Clocks, watches, Dickens

illu000 illu001 illu002 illu004
illu003 illu006

By Julie S. Porter
(c)2000 by the British Horological institute
January 2000. Volume142 No1. pages 20-21.
reprinted by the permission of the author.

Charles Dickens often used clocks and watches as a plot device in his stories. In the Christmas Carol "Scrooge could be found in his usual place beneath the clock at change." Important to the story Scrooge's repeater told him when to expect the ghost. The old miser was not one to trust the local church clock remarking that "an icicle must have got into the works." The writings of Dickens are full of such references. One of his journals which he edited was called Master Humphreys clock. This forever associating him with the homological trade.

Dickens worked clocks into many of the tales. In the Giant Chronicles Joe Toddyhigh gets accidentally locked into the London Guildhall after the Lord Mayors banquet on the instigation of his friend, the Lord Mayor.

... he [Joe Toddyhigh] made light of the accident, [which locked him in the Guildhall] and resolved to feel his way up the stairs again, and make himself as comfortable as he could in the gallery until morning. As he turned to execute this purpose, he heard the clocks strike three.

Any such invasion of a dead stillness as the striking of distant clocks, causes it to appear the more intense and insupportable when the sound has ceased. He listened with strained attention in the hope that some clock, lagging behind its fellows, had yet to strike, - looking all the time into the profound darkness before him, until it seemed to weave itself into a black tissue, patterned with a hundred reflections of his own eyes. But the bells had all pealed out their warning for that once, and the gust of wind that moaned through the place seemed cold and heavy with their iron breath.

While hidden Joe Toddyhigh discovers the Giants Gog and Magog have come to life.

'Our compact,' said Magog after a pause, 'is, if I understand it, that, instead of watching here in silence through the dreary nights, we entertain each other with stories of our past experience; with tales of the past, the present, and the future; with legends of London and her sturdy citizens from the old simple times. That every night at midnight, when St. Paul's bell tolls out one, and we may move and speak, we thus discourse, nor leave such themes till the first gray gleam of day shall strike us dumb. Is that our bargain, brother?' (Illustration 1) [Gog and Magog]

How many clock stores have taken the name The old curiosity shop. This is one of the stories to be found in Master Humphreys clock.To give the villain Quilp some character Dickens has him use the hand of "an old 'Dutch' clock" as a toothpick. A good explanation as to why so many clocks are missing a hand. On the subject of 'Dutch' clocks this was a popular term to refer to what we now call black forest shield clocks. Dutch in this case a popular corruption of the German Deutsche.

Of all the stories of Dickens, none compares to Dealing with the firm of Dombey and son. Sol Gills is an instrument maker. Much of the novel takes place in the instrument shop. Sol Gils is often referred to as a chronometer maker. Since he never seems to sell anything is supposed that he probably is in the repair trade as well. Was this how Dickens saw the shop of Bennett? In the Dickens house in London there is a clock owned by him from his house in Rochester. (Illustration 2)

He had a fair knowledge of how a clock is put together for this touching scene with little Paul Dombey. (Illustration 3)

... Lo and behold, there was something the matter with the great clock; and a workman on a pair of steps had taken its face off, and was poking instruments into the works by the light of a candle! This was a great event for Paul, who sat down on the bottom stair, and watched the operation attentively: now and then glancing at the clock face all askew, against the wall hard by, and feeling a little confused by a suspicion that is was ogling him. The workman on the steps was very civil; and he siad when he observed Paul, 'How do you do, Sir?' Paul got into conversation with him and told him he has not been quite well lately. The ice being thus broken, Paul asked him a multitude of questions about chimes and clocks, as whether people watched up in the lonely church steeples by night and made them strike, and how the bells were rung when people died, and whether those were different bells from wedding bells, or only sounded dismal in the fancies of the living. Finding that his new acquaintance was not very well informed on the subject of the Curfew Bell of ancient days, Paul gave him an account of that institution; and also asked him, as a practical man, what he thought about King Alfred's idea of measuring time by the burning of candles; to which the workman replied that he thought it would be the ruin of the clock trade if it was to come up again. Paul looked on, until the clock had quite recovered its failure aspect, and resumed its sedate inquiry: when the workman, putting away his tools in a long basket bade him good day ...

Once little Paul is out of the way the novel really begins. Captain Ned Cuttle is a one handed pilot. He is one of the most likeable characters in the Dicken's cannon. Who in this day would not want his double cased silver watch. When Sol Gills nephew Walter sets to go off on a long sea voyage the amiable captain offers it to him as a parting gift.

The Captain immediately drew Walter into a corner, and with a great effort, that made his face very red, pulled the silver watch, which was so big , and so tight in his pocket, that it came out like a bung. 'Wal'r,' said the Captain, handing it over, and shaking him heartily bythe hand, 'a parting gift my lad. Put it back half an hour every morning, and about another quarter twards the arter-noon, and it's a watch that'll do you credit.'

Walter refuses the watch. He is in love with the estranged daughter of the proud Mr. Domby, who presides over a large company of business in the city. When things get worse, Florence Dombey moves into the instrument shop with Captain Cuttle. Perhaps her stays are too tight as she faints upon arrival at the shop after running across London alone. The captain attempts to revive her by sprinkling water on her face. The watch again comes into play.

At this stage of her recovery, Captain Cuttle, with an imperfect association of a watch and with a physician’s treatment of a patient, took down his own from the mantel shelf, and holding it out on his hook, and taking Florence's hand in his, looked steadily from one to the other, as expecting the dial to do something. 'What cheer my pretty?, Said the Captain. [to his watch] 'What cheer now? You've done her some good my lad. I believe.' siad the Captain under his breath and throwing an approving glance upon the watch. 'Put you back half-an-hour every morning, and another quarter twards the afternoon, and your a watch as can be ekalled by few and excelled by none.

One hopes that the captain did not have to navigate by this amazing timepiece.

It is interesting to compare the cut where Florence and her made first encounter the instrument shop (Illustration 4) with a cut of Bennett’s shop from a cut in the Sept 1958 edition of the journal. The little midshipman (Illustration 5) who advertises the shop in the novel was actually based on a real figurehead that now can be seen in the Dickens house Museum in London. One almost would think this was a clockwork figure the way Dickens anthoromorpasises the midshipman.

In Little Dorrit, Dickens never actually tells us what Daniel Doyce has invented. He does however take us into the factory.

A communication of great trapdoors in the floor and roof with the workshop above and the workshop below made a shaft of light in this perspective, ... The noises were sufficiently removed and shut out from the counting house to blend into a busy hum, interspersed with periodical clinks and thumps. The patient figures at work were swarthy with the filings of steel that danced on every bench and bubbled up through every chink in the planking.

This description suggests it has something to do with clockwork. Hints of Charles Babbage association with Dickens indicate he may have been the model for which Daniel Doyce is based. Recent work on reconstructing the Babbage engine in the Science Museum in London indicate that what Babbage wanted his workers to do was not technically difficult for the average watchmaker of the time. Little Dorrit does not uses watches as a plot device, However in almost every cut of an indoor scene the ubiquitous clock sits on the mantel. (Illustration 6)

Bleak House Gives us a facinating set of clocks from the ghostly clock of Chesney wold.

There may be some motions of fancy among the lower animals at Chesney Wold. The horses in the stables--the long stables in a barren, red-brick court-yard, where there is a great bell in a turret, and a clock with a large face, which the pigeons who live near it and who love to perch upon its shoulders seem to be always consulting--THEY may contemplate some mental pictures of fine weather on occasions, and may be better artists at them than the grooms.

Or the pretty clock inside, that the young engineer is given to set right.
"Disgrace never comes to Chesney Wold," returns the housekeeper.

Her grandson apologizes with "True. True."

"That is the story. Whatever the sound is, it is a worrying sound," says Mrs. Rouncewell, getting up from her chair; "and what is to be noticed in it is that it MUST BE HEARD. My Lady, who is afraid of nothing, admits that when it is there, it must be heard. You cannot shut it out. Watt, there is a tall French clock behind you (placed there, 'a purpose) that has a loud beat when it is in motion and can play music. You understand how those things are managed?"

"Pretty well, grandmother, I think."

"Set it a-going."

Watt sets it a-going--music and all.

"Now, come hither," says the housekeeper. "Hither, child, towards my Lady's pillow. I am not sure that it is dark enough yet, but listen! Can you hear the sound upon the terrace, through the music, and the beat, and everything?"

"I certainly can!"

"So my Lady says."

Later Lady Deadlock is confronted by the blackmailer
She bows her eyes rather than her head, the movement is so slight and curious, and he withdraws. Clear of the room he looks at his watch but is inclined to doubt it by a minute or thereabouts. There is a splendid clock upon the staircase, famous, as splendid clocks not often are, for its accuracy. "And what do YOU say," Mr. Tulkinghorn inquires, referring to it. "What do you say?"

If it said now, "Don't go home!" What a famous clock, hereafter, if it said to-night of all the nights that it has counted off, to this old man of all the young and old men who have ever stood before it, "Don't go home!" With its sharp clear bell it strikes three quarters after seven and ticks on again. "Why, you are worse than I thought you," says Mr. Tulkinghorn, muttering reproof to his watch. "Two minutes wrong? At this rate you won't last my time." What a watch to return good for evil if it ticked in answer, "Don't go home!"

Tulkinghorn never makes it home, He is murdered on the stair.

How well did Dickens know how watches and clocks work? The mystery of Edwin Drood may have depended on such knowledge. The most enigmatic watch in fiction is the one worn by Drood before his disappearance. It is a gold watch with his initials on it. Found later by the Rt. Hon. Rev Crisparkle, the watch sets up the greatest mystery in modern fiction. Before he disappears young Drood visits a watchmaker referred to here as a jeweler. He is speaking to Edwin about the strange behavior of Mr. Jasper, Edwin's uncle.

for Mr. Jasper dropped in for a watch glass the other day, ... Still (the jeweler considers) that might not apply to all times, though applying to the present time 'Twenty minutes past two, Mr. Drood, I set your watch at. Let me recommend you not to let it run down sir.'

That the watch has run down later in the story is an indication of when if foul play occurred a time could be estimated later. This is one of the first instances of a modern Detective mystery investigation in the English language where the author gives clues that will be used to solve the mystery. The fate of the watch is an important clue. Dickens never finished The mystery of Edwin Drood. At the time such novels were serialized into weekly or monthly parts. The novel is a bit more than half finished. There have been over 1000 attempts to complete it. That watch and how well Dickens knew horology play an important part in the puzzle he left us to ponder.