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The Intriguing Story of the Act of Parliament Clocks

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The ebb and flow of time has always fascinated humanity. Over the centuries, we’ve devised numerous mechanisms to measure its passage, from ancient sundials to the intricate digital timepieces of today. Among these chronometers, the Act of Parliament clock occupies a unique niche, both for its grand design and the peculiar piece of history that gave it its name. We take a look at the history of Act of Parliament Clocks along with some examples and price guide.

An Act of Parliament clock the dial signed Thos Smith YORK
An Act of Parliament clock the dial signed Thos Smith YORK, , the black japanned cased later decorated with chinoiserie birds, flowers and lattice work, having four pillar eight day timepiece movement, with brass pendulum and lead weight. Sold for £3,200 at
Roseberys London, February 2023.

Emerging in the heart of the United Kingdom during the mid-18th century, the Act of Parliament clocks were predominantly designed for public spaces. Their impressive size, boasting faces that ranged from two to five feet in diameter, made them particularly suited for inns, taverns, and coaching establishments. Hung prominently on walls, these clocks weren’t merely decorative pieces; they played an essential role in the lives of travellers, enabling them to ascertain the time or adjust their personal timepieces.

While taverns were their primary home, these clocks also found their place ‘below stairs’ in grand houses, ensuring that even the bustling households ran on time. Fine Chinoiserie Act of Parliament Clocks can fetch many thousands of pounds.

Myths and Reality: The Act of Parliament Connection

There’s a captivating narrative surrounding these clocks, tying them to the fiscal decisions of 1797. Prime Minister William Pitt introduced a contentious tax on clocks, demanding five shillings per timepiece. Predictably, this did not sit well with clockmakers, leading to a strong public backlash. The tax’s unpopularity was so profound that it was scrapped in just nine months.

18th Century black lacquered Chinoiserie Act of Parliament or Tavern clock by William Mayhew of Woodbridge
18th Century black lacquered Chinoiserie cased Act of Parliament or Tavern clock by William Mayhew of Woodbridge, , the 70cm cm dial to the eight day four train movement with royal pendulum, contained in case decorated with figures. Sold for £7,000 at Penrith Farmers’ & Kidd’s PLC, February 2020.

A popular tale has it that in a bid to sidestep this tax, tavern-keepers commissioned these large clocks, giving rise to the alternative moniker, ‘Act of Parliament’ clocks. However, this tale might be more of legend than factual history. These clocks had already been a fixture from as early as the 1720s and enjoyed widespread appeal throughout the 18th century. While the 1797 tax act did not usher in the creation of these clocks, it inadvertently provided a catchy title for an already beloved timepiece.

Today, original Act of Parliament clocks are highly sought after by collectors and antique enthusiasts. Their simplicity, combined with the rich history they embody, makes them timeless pieces, pun intended. Modern reproductions, inspired by these classic designs, also find pride of place in many contemporary settings, from chic urban bars to boutique hotels.

In conclusion, the Act of Parliament clocks serve as a reminder of a unique intersection of craftsmanship, public life, and legislative whimsy. They stand testament to how stories, whether steeped in fact or folklore, can lend everyday objects an aura of mystery and significance, ensuring they are remembered long after their original purpose has faded.

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