The Making of Urban Time

The craftsman’s signature sits at the bottom of the square dial: Samuel Knibb London feci: There is no date on the device but it it thought to be completed in 1665. We know so little about the maker, that we must interpret who this man was from fragmentary documents and the clocks themselves. We must discern the man through his creation rather than the other way around, and through the story of the clock, and its times — what kind of person owned it? What was its position within the house? And, how did a seemingly luxury item have such a powerful influence on the city beyond?

The ebony striking turntable clock is one of only five extant timepieces signed by Samuel Knibb. He also left a pair of scientific instruments — a machine for trigonometric calculations and a calculator — both constructed in association with the master artificer Henry Sutton in 1664, who unfortunately died in the plague the following year. Born in Buckinghamshire in 1625, according to parish records, Knibb started his trade in Newport Pagnell. He came to London and set up his own workshop in Westminster in 1662 and become a member of the Clockmaker’s Company the following year.

The year that this clock was being assembled, 1665, his workshop was disrupted by the Great Plague that ravaged the city. In May, as the cold winter broke into a furious summer and the pestilence took hold, the worthies of the city prepared to leave. By July, Westminster was almost empty. Knibb himself may have left the city, returning to his family home in Newport Pagnell to wait out the crisis, and perhaps continue his work.

The dark wood case is architectural, breathtakingly modern. There is little adornment on any of the wooden surfaces, yet this is an object to be relished with the eye. The clock rests on a turntable base, making it a piece that is to be seen in the round, not just heard, striking the hours. The sides are glazed to invite the eye to gaze at the movement within, as a microscope draws the viewer towards the inner workings of Nature. [Robert Hooke’s exploration of the hidden, Micrographia, was published in September that same year]. The case is topped with a pediment set with twin raised rectangular panels, offering a sense of the rigorously Classical.

The dial is square, only 8 ¼ inches. At its centre of the face is an engraved Tudor rose from which emerges the finely fettled hour and minute hands. The chapter ring, with its Roman hour numerals and Arabic minutes. Fleur-de-lys are etched at the half-hour marks. Around the ring, the spandrels that make up the four corners of the dial are filled with finely-engraved flowerheads — tulips, lilies and roses. In the top left quadrant a dragonfly flutters above a bloom. Is this ornamentation some allusion to the passing of the seasons? Or an appreciation of the Restoration as a moment of fecund spring and rebirth? Perhaps, it is an attempt to make the artificial machine, natural.

The skill of the engraver, the fine working of the case, and the beauty of the clockmakers art hidden within, are reasons enough to gaze upon the dial longer than necessary. To appreciate this mechanism as more than a device to mark the passing of the hour allows us to place this contraption within the wider social, political and philosophical context of the age. For English clockmaking, that came into view in the 1650s and reaching its zenith by the end of the century, acts as a window into the working of a city and a nation at a moment of extraordinary change.

Who was this clock made for? What kind of person needed, and wanted, such extravagant display? Most likely, this device was aimed at the aristocrats and grandees who had just returned from exile following the Restoration. In Europe during the 1650s they had been far from home, but exposed to the latest continental styles in architecture, fashion, painting, which they now brought back to the capital with hopes of turning the fatigued city into a modern metropolis. In the previous year, John Evelyn had published Parallel, a passionate cry for the development of an English modern style: taking the finest European notions and transforming them into a new national language. This was as much a political statement as it was aesthetic: seen in new buildings across the capital, a return to courtly life, and the reinvigoration of the luxury market: including clocks and scientific instruments.

Imagine where this clock is situated in the years following its creation. It is most likely to be found in the public rooms of the house, or in the grand cabinet of an aristocrat or leading gentleman. Such an object was a signal of the owner’s social status, both in terms of taste but also as a signifier that they understood the value of time. In their exhaustive account of Thomas Tompion’s customers, Evans, Carter and Wright show the complete range of figures within the urban elite: kings, earls, dukes, lords, bishops, scientists, courtiers, poets and merchants.

Historians have often looked at the development of the clock industry as a marker of the beginning of the consumer market: the emergence of luxury trades providing goods for an increasingly wealthy social order beyond the court — the new bourgeoisie: ‘masterless men’, professionals, merchants, industrialists financiers. In time, this market expanded as goods became cheaper and the number of potential consumers increased. Thus, unlike many luxury object of the period, the clock emerged as a necessity. For, while in 1675 less than 10% of English households held a clock within their inventory, fifty years later this had risen to 32%, a far higher number than homes that contained pictures, curtains, cutlery or china. During this period a luxury item became part of everyday life, first for the elites and emerging professional classes, and then, later, making its way down the social orders. By 1747, according to the Universal Magazine, the clock — albeit one far from the exquisite working of an East, Fromanteel, Knibb, or Tompion — ‘had become the genteelest piece of furniture in almost every cottage.’

The clock itself was more often than not placed on a table. The room itself is lined in wainscott or perhaps the walls have been covered with paper patterned with simple hand painted motifs. The first wallpaper shops opened in London in 1660. Other fabrics adorned the surfaces. Tapestries were for the elite, also silks, damasks, velvets and brocades; for the more modest purse: woven linen dornix, woollen serge or beige. The East India Company had also introduced calicos, named chint [later chintz], into the market, whose colour-fast dying was proving hugely popular. The ceiling would have been ornate with flowing mouldings and geometric patterns in plaster. The commodities, fabrics and fittings within the room had been gathered as an intricate assemblage of status, and sensibility.

The other furniture in the room was sturdy, a reminder that until recently such goods were meubles [moveable], objects to be carted from house to house as the occupier travelled between properties, or following the court. The clock’s case was both an ornamentation and a protection. But now it was finding a fixed position with the home, and with long case clocks, becoming fixed within the fabric of the room. In October 1689 work was conducted at Whitehall, in the private chambers of Queen Mary, for ‘putting 4 pieces of wainscott behind 4 clocks in the corners of the rooms in the Queen’s lodgings to fasten them, and putting up a shelfe in the Dressinge room for a clock.’

The styling of the dials and the cases themselves would change over time, as they reflected the winds of fashion. The plain dark veneered architectural cases that housed Knibb’s clock were soon abandoned for more colourful and intricate inlay designs and marquetry. But the clock did not just reflect the changing taste for interiors in the early modern home. It was not just an object to be admired. Since the invention of the pendulum clock in the 1650s, and its introduction into the London market through the workshop of Fromanteel, the accuracy of time keeping had improved. The pre-pendulum lantern clock or the public striking of the hours by a tower clock were likely to be wrong by 15 to 30 minutes a day and needed to be adjusted daily according to a sundial, should there be sun to permit that. At best, these early devices marked the broad span of working hours of the day. After the pendulum, one could be assured of an accuracy to within a margin of a minute a week, hence the practicality of making long duration clocks as Fromanteel advertised. From the 1670s, a small subsidiary ring was usually added to mark the progression of seconds.

The preponderance of the London pendulum clock industry matured within a city in the midst of a social transformation. As noted, many of the first customers for the new pendulum clocks were the city elites, many loyal to the restored crown, some having spent some time overseas, waiting out Cromwell’s Protectorate. But London was also a mercantile city, home to the new bourgeois sort, whose industry would, within the space of a generation, make the city the world’s capital of trade, empire and finance. Here, the clock stood not as a timepiece but as a way of life. And this, in turn, influenced the rethinking of the form of the city itself.

Only a few years before Knibb’s clock was assembled, Charles II had returned to London in May 1660 to find a metropolis on its knees. Since then there had been a few, mainly aristocratic, attempts to modernise aspects of the city. It was only after the Great Fire of September 1666 that some citizens were able radically to reconsider the modern metropolis.

In the days after the Fire, the leading urban thinkers, including Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, and Robert Hooke, created new designs for the shape of the city that they sketched out and presented to Charles II. It is no accident that all of them were members of the Royal Society, and each, in their own way, more than amateur horologists. Both Christopher Wren, then the Oxford professor of Astronomy, and Robert Hooke, the curator of the Royal Society were instrumental in putting forward the recommendations for the 1667 Rebuilding Act, the first urban planning regulations in Britain, reimagining the city according to scientific standards. There were to be four types of thoroughfare determined by flows and density of traffic. All streets were to be widened to facilitate the passage of goods and bodies. Even more pertinently, Hooke himself measured out the new cityscape — the first time this had ever been done. The cityscape itself, like time, was reduced to mathematics; like pieces of clockwork.

The City was now a machine. Christopher Wren’s imagined revival of the city plan, that he set out in a map and presented to the King thirteen days after the Fire, was an ordered, rational mechanism. It is not surprisingly therefore that Wren had been central to many discussions on the creation of machines to accurately measure time. The motion of the stars, the movement of bodies around the city, the marking of minutes and seconds upon a dial were Wren’s great passions combined, his personal manifesto. His genius was to see that such things were intricately connected within a mechanical universe.

In the years following the Fire, London did not solely modernise within its old confines but started to spread out beyond its boundaries. As houses within the burned neighbourhoods of the city re-emerged, so too new terraces of houses rose up in the fields that encircled the metropolis: new suburbs such as Bloomsbury, Soho, Holborn, and the Bedford estate of Covent Garden where the new bourgeois, middling sort preferred to settle. Here, in these new houses, a clock — supplied by one of London’s multitudinous clockmakers — became a necessary commodity. Both the way the new suburbs were developed and the business of post fire real estate finance might seem far away from the intricacies of the pendulum clock’s complications, but they are all intimately interwoven at the confluence of improved time keeping, the formation of early capitalism, and the emergence of ‘urban time’.

The leading speculators soon learnt that efficiencies could be found with standardisation, just as the clockmaker sought uniformity within his workings. Economic considerations were the defining factor of what emerged from this period known as the archetypal Georgian London terraced house. Nonetheless, the finished house was well-appointed, as this description of a house on Gerrard Street in the 1670s shows: ‘wainscotted and painted . . All the fireplaces had painted chimney pieces, firestones and marble hearths, and were set with galley tiles.’ There was panelling in the main rooms, banisters, restrained and classical in style, were installed, Apart from that, the room was bare, waiting for the commodities and luxuries that added significance and comfort to the new owners.

The clock had already had a profound influence on urban life, but from the seventeenth century undoubtedly came to the fore. Historians of the Renaissance claim that the introduction of public clocks, however inefficient, marked an important social transition. Jacques le Goff, author of Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages, noted that by the end of the sixteenth century, the use of the town clocks, striking the hour, had heralded the movement from ‘church time’ to ‘merchant time’, explaining ‘the communal clock was an instrument of economic, social and political domination wielded by the merchants who ran the commune.’ Lewis Mumford claimed that ‘the clock, not the steam engine, is the key-machine of the industrial age.’ By the time that Knibb’s table clock was sitting within its decorated room in the 1660s, the mechanism was far more accurate, heralding the next phase of the dominance of time over everyday life. Indeed, time — the imperial overlord — would go from a motto to the regulator of every aspect of life.

The merchant lived by the clock, by what one might even call ‘urban time’. Efficiency and productivity, the free flow of people, money and goods through the city was of the utmost importance. Advantage — judged by the freedom and speed of movement, communication, and information — was prized in business and war alike. The clock was also a reminder for the vigilant supplicant and the budding entrepreneur not to waste time. Where once a clock within a portrait performed a memento mori, a reminder of inevitable death, it was now an exhortation to the living to be busy. This is what the sociologist Max Weber calls ‘this-world asceticism’, a quasi religious dedication to productivity, to filling the day with useful toil. Furthermore this informed the way the merchant saw himself, for as Landes notes, the Protestant urge to ‘watch thyself’ became ‘a major stimulus to the individualism that was an ever more salient aspect of Western civilization.’

Take, for example, this extract from Pepys diary in May 1665:

Up very betimes, and did much business before I went out with several persons, among others Captain Taylor, who would leave the management of most of his business now he is going to Harwich, upon me, and if I can get money by it, which I believe it will, I shall take some of it upon me. Thence with Sir W. Batten to the Duke of Albemarle’s and there did much business, and then to the ‘Change, and thence off with Sir W. Warren to an ordinary, where we dined and sat talking of most usefull discourse till 5 in the afternoon, and then home, and very busy till late, and so home and to bed.

Note the business and commitment to utility that fills every moment of the day. ‘Usefull’ and ‘busy’ in all things. Two months later, he notes:

and so to bed, to be up betimes by the helpe of a larum watch, which by chance I borrowed of my watchmaker to-day, while my owne is mending.

And in September that year, he notes:

Up, and walked to Greenwich, taking pleasure to walk with my minute watch in my hand, by which I am come now to see the distances of my way from Woolwich to Greenwich, and do find myself to come within two minutes constantly to the same place at the end of each quarter of an houre.

The clock marked out both the private and public business of the modern citizen like Pepys, where consciousness of Time was a signal of social rank. Elites and professionals were far more concerned by the hours and minutes of the day than lower sorts. For those further down the social scale, while few would determine their daily lives by the tyranny of the minute hand, there was a growing sense of discipline — especially at work. But this was, for the moment, ‘self discipline’, a watchfulness of one’s own industry and conduct.

But in time, this discipline would be imposed from above. At the very last moments of the seventeenth century the largest ironworks factory in Europe, the Crowley Ironworks, owned by Sir Ambrose Crowley and his son, John, produced their ‘Law Books’ governing the efficient running of the operation. The book covered all aspects of the works — from the individual duties of the clerks, to welfare and the division of labour. More surprising perhaps was the introduction of time as the defining measure of work. ‘Office workers’ were supervised by a ‘monitor’ who recorded work to the hour and minute on a ‘time sheet’. The Office itself was run through a ‘minute dial’ that determined the standard time. As some of the tasks within the works were beyond the eye of the clock, the workers themselves were called on to monitor themselves during parts of the day, and to report on ‘Loitering hours’, and then their hours were adjusted to reflect the ‘corrected extra time’. Obviously wages were paid for hours and minutes worked, precisely calculated.

This was, admittedly, an advance herald of the industrial era when time came to dominate every corner of work — as piecework was replaced by ‘factory time’. In his essential essay on the changing notion of time through history ‘Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’ E. P. Thompson notes ‘Time is now currency: it was not passed but spent’.

see part 3.

The author of Inheritance, coming in May 2021, The Phoenix: The Men Who Made Modern London, and Stones of London, and the bestseller, Cities are Good for You.