Keeping Time

The Old Morpeth Courthouse Clock

When the Morpeth Courthouse was built in 1862 it didn’t quite meet expectations. Notably, its striking edifice was without a clock. Since only the wealthiest residents could afford their own clocks, there was a pressing need for a communal clock, complete with an hourly chime, loud enough to be heard throughout the town and beyond.

When a second-hand clock arrived from England there was one further hitch. The clock machinery, or movement, was designed to be driven by heavy brass counterweights travelling from top to bottom over a seven day period. The building, however, was not high enough to allow the weights to fully descend. As a solution, Morpeth adopted an unconventional schedule for resetting the clock every six days instead.

It’s not clear that a clock can be blamed but there were tales of husbands going out on Saturday and not returning until Monday because ‘the clock had not been wound’. Whatever the truth, winding the clock was an important job requiring strength and dexterity. A keeper needed to climb a ladder into the roof then—using the crank handle—wind each ninety-two-kilogram counterweight to the top of the tower, reset the pendulum and climb back out.

This routine came to an end in 1970, when the clock was updated with a modern electronic mechanism.