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Boulton clocks on to the past; AGENDA & LETTERS.

Byline: chris upton

If you have visited Soho House over the last few weeks you may have noticed that one of its most prized possessions is no longer there. Matthew Boulton's famous sidereal clock, made at his manufactory in 1771, has vanished from the drawing room.

I'm happy to report that this is not the result of a daring robbery. The clock is being prepared for the much-anticipated bicentenary exhibition on Boulton, which opens at Gas Hall this weekend.

Matthew Boulton had trouble selling this clock. Even Catherine the Great of Russia, who had it on approval at St Petersburg, ultimately decided not to buy it. Nor would any of Boulton's wealthy fiends stump up the pounds 275 or so either. In the end it remained with its maker.

If sidereal clocks were a bit too pricey for the Birmingham public, the ones which simply told terrestrial time were another matter indeed. As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, the clock became an essential item on Birmingham's mantelpieces. For the industrial worker it was no longer advisable to get up with the cock crowing in the yard, or to expect one's working day to begin with sunrise and end at sunset.

Arriving late for work meant at best being locked out, and at worst being sacked.

Describing Birmingham's working classes in 1828, Dr John Darwall remarked that "their houses are well furnished and have many little articles of luxury. Few above the very lowest are without a clock in their dwellings." Having said that, a clock could easily cost a pound or two, and finding that much money out of a tight household budget was not easy. One way round this was to join a "clock club". There were savings clubs for almost anything in 18th-century Birmingham, from a pair of trousers to a funeral.

Members of the clock club contributed a little every week until the kitty contained pounds 4 or so, and at that point one of the members (selected by ballot) received a brand new timepiece. The club continued until everyone in it had been given their clock.

As William Hutton said of the arrangement, it kept the publican happy (since clubs were always based in a pub), the clock-maker in business and the members in eager anticipation.

At the other end of the financial scale, when times were hard, and a family was shedding luxuries, instead of accumulating them, the clock was one of the last items to go. Perhaps its gentle ticking recalled better days.

The Congregationalist missionary, Thomas Finnigan, met an elderly couple in London Prentice Street in 1837 who had reached such a state of penury. "The last article his wife had to sell for support was their clock, and that was disposed of for sixteen shillings," wrote Finnigan in his diary.

Taken to some second-hand or pawn shop, the old man's clock would soon find another owner in better circumstances.

Such was the passage of time.

n Dr Chris Upton is Senior Lecturer in History at Newman University College in Birmingham
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 27, 2009
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