The Clock Tower has been through many vicissitudes in its long history, but was almost lost in the mid-nineteenth century when decay prompted calls for its demolition. Fortunately, the Society objected, and led a successful campaign for its restoration.
St Albans has the only medieval town belfry in England. It was built as a symbol of the growing independence of the townspeople from the dominance of the Abbey. With their own clock, to ring the curfew, and bell to give the alarm – the bell rang for the first battle of St Albans in 1455 – they could regulate their own day without relying on the Abbey.
Thomas Wolvey, the Royal Mason, was engaged by St Albans’ townspeople to build the tower. Tree ring dating of timbers from the upper floor joists showed that one tree was felled in the winter of 1401-2, and the others in the period 1401-4, suggesting that the Tower was erected quickly and probably completed by 1405.
The ownership of the Clock Tower had remained in the hands of a group of townspeople until 1553 when St Albans gained its own Charter and the lease to the Clock Tower was made over to the Mayor and the burgesses.
Despite renting out the lower floors as a shop and living quarters and gaining useful revenue, the Corporations did little to maintain the structure and by 1700 voted by 8 votes to 5 in favour of pulling the building down. Fortunately, this motion was subsequently rescinded and they pulled down the Eleanor Cross instead the following year and repaired the Clock Tower, letting it out to the highest bidder. One tenant, Thomas Wilkins, renewed his lease several times running his ‘shoe and boot warehouse’ there for 45 years, from 1773 until his retirement in 1818.
Shoe and boot warehouse
The Tower, together with an adjacent building (dating from about 1550), has been used for many different purposes over the years, including as a saddlery, beer house and a butcher’s shop. One tenant, Thomas Wilkins, renewed his lease several times running his ‘shoe and boot warehouse’ there for 45 years, from 1773 until his retirement in 1818. Find our more about the Tower’s life as a beer house by going to ‘Last Orders at the Clock House‘.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the Tower served as a signalling station to help warn the country if Napoleon invaded. It was said (erroneously) that it could pass a message by semaphore to Yarmouth and back (220 miles) in five minutes on a clear day.
In a lecture to the Society in March 2008, Brian Adams described the role of St Albans’ clock tower which, from 1805 to 1815, had a shutter-type telegraph on its roof as part of the signal chain between the Admiralty in London and Yarmouth. There were some 11 signal points in this chain. The clock tower roof also housed a cabin into which were crammed three men, two manning the telescopes and one working the shutters conveying messages to the next signal point on Dunstable Downs. Similar signal chains linked the Admiralty to Dover, Portsmouth and Plymouth. [Edited extract from Newsletter 168, May 2008]
You can see a print showing the signalling mechanism by going to ‘Images of the Clock Tower‘. This print also features in an article by F.G. Kitton entitled The Clock Tower, St Albans: its Origin and History, a copy of which is at the foot of this article. You can read a short article about F.G. Kitton, an illustrator and local historian early in the last century, by following this link.
Saved by the Society
By the 1850s, the fabric of the Clock Tower was in a parlous state, and the Council seriously considered demolishing it. This Society petitioned against this, proposing a public Restoration Fund to which we subscribed £30. The estimated cost of the restoration was £700 but actually ended up costing nearer £1,000 but it did include a new clock with a face illuminated at night by gas jets.
The necessary repair work was carried out under the supervision of George Gilbert Scott and completed in 1866. The lower rooms of Clock Tower were then once again leased out to the highest bidder, such as, the Walklate family who ran their saddlery shop from 1872 until 1898 (insert link to article on Walklate family).
The Pearce family then bought the saddlery business and continued to run it until 1914 when the Society took over the lease and sublet the ground floor to Mr Richardson who acted as a custodian, charging visitors 2d to climb to the top. The entrance fee is still a very modest sum for which visitors will see the Victorian turret clock, the medieval bell and the magnificent views from the roof top.
A stereoscope picture showing the Tower before the surrounding building was demolished in 1858 was purchased by the Society in 2013. It shows the Tower before a rather heavy-handed restoration in 1865/6. You can see this in ‘Images of the Clock Tower‘.
Visiting the tower today
The Clock Tower is now owned by St Albans District Council, and offers great views of the Abbey, Roman Verulamium, the rooftops of St Albans and the surrounding countryside.
The Tower is kept open to the public by volunteers (known as ‘Clockateers’) from our Society and the Civic Society at weekends and Bank Holidays from Easter to mid-September. The Society would welcome help from volunteers – It is not a complicated task and volunteers willing to serve once or twice a year are always needed. Please contact the Clock Tower co-ordinator (Caroline Howkins) if you can help.