The brass nameplate on the clock mechanism can be easily read – “Muirhead & Arthur, Glasgow. 1845” and this got me thinking – if the church was built and opened for use in 1844, why was a clock added to the tower and spire a year later?
My investigations took an unexpected turn;
You see, up until 1792, time was normally determined in each town by a local sundial. Clocks and pocket watches were intricate and expensive items and therefore only affordable to the rich but they were also notoriously inaccurate and so sundials were still used to confirm the time, for example, midday.
The problem was that the time of sunrise and sunset obviously changes the further north you go and so midday in London could be up to half an hour different from midday in Thurso. But with transport limited, the difference in time between each town throughout Britain wasn’t much of a problem.
That is until the expansion of the railway system when it became apparent very quickly that a standardised time was needed to avoid confusion, delays and accidents, for example, if you were in Edinburgh waiting for the 3pm train from London, it may have passed ten minutes ago as the London time which the train left by was different from Edinburgh time. This time difference could also see the London train collide with a local train as the time it should pass a certain point on the track would now be uncertain.
So, in November 1840, the Great Western Railway ordered that all the different local times should be synchronised and a single standard time, “London time”, should be used in all its timetables, and at all its stations.
“London Time” was the time set at Greenwich by the Royal Observatory which we now refer to as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
Five years later in 1845, Liverpool and Manchester Railway followed suit and changed their clocks / timetables to “London time” with North Western Railway doing the same in 1846; and in September 1847, the Railway Clearing House recommended that every railway company in Britain adopt Greenwich time at their stations, as soon as possible.
The development of rail networks in North America in the 1850s, India in the 1860s and throughout Europe called for standardised time to be adopted worldwide and in 1879, a chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway named Sandford Fleming proposed adopting a “universal time”.
By 1880, the Statutes (Definition of Time) Bill was put forward to the House of Commons and the whole of the UK converted from “local time” to Greenwich Mean Time.
Fleming’s idea of a “universal time” gained momentum and was put forward to the International Meridian Conference in 1884 where it was agreed that the world would be divided into 24 time zones, starting with the time in Greenwich, England, and adding one hour every 15 degrees of longitude.
So, what has all of this got to do with the Barony St. John’s clock, I hear you ask?
Well, Ardrossan train station opened in 1831 by the Ardrossan Railway (with Ardrossan Pier station opening in 1840). Local historian Helen Abbott has assured me that the original Ardrossan station had a clock – which makes sense as people would want to know what time it was for their train arriving or departing.
So why would the Barony St. John’s church congregation ask for a clock to be built in the church spire a year after the church was built in 1844?
Well, it seems that the railway’s idea of adopting “London time” across the land didn’t go down too well in many towns and counties, especially in Scotland.
In defiance, towns and cities across Britain put up clocks for the “local people”, showing “local time” which was obviously different to the “London time” shown on the railway station clocks. Some towns even built clocks with two minute hands – one showing London time and one showing the slower local time.
In 1851 an enraged reporter wrote an article for the Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal titled “Railway-time Aggression” in which he declared;
“Time, our best and dearest possession, is in danger. We are now obliged, in many of our British towns and villages, to bend before the will of a vapour, and to hasten on his pace in obedience to the laws of a railway company! Was ever tyranny more monstrous or more unbearable than this?”
So, the question remains, was the clock with its four faces installed at the Barony St. John’s church purely to help local people see the time despite there being a clock at the nearby railway station – or was it installed in an act of rebellion against “local time” being taken away by those pesky Londoners?
I am inclined to believe the latter as the clock doesn’t seem to be part of the original design and was installed in 1845, a year after the church was opened – and 1845 happens to be the same year that railway companies started adopting “London time” nation-wide and towns up and down the land were rebelling and building their own clocks.
I have to admit, until I researched this article, I had no idea about “local time”, “London time” and “universal time” so these revelations have been a delight.
It just goes to show that something as simple as a clock tower can hold wonderful historical secrets and I hope this article has whetted your appetite to read more about the wonderful history of the Barony St. John buildings and the many Victorian artefacts I’ve found since starting this project two years ago.
If you would like to volunteer to help me save the church buildings or would like to donate to help me save the buildings, simply contact me via my charity’s website http://www.ScotCPS.org.uk or look us up (ScotCPS) on Facebook or Twitter.
Goodbye for now.