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Meeting reports

Spring Meeting, St Fagans National Museum of History 2024

Three invited speakers addressed the meeting. The following is an outline of their presentations:


Emyr Davies, Senior Conservator - Furniture, Horology and Musical Instruments opened our meeting.


He presented a wide-ranging talk centred initially on The Vulcan Hotel,_Cardiff


the latest major addition to the St. Fagans site, and concluded with some thoughts about watch fusee chains and their manufacture! Emyr is currently working on furnishings for the Vulcan Hotel that reflect the contemporary style of its 1915 redevelopment in Cardiff.

He outlined some of the criteria which led to his selection of an Ansonia wall clock with “hop leaf and flower” decoration and an art nouveau styled German wall clock for the two bars, both taken from the museum’s existing collection. Interestingly, New York State, Ansonia’s principal manufacturing base at the time, was the epicentre of hop production in America during the 19th century and came to the rescue of British producers in 1816 following the eruption of Mt. Tambora and the failure of the Kent harvest in ‘the year without a summer’.


Emyr’s workshop is currently packed with small tables and seating, about to be moved to the Vulcan’s bars, where St Fagans visitors may purchase refreshments, though not at 1900 prices! During some recent maintenance work at St. Fagans, water made its way into the strongroom room where the watch collection is stored.


The temporary increase in humidity levels necessitated an unscheduled examination of the collection to check whether this had induced or accelerated corrosion within the mechanisms. During the check, Emyr removed and inspected a number of watch fusee chains. He was struck by a consistent finding that watches with Welsh makers’ names had a single chain size that made up the entire length of the fusee chain. In contrast, watches from English retailers had a short length of about 15 links of slightly larger size forming the final part of the chain at the barrel hook end, the section between the fusee and the spring barrel, which would never be wound on to the fusee itself.


He also noted the relatively less refined shaping and filing of hooks at the ends of the chains and wondered if the watchmakers who fitted them, despite their skill levels, may not have had the same levels of visual acuity and fineness of touch as the children who were making the chains.

One of our members, Spiridion (Spiro) Azzopardi, gave a presentation about the symbolism included as ‘ornamentation’ on the monastic clocks of Mount Athos.


Spiro began with a slide of a lantern clock similar to a mid-17th century British one (concealing part of it’s inscription) and when asked to estimate its age we were very surprised to see it dated 1882! Athos clockmakers were very much of the “if it works well, don’t change it” school of thought, and verge lantern clocks of mid-seventeenth century design met their needs in terms of reliability, portability, ease of setting up and simple maintenance, so they continued to make clocks to this design until the end of the 19th century! Spiro has now examined some 30 to 40 Athonite clocks, including five verge and foliot examples, one of which was converted to pendulum.


Whether these were ‘domestic’ or tower clocks, the dials, clock frames, or cases all contained decorations with deep religious significance. A particularly common ornament is the hexafoil or daisy wheel; this comprises a six-pointed geometric petal shape nestled within a circle and is used repeatedly in the decoration of brass dial verge clocks, on their doors, bosses, dial centres, and wooden cases.

This symbolism, used as ‘decoration’ on Mount Athos, is also seen in mosaic floors, plasterwork, frescos, paintings, and food preparation areas, and its religious significance is undeniable. Dating back to the Bronze Age and believed to offer protection, the hexafoil has been incorporated into Christian culture, with arguably many other Christian symbols fitting neatly into its expanded repetitive design.

The theme of protection runs into the decoration of the turret clocks of Mount Athos, too. At the 14th century monastery of Pantokrator, each corner post of the clock frame is adorned with a pommel cross and a ‘mesh’ of intersecting lines stamped on the iron-work to ‘catch’ evil entities and trap them into ‘following the pattern’ so they are unable to enter the clock mechanism.

Spiro notes that there were just three workshops on Athos, working over 250 years, making the brass dial clocks that still serve there today. Spiro believes the purpose of the design elements he describes being incorporated into clock movements and cases was to ‘protect’ the clock's mechanism from interference.

Hexafoil or daisy wheel decoration; bottom left 1882 wall clock and bottom right part of a clock frame

Keith Scobie-Youngs, FBHI ACR of Cumbria Clock Company, was our afternoon speaker.


He described and illustrated aspects of the recently completed restoration of the Great Clock of Westminster, carried out by the Cumbria Clocks. Built by Dent to the design of E B Dennison, later Lord Grimthorpe, in 1854, the clock mechanism was tested for five years before being installed in 1859. By 2017, the clock mechanism, leadoff work, dials and the Elizabeth Tower itself were in need of major restoration work.


The tower and the clock mechanism were to be restored simultaneously. Dismantling started with removing the hands, the weights of which were not known! Ultimately, they were not as heavy as thought, and removal progressed systematically.

The motion work of all four dials was dismantled next; the minute wheel leadoff rods were 8½ feet long and weighed 90 to 100 lbs! A contract specification for the restoration was that a single dial had to remain in use and display the time for the duration of the overhaul; two sets of replica hands were made to ensure that this could be achieved (using modern clock units).

Next, the three trains, and finally, the three barrels weighing ¾, 1, and 1¼ tons each, were removed from the bed.

The 15½ foot long pendulum, weighing 620 lbs, had probably never previously been removed from the tower.

It took four days to lower all parts to the bottom of the tower.


Everything was then taken to Cumbria for further work. Keith described the conservation techniques used, including ‘dry-ice’ cleaning, building up worn areas of metalwork and re-machining, casting a new pinion, and using microcrystalline wax.


The going train was tested in Cumbria and established a rate of within 1 second a week. The bed was cleaned and repainted except where the original paint was undamaged.


When the movement was reinstalled, it was found that the quarter chime fan had ‘caught’ on the clock room wall…. The new plasterwork had been applied too thickly; a new, slightly shorter arbor was made for the fan, giving a 10mm clearance from the wall!

The clock dial frames were repainted in their original blue, their translucent opal glass replaced, and modern lighting installed behind the glass can now be made to change colour if required. All components were photographed, and a complete set of engineering drawings was made so that any part could be made individually in the future.


The Great Clock of Westminster is now checked and serviced every month and is possibly the most pampered tower clock in the world.

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