From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 200-214.




Jack of the Clock-house.


THE works of Shakespeare and the older dramatists contain allusions to automaton figures called “Jack of the Clock-house,” which were popular in bygone times. In Richard II., (Act v., sc. 5.), Shakespeare makes the king say: —

                                            “ —————— my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke’s proud jay,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack o’ the clock.”

The following occurs in Richard III., (Act iv., sc. 2.): —

Buckingham. — Why let it strike?
  King Richard. — Because that like a Jack, thou keeps’t the
                                    Betwixt thy begging and my meditation.”

In a comedy called The Fleire, produced in 1615, by Edward Sharpman, it is stated of certain parties that “their tongues are, like a Jack o’ the clock, still in labour.”

The old cathedral of St. Paul was burnt down in 1666, and with it perished the ancient clock 201 with striking Jacks. Decker, in his Gull’s Horn-book (1609), referring to the cathedral says: “The great dial is your last monument, where bestow some half of the three score minutes to observe the sauceness of the Jacks that are above the Man in the Moon there; the strangeness of their motion will quit your labour.” And further it is stated; “But howsoever, if Paul’s Jacks be once up with their elbows, and quarrelling to strike eleven, as soon as every the clock has parted them, and ended the fray with his hammer, let not the Duke’s Gallery contain you any longer.” The building of the present cathedral was commenced in 1675, and twenty-five years later it was stated in a paper entitled “The Affairs of the World,” that “Mr. Tompion, the famous watchmaker in Fleet Street, is making a clock for St. Paul’s Cathedral, which it is said will go one hundred years without winding up; will cost 3,000l, or 4,000l, and be a far finer than the famous clock at Strasburg.” For some unexplained cause the project was not carried out, and in the place of one costing 3,000l, a very good one was procured for 300l, from Lang Bradley. It is described as the best example of an old clock in London. There are two dial plates, one facing 202 south, and the other west. Each dial is between fifty and sixty feet in circumference. The hour figures on the dial are a little over two feet in height. The hands are very large, the minute hand being eight feet long, weighing seventy-five lbs., and the hour hand five feet five inches long, and weighing forty-four lbs.*

In the last century, T. Reid, a writer on watchmaking, placed on record some interesting details respecting this clock. “Height or length of fall of the clock weights,” says Reid, “and sounding-boards for the bells were much attended to when building of ancient churches, an instance of this is seen in Sir Christopher Wren’s architecture of the cathedral church of St. Paul’s, where the fall of the clock-weights is of such a force, as by a stroke of a hammer, it can make a bell of 11,474 lbs. be heard at a distance of two-and-twenty miles. We heard it at Windsor in the month of June, 1773. The day was still and calm; and attending to try if the clock could be heard when striking the twelve o’clock hour at noon (which we did hear), the sound which came through the air was not like that of a bell, but had a low, dull, and feeble tone, barely perceivable.”


The story of a soldier hearing St. Paul’s clock strike thirteen when it was alleged he was sleeping on duty saved his life. Several have heard the tale, but perhaps the following version is the best, and is drawn from the Public Advertiser of Friday, June 22nd, 1770: “Mr. John Hatfield, who died last Monday at his house in Glasshouse Yard, Aldersgate, aged 102 years, was a soldier in the reign of William and Mary, and the person who was tried, and condemned by a court-martial for falling asleep on his duty upon the terrace at Windsor. He absolutely denied the charge against him, and solemnly declared that he heard St. Paul’s clock strike thirteen, the truth of which was much doubted by the court, because of the great distance. But whilst he was under sentence of death, an affidavit was made by several persons that the clock did actually strike thirteen instead of twelve; whereupon he received his Majesty’s pardon. The above his friends caused to be engraved upon his plate, to satisfy the world of the truth of a story which has been much doubted, though he had often confirmed it to many gentlemen, and a few days before his death told to several of his neighbours. He enjoyed sight and memory to the day of his death.”


For one hundred and sixty years the giants of St. Dunstan’s Church were one of the sights of the city. Leigh, in his “New Picture of London,” speaks of them as, “the pets of cockneys and countrymen: —

“Many a stranger as he passed that way
  Made it once a design there to stay
  And see those two hammer the hours away
                                                  In Fleet Street.

Hatton, the historian, says the giants were more admired by many of the populace on Sundays than the most eloquent preacher from the pulpit within. This famous clock was constructed in 1671 by Thomas Hansy, for the sum of 35l, and the old church clock, but later, in 1738, it cost for repairs 110l. the chief attraction of this time-teller consisted of two giants striking the hours and the quarters on a couple of bells suspended above them. Cowper, in his “Table Talk,” alludes to the figures: —

“When labour and when dullness, club in hand
  Like the two figures at St. Dunstan’s stand
  Beating alternately in measured time,
  The clock-work tintinnabulum of rhyme,
  Exact and regular sounds will be;
  But such mere quarter strokes are not for men.”


An Engraving of the two giants in the clock at Old St. Dunstan's Church,London, England.

Giants at Old St. Dunstan’s Church, London.

Readers of Scott will remember that in his 207 “Fortune of Nigel” he refers to the savages, and places them in a period before they were known to the public of London.

The mechanism of the figures is described as being rough and clumsy, and the metal and cord might be seen inserted in the club, to which the motion was due. They were, nevertheless, extremely attractive to country-folk, and while they were lost in wonder, the pick-pocket was busily engaged, and reaped a rich harvest.

When the old church was pulled down in 1830, Lord Hertford purchased the clock, bells, and figures, for 210l, and had them erected in his villa in Regents Park.

Figures similar to those at St. Dunstan were to be seen at the old church of Holy Trinity, Bristol, before it was pulled down in 1787. We are told that the clock was guarded by gigantic “quarter-boys,” represented in two large figures, with ever-ready hammers to note the flight of time. They were placed under a semi-circular canopy on each side of the face of the clock. They wore brass helmets, and were partly habited in armour; each grasped a battle-axe, with which it struck the bell suspended over its head. It would appear that they were coloured and gilt 208 with great care, according to the taste of the age.

In 1624 a pair of Jacks were erected at the east end of St. Martin’s Church, Carfax, Oxon; at Horsham, Sussex, there was a Jack Clock-house, until about 1825.

There are at the present time in Norwich Cathedral two figures which, in bygone times, attracted much attention. Mr. M. Knights, a recognised local authority on antiquarian subjects, kindly favours us with some interesting particulars respecting these figures. “They are,” says Mr. Knights, “in the south entrance, on the top of the oaken vestibule. They have no connection with the existing clock in the wall of the south transept, a few feet behind and above the spot where the figures stand. Dr. Bensly, the Registrar of the Diocese, states that the original clock, mentioned in the sacrist’s roll, was constructed at an enormous cost, for there are interesting accounts, not yet analysed, connected with the expenditure thereon. The two figures, each nineteen inches high, are Jacobean

An Engraving of two mustachioed Jacks in striped full knee-length pants and helmets striking the chimes, from Norwich Cathedral, England.

From a photo by A. E. Coe.]                                                                         [Norwich.

Jacks at Norwich Cathedral.

They struck the quarters, turning on pivots so to do. On the arms of an iron ornamental cross, with 209 gilded arrow-headed ends, hang the bowl-shaped bells struck by the hammers, each of a shape like the ends of the cross, and fixed on a handle twisting outwards and then towards the bell. Both figures have helmeted head-pieces, big moustaches, deep ruffs about the neck, tight-fitting 210 red jerkins, expansive buckram blue and white horizontally-banded breeches, flesh-coloured hose, and clouted high fore-parted shoes. On the original clock, the materials of which were disposed of in the early part of the century, were figured the Sun and Mooon, and on one side, “Me Boni hodie?” and on the other, “Ah! diem perdidi,” rendered by Weever, “What’s the day gone, and no good done?” “Alas! if so it be, the day is truly lost to thee.” There was also painted on the clock, likewise in old English characters, —

Horas significo cunctas quas Phœbe Diebus,
  Quas solet atque tua pallida nocte soror:
  Nec magis errarem, Rector mihi si foret idem,
  Vos qui, et quæque regit motibus astra suis.
  Tempora nam recte designo, si mihi doctus,
  Custos assiduam conferat artis opem.”

Mr. Spencer, the verger at the cathedral, states that an aged gentleman, visiting the cathedral, told him that he remembered the old clock and the Jacks working. People then went to the church on purpose to see them, so that they were considered to be a nuisance. They were disposed of with the old clock, and, says Dr. Bensly, recovered for the cathedral some years ago by the late Mr. Henry Hansell, one of the proctors of the 213 Consistorial Court, and Registrar of the Archdeaconry of Norfolk. Dr. Bensly has put on the stand below the figures written copies of the old lines, with Weever’s translations. The translation of the Latin lines above given is as follows: —

“Phoebus, I tell all th’ hours, and all as right
  As thou, or thy pale sister, day and night,
  Nor I, no more than you, in ought should err,
  If he rul’d me, who guides you, and each star,
  For times I rightly tell, if, of his art,
  My learned keeper will his help impart.”

The illustration of the Jacks at Norwich is from a photograph taken by Mr. Albert E. Coe, of Norwich, expressly for this work.


A Photograph of a Jack of the Clock-house, wearing armour, at Southwold, Suffolk, England.

From a photo by J. Martyn.]                                                                             [Southwold.


Jack at Southwold.

An interesting example of a Jack of the Clock-House at Southwold, Suffolk, is engraved in the “Journal of the British Archæological Society,” vol. xxv. (1869), to illustrate a carefully prepared paper by Mr. H. Syer Cuming, F.S.A. Scot. This Jack formerly proclaimed the hours from the old church tower, and in his palmy days he must have cut a fine figure. He is described by Mr. Cuming as a carved and painted effigy of wood, standing on a hillock within a semicircular topped recess, harnessed from head to heel in russet and gold armour, of the fashion of the commencement of the sixteenth century. The 214 lower part of the bassinet is surrounded by gilded knots; the tassels fall a little below the hips, and the genouillieres are of a somewhat rhombic contour. In his left hand is a scimitar; in the right a battle-axe, with the butt or hammer of which the bell was sounded; the bell depending from a branch which curves forward on the right of the figure. Some years ago the figure was removed from the tower to the vestry window open to the church, and the parish clerk made Jack toll the bell as the clergyman emerged from the vestry, as a signal that Divine Service had commenced. Our illustration is from a recent photograph kindly placed at our service by Mr. J. Martyn, of Southwold.

A Jack similar to the one at Southwold used to do duty at Blythburgh Church, in the same county. A flowing beard gave it a venerable appearance.

During a visit to Nôtre Dame des Victoires, Brussels, in 1896, we saw inside the church a smartly painted little figure wearing a hat with feathers strike the time on a bell.

A study of the effigies at Strasburg and other places on the continent do not come within the scope of the present chapter.



 *  “Curiosities of Clocks and Watches.” Wood.

 †  “Curiosities of Clocks and Watches.” Wood.