Thursday, 23 December 2010

Automaton Clock at St Mary Steps Church, West Street

Also known as the 'Matthew the Miller' clock, this interesting relic sits high up on the side of the bell tower at St Mary Steps, and has done so ever since its creation in the early 17th century. According to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, it was probably created by a local clockmaker named Matthew Hopping between 1619 and 1621.

The movement is contained within a small room about halfway up the tower, accessed via a spiral staircase from inside the church. The time is shown on a dial, carved from Beer limestone, above which are three automatons housed within a Gothic niche decorated with ballflower pinnacles. Jenkins recorded the workings of the automaton in the early-19th century as follows: "Over the dial is a small statue of Henry VIII in a sitting posture which, on the clock striking the hour, bends forward its body; on each side is a statue, in ancient military habit, their morions crowned with feathers; they hold in their right hands javelins, and in their left small hammers with which they alternately strike the quarter hours on two small bells placed beneath their feet". (Jenkins isn't entirely accurate here as the two statues either side of the central figure, known as Jacks or Jack o' The Clocks, are mirror opposites so one actually holds his javelin in his left hand and the hammer in his right.)

The two soldiers are made of lead, the sitting figure that Jenkins calls a statue of Henry VIII was originally made of wood and holds a sceptre in his hand. The problem is that no-one really knows if the figure is supposed to represent Henry VIII or not. Apart from the fact that 1619 was the 110th anniversary of Henry VIII's succession to the throne, there seems little reason why a representation of him should've found its way into the clock at St Mary Steps.

The dial below right is a replica of one of the earliest surviving dials of its type in Devon (like the statue of Henry VIII, the original was replaced with a copy during restoration carried out in 1980 and now resides in the local museum). It is very ornate. In the centre is a single gilt-metal hand, one end terminating in a crescent moon and behind which is a blue disc emblazoned with five golden stars and a small sun carved with a human face. Surrounding this are Roman numerals from one to twelve.

Carved into the spandrels are the four seasons represented by the Roman god Apollo with his lyre (Winter), Mars (Spring), perhaps Aestas, often depicted carrying sheaves of wheat, for Summer and finally Ceres holding a cornucopia (Autumn) . The quarterly-hour points are marked with miniature cherubim.

Since at least the mid-18th century the three automatons have been known locally as Matthew the Miller and his two sons. According to Jenkins and numerous other historians, Matthew was a rather corpulent miller who worked at Cricklepit Mill situated on Exe Island just west of the church of St Mary Steps itself. His punctuality in passing the church on his way to work was so acute that the residents of the parish named the clock after him and his two sons. One 19th century source even claims that the church was known as 'Matthew's Church'. Several local rhymes sprung up around Matthew the Miller in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as:

"Matthew the Miller's alive
Matthew the Miller's dead
For every hour in West-gate tower
Matthew the Miller nods his head"

Charles Dickens, a frequent visitor to the city, recorded another version in his periodical "All the Year Around":

"Adam and Eve would never believe,
That Matthew the Miller was dead,
For every hour in Westgate tower
Old Matthew nods his head"

Dickens goes on to write: "If Exeter had been a Spanish city we should have had a hundred legends about these figures, the magicians who framed them and the goblins that haunted them". The precise identification of Matthew the Miller will probably always remain a mystery.

The postcard view left shows the church of St Mary Steps c1900. One last mystery surrounding the clock is simply why it was placed here in the first instance. On the edge of Exeter's medieval industrial zone, St Mary Steps was by the 1620s one of the city's poorer parishes and yet the clock would've been a very expensive piece of kit. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum suggests that perhaps the clock was originally intended for Exeter Cathedral but, for whatever reason, it was assembled at St Mary Steps instead. The museum cites a similar automaton called 'Jack Blandifer' at the cathedral at Wells as evidence for the theory.

Another possibility is that the clock was funded by a wealthy private donor, but the most wealthy parts of the West Quarter lay within the parish of St Mary Major not that of St Mary Steps. The clock just seems to appear in the early-17th century, and unless some documentary evidence turns up, the exact origins of the clock will also remain a mystery. The maintenance of the clock today is partially funded by the Exeter Civic Society. It is a pity that such a colourful piece of history should be squirrelled away next to the inner bypass where only the most determined tourist or sightseer ever ventures.

One of the original figures and the dial are shown below as displayed at the local museum.



El Robi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Robi said...

Given that the original statue was replaced several times, that the Jacks were a late addition, and that the clock is at the West Gate of the City, there is a suspicion that as this was the only entry point of Willem van Oranje and his eclectic private army used to enter into the City on his way from Brixham in 1688, that a subsequent replacement of the statue/addition of Jacks was subsequent to this episode. since There is a full and detailed description of WIIIiam's parading for two weeks in Exeter on his white horse in full white armour "cap-a- pe" accompanied by his black colonial troops, his black armoured Finns and others of his retinue etc. it would certainly be a an event to celebrate! By placing armed negros fitting the description of eye witnesses, one on his left and the other on his right sides, would be a notable monument. Observing the museum statue of the main character in full armour and with a sceptre - wearing a gold crown and the three royal feathers above, what an EXCELLENT EXAMPLE of PROPAGANDA for the new King at his triumphal entry into Exeter. King Billy is still around in popular art on houses in Belfast. But Who would recollect such an event willingly in Exeter which was a royalist city and with "catholic" leaning in those days and subsequently? If Dickens and others refer to legends lacking hereabouts, it would not be difficult to see why. Often the most obvious explanations are those that are not spotted amid controversies about past events.

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