Church Clock

cc-1smIt’s not often that a major purchase in 1762 turns into a major headache in 2017. But that is what happened with the First Church’s clock in Ipswich.

The First Church (uppercase “C”: the institution) built its first church (lowercase “c”: the building) in 1634, the year that Ipswich was founded. The church stood on the highest point in town and was the town’s first public building. It was built of log and thatch and surrounded by a stone wall, good for defense as well as worship.

This first church lasted only a dozen years. In 1646, the Church decided it needed a better church, so it built the second church — which lasted all of 50 years. Then it, too, was torn down to make way for the third First Church which, in 1749, was replaced by the fourth First Church (all this seems weird to me: I grew up in England where churches were built of stone and were expected to last for eternity. In Ipswich, England, by way of contrast, the parish church was built in the 1350s and is still going strong.)

The fourth First Church, built 1749, with the clock installed

By the middle of the eighteenth century, a modern town needed a public clock. People needed to organize their businesses and activities on a common schedule: a public clock marks the beginning of scheduling – without which life today would be impossible. Before then, the church bell had been rung every day at 5.00 am, noon and 9.00 pm, which at least did something to keep people within a common time frame. A town clock had become a civic necessity, but there were no capable American clock makers at the time, so the Ipswich clock had to be ordered from England. The maker is not recorded, but construction and stylistic details suggest it was John Hawting of Oxford.

The fifth First Church, built 1846, with the clock in its tower

As the parish records tell us, “A clock purchased by subscription was landed in Ipswich May 29, 1762. The Parish on May 31st voted their readiness to receive it into the steeple of this meeting house and September 16, 1762 they voted to be at the charge of putting it up there.”

In 1846, the First Church built its fifth church and relocated the clock into the new steeple where it continued to keep the town clicking along like (ahem!) clockwork.

And then – calamity! In June 1965, the church was hit by lightning and set on fire. The clockworks were saved and parishioners gathered them up, stored them in boxes — and forgot about them.

The tower of the fifth First Church after the 1965 fire

Fifty years later, a tower clock expert comes on the scene. Donn Lathrop had heard about the boxes of clock parts and volunteered to take them to his Vermont workshop and put them back together again. And he did just that. Today the clock is back in town in full working order and probably more accurate than at any time in its history – it loses just one minute in 24 hours.

The tower had to be demolished after the 1965 fire.

And here’s the problem. There’s no question of the clock’s importance: it’s the first town clock in Ipswich and it’s one of the earliest in New England. But it’s huge. It’s eight feet high and six feet wide.

It’s too big for the tower of the sixth church, which is fitted with a smaller copy of it, and so for the time being the original clock is sitting in a hallway outside the pastor’s office. So, we have the clock and we have its original place, but we can’t put them back together! We’re all trying to figure out just what is the best thing to do with an eight-foot tall homeless clock. If you have any ideas, we’d love to hear from you.

The sixth First Church today with its replicated, but smaller, clock.

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