The Library clock

Image of the library clockIn his will, Dr Joseph Wiglesworth (1854–1919) left to the University of Bristol his ornithological collection together with fund and ‘all the moveable furniture in my Library at Springfield House’ in Winscombe, Somerset, ‘to be utilised for or towards furnishing projected Ornithological Library in the said University’. It is my belief that the longcase clock and accompanying chair which are now in the possession of the University Library are part of Wiglesworth’s bequest.

The clock is signed by Richard Baber of Backwell, North Somerset.

Image of the clock face

Dr Aitken Couper (then of 6 St Oswald’s Road, BS6 7HT) repaired the clock in February 1992. He made the following comments:

Image of internal mechanismThis clock is a bit of a puzzle. The [walnut] case, which is severely warped, seems to be not very old, but is quite handsome in an eighteenth century manner. The movement, sometimes called ‘bird-cage’, is of a very old type derived from Elizabethan lantern clocks and older turret clocks, with the striking train behind the going train. However, this style was used for 30-hour movements in the south and west of England long after plate movements and white dials had become normal elsewhere. The brass dial was also used later in the south and west, but in this clock the [twelve inch] dial [with engraved centre] is of rolled brass sheet (available towards the end of the eighteenth century in England). The chapter ring could be older, and is pegged to the dial, but the spandrels seem to be of indifferent nineteenth century quality.

Norma Knight (then Hon. Secretary of the Nailsea & District Local History Society) contributed the following article to BRUIN, the Library staff newsletter (no. 139, July 1992).

Who was Richard Baber of Backwell, clockmaker?

The question was first asked some years ago by Mr B.J. Greenhill in one of his Occasional papers for the Nailsea and District Local History Society. He reported having seen a seven-foot longcase clock in Wraxall inscribed ‘Richard Baber of Backwell’, and had heard of another at Kingston Seymour. Recently the University of Bristol raised the subject again. There is in the Library at the University a late eighteenth century longcase clock, newly refurbished and restored and bearing the name of Richard Baber of Backwell. It is not clear whether this is a third Baber clock or one of those already mentioned which has changed hands in the intervening years. There appears to be no mention of Richard Baber in any of the standard lists of clockmakers. [But see the notes from A.J. Moore below.]

The Baber family is long established in Bristol and north Somerset. The first surviving mention in Backwell is of Frances Baber, baptised 24th March 1559 and buried on 7th April of the same year. One branch was connected with the Tynte family. Edward Baber was a Serjeant-at-Law in Bristol who bought an estate at Nempnett which his descendant, another Edward, sold to Sir Halswell Tynte in the early eighteenth century. There are references to other Babers, such as Samuel, William, John and George, but a Richard does not appear until 1730, when one was the tenant of Mizzymead farm, part of the Tynte estate in Nailsea. However, by reason of age, it seems unlikely that he was the same man as the Richard Baber who was living in Backwell in 1749 and later.

Evidence from leases and parish records shows that Richard Baber of Backwell, yeoman, was married by 1749 and the father of a son also called Richard. His wife was Elizabeth (Betty) Hellier, daughter of John Hellier, tenant of an estate formerly held by the Willyn or Willings family, which comprised a messuage, garden, orchard and 30 acres of land, meadow and pasture at Downside, and also 44 acres of pasture and arable called Oatfield Tynings. In 1749 John Hellier leased another four acres of meadow or pasture called Witchfields, which was situated in Church Town, Backwell.

In the next few years Richard and Betty had other children: Dinah in 1749, William in 1752, and Mary in 1755. Betty died in 1765. By that date her husband was paying the land tax on the estate, John Hellier being described in 1757 as of Cleeve in the parish of Yatton. In 1776 the boundary of the manor of Backwell was said to run ‘down to late Willings house now Richard Baber’s’. By 1787 the Downside part of the holding was in the hands of Mary Baber, Richard’s daughter, who died about Christmas 1790. The lease then expired and passed to the Foord family. The farm is now known as Combe Head Farm.

There is no evidence to show that Richard Baber senior was other than a farmer who paid church and poor rates and occasionally participated in vestry meetings.

Meanwhile, Richard junior married Mary Barns on 10th July 1769, and their daughter, also Mary, was born in the following year. In 1771 Richard was described as a labourer of Cleeve when he acquired the lease of the four acres of Witchfields, at which time there was no mention of a house. However, by 1787 a survey described him as tenant of a house, garden and outhouses called Witchfields. In December 1791 the lease was renewed and he apparently remained there for the rest of his life, playing a modest part in parish affairs. He died on 7th May 1818, his daughter Mary having predeceased him in 1810, but his wife survived until February 1826. His house no longer remains, but a modern house stands near the site.

The Backwell records have so far failed to identify him as a clockmaker, but from Long Ashton there is some evidence of his interest in and skill with clocks. On 14th July 1806 the churchwardens of Long Ashton paid 3s 6d for a ‘horse and cart to convey the Church Clock to Babor’s of Backwele and the same back after t’was repaired’. In October the next year they paid Richard Baber 4 14s 6d for repairing the clock and again on 29th March 1808 as further 10s 6d for repairing and cleaning it. After that it seems not to have needed his further attention. Backwell did not have a church clock but possibly other parishes in the area may have done so and may have made use of his talents.

The following additional notes, also compiled by Norma Knight, are extracted from The clockmakers of Somerset, 1650-1900, by A. James Moore (published by the author, 1998), p. 22.

[Richard Baber was] born in Backwell, near Bristol, in 1743, the eldest son of a farmer, married Mary Burns, 10th July 1769, and buried on 10th May 1818 aged 75. He was a devout nonconformist who in 1800 successfully applied for the authority to hold services. A competent clockmaker who repaired and maintained church clocks in several local villages. In the record of ratepayers he is also referred to as a shoemaker.

Moore quotes parish records referring to Baber maintaining church clocks in Kingston Seymour, Easton in Gordano, Long Ashton and Wraxall. Sale records are quoted for two longcase clocks: a 30-hour clock in a mahogany case listed by Bearnes of Torquay in 1983, and an 8-day clock in a mahogany case sold by Mallams of Oxford in 1995 for 4,700. Given the dates, neither of these can be the Library’s clock. Moore provides a photograph of the clock sold by Mallams (p. 23). He also notes that ‘two other clocks are reported to be at Kingston Seymour and Wraxall’ but that no other details are available.

Dr Peter King (formerly Director of Library Services at the University of Bristol)
July 2013