Downham Town Clock Tower at night

Downham Market Clock Tower

Presented to the town by a local businessman, it’s been at the centre of social and civic life in Downham Market for over 140 years - and in all that time has only needed one major overhaul

In 1878 people got excited about all sorts of things - Gilbert and Sullivan had just opened a new musical called HMS Pinafore, and there was a summer heatwave. The obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle was being erected on the banks of the River Thames (no one seemed to mind that it was actually made some 1,500 years before Cleopatra’s birth), and the latest typewriter was unveiled - which included a remarkable new feature called a shift key.

In Downham Market, meanwhile, a vast crowd of people (including over 500 local schoolchildren) gathered in the town square to see local businessman, draper, grocer and clothier James Scott unveil his lasting legacy to Downham Market in the form of an iconic clock - something the townspeople had been wanting for over 30 years.

It was such a grand occasion that the attending schoolchildren were given a special commemorative coin to mark the event.

A local newspaper reported that Scott hoped the clock would “be a lasting memento of his generous and benevolent disposition towards his neighbours, and will hand down his name to prosperity, and denote in years to come that he had at heart the improvement of Downham and the welfare of its inhabitants.”

Fortunately, the clock itself managed to live up to such an accolade. Standing 33ft tall, the cast-iron construction wasn’t Scott’s work entirely, although he certainly provided the £450 necessary for its creation.

It was designed by London-based William Cunliffe, built by Benson of London, and featured a bell (“made with all the latest improvements”) by Warner & Son - who’d once cast the original Big Ben. Happily, local businesses were also involved in the project - Robert Bleder laid the foundations, William Lawrie did the stonework, and local ironmongers Rhoda Trotter & Son carried out the final installation.

Downham Market Clock Tower
Old photo of Downham Market Clock Tower
Downham Market Clock Tower

With plenty of ornate details, an octagonal base and cuboid clock chamber, the decidedly Gothic clock became an immediate focus and much-loved talking point in the centre of Downham Market, not least because it featured the novelty of having all four of its dials illuminated by gas light - with automatic ignition, no less.

The clock has played a central role in the social and civic life of Downham Market ever since, and its appearance in local media offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of the town over the years. It was reported in 1907, for example, that Harry Gates - who was on the board of the Guardians of the Workhouse at the time - claimed that no one in Downham was out of work, other than “a few lazy fellows standing against the clock.”

Now Grade II listed, the clock has only ever needed one major refurbishment, and that came in 2004 thanks to Smiths of Derby, who’ve been one of the country’s leading clockmakers since 1856 - they built the huge turret clock for St. Paul’s Cathedral - and Downham’s clock was able to chime again.

In the mid-1930s, local clockmaker Charles Utting was responsible for winding the clock, a task for which he was paid £1 a year. The Downham Gazette reported that within a year of his death the pendulum had fallen off and the clock had stopped.

Although electrified in the 1960s, the clock stopped again just after Christmas 1989. While engineers examined the motor and tried to locate the cause of the fault, it was discovered that the town council had simply forgotten to pay the electricity bill.

Now Grade II listed, the clock has only ever needed one major refurbishment, and that came in 2004 thanks to Smiths of Derby, who’ve been one of the country’s leading clockmakers since 1856 - they built the huge turret clock for St. Paul’s Cathedral - and Downham’s clock was able to chime again.

And when the Discover Downham heritage centre opened in 2003, one of its most popular features was an 8ft replica of the clock made by Andrew Rust of local DMi Signs. A fascinating object in itself, the small doors open to reveal information on the history of the ‘real’ clock and even includes one of the commemorative coins presented to schoolchildren on the day it was unveiled back in 1878.

On that day, James Scott gave a rousing speech to the enormous crowd in Downham’s town square. He hoped the clock would “answer all the purposes it is intended to do, and prove a valuable and permanent boon to the town.”

Over 140 years later, he’d be pleased to know it’s still one of Downham’s most iconic features - and it’s still being talked about.

Thanks to the volunteers at Discover Downham for some of the historical details in this feature. Located in the old fire station at 30 Priory Road, Downham Market, the centre is open on Thursdays and Fridays. For more details and information, please see www.discoverdownham.org.uk

Downham Market Clock Tower close up
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