have a ‘hood’; the door opens to reveal not only the weights and pendulum, but also the clock face.

Also, inherited from my husband’s parents is a barometer …

This kind of barometer is known as a banjo barometer for obvious reasons. There are other kinds:  ‘stick’ barometers and a barometer which does not require mercury, the aneroid barometer.

It was  pure sentiment that prevented us from dispatching our barometer to the tip (sorry, the Local Authority Recyling Depot).  It had seen better days.  It was sans mercury, sans alighment wheel, sans just about everything!

However,  I was about to write a piece for a magazine on the history of barometers and, as such, visited the owner of Barometer World in North Devon.  At the last moment I suggested to husband we take our old barometer with us and ask his advice:  is it worth restoration or not?  As you can see above, he pronounced that it was most certainly worth restoration, and he made an excellent job of it.  The restoration cost perhaps more than the instrument is worth today, but that was immaterial to us.  It is a family piece, it’s a handsome piece of wall furniture and, what is more, it actually works!

Until I visited Barometer World I had been under the misapprehension that barometers were just rich Victorian gentlemen’s playthings, something for them to  tap and harrumph over as they passed through the hall on their way to their kippers or kedgeree for breakfast.  Indeed, these instruments, when correctly calibrated (and that is important – we had to tell Barometer World how many meters we were above sea level) are extremely accurate in predicting the local weather for the next 12 to 24 hours.

It was in 1643, whilst conducting experiments on notes by Galileo, that Italian mathematician and physicist Evangelista Torricelli discovered that by using mercury he could create a vacuum in an inverted class tube and the level of the mercury would rise and fall with the day to day changes in the atmospheric pressure, and this, as most of us know, is how a barometer works:  indicating the daily differences in atmospheric pressure.

Indeed, the barometer has saved countless lives.  Amongst other things – Captaining the Beagle which carried Charles Darwin around the world and eventually becoming the Head of Meteorology at the Board of Trade – Robert FitzRoy designed two barometers:  a marine barometer for use at sea, and a ‘coastal’ barometer (later named the ‘storm’ barometer).  By 1858 he had arranged for his ‘coastal’ barometer to be displayed in ports around the British Isles to warn sailors of bad weather.  To honour Fitzroy, on 4th February 2002, the shipping area formerly known as Finistere was re-named FitzRoy.

And there you have it, two instruments which, in their own ways, indicate seasonal changes – putting the clock back or forward in spring and autumn, and the changing weather, from mostly dry and sunny in summer and perhaps rather less so in autumn.

As I wandered around the house early this morning, I couldn’t help but admire these two elderly instruments.  Had they been electronic devices they would surely have been consigned to the tip years ago, but as they were built with precision and rely solely on mechanics or, in the case of the barometer, atmospheric pressure, hopefully they will continue to serve us for many years to come.

And as summer gives way to autumn, the light is lower in the sky … I like to see the changing light at this time of the year.

I took this photo about 7.30am this morning, the sun coming from an east-facing window 

The gladioli that I photographed a couple of days ago are now opening out fully and look rather beautiful in the morning sunlight also from an east-facing window

And afternoon sunlight, yesterday …

when the light was coming through a small west-facing window.

Enjoy the daylight hours, for they are fast diminishing, and enjoy the sunlight when it appears.

Until next time.




About Margaret Powling

Margaret Powling
Margaret’s main interests are her husband and family, her friends, her home, her garden, writing, literature, architecture, décor, social history, photography, historic houses and gardens, and towns, villages and the countryside. She writes about the things she enjoys: flowers, scent, fine soap, monthly style magazines, and other such small indulgences, such as afternoon tea or simply enjoying her summerhouse with a book. She invites you to enjoy this virtual visit to South Devon, England.

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  1. How very interesting. We have a grandfather clock (never heard them called anything else) which we received from a shut-in lady we used to help (she has since passed on). I know nothing about it’s age or anything. I’ve always loved grandfather clocks and the sounds they make. We have another wall clock in the same room which also has a pendulum and chimes on the hour and half hour. Probably a little much for one room, but we don’t mind!

    • Margaret Powling

      Hello, Jeannine. Yes, their proper name is longcase clock (obviously, they have long cases). I don’t know how they came to earn the soubriquet of “Grandfather” and the smaller ones are also known as “Grandmother” clocks, but they are both longcase clocks.
      Yes, the sound of the clocks striking can sometimes be a nuisance, especially if the television is on and something you want to hear is obliterated by the bongs of the clock! We sometimes put it to run on ‘silent’, but right now it just chimes the hours, not each quarter.
      Another term I’d not hear of “shut-in” lady. I think over here we’d call that “housebound”, i.e. someone too ill or too frail to leave their home.

  2. simpleliving31.blogspot.co.uk

    We only use to live 10 mins from barometer world. We have always wanted a long case clock and will one day of we have the room.

    • Margaret Powling

      Barometer World is lovely, Marlene! Fancy you living so close to it. I’d not have bought a longcase clock had we not inherited it, but it is rather nice and sounds lovely, a very gentle, but low tone of chime.

  3. My grandfather loved clocks and I have two that he restored and gave to me. Unfortunately my parents sold his longcase clock. He died in February 1996 aged 96 having only moved to a nursing home near my parents’ a few weeks before. They had recently downsized to a house on the river and grandchildren were coming along like buses and I think it was easier to send everything to auction. Hopefully your husband’s longcase clock will stay in the family and one of your sons will love it as much as you do. I do so enjoy reading your posts Margaret, and your replies to comments too!

    • Margaret Powling

      Thank you so much, Sarah, for telling me (and other readers) about your grandfather who loved clocks and how great is that, that you now have two that he restored. Sad that your parent parted with his longcase clock, but sometimes this is necessary if there just isn’t space to keep something. We didn’t have space for a beautiful mahogany sideboard that my late uncle had bought in the 1930s but it is now in our younger son’s home and he loves it as much as my uncle and then my mother did, something which has been handed on by us to the next generation. Yes, I’m sure that one of our sons will love the clock one day.
      I’m so glad you enjoy my posts, Sarah, and the comments and my replies. I have so enjoyed writing my blog this past year, but it’s the readers comments, such as your own, which encourage me to continue and to seek topics that many people might enjoy.

  4. Such an interesting post Margaret, thank you for all your research, much appreciated.
    My grandfather was a clock and watch maker in the jewellery quarter in Birmingham (UK). Sadly he died when I was about 10 years old, but I remember the joys of going to his workshop and seeing all the treasures he was working on. The sound of the clicks, ticks and chimes I can still recall today.
    He also made and repaired jewellery, I lived in a different town in Wiltshire and from time to time I would receive a little parcel in the mail of a piece of jewellery.
    That started my love of jewellery, I have always been so attracted to it.
    Best wishes to you and your readers.
    Pam in Texas.

    • Margaret Powling

      Oh, Pam, it is lovely that you have memories of your grandfather in his workshop in Birmingham. I know of the jewellery quarter of that city, but have never been there. Wiltshire, too, is a lovely country. We visited there the summer before last when we visited Stourhea, and that particular landscape garden (one of the finest in the UK) was shown on our weekly Gardener’s World TV programme last Friday, with some of the follies I recently mentioned. Wilton House is also in Wiltshire, a wonderful building but with carvings by Grinling Gibbons and marvellous works of art. I do like beautiful jewellery but have never collected it (funds never permitted such luxuries), but the skill of fine jewellery making is the equal of any work of fine art – think of Faberge! I’m so glad you enjoyed this short post on clocks and barometers.

  5. whenever I hear an old fashioned clock chiming away, I am instantly transported to a long ago and very happy time, invoking wonderful memories. This is fascinating about clocks, Margaret. Now I wonder…. was the sun in the sky, or dawn, or nightfall, used to mark time prior to clocks?

    • Margaret Powling

      Hello, Ratnamurtri. Yes, I’m sure that before there were clocks, there were sundials of various kinds. Very old clocks didn’t have two hands, either, just an ‘hour’ hand. Old clocks chiming sound lovely, I agree.

  6. Eloise. (thisissixty.blog)

    What an interesting post. I really knew nothing about clocks or barometers before reading this. We had a mantle clock with a very soothing tick when I was a child. I had no idea that it had optional chimes until I was an adult and had left home! My cousin has a lovely ‘grandfather’, the case of which is beautifully inlaid with various woods.

    • Margaret Powling

      I have had a few website problems this morning, Eloise, and this is my 3rd attempt at a response, so I hope you don’t suddenly get three responses posted, ha ha! But how lovely your cousin has a handsome clock with inlaid woods (marquetry). And the soothing tick of a mantle clock is lovely, too.

  7. Another lovely post. As I’ve said before, I always learn something from you 🙂

  8. Hello there – I came across your article while googling for images of a longcase clock I bought at the weekend. It’s almost identical to yours, made in Silesia in the 1930s I think. Mine is a darker oak, and hasn’t got the decorative balls on top. It has selectable chimes – between ‘Westminster’ and ‘Wittington’. I haven’t got it working yet but all seems to be complete (though the chime hammers are in need of some adjustment and repair!).

    • Margaret Powling

      Hello, Rich. That is amazing that you have a clock almost identical to ours, and yes ours was made in Silesia but I don’t know the date. The 1930s sounds right as it was in the bungalow that my husband’s parents bought, and they moved into it around 1937. Best of luck with getting it working again!

      • Thanks Margaret. I’ll post pictures somewhere soon and you can have a look. It’s weird because I looked on top of mine after seeing your pictures, to see whether it’s missing the decorative balls. There don’t seem to be any holes or evidence that they were ever there. I wonder if yours have had them added subsequent to build, or whether they did it in more than one version. Yours is the only other example I’ve been able to Google!

        • Margaret Powling

          Hello, Rich. No, as far as I know, the golden balls on top of the clock have always been there, I know Chris’s parents didn’t add them. I’ve never seen a clock like it before, so it’s wonderful that you have one, too! Yes, please let me know when you have some photos of it you have posted.

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