About time

10th November 2014

News, Student news, Alumni news

Did you know that the clock in Wadham’s front quad was not only designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it was possibly the first 1670s clock to incorporate an innovative mechanism to keep better time? Not only that, the current clock mechanism was built by the same clockmaker whose clocks keep Greenwich Mean Time and strike Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster.

  • The 1671 Wadham clock face designed by Sir Christopher Wren

  • The current Dent & Co mechanism which dates back to 1870.

  • Lodge Head Porter David Yates winds the clock

As the College clock underwent refurbishment this summer, Wadham’s Estates and Facilities Manager, Chris Daw took a closer look at the history of the clock, located in the front quad on the west face of the ante-chapel.

The late 17th-century wooden clock-face, with its scrolls and cherub-head, bears the painted shields-of-arms of Wadham and Sir Christopher Wren, who designed the face.

The original Wadham clock was installed in the quad in 1671 by Joseph Knibb. This clock is significant as it is one of the earliest clocks to incorporate an ‘anchor escapement’, possibly the first, which allowed better control of the pendulum and hence more reliable time keeping.  The original clock mechanism is now on display in the entrance hall of the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. The clock is a wonderful flatbed mechanism set within a cast-iron frame featuring a two-train clock with pinwheel escapement.   

This clock mechanism was replaced in 1870 by one manufactured by Dent & Co, an accomplished clockmaker.  One year later Dent & Co was given the honour of making the Standard Clock at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich to keep ‘Greenwich Mean Time’, although the company is probably better known for manufacturing the clock for the Palace of Westminster that continues to strike the great bell, Big Ben.

Dent & Co retained the original clock face and repositioned the new clock at ground level within the Chapel, concealed within the base of the organ case, with an adjacent space in the ante chapel to accommodate the pendulum.

For the first time in many years, the clock has undergone a major overhaul. In August 2014 the Dent clock was stripped and cleaned by Smith of Derby who discovered that the mechanism was is in remarkable condition for its age.  Having replaced a damaged bearing and made fine adjustments, the clock was returned to full working order.   This included the overhaul and reinstatement of the striking mechanism which is currently inoperative.

Chris Daw commented: “The clock is now keeping good time and we should perhaps be grateful that unlike other colleges, Wadham did not scrap its mechanical clock for an anonymous electrical device.”

  • The original Wadham clock mechanism in the Museum of the History of Science

  • Looking down on the mechanism the pendulum is visible

  • The Museum of the History of Science where the Wadham clock mechanism is displayed