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Clock is ticking again in the Olde Towne

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Site visit: St George’s Preparatory School students sit with the Thwaites & Reed team of master craftsmen during clock restoration work. Last year, the students donated more than $900 towards the project (Photograph supplied)

When British clock expert Melvyn Lee and his team refurbished the St George town clock they found a surprise.

Hidden between the hour hand and the minute hand was a thin, metal disc not much bigger than a dollar coin.

“The only way you could see that part would be to take the clock apart,” Mr Lee said.

Yet, someone had taken great care to stamp “Thwaites” into the metal.

Thwaites & Reed in London is the firm that crafted the clock back in 1814.

Job well done: the newly painted and gilded clock face at St Peter’s Church in St George (Photograph supplied)

“You often see super bits of craftsmanship on these clocks – even when no one can see it,” Mr Lee said. “Signs of the original makers are everywhere.”

Today, Thwaites & Reed are one of the oldest clockmakers in the world, having been founded in 1740, and Mr Lee is its managing director and principal clockmaker. They handle the upkeep of clocks such as Big Ben in London.

Mr Lee said: “It was a big industry in the early 1800s. Britain led the world in clockmaking. Thwaites & Reed were probably the biggest clockmakers at the time, making over 4,000 of these kinds of clocks over a long period.”

He gave the little piece he discovered, a polishing and then returned it to the clock. If it had needed replacing, it would have been remade by hand. There is no factory churning out pieces for centuries old clocks.

“Hand making a part can get pricey,” Mr Lee said. He said Bermuda’s clock is pretty rare because of its age. This was not his first experience with it.

“This is my seventh visit to Bermuda,” he said. He was last here in 2007, during an $85,000 restoration of the clock.

For him, one of the joys of the job is knowing that the machines he works on will tick on for hundreds of years beyond his life span.

Guiding hands: newly trained Bermudians Phillip Anderson, left, in front, and Ian Birch, stand in front of an entrance to St Peter’s Church, with Ron Gregory, left, Brian Carter, and Melvyn Lee from Thwaites & Reed, behind them (Photograph supplied)

“They are meant to last the lifetime of the building,” he said. “Because these clocks are made from cast iron and brass they don’t deteriorate.

“If something goes wrong they will stop working by themselves. They will sit alone under the cobwebs until a clock maker is able to restore them.”

That is exactly what happened in this case. Storms blew sand into the mechanism at the top of the church tower, and it stopped ticking.

“No one was maintaining it,” Mr Lee said. This time around, Mr Lee and two workmates have trained locals Ian Birch and Phillip Anderson to care for the clock.

“They have taken the clock apart, put it back together, cleaned and lubricated it,” Mr Lee said. “They know what is needed now. They will also be taught how to do some painting and decorating of the dial.”

Mr Lee said the clock was in good hands. The town clock is located at the top of the tower at St Peter’s Church.

To get it to it, there are several flights of extremely steep stairs, a hatch to squeeze through and a narrow walkway that runs around the tower, strictly so that people can work on the clock.

Mr Lee and his team have all undergone height training to work on clocks.

Rotten wood is a potential danger. “Certainly in Bermuda, the wood is under constant attack,” Mr Lee said.

Master craftsmen: Melvyn Lee, managing director and principal clock maker of Thwaites & Reed, right, with Ron Gregory, left, Brian Carter. Thwaites & Reed was founded in 1740, with roots dating at least a century before, and has built thousands of clocks which are found around the world (Photograph supplied)

Clock spaces can be dimly lit, have exposed live wires or nails protruding from the floor. Before doing any work, Mr Lee carries out a health and safety assessment to figure out what protective gear is needed.

“I have never been injured on the job,” he said.

For the St Peter’s job, he wore a hard hat and steel-toed boots. While most construction boots have two layers of protection, his have seven.

“The hat has often stopped me from bashing my head, and the boots from having my feet damaged,” he said. “The boots don’t slip or slide. We don’t get electrocuted and there is penetration protection at the bottom.”

On this project, he worked with two other men from Thwaites & Reed, Brian Carter and Ron Gregory.

“We probably have 150 years of knowledge between us,” Mr Lee said. “My colleagues are modest, but they master craftsmen. We don’t stop learning, and we pass our knowledge on to other people as well.”

Earlier this month, students from St George’s Preparatory School in St George’s visited the clock and spoke with Mr Lee and his team.

Last year they held a fundraiser, squeezing every penny they could out of their piggy banks, and family and friends, to donate towards the clock restoration.

It took $35,000 to get the clock fixed. “Funding for the project came from the Corporation of St George World Heritage Site Fund, the Chubb Charitable Foundation, the Windward Trust, Department of Culture, individual donors, Robertson’s Drugstore and the Meyer Group of companies,” said Alison Outerbridge, part-time manager of Friends of St Peter’s, a charity that helps the old church.

Now the clock is again in working order, chiming every hour.

“I check it every time I hear it, and it is accurate,” Ms Outerbridge said. “Now, I know it is time to go to bed when I hear it chime 11 times.”

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Published November 29, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated November 30, 2023 at 8:25 am)

Clock is ticking again in the Olde Towne

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