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World's oldest clock? Probably.

The Salisbury Cathedral clock in Wiltshire must seem pretty boring to most casual visitors because like many very early public clocks, it does not have a dial. It was designed to strike a bell once every hour just to call parishioners to service; and it's all the more boring now as even the strike is disabled!

It's a large, iron-framed movement with not many parts - a 'turret' clock measuring 1.29M by 1.06 and standing 1.24 high. There are no nuts and bolts as they hadn't been invented yet, so the frame is held together with steel tenons and wedges in much the same way that timber structures were being built and some 'rustic' garden furniture is made today.

There is mention of a striking clock in the Cathedral as far back as 1306 (and references to water clocks even before that) but historic evidence exists to suggest that it wasn't this one. This clock is later and said to date from 1386, which if correct, would still make it the oldest surviving working clock in the world.

It originally stood in a detached bell tower at Salisbury. But when the tower was demolished in 1884, a new clock was installed and the discarded one left to deteriorate. It was rediscovered in 1929, when it was restored and put on public display in the main aisle. This 45 year period of inactivity has been the basis of challenges for its title as the World's oldest working clock; that, and the fact that it has no dial or hands so doesn't tell the time in the normal sense.

Its construction resembles that of the Wells Cathedral clock (now in the Science Museum and said to date from 1392, six years later). But this isn't just coincidence because Bishop Erghum moved from Salisbury to Wells in 1386 and probably engaged the same clockmakers. The Wells clock is slightly more advanced, having an internal dial (the oldest dial in the world, in fact) and counting the hours when it strikes.

Of course, history wouldn't be nearly so intriguing if there weren't a few sceptics and a minority of scholars cast doubt on whether the clock now on display in the main aisle of Salisbury Cathedral is the original one built in 1386 for the Tower. Dating turret clocks is fraught with difficulty. Before the Salisbury clock was re-discovered, the Wells clock was thought to date from the 16C but after noting the very close similarities of design and construction, it was re-dated to the 14C. Conversely, another old turret clock at Dover Castle once also believed to date from the 14C because of its original foliot balance, has since been revised to c.1600.

Christopher McKay led an investigation in 1993 in conjunction with the Antiquarian Horological Society and about 70% of the participants concluded that the Salisbury clock was the original 14C one, whilst the remaining 30% thought it to be later.

Clocks of the period were always being modified to improve accuracy so there will always be questions about whether what we see in Salisbury Cathedral is actually the original clock or not. Only the strike train is original, along with the great wheel of the going train. Towards the end of the 17C, the original foliot balance and verge escapement were 'updated' with a pendulum and recoil escapement, offering greater accuracy because in its original foliot and verge form, it might have gained or lost up to a quarter of an hour every day.

Many clocks were 'improved' in this way around that time. The original one at King's College, Cambridge was scrapped altogether in 1671 and replaced with a new movement (costing a princely £40) featuring the new pendulum and recoil escapement, the first of the public clocks so equipped anywhere in the country.

In 1956, the Salisbury clock was restored and in order to bring it back to its original design, the later pendulum and recoil escapement were replaced with a new foliot and verge based on the style of the Dover Castle clock although there is no way of knowing if they accurately resemble the original parts.

It was next overhauled in 2007 at a cost of £2,500 which leaves my modest price list for overhauling a striking clock firmly in the shade.

Click here to read more about the next clock in this series of articles, the WELLS CATHEDRAL clock.


  • The original clock movement at Salisbury
  • The Salisbury weights hang from long ropes wrapped round wooden barrels
  • Iron and wood were used to construct the Salisbury clock
  • A crown wheel drives the foliot movement in the Salisburiy clock
  • The lantern pinions on the Salisbury clock