I have already written (see here and here) about what I now think I should call “the Angel Clock” rather than “the Islington Clock”, to avoid ambiguity with other noteworthy timepieces in the Borough, though I could also call it “the J. Smith & Sons Clock”, to do justice to its original makers who presented it to the then Borough of Finsbury and finally gave it as a gift to the Borough of Islington.
When I decided to do further research into the clock’s origins and history, I did not know into what deep waters I was tentatively dipping my toes. The story of the clock itself is simple, rendered the more so by the paucity of information about it still extant, much having been lost owing to the passage of time, about 103 years, to be precise. Studying the clock, however, takes one into the history of Islington and Clerkenwell, and thus reveals a fascinating story.
I cannot do more than sketch that story here and for the sake of brevity will do so informally, giving few references. I feel, however, that I must thank James Booth at what is now called Smiths Metal Centres, and Islington’s Local History Centre for their help.
“Iseldone, vulgarly called Islington”, according to John Strype, is an ancient borough with a rich history. The part of it that today we call the Angel was so named after the coaching inn of the same name that stood hereabouts (in one incarnation occupying the site of the present Co-operative Bank) and helped confer a respectability on this neighbourhood that was not shared by areas closer to the City. For coach travellers, it was the gate to London, the station where they disembarked before venturing into the urban centre.
Down the road is Clerkenwell, named after the Fons Clericorum or Clerks’ Well that served the Priory of St John. This area is abundantly supplied with water, a circumstance that encouraged agriculture and, later, an influx of population. Its position makes it a natural overflow area for the City and it was soon the abode of noble families but also of artisans, merchants and manufacturers.
A contribution to the burgeoning population was made by Huguenot refugees fleeing from persecution in France. Their nation’s loss was Britain’s gain because the Huguenots brought valuable skills with them which they readily put to use in their new homeland.
Business, banking and finance were practised by the Huguenots but also arts and crafts such as jewellery and clock making. By the 18th century, Clerkenwell had become a well known centre for the manufacture of clocks. Of Huguenot descent was one Colonel Francis Magniac, famous for the manufacture and export of automaton clocks to China. Though he plays only a small role in this story, he is an example of the interesting people of whom the history of the period affords fascinating glimpses.
Francis Magniac’s relevance to our story is that it was his premises in St John Square that Messrs J. Smith & Sons occupied in 1780, and where they set up their clock manufactory. The Illustrated London News for September 20th 1851 carried an interesting article, illustrated with engravings, on Smith & Son’s factory, explaining that whereas most of the clockmakers in Clerkenwell were “small masters”, buying their components from skilled workmen, the Smiths completed the whole process in-house, including the mixing of metal alloys and the casting of metal parts in their own foundry.
J. Smith & Sons produced a range of clocks that were of high quality. For example, Antique Clocks for April 1989 contains an article describing a Smith’s noctuary. Dating probably from the middle of the 19th century, this was a clock with a revolving ring of pins which enabled a night watchman to certify his presence at specific times during his shift. The writer explains that this is no mere utilitarian device but a quality product, meant to be seen and admired, perhaps in the public area of the owner’s premises.
In the days when the Angel Tavern was a coaching inn, the way into the City was Goswell Road, a very old thoroughfare. City Road came into being only in 1761 and when it did, it met Goswell Road in front of the Inn, creating the triangular “island” that still exists today and has recently been refurbished. In 1826, it is reported that an “obelisk” stood here, surmounted by an ornamental vase and a pair of gas lamps. Later, there was a clock here, but I have not been able to find out anything about it. Perhaps it was the demise and removal of this clock that suggested to the management of J. Smith & Sons that it would be a good idea to offer to the Council a tower clock made by themselves and advertising their business.
The earliest record I have found relating to the Angel clock is a minute of a meeting on November 7th 1905 of the Works Committee of Finsbury Borough Council. This tells us that the committee considered a proposal from Messrs J. Smith & Sons to erect a clock on the superstructure of the “sanitary conveniences” on the triangle at their own expense, provided they could advertise their business on the dials and on the body. (I think the advertisements in fact only ever appeared on the body panels and not on the 4 dials.)
The proposal was accepted and passed to the Council for ratification, on condition that the clock was made according to the supplied plan and that no alterations to this were made without the written permission of the Council.
On March 27th 1906, however, we find the Works Committee considering a proposal from Messrs Smith to insert a further clause in the agreement “to enable them to terminate, after six months’ notice, their responsibility with regard to the clock, by presenting the same to the Council.” This proposal was accepted and recommended to the Council.
This added provision would seem to indicate that, having offered to install and maintain a clock on the triangle, Messrs Smith became worried either about the long-term expense involved or their ability to continue maintenance on it in perpetuity and therefore sought to insert a let-out clause enabling them to revoke their duties by the simply expedient of making a gift of the clock to the Council. Whether there was any discussion or argument in committee is not recorded, merely that the proposal was approved for forwarding to the Council.
In the event, Messrs Smith did continue to service the clock, including weekly windings, for something like 50 years, so perhaps we should see this proposal simply as a sensible precaution in case of future difficulties.
The next we hear comes from a minute of the Council meeting of May 17th 1906 which tells us that the Town Clerk submitted the agreement for the “Clock by the Angel” for sealing and engrossment. This submission was approved.
In my previous article on the clock, I mentioned the replacement of the original clockwork train by an electrical movement. I have found no further information on this and am not sure when this was done or how it fits into the history of the clock that I have cobbled together. The next documentary evidence of the clock’s history that I have found is a paper submitted to the Development and Planning Committee of what is now the Borough of Islington on September 20th 1984. This is presented as a “Report of Borough Solicitor” and is entitled Gift of the Angel Clock. Its stated purpose is “To seek authority to accept the gift of the Angel Clock to the Council”.
In essence, it seems that Messrs Smith have now decided to invoke the clause allowing them to terminate their responsibility for the clock by making a gift of it to the Council but the whole report makes interesting reading. For example, we learn that “In recent years it has not been maintained, the structure is showing its age and the clock mechanism does not work”. (The Islington Gazette the following year will tell us that the hands were stuck at 1:20!)
The report shows that there has been discussion with Messrs Smith and that they have laid down conditions for acceptance of the clock as a gift. (They are still referred to as “the owners”.) The Council agrees not to dispose of the clock without the owners’ consent; it will locate the clock as close as possible to its present position; it will renovate and restore the clock and thereafter maintain it; it will not make any changes that affect the character of the clock; it agrees that the renovated clock will be painted green and gold.
There was some discussion of the last condition. The Borough Planning Officer apparently thought the clock would look “nicer” if painted black and gold and it was pointed out that the original agreement of 1906 had required the clock to be painted in these colours. However, “I have yet to find anyone who can remember it being anything other than green and gold”. The committee is therefore given the task of advising whether the clock should be painted in accordance with the wishes of the Company (i.e. in green and gold) or whether its officers should be instructed to negotiate a change to black and gold.
There is no record of what followed from this but as the clock is to this day still green and gold, we may assume that the Company’s wishes were respected.
Two more points of interest arise in the Report. Firstly, it appears that the GLC had agreed to fund the renovation and repositioning of the clock, so that “The Committee can agree to accept the gift at no immediate cost to the Council” and secondly, there is made the dry observation that although the panels of the clock advertise the company’s wares, “this too is a traditional feature of the Clock, is not objected to by the Borough Planning Officer and does not accurately reflect the business carried on by the Company”.
It seems that the Council would not wish to be seen to be offering free advertising to a commercial company and is seeking to satisfy its conscience on this issue by asserting that the panel text is out of date and is therefore an historical “feature” rather than an advertisement.
Messrs J. Smith, who seem to have been consulted by the Council at every stage, agreed to the clock being moved away temporarily in May 1985. During its absence from its usual position, it was renovated by a namesake, Smith of Derby, another long established manufacturer of public clocks, and the triangle (now without its “sanitary convenience”) was remodelled as a bus stop. Further restoration work on the clock was carried out in 1990, again by the Derby firm, and in recent months, when the triangle has once again been modified, the clock has been cleaned and repainted.
During the life of the Angel Clock, the company, Messrs J. Smith & Sons, has ceased making clocks (I believe in the late 1930s) to concentrate on supplying specialist metals, an expertise that grew directly out of their clock-making activities. The council structure has been revised too, the old Borough of Finsbury ceasing to exist and the Borough of Islington coming into existence. These breaks in continuity are only to be expected in the course of a century but they unfortunately play havoc with record-keeping. For example, there is no known copy of the original agreement or covenant under which the clock was set up. The Council and the Company must have had one each but these have presumably been put away for safe keeping and their location forgotten. Or perhaps they have even been destroyed.
Unless some so far undiscovered new material comes to light, the story of the clock will remain patchy, like a Bayeux Tapestry with holes in it. That is a pity, but we at least still have the clock itself, freshly painted in its traditional green and gold, and once again keeping time on its home ground in the triangle. Long may it continue to do so.
Researching the story of the Angel Clock has been fun and has given me a feeling of joint ownership of this public heirloom in addition to my existing fondness for it. Nor have I given up hope of finding out more. Even now, I am awaiting a reply to an email sent to another potential provider of information. If I learn anything new, I will pass it on.