Auntie Nan’s clock – Pt.II

Objects that tell a story

Auntie Nan’s key

Anything made by people has a story to tell, I suppose, but it’s specially interesting when you find intentional communication by someone’s hand. A mason’s mark is more personal than the testament of his work alone. In the loft-space of an 18th Century windmill outside Amsterdam, I was shown the carved names of every miller that had operated and maintained the mill, up there in the beams where hardly anyone sees. Makes you think.

Anyway, as I mentioned in the last post, ANC also had some secrets hidden where hardly anyone sees – signatures of long-dead clockmakers/menders, and with dates. Most couldn’t be seen without dismantling the clock’s movement, so they represent more than a routine inspection. The earliest date is for John Gelston, 1823.

John Gelston

You probably can’t read that. In fact the inscription is hard to read with the naked eye – I had to reflect light off it in several directions before I could read it properly. It says: Cleand March 1823 John Gelston.

So that’s the earliest date that I have associated with the clock, or rather, the clock movement, because there are clear signs that some elements don’t match up – that we actually have a bit of a hybrid here. I’ve no way of knowing whether the case and the works originally belonged together, but the dial certainly doesn’t match. There was a family story that Uncle Bob bought it from a man with a garage full of dodgy clocks that he was in the way of splicing together into working specimens. He was very likely a talented bodger, unlike John Gelston, who can be traced online. He was a respected clockmaker who worked in Newry, Lisburn and Belfast. His dates are 1754 – 1830, so he was nearly 70 when he cleand the clock. He cleaned it again in 1826, but this time he put his mark on the outside, so perhaps did not dismantle it.

A. Kenmuir, April 1871

Here’s Alexander Kenmuir, another member of an established clockmaker family from Lisburn. There are 2 Kenmuir inscriptions, A. Kenmuir in 1871 and H. Kenmuir in 1880. Alexander lived from 1825 to 1886, but H was harder to pin down. There was a Henry Kenmuir listed in the 1901 census for Lisburn, born 1853, probably our guy.

So, if the clock was first cleaned in 1823, how old does that make it? We can only guess – the gaps between the inscriptions are incredibly irregular, varying from 3 years (shortest interval) to at least 40 in the longest. I don’t think a new clock should need any more than an occasional drop of oil for at least a decade, so my best guess would be 1810 or so.

C K Lindsay, May 1933

C K Lindsay, 1933, was the latest date that I could find, and the web was no help in placing him. All in all, we found 6 dated inscriptions, and the “HM” that you may be able to see in the photo above. I don’t think there are any others, although a friend found another Gelston signature on the outside of the plate, that I had overlooked. It seems that I’m probably the first person to strip down the clock movement since 1933, so I’d better proceed with care. At this stage, all the parts are clean, a couple of pivots that were slack have been reworked, and the signs seem good. It could be a long process getting it back into reliable operation, though.

Brass Dial of ANC

The dial of this clock, as I mentioned before, is a bit of a hybrid – “mongrel” might be the word. The first thing you notice is the inscription below the ring of Roman numerals. “McCabe Lurgan” in copperplate engraving. Back to Google…

McCabes are still trading as watch vendors, at least in name. According to the History section of their website: “James McCabe born in 1748 was the son of Patrick McCabe, himself a notable watchmaker from Lurgan in County Armagh in Ireland. James McCabe immigrated to London in 1775 where he established his own business in Bells Building, Fleet Street. On 2nd April 1781, James McCabe, was made an Honorary Freeman of the Clockmakers Company. After this, they seemingly became specialist watchmakers of high reputation. “Among notable owners of McCabes was Lord Horatio Nelson, and the first President of the United States – George Washington who purchased his McCabe pocket watch in Philadelphia in 1793. 

They had all left Lurgan by 1775 according to any records I could find, which means the dial is, in part at least, an 18th Century one. Edit: However: “Irish distributors often stamped their name on the dial so that, if you have a clock that says Donegan’s of Dublin, it may be that it was sold by Donegan’s and made elsewhere. “

If you look carefully, it’s fairly obvious that various brass parts have been bodged into shape to assemble the clock face. See the way the seconds ring has been fitted by filing away part of the inner edge of the hours ring? Another anomaly is the small window in which you can see the number 10. This should be connected to a date mechanism, but there is none on the clock movement, so it always reads 10. There is misalignment too – look at the two winding key openings, they are off level. All rather quirky.

Auntie Nan’s clock

This story may be of interest to my Johnston and Howell cousins…

Auntie Nan was a favourite great-aunt on my father’s side, she lived in Cregagh, Belfast. Much-loved by all her relations, her house was a safe haven and Aladdin’s cave to generations of kids. In the oak-panelled hall stood the grandfather clock that Uncle Bob had bought, probably in the 1930s. After her passing in the 1980s, Auntie Nan’s clock came to live in our house in Co. Clare.

Not Auntie Nan’s clock.

Auntie Nan’s clock, (I’ll call it ANC for brevity), is a longcase or grandfather clock, rather like the one shown above (from an auction site) but not quite so grand. And like the one in the picture, it has a fine mahogany case. A couple of years ago, when I decided the clock really needed taking in hand, I started with repairs to the case. A few softwood parts of the frame had historical woodworm damage and needed to be replaced, and there was one split in the mahogany base.

Repairing the case, ANC.

Now, when all this case-repairing was going on (yes, thanks – it worked out fine) I also had the question of what to do with the movement. ANC has never kept good time for very long – sometimes a few hours, sometimes a week or so, and she stops. I thought I would have to look into this horology business. Old technology is pretty simple, right? So… I put it off.

ANC – the works.

I put it off for a long time.

It was the book – the damn Grandfather Clock repair book. I couldn’t find it. I made some repairs that I could understand ok. Simple things like replacing a click spring in a ratchet. Cleaning and so on… but nothing much. The movement sat in a corner on a jig I’d made to support it. On wet Sundays, I poked around hoping to find The Book (out of print).


Finally found the book this Spring, in a box full of non-book items. With the book, I felt I could take the whole movement apart, check wear and clean all the bearing surfaces. And so, with photos at each stage to help me put everything back in place – I actually stripped it down completely. It gets boring from here on unless you are a clock enthusiast, but I did find something interesting in there.

On the inside of one of the main brass plates, in almost invisible spidery scribings, are the names of people who had opened and cleaned the clock before me. I’ll get into details in Auntie Nan’s Clock Pt II

Finding myself in the Bee-Loud Glade

Bees on the alighting board of a hive

Bees creep up on you.

About 37 years ago I set out an empty hive on the crag behind our garden, and within 3 weeks the bees just moved in. This was outrageous Beginner’s Luck – not to be expected then, and barely conceivable now. But wild honeybees were rather plentiful in the Burren in the early 80s, not so now, for which we can blame the dreaded mite varroa destructor.

Varroa mites arrived in Ireland in the 90s (the books say 1998) and spread so fast that I suspect they had been around but unidentified for a while. They are a parasite on Asian bees, which can coexist with them, but they kill European honey bees – not immediately but gradually. Their presence weakens the colony progressively until they collapse suddenly from stress, infection and debility. Nearly all beekeepers lost a lot of bees, and many of us lost them all.

That’s why there are far fewer wild honeybee colonies – essentially, hives need to be treated to control varroa, or they will die within a few years. The treatments that most of us use now are inexpensive and simple – organic acids like oxalic and citric acid, or in some cases aromatic oils.

Luckily, it is working – hence the Bee Loud Glade.

Bumble bee in our garden

Nowadays, I have 4 or 5 hives in the vicinity of our garden. Four hives is the theoretical maximum that I want to have to manage, but at times there are more. Then there are the bumblebees – 17 or 18 species of these in Ireland, and most of them have a presence in the Burren. In the month of May, it really is bee-loud around here. We are bucking the trend, I would have to say – bee news is generally not good around the world.

To celebrate the continuing vigour of the Roundhouse bees, I decided to push the boat out and buy a cedarwood hive. This is flatpack territory – like IKEA for bees. A well-know bee supply business in Co. Louth sells a rather fine cedar hive with 2 supers (honey decks) for a reasonable price, but you have to put it together yourself.

IKEA for bees.