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Stephen Jackman's Clock Courses

Stephen Jackman's Clock Making Courses

Published on 1st June 2019


Time is everything. We can be ahead of it, behind it, biding it, in the nick of it, or in a race against it. It’s always of the essence.We trust that time will tell, heal all wounds. We hope certain things are simply a matter of time, or that our legacy will stand the test of it. But time flies. And few of us take the time to discover the secrets behind the clocks that keep it. For those who do, horology can become an obsession. It can define a lifetime...


A Parisian Tale

In 2007, an extraordinary thing happened in Paris. A clock maker and an underground ‘cultural guerrilla’ group devoted to maintaining France’s national heritage, broke into the Pantheon, one of the city’s most famous monuments. From a secret workshop under the dome, they meticulously restored the Pantheon’s clock, which hadn’t worked in decades. It took a year, with even security guards oblivious to their presence.

It is a tale that would be appreciated by those meticulously at work inside a barn workshop, within the idyllic grounds of Bignor Park, Pulborough. Under the tutelage of Stephen Jackman, they are on a week-long clock course, with each of them taking apart a clock and rebuilding it, piece-by-piece, in their own time.

Dwindling Trade?

Stephen has worked with clocks for 14 years. His full-time business is repairing, servicing and making them, specialising in long case (Grandfather) clocks and musical pieces. Six times a year, he hosts a course that attracts clock restoration specialists and horology enthusiasts from around the country and beyond.

“I find the courses enjoyable, as working alone can be lonely at times,” said Stephen. “It’s good to talk to others, particularly my regulars, who visit several times a year. Most are retired and often travel a fair distance. I have two regulars from Ireland and we have welcomed people from Israel, America and Portugal.”

“Courses of this kind are few and far between. The British Horological Institute at Newark runs one, but this appeals to people because of the beautiful countryside setting. Sadly, horology is a dwindling trade. I believe that West Dean College of Art and Conservation is now the only educational centre in the world running a full-time clock course. There used to be many in this country alone.” 

“That’s frustrating, as there is an opportunity for young people to learn a valuable skill that can provide them with a good income.”

The Deep End

The course was started about 35 years ago by renowned clock expert John Wilding, before David Churchill took the reins.Stephen had attended several of David’s courses when they were held at Brinsbury College, before he was offered the chance to take over.

“Previously, I was a cabinet maker, but had grown tired of the dust involved and needed a career change,” recalls Stephen. “I had studied clock restoration at West Dean, joining for the second half of the two-year course as I had prior experience.”

“During that time, I asked David if I could come along to help him with the clock courses, just to gain more experience. When he did call me, he instead asked if I wanted to buy the business! Having only worked on a handful of clocks at the time, I wasn’t sure that I had the ability to fill his shoes, as your clock making skills improve with experience. You learn something new with each one. But I decided to jump in at the deep end and it proved to be the right thing to do.”

Careful Buying

Stephen welcomes ten people on to each course and they will each bring one or two clocks to repair. They will usually all be different, such is the variety of clocks in the world. 

During the week, the group encounters different problems and obstacles, with a wide range of clocks spanning several centuries. Stephen often uses these stumbling blocks as an opportunity for a demonstration, to help further the group’s collective knowledge. 

Some people might bring in a Grandfather clock picked up for only a few pounds at auction, whilst others might have highly valuable pieces. On one occasion, a collector on the course repaired a clock worth £30,000.
“I always advise against buying on eBay,” says Stephen. “Clocks will often have missing parts and we can’t fix them. With an auction house, you can check if a clock is complete. Having damaged parts is better than having missing parts, as replacements can often cost more than you paid for the rest of the clock!”

“We see some fascinating pieces. Somebody from a famous clock making family attended a course as he was building a collection. It was amazing to see his antique pieces, dating back to the 18th century. It was the clock equivalent of somebody walking into an art gallery with an original Van Gogh painting. It’s the variety that makes this exciting. Even after 14 years, there are two clocks here this week that I have never seen before.” 

Best of British

Some of the most sought-after names among collectors are those of British clock makers in the 16th and 17th century. A reportedly “dirty” table clock by Thomas Tompion, renowned as the ‘father of English clock making’ sold for £900,000 in 2003. A design by Joseph Knibb went under the hammer for £1.2million, whilst a clock by French maker Breguet sold for over £5million. 

“Collectors all over the world are happy to pay huge sums for the finest clocks by the likes of Tompion, Knibb and Edward East,” says Stephen. “As with art, value very much depends on who made it. A stunning painting might be worth next to nothing, whilst one signed with the right name can be worth millions.”

“In the 1600s, English makers came to the fore and what followed was a golden age. The French made beautiful clocks too, but in my opinion, ours were best!” “The dawn of the industrial revolution and mass production killed the industry, but the clocks that survived became increasingly desirable. Even today, the market is evolving. Many of the Napoleon-hat style Grandfather clocks that were once everywhere are becoming collectable. Art deco clocks that have been in garages and sheds for decades suddenly have appeal. Everything has its time.”

Calming Pendulum

It is said that the swing of a pendulum can be relaxing, helping to lower your heart beat and reduce stress. Perhaps it’s this feeling of time passing like clockwork that makes Stephen’s courses so appealing.

Niels Archer took with him a clock made by London-based maker Thomas Bradford, made circa 1695. “The clock has been in my family for as long as I can remember and has been reasonably well looked after,” said Niels. “But it needs a good clean and regular service to ensure it doesn't deteriorate. It is valuable, as it comes from the period when British clock makers were at their peak, so I need to handle it delicately. It’s reassuring to have someone with Stephen’s knowledge to turn to with any problems!” 

Dickie Harmer is an old-hand when it comes to clock repairs, describing it as “a hobby that got out of hand!” He took a French clock by Pons, made in 1820 -1830. “You have to be careful with the tiny striking mechanism in this clock. If you break it, a replacement will cost you £1,000.” David Chamberlain was working on a Grandfather clock made in Leighton Buzzard, circa 1830. “The clock belongs to a friend,” he said. “People know that I do this as a hobby, so they regularly bring me clocks in the hope that I will fix them!”

“I tend to bring something unusual to Stephen’s courses, which I’ve been coming to for about eight years. It's good to lean on his expertise, as well as that of others around the table. For me, it’s as much about the social side as anything. Those of us staying in the local pub meet up in the evening, chatting about clocks over a pint or two. We all have plenty of time to discuss clocks!”



For more on Stephen Jackman’s courses visit www.clockcourses.co.uk