Tredegar Town Clock
by Stephen Dutfield
The town of Tredegar grew up to provide housing for workers at the Tredegar Iron Works, which was so-called becauses it was built on land leased from Sir Charles Morgan of Tredegar House, Newport. The proposal to build a clock tower with illuminated dials in the centre of the town, so that it could be seen from all directions, was put forward in 1857 by the wife of Richard Powell Davies, the then manager of the iron works. The total cost was £1000, of which the initial £400 was paid by Davies himself. A further £500 was raised through a bazaar organised by Mrs. Davies, the remaining £100 coming from local subscribers. Sadly Mrs. Davies died before the clock was completed.
James Watson, an engineer at the iron works, was given the task of designing the clock tower. He took his inspiration from the industrial projects he was normally employed on, rather than conventional architecture, so instead of using stone or brick, the main structure of the tower was made of three tapering tubes, with a square plinth and clock chamber all of cast iron, with a total height of 72 feet. There was no foundry in Tredegar big enough to cope with such large castings, so they were produced by Charles Jordan at his Britannia Foundry at Pontymister in Risca, but using Tredegar iron. Cast iron is an unusual but not unique material for such a tower. Most cast iron clock towers are much smaller in stature and cast in panels that bolt together to make a square cross-section. One of the larger examples is the Jubilee clock tower of 1887 standing on Weymouth promenade, but this is less than two-thirds of the height of the Tredegar tower.
The long-established firm of Joyce of Whitchurch in Shropshire were given the contract to supply the clock movement, dials and all associated components. The family could trace its clock making roots back to 1690, and Thomas Joyce had moved into the turret clock market from 1834. Joyce was very open to new ideas, and his turret clocks were built with double frames so that the train arbors could be kept relatively short, but the winding barrels (sitting in a wider sub-frame) could be large enough to allow at least 8-day working without multiple-pulleys and excessively heavy weights.
By the middle of the century Thomas had passed the day-to-day operation of the business to his two sons. James Joyce continued to operate the retail domestic clock and jewellery side, while John Barnett Joyce separated the turret clock arm of the firm, which still runs to this day under the name of J.B. Joyce Ltd.
While casting was taking place, the groundwork began on site with the foundations going down in the autumn of 1857. When the finished sections arrived back in Tredegar, the whole kit of parts was assembled on its newly-built base in the middle of The Circle using manpower from the ironworks, along with a steam winch.
In the late 1820s, the influence of French turret clock makers started to be seen in Britain with the introduction of the flat-bed which comprised a horizontal cast-iron frame, essentially a rectangle, with its upper surface milled flat. Onto this, blocks were bolted which carried the pivots for all the arbors. The framework was absolutely rigid, with none of the variables that could be introduced by a loose nut on a birdcage or posted frame, and demountable pivot blocks meant that individual wheels could be removed for repair without disturbing those around them. Vulliamy was early to adopt the flat-bed for his larger turret clocks. Dent had also been on a tour of France to look at current practise there, and Dent's great friend Edmund Beckett Denison (later Lord Grimthorpe, and the designer of the Westminster clock) was an enthusiastic proponent of the use of flatbeds. Edmund had become friendly with Thomas Joyce in 1845 and by 1853 J.B. Joyce was producing high-quality flatbed turret clocks for towers throughout the UK. These also used the earliest consistently reliable form of Dennison's gravity escapement (the single four legged version), the development of which Thomas Joyce had been involved with through the making of experimental models for Dennison in 1949.
The clock movement which J.B. Joyce supplied for Tredegar was an hour striking flatbed with a single four-legged gravity escapement and compensation pendulum. It was nearly three feet long and 18 inches wide and drove four dials of five feet diameter, originally illuminated internally by gas jets.
It is likely that this was one of the earliest flatbad turret clocks in South Wales, and almost certainly the first to use a gravity escapement, examples of which subsequently appeared in Cardiff in 1870 and Swansea in 1875. It is possible that Dent's clock of 1865 for Penarth's dock buildings had a gravity escapement, but this was destroyed by fire in the 1990s and nothing now remains of it.
The tower at Tredegar has a square plinth commemorating on its four faces Mrs. R.P. Davies, Charles Jordan, the ironfounder who cast it, the Royal Coat of Arms and, rather surprisingly, the Duke of Wellington – “England's Hero”!
The body of the tower is composed of three tapering iron tubes with the clock chamber on the top measuring around 6' 6” square. The dials have Roman numerals and were originally glazed with opal glass, but this has since been changed to an opal acrylic, with illumination by fluorescent tubes. The hour hands exhibit J.B. Joyce's classic ‘ace of clubs' pattern. There are cast iron spandrels applied in the corners, now highlighted in gold leaf like the sections of the dial centres. There are also three vents below each dial, pierced in a clover-leaf pattern, and these are open into the clock chamber, apart from having a metal cowl fitted inside to stop rainwater splashing in.
The clock strikes on a bell of around 3cwt in a belfry concealed inside the pyramid-like top of the clock chamber. The bell was cast by Llewellins & James in Bristol, but is a conundrum as it bears the date 1869 so must be a replacement for the original bell.
Very regrettably, in the late 60s or early 70s the clock was electrified in the most ruinous way, and to see what remains of what would have been among the most historic turret clocks in Wales is nothing short of tragic. Apart from the setting dial, letting-off cam and bevels, the going train has been completely stripped out and replaced with a mass-produced synchronous electric movement by Smith of Derby, who took over J.B. Joyce's business in 1965. A recent addition is an automatic controller to take care of the GMT/BST changeover, and to restart the clock at the correct time if there is a power failure. The striking train has not fared any better. Most of it has gone, to be replaced with another standard Smith of Derby heavy-duty motor and gearbox unit driving the second arbor through a chain and sprocket. The countwheel has been modified, but the pinion on the second arbor drives the great wheel, so that at least the original striking cams and hammer lever are still in use, even though the train is actually being driven top-to-bottom. Only Joyce's original leading-off work and motion works remain as installed in 1858. Electrification by this method was a very common practise up until the 1980s. Many an excellent clock has been wrecked like this in the name of modernisation, reliability and cost-saving. To add insult to injury, all the parts removed from the clock were stored in the cellar of Bedwellty House, from where it's believed they were disposed of as scrap.
However, we can't lose sight of the fact that externally Tredegar Town Clock still has an imposing appearance, keeps good time, and strikes the hour as it has done for 154 years. The clock tower is still a focal point for townspeople, and they gather there at Christmas to see the lights turned on, to see in the New Year, and at other important times in the life of the community. The townsfolk remain very proud of their clock.