Keeping time

The Curfew Tower, a 100ft high tower built into the curtain wall of Windsor Castle and overlooking the High Street, houses the bells of St George’s Chapel and a clock which has been telling time to the people of Windsor since 1689.

The clock was made by John Davis (1650-1713), a local resident and possibly the son of Windsor’s blacksmith, William Davis. The decision to renew the clock was recorded in the Chapter Acts on 23 May 1689:

…since the old Clock is quite worn out, that John Davis make a new one for the colledg, and when finished that Sir Christopher Wren be desired to sett the price.

(At that time, Sir Christopher Wren, son of a former Dean of Windsor, was overseeing some architectural repairs to the Chapel.)

Local records show that John Davis was active around the town: in 1680 he was paid £5 to mend the Parish Church clock and in 1686 he cleaned and repaired two sundials and the King’s clock in Windsor Castle. Three generations of Davis’s family worked in the clock trade and the closely related profession of blacksmithing. There are several clocks surviving in England today that are attributed to them. However, the Curfew Tower Clock is the earliest surviving example of a turret clock by the Davis family and it is the only one which strikes the quarter hours.

We know from John Davis’s will and those of his heirs that the family lived in a house in Castle Ditch, a row of buildings against the wall of Windsor Castle on the east side of Thames Street, so they would have heard the chimes of his clock daily. It is possible though that there would have been no clock face for them to read; it was not uncommon at that time for the passage of time only to be marked by the striking of a bell and early engravings of that part of Windsor Castle show no sign of a dial or hands.

An engraving by Samuel Buck in 1733 appears to show the outline of a dial projecting from the belfry. Repairs to the belfry were recorded in the Chapter Acts on 2 June 1756 and it was instructed then that a dial plate made of copper should be ordered. This could have replaced an earlier one of wood. Artworks show that the clock face at the time pointed inwards towards St George’s Chapel and the Henry VIII Gate. It wasn’t until 1863, when major alterations were made to the Curfew Tower by architect Anthony Salvin, based on recommendations made by Prince Albert, that the clock face was positioned outwards for all of Windsor to see. We know that this clock face was fitted with a minute hand, reflecting the growing importance of accurate time-keeping in Victorian life.

John Davis’s clock mechanism is still at the heart of the belfry and driving the time it keeps. It has often been maintained and improved over the last three hundred years. One of the most significant alterations was the replacement of the original pendulum. Davis fitted an iron rod and a lenticular lead bob, so the accuracy of the clock was affected by changes in temperature causing the iron to expand or contract so that the clock lost or gained time. This was replaced with a varnished wooden rod and cylindrical cast-iron bob during the nineteenth century in order to improve the accuracy of the clock.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist and Chapter Librarian

For a more detailed history of the clock and time keeping, see Peter Ashworth’s article in the 1989 Friends’ Report, pp. 437-448.

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.