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Signs and Symbols: Dent’s clock

Third time lucky for The Royal Exchange’s clocktower, today crowned with a horological masterpiece by the renowned clockmaker Edward John Dent

The Royal Exchange clocktower, London The Royal Exchange clocktower

Time has always been important to The Royal Exchange. Founder Sir Thomas Gresham’s original building featured a bell- and clocktower to the right of the main entrance on Cornhill, crowned, as would become the tradition, by a model of the family emblem – the Gresham Grasshopper (read more about that here).

The bell in this tower summoned merchants to the spot at twelve noon and six o’clock in the evening; the approved business hours. However, contemporary records suggest that, by the end of the 16th century, the merchants couldn’t always rely on the house clock, which had an alarming tendency to stop dead. This was addressed during the construction of the second Exchange (1669-1838), which featured a four-faced clock, installed and set up by a local horologist – based in Leadenhall Street – named Edward Stanton (1641 -1715), who eventually became Master of the Clockmaker’s Company.

Stanton’s work was overseen by scientist, meteorologist and inventor Robert Hooke (1635-1703 ) who, among many other posts, was Master of Geometry at Gresham College. The new clock featured nine bells, which could play six (eventually expanded to seven) tunes. When fire destroyed the second Exchange, the Illustrated London News commented: ‘By a singular coincidence, [the bells] were playing the air, “There’s nae luck about the house,” until the flames reached the loft in which were the chimes themselves.’

"I believe the clock you have constructed at The Royal Exchange to be the best in the world, as regards accuracy of going and striking"

George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal

The task of creating a replacement in the third building fell to Edward John Dent (1790-1853), whose highly accurate chronometers were favoured by Charles Darwin on his voyages and by the explorer David Livingstone. Dent’s company is best known for the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster (commonly, and erroneously, called Big Ben) and the one at the Eurostar terminus at St Pancras.

At The Royal Exchange, Dent’s work on the 177-foot tower’s turret clock was overseen by Sir George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal, who later wrote to him: ‘I believe the clock you have constructed at The Royal Exchange to be the best in the world, as regards accuracy of going and striking.’

An account of the Exchange written in 1878 noted: ‘The clock… is true to a second of time. The chimes consist of a set of 15 bells, by Mears, and cost £500, the largest being also the hour-bell of the clock, which weighs a ton. In the chime-work, by Dent, there are two hammers to several of the bells, so as to play rapid passages; and three and five hammers strike different bells simultaneously. The present airs are God Save the Queen, The Roast Beef of Old England, Rule Britannia, and the 104th Psalm. The chime-work is stated to be the first instance in England of producing harmony in bells.’

The Royal Exchange clock, London Two identical clocks, capped by Britannia and Neptune holding a shield, feature on the Cornhill and Threadneedle facades of The Royal Exchange

Note that the Great Clock isn’t the only timepiece at the Exchange – two identical ones bracket the current building, one on Threadneedle and its mirror image on Cornhill. They are notable because they are capped by the figures of Britannia and Neptune holding a shield, which contains an image of Gresham’s original Royal Exchange; a subtle echo of when the first clock summoned the merchants to gather for trade.

Officially opened by HRH Queen Elizabeth I in 1571, The Royal Exchange celebrates its 450th anniversary this year. Our Signs and Symbols series, by author and journalist Rob Ryan, explores the design secrets in and around The Royal Exchange’s magnificent façade.

Visit our heritage page to learn more about the history of The Royal Exchange and keep an eye on our 450 Years site, journal and Instagram for more fascinating facts and insights about The Royal Exchange’s past and present as we commemorate this special milestone throughout the year ahead.

We look forward to welcoming you during 2021, for a considered shopping and dining experience in spectacular and historic surroundings. Please visit our boutiques page for regular updates on our retailers’ opening information and hours, as well as details about virtual appointments and click and collect services.