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By Peter Thorpe on

Time detectives—discovering the history of railway clocks

We get a surprising amount of enquiries about railway clocks. Luckily, we have quite a few records in the archives.

Our vast archive collections are full of amazing and fascinating documents like intricate drawings of famous locomotives by highly skilled draftsmen, letters & notebooks written by iconic engineers, and thousands of stunning railway advertising posters. But you may be surprised to discover that a relatively tiny collection of archive material creates some of the most asked-about archives we hold.

Not a week goes by without us receiving an email asking whether we have any information or history on a former railway company clock. I felt that this was a good time to explain how we can help you find out the history of your railway clock. I’m sure that at the end of March you were busy making sure your clocks were changed to the correct time as they went forward one hour—just imagine the job the railway workers had, as they were responsible for many clocks at each station, depot or works, all of which would need adjusting manually.

Time was essential for the running of the railways, indeed the standardisation of time across the country to Greenwich Mean Time was a direct result of the development of the railways during the 19th century. Before then people operated on local time depending on their distance from the Greenwich Meridian, but operating on local time just wasn’t practical for the railways which ran to a precise timetable so each station and signal box needed to operate to the same standard time.

Railway companies owned tens of thousands of clocks. Each signal box would have one, stations would have clocks in the booking office, on the platform, in the waiting rooms and in the station master’s office. Large stations could have huge numbers of clocks, all of which needed to be kept to time, and of course there were also clocks in offices, railway works and goods depots—time was so vital to the operation of the system. With so many clocks, the companies needed to know where each one was located so that they could ensure they were maintained in good order. So just like all the locomotives and rolling stock, the railway companies numbered and kept records of their clocks!

It would be wonderful if we had detailed and complete records on every clock, but unfortunately that isn’t the case and not all records survive. What records do exist in our archives vary depending on the railway company or BR region they came from. The records we hold tend to fall into three distinct types: clock registers, clock record cards and clock censuses.

Clock registers are numerical lists of each clock in ledgers, and always include the location of the clock but sometimes additional details.

LNER clock register no.2

Above is a page from of one of the clock registers for the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) and its successor regions under British Railways—the Eastern & North Eastern regions. The LNER inherited clocks from many different companies after the railway grouping in 1923, and like just like their locomotives found that they now had multiple locomotives with the same number. So just like they did with the locomotives, they instigated a re-numbering scheme for clocks, and the registers we hold reflect that re-numbering, they don’t have any details of clock numbers prior to the LNER scheme, so if you have a clock with a pre-grouping number it isn’t going to be of help. The LNER registers just record the number, the specific location of the clock, the dial size and other details, and later notes often provide details such as a clock being sold or condemned or in a few cases even stolen.

The page shown lists some of the clocks from York. Most will have long disappeared from their original location, but at least one is still in place, and you may well have walked past it if you have ever visited the National Railway Museum. It is the 6610, a 14-inch double-dial hanging clock located at York Goods Time Office. This stands outside the goods shed that is now our Station Hall and the time office is now the office for the Friends of the National Railway Museum.

And as per the register there is another dial inside the office as well.

LNER Clock register entry for clock 6610
Clock No. 6610 – above the entrance to the FNRM office (previously the time office for York Goods)

We also have some registers for Southern Railway clocks. Southern seem to have taken another approach to their clock re-numbering issue—rather than have a completely new set of numbers, they decided to put prefixes on the existing clock numbers to designate what area they were from.

A page from the Southern registers, in this example for London & South Western (SW) clocks.

These registers provide far more information than their LNER equivalents, they include the maker of the clock, the date of purchase and even the price and have notes of repairs. As can be seen they can also be rather difficult to decipher, especially where alterations have been made!

Detail from Southern clock register entry

We don’t have registers for Great Western Railway or London Midland & Scottish Railway clocks, but we do have another sort of record: Clock record cards.

Examples of LMS clock record cards, one from Manchester Victoria West Junction and another from Horwich.

These provide locations, dial size and sometimes additional details such as maker and notes of repairs on the back, but not always as can be seen in the Horwich example pictured. We don’t have a complete set of these cards and there are many gaps, so if you are looking for information on an LMS clock, we might not always have the record you want.

We have a similar set of cards for the GWR, although it would appear that the majority of the clocks that we hold cards for were scrapped, so are not often not of of much help for people looking for a record of their old Great Western clock.

Examples of GWR record cards

The final type of record we hold are clock census records. We have a series of returns for a census carried out by British Railway London Midland Region in 1969. These consist of sheets returned by each station or depot. Below is one of the sheets for Carlisle Citadel station, a large station that had many clocks, this is just one of a number of sheets for the station. The information includes the manufacturer where known, and also whether the clock is “surplus to requirements”. As these records are organised by location, it isn’t really possible to find a location just by knowing the number, you would have to search through all the sheets!

BR(LMR) clock census return for Carlisle, January 1969

If you would like to delve into these records to try to find the history of your old railway clock you can make an appointment in Search Engine, our library and archive centre.

2 comments on “Time detectives—discovering the history of railway clocks

  1. Hi Peter,a very good day to you.
    I’m David from Malaysia. I owned a LNER clock number 4658,dial size = 12″.
    I’m really keen on the background information on this particular clock? Any idea how? Please advice. Thank you.
    Regards,

    David Teo.

    1. Hi David, The entry in the LNER clock register for 4658 has slightly defeated us on this occasion. It was at “Hull, West” the next bit we haven’t been able to decipher then “No.4 room”. It also confirms it had a 12″ dial. Unfortunately the chap who made the entry had a habit of making a flamboyant flourish at the start of every word, and in the case he has abbreviated the description, which doesn’t help with working out what it means! If anyone else does want us to check out an entry for a clock it is best to contact us through our Search Engine email address – search.engine@railwaymuseum.org.uk
      Kind regards,
      Peter

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