A clock which was created for the Great Exhibition in 1851 and has kept time in Norwich for more than 140 years has undergone a restoration project and will be on display for this year’s Norfolk Heritage Open Days.
The large Chiming Skeleton Clock, thought to be the last remaining example in the world, has been in the possession of Norwich Union, now Aviva, since 1878, and proudly sits outside one of the upstairs boardrooms at Surrey House.
At the end of March, the decision was taken to restore and service the clock to keep it in working order for the future, and the 617 pieces were taken apart and transported to clock maker Richard Simmonds at his workshop in Raveningham.
Jason Beckett, Deputy Group Art Curator for Aviva, said: “The clock is very significant to the company. I remember being taken upstairs as a young man when I started at Norwich Union and the general manager took great pride in showing it to me.
“The last time it was serviced was in 1994, and we started working on it at the end of March 2019. The clock was working and merrily ticking away up until that point, but it was a case of not wanting to wait until something went wrong. And another big benefit of the restoration and servicing process was that we learnt more about the clock than we knew before.”
The giant Chiming Skeleton Clock was made by John Moore and Son of Clerkenwell for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, where it was awarded a medal for excellence.
Jason said: “They had this wonderful clock but because of its size they had difficulty finding someone who was willing to take it on. A man called Joseph Langhorn bought it from them for 200 guineas and wanted to bequeath it to London and Westminster Bank, but they didn’t want it because they thought it would be too much of an undertaking. So then he approached Norwich Union who were happy to take it and it went into the old Fire Society boardroom in 1878. It has been with us ever since, moving over to Surrey House when it was opened in 1904.
“The clock is magnificent and it also has a music box underneath which plays six operatic arias made by one of the very best Swiss music box makers of the 19th century.”
Restoring the clock was no small task, and a team of specialist movers has to be called in to ensure it could be transported safely.
“They came along with a lorry and a hydraulic lift,” said Jason. “They had to lower it down on a hydraulic trolley from the stand, transport it to the workshop and then use the same process to get it inside and then back here again.
“The clock has three main springs which is very unusual and the springs are enormous, so to get those serviced or replaced we had to go to a company in Yorkshire which is the only company in the United Kingdom that can work on springs of that size.
“We also had to replace some of the bushes and bolts. We had the bolts specially made so they were exact replicas of the originally ones used in 1851.”
Originally it was believed that there were two further models of the clock, one in Russia and the other in North America, however Jason said further research has led them to believe that their clock is the only one in existence.
“As part of the project we looked into it and the story was that there was another one in North America and one in the Hermitage Collection in Saint Petersburg. We’ve never had any documentary evidence of there being one in North America, but up until very recently we were very sure that there was one in the Hermitage.
“But the clockmaker who worked on it for us contacted the Hermitage and they looked through their records and couldn’t find any record of ever having it in their collection. So it would appear this is the only one in existence. So if you want to see one of these, this is the place to come.”
Now with the clock back in one piece, visitors are invited to Surrey House during the Heritage Open Days festival with open doors on Thursday, September 19 and Friday, September 20, from 9am to 5pm each day. Guided tours are also being run, however these are now fully booked.
The Norfolk HODs festival runs from September 13 to 22. Visit The Forum in Norwich to pick up a brochure or search for events online at www.heritageopendays.org.uk
Jason Beckett with the Chiming Skeleton Clock, and the clock in pieces during the restoration project. Pictures: Simon Finlay and The Forum.