English Lantern Clock:
some words about the name.


Thomas Moore


Lantern Clocks


George White and
Brian Loomes




This article was translated from my Dutch article on Wikipedia Netherlands.

English Lantern Clock: some words about the name.


The origin of the name "lantern clock" remains a mystery so far, at least there are several explanations. One version tells that the name is derived from the shape of the clock, and indeed, this type of clock vaguely resembles a lantern. Other sources refer to brass, the main metal of which lantern clocks are made. Copper alloys of which brass is one, were often called latten in earlier times and 'lantern' could well be a corruption of this old word. In inventories of deceased clock makers, lantern clocks usually are simply referred to as "house clocks", "chamber clocks" or just "clocks". This is understandable considering the fact that in 17th century England lantern clocks were almost the only type of domestic clocks that existed. Only when about one hundred years later other types of domestic clocks began to dominate the interiors of British houses, did it become necessary to describe the different clock types more specifically. Other names used to indicate these clocks are "Cromwellian Clocks" or "Bedpost Clocks". Even "Sheep head Clock" is a fashionable term used for a certain type of lantern clock that has an extremely large chapter ring covering almost the entire front of the clock.

Maybe it is interesting to mention that the contemporary English of the 17th and 18th century, in contrast to the Dutch language, makes a difference between "clock" and "timepiece". A clock in the English language has a striking mechanism. Just like in Dutch "clock" could also mean "bell" (in Dutch there is only one word for both meanings: "klok"). The English word clock has almost lost that original meaning, but "clock" does still refer to the function of the striking part of the mechanism. That is why a timepiece in the horological jargon usually has no striking train (although in most cases it has an alarm mechanism instead).

Origin of Lantern Clocks

The English lantern clock is closely related to lantern clocks that can be found on the European continent. Most likely a group of craftsmen from the Low Lands (Flanders) and France, of which some were clock makers, had established themselves in London at the end of the sixteenth century. At the same time the middle classes in towns and cities of England began to prosper slowly and a need for a new phenomenon arose: the domestic clock. Until that time clocks in English houses were confined to the nobility and ordinary people were dependent on the tower clocks of the local churches.

Clock that was signed 'N. Vallin 1598' Picture of a replica in the Dutch Museum 'Van Speelklok tot Pierement' in Utrecht. The original clock is displayed in the British Museum in London.

It is generally accepted that the first lantern clocks in England were made by Frauncoy Nowe and Nicholas Vallin, two Huguenots who had fled from the Low Lands.

Guild system

In only a few decades the lantern clock became very popular in London and from there its popularity spread to the entire country. This is derived from the vast quantity of lantern clocks that still exist. Dozens of clockmakers produced great numbers of these clocks in the city of London during the 17th century. This huge productivity was the result of the high demand for this popular clock in combination with an effective guild system. In the year 1631 King Charles I founded a guild in London that exists until this very day. Many of the well known clock makers from that era were freemen of this guild: The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers of London. Many small companies were established in Lothbury in London that functioned as suppliers for the clockmakers. A clockmaker could benefit from the services of, for example, brass founders who supplied cast brass clock parts, dial plates, finials, pillars, frets etcetera or employ engravers who would carry out the engraving of the dial plates and frets. The clockmakers guild assured the quality of the products that left the clockmakers workshops. Before a clockmaker was a freeman, many years of learning the trade as an apprentice had gone by. That is why every independent clockmaker employed several apprentices and journeymen who in fact were cheap labourers that helped to attain this high productivity.

Style characteristics

The main style characteristics of English lantern clocks are similar to its Continental relatives. In brief: a wall clock with square bottom and top plates surmounted by a large bell, four corner pillars, a series of vertical plates positioned behind each other and a 30-hour movement with one or more weights. The English variant has some specific details that will be discussed in the next paragraphs. At the start of the 17th century the style gradually evolved to a standard to which all clockmakers more or less complied. The guild supervised the clockmakers who were compelled to work within a prescribed method. Suppliers to the clockmakers' trade contributed to this general style as well. For example the brass founders supplied stylistically identical clock posts to several clock makers. In contrast to the Dutch variants, such as stool clocks, English lantern clocks were entirely made of metal (brass and steel).

Influence of the Renaissance

Style characteristics were copied from prints that were available for craftsmen. Under the influence of the Renaissance, prints with motives and patterns from the Classical antiquity found their way to the workshops. They served as examples for the clock pillars that were inspired by columns from Greek temples. During the 17th century the tulip became very popular to an extent of a real tulip mania. Prints with pictures of tulips were a rewarding subject for the adornment of the dial plates of lantern clocks. In the early 17th century lantern clocks got their characteristic shape which hardly changed during the 17th and halfway through the next century as a result of all this.

Example of a tulip engraving on the dial of a lantern clock

Another example of a tulip engraving that was used on early lantern clocks

Clock parts

The London Clockmakers equipped their lantern clocks with four pillars that were inspired by classical columns. Attached to these pillars are classical vase-shaped finials and well-shaped feet. To those finials a bell strap is attached that spreads from four corners and holds a bell. To hide the hammer and the clock movement from the spectator three frets are attached to the finials. The front fret is pierced and is engraved whereas the two side frets are pierced but usually left blank. The front of the clock case consists of an engraved dial plate on which a circular dial ring is attached. Almost all lantern clocks have just one clock hand, the one that indicates the hours. A standard lantern clock only strikes the hours on a large bell and is often equipped with a alarm that rings the same bell. Two doors provide access to the movement and are hinged at the sides of the clock. One or more weights are hanging from ropes or chains at the bottom of the clock.

Lantern clock signed: 'Richard Ames Neere St. Andrew's Church in Holborn Londini Fecit'

Gradual loss

Lantern clocks were produced in vast numbers during the decades before the pioneering invention of the pendulum by the Dutch Mathematician Christiaan Huygens in 1656. Before this invention lantern clocks had balance escapements, which is a rather inaccurate method of time measuring. Shortly after Huygens' invention the bob pendulum was introduced in England and most English clockmakers adopted the new system quickly. Existing clocks were converted and new lantern clocks were built with verge escapements and later anchor escapements. Measuring time became much more accurate but clockmakers kept building most lantern clocks without minute hands. The reason for this isn't obvious, maybe it was just a matter of tradition. The result was, among other reasons such as the burden of pulling clock weights daily, that clockmakers started to develop other types of domestic clocks. Longcase clocks with 8-day movements made lantern clocks obsolete and gradually lantern clocks disappeared from the London interiors in the first decades of the 18th century. In rural areas lantern clocks were produced until the beginning of the 19th century and in those years they were even exported to countries like Turkey. In the Victorian era there was a revival of interest for the, by then, antique lantern clocks. Unfortunately this also meant that many clocks of renowned makers were stripped of their movements, which were replaced by 'modern' winding movements. Nowadays (almost) untouched lantern clocks are very rare and because they are in great demand it is extremely difficult to find a good lantern clock for a reasonable price. Besides that, the market is flooded with fake clocks. One can not be too careful buying a lantern clock.

Many thanks to Mr. John Keutgen for helping me with this translation

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