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Once upon a time…

Researching Literary Clocks and Watches

Once upon a time…

For the BHI Museum’s upcoming event to mark the clocks going forward, the theme is timekeepers in literature and song, or ‘Once Upon a Time’ (get it?).

Leading up to the event, I have been doing research into this theme and thinking about how it relates to the collection we have at the museum. This blog presents some of my preliminary research in the form of a top 10 of literary clocks and watches. At the moment, I am in the process of condensing and clarifying this initial research for interpretation panels at the event.

1. Hickory Dickory Dock – The long case clock that the mouse runs down
‘Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock’

Hickory Dickory Dock was first published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744. Although more or less a nonsense poem, the rhyme is thought by some to have a connection with the large astronomical clock at Exeter Cathedral, which dates back to the 15th century. Mice and rats would run up and down the clock’s ropes, much to the clergy’s annoyance. To solve this problem, the church reportedly built a cat flap just below the clock, through which the preacher’s cat would enter to scare away the mice.

2. Alice in Wonderland – The White Rabbit’s pocket watch
‘…the rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and then looked at it, and then hurried on…’

C.S. Lewis’s rabbit has a very human, mechanistic and run-of-the-mill pocket watch – a symbol of the character’s contradictory absurdity. It is an animal, but one which dresses like a human and worries constantly about being late.

3. Tom’s Midnight Garden – The grandfather clock that strikes 13
‘Yes, you could hear it striking, very distinctly; you could count the strokes. Tom counted them, and smiled condescendingly: the clock was wrong again in its striking – senselessly wrong.’

This children’s book by Philippa Pearce was published in 1958. In the tale, the grandfather clock at Tom’s aunt and uncle’s house has the magical ability to transport Tom back in time into a wonderful Victorian garden, where he befriends a young girl named Hattie.

4. Frère Jacques – The ringing bell
‘Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines
Ding dang dong, ding dang dong.’

Frère Jacques is not, as is commonly thought, someone’s brother named Jack. Actually, Frère Jacques is probably a monk who has overslept. In the third line of the rhyme the lazy monk is being told that the morning bells, which he should have been awake for, are already ringing.

5. Great Expectations – The stopped clocks
‘I felt as if the stopping of the clocks had stopped Time in that mysterious place’

Miss Havisham is a tragic character in this famous novel by Dickens, published between 1860 and 1861. All of the clocks in her house are stopped at twenty to nine, the moment that her fiancée abandoned her on the day of their wedding. Together with her refusal to change out of her wedding dress, they symbolise her inability to move on from that terrible moment.

6. Oranges and Lemons – Church bells
‘Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clements.
I owe you five farthings,
Say the bells of St Martins.’

This traditional English nursery rhyme features the bells of many churches located in and around London. It wasn’t until the 16th century that people started to have access to personal timekeeping devices, and even then only the rich would have been able to afford a clock or watch. Communities would therefore have depended on things like church bells and factory whistles to know the time.

7. 1984 – The clocks striking thirteen
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

In one of the most famous first lines in literature, the eerie mood created by the clocks striking thirteen perfectly sets the scene for Orwell’s dark, dystopian novel.

8. Peter Pan  – The watch swallowed by the crocodile
‘The crocodile! No sooner did Peter remember it than he heard the ticking.’

‘Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’, written by J.M Barrie and published in 1904, features a famous ticking watch, but one that we never get to see, as it is hidden in the belly of a crocodile. The crocodile ate the watch along with the hand of its owner, Captain Hook, before the start of the story.

9. My grandfather’s clock – The eponymous grandfather clock
‘My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.’

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this song is responsible for long case clocks also being called grandfather clocks. It was recorded by Johnny Cash in 1959 but was also played before then on the BBC radio programme Children’s Favourites.

​10. Julius Caesar – Rome’s anachronistic timepieces
“Peace! count the clock,”… “The clock hath stricken three”.

These words are spoken by Brutus and Cassius in this iconic play. 18th and 19th century critics were infuriated and amused by this historical inaccuracy, believing Shakespeare included them in his 1599 play because he did not realise that striking clocks did not exist in ancient Rome.

Learning and thinking about clocks and watches in literature has been really interesting, and I’m hoping that attendees on the day will find literary clocks and watches just as fascinating as I have!

By Emma Raymond, Resilience Syndicate Intern at the British Horological Institute

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