Reprinted from Newsletter 120, dated 2006 September

Woollan the local clockmaker

Matthew Willis

The lower part of the face of an old clock. The hour numbers engraved around the silver-coloured, partly tarnished, edge are in bold Roman numerals, between which there are decorative emblems, and there are minute numbers every 5 minutes engraved in italic Arabic numerals. The engravings are all painted black. Between the minute numbers are some extra engravings, spelling out “R. Woollan, Glastonbury”. The centre of the clockface is in a different metal, perhaps brass. One of the clock hands is visible and points to about the 24-minute mark. The hand is elaborate, with a hollow stylized moon shape making up part of its stretch, which then gives way to a dagger shape complete with hilt.

In newsletter 119 Robin Huggins, the founder of Becket’s Inn, photographed this longcase clock inscribed “R. Woollan, Glastonbury” that he was surprised to discover in New Zealand. Matthew Willis, Glastonbury’s clock man of the present, has further details about its maker.

I have looked after 30-hour and 8-day longcase clocks by Robert Woollan, and changes in style support either a long working life, or Robert senior and junior. I worked on one signed “Robert Woolland Jnr., Glastonbury” — spellings in those days were more casual.

The clocks are well made, quite robustly built, and two dials were stylistically very similar to those by William Townly (1729–51) of Flax Bourton and Temple Cloud. Townley — another spelling — also looked after church clocks, so both men were clearly practical makers, not just buying in (unless, of course, Woollan bought from Townley or vice-versa).

I am pretty sure that some of the dials are from the same source. Several of Woollan’s clocks have not survived in their original cases, but one that has is in an oak case. Another reported to me in 1970, owned by a couple in Canada, is in a walnut case. Maybe others were in walnut and eaten by woodworm — or the walnut one could have been recased.

Old-time clock work

From The Clockmakers of Somerset, 1650–1900, by A. J. Moore, published privately in 1998.

* Currency conversion, using retail price index, by Economic History Services.

Year Description Price Today’s money*
1674Lancelot Woodland, for keeping chimes3/–£15
1676George Willen, for keeping the clock10/–£61
1708paid Woollan for righting clock4/6£24
1739Robt. Woollan for mending the clock wheel5/–£30
1748Robt Woollan for righting the clock6/–£38
1736new church clock, signed Robert Woolan of Glastonbury, for the Clock and Dyall£10£1,284
Licquor [sic] and attendance at several times, about setting up the same10/–£64
1739Robert Wooland [sic] for righting and cleaning the church clock10/–£60
Glastonbury St John’s
1758Mr Woolan’s bill£3£356
1759, 1760, 1762to Mr Woolan for drawing up the clock and chimes as per agreement£3£372

Here are some entries from 17th- and 18th-century churchwardens’ accounts for maintenance of church clocks. The Butleigh church clock is still in use. Fixed to it is a longcase “chapter ring” (as the roman-numeral part of the dial is called, from monastic times), signed Robt Woollan, Glastonbury: in other words, the face from a domestic clock is attached to the mechanism inside the tower so that the man winding it knows what time is showing outside.

I recall seeing old clockwork from St John’s tower in Glastonbury — made by John Cuff in 1718, the precursor of the present electric mechanism donated by our namesake town in Connecticut in 1967 — left outside the church for scrap. This was just at the beginning of my interest in clocks. It seems a shame to me now, for it would have been repairable. I heard that someone rescued it, and would love to know who.

From clocks to “living lightly”

John Brunsdon

Matthew and Jan Willis dwell in Bove Town, and adopted a sustainable lifestyle decades ago. Both care deeply about conservation and social problems.

Matthew opted out of industry (systems analysis at Morlands) in 1968 in favour of working with his hands: repairing and restoring antique clocks. To help get him started, Denis Emery the jeweller sold Matthew his duplicate tools. The jewellery shop, where Dicketts is now, still traded under the name of Gillmore, its founder (who also made clocks: Neill Bonham has a 19th-century wall clock with “J. Gillmore, Glastonbury” on its face).

Matthew is now running down his clock-repair business. He wants to transfer priorities to growing food, to cultivating trees for energy (on a plot at Godney) and in general to being more committed about “living lightly”.

Jan (née Lawson) is a competent painter. When deteriorating eyesight hampered her, she turned to ceramic sculpture. Some of her work is on display during Somerset Art Weeks (till September 24) at Dower House Cottage, Wood Lane, Butleigh. Go to the Rose & Portcullis pub and follow signs. “I’m in with nine other artists,” said Janet: “lots of variety, a big field, a lovely view, a couple of studios.”

A photo of her ceramic sculpture of St Hugh and his swan appears on page 1 of this newsletter.