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High Street History: Clock towers

Updated Tuesday 3rd July 2007

How better to measure the passage of time than by taking a close look at a clock tower?

  Queen's Park Clock Tower, Brighton Creative commons image Icon the justified sinner under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Clock towers

There are several different types of clock tower. Many are attached to buildings, but many stand alone, serving as a centre point to town centres or standing in public gardens as ornament. They are, in their own right, interesting pieces of civic architecture and indicative of historical changes to the layout of towns and cities.

Frequently, clock towers that stand alone were built in the Victorian or Edwardian periods. They were not simply supposed to be attractive, though. Some were sponsored by commercial firms and served as a giant advertisement for their wares; others may have been put up by local authorities or by public donations to celebrate national or local events.

For instance, several towers around the country were constructed to honour Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (they are usually called Jubilee Clocks). It is always worthwhile looking for inscriptions on this type of clock tower, because they may show what local people though important enough to celebrate.

J Smith clocktower Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Clock tower as advertisement

Commercial sponsorship was crucial in erecting this tower. It probably affected the location of the tower as well: right at the junction of two major roads. Clocktowers were seen as both providing a useful service and ornamenting the urban landscape, so it would have been shrewd for a business to associate itself in this way. The company is still in existence, but no longer in Clerkenwell.

Victorian tower Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: P.A.Mitchell

Victorian tower

This tower rises dramatically from the front of a commanding Victorian redbrick gothic building. It is 217 feet high. It was supposed to display very publicly the opulence and power of the insurance company that occupied the building.

Belltower Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Bell Clock Tower

Though the heyday of celebratory clock towers had passed, there were still a few erected in the post-war period. Here’s one, which in the 1960s was a gift to the city of Edinburgh from a local whisky distillery. Although that suggests an advertisement, the plaque declaring the fact is so discrete that it seems more like a philanthropic gesture. What is striking, however, is the determinedly modernist – perhaps even brutalist – look to the clock tower: a distinct contrast to those of half a century earlier.

Taking it further

We have a wide variety of free-to-use educational material online that covers issues of public commemoration. They are discussed, too, in the OU course, Heritage, whose heritage? (A180).

Photo of Victorian tower courtesy of P.A. Mitchell

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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