THROUGH THE ARCHIVES: From the News Letter of March 1956

The clocks of Belfast and a connection with an Irish rebel

Friday, 5th March 2021, 10:00 am
Peter McKay of Belfast City Council checks his watch inside the Albert Clock, Belfast. Picture: Gavan Caldwell/News Letter archives

During this week in March 1956 Colin Johnston Robb wrote a fascinating article for the News Letter tracing the history of clocks in Belfast.

He noted that “it was about the year 1370 that striking clocks were first set up in building under lay control”.

Robb wrote: “This arrangement introduced the usage in civil life of reckoning time from midnight to midday, and this brought about the final abandonment of the rule of the monastic orders in timekeeping.”

The mechanics of the Albert Clock, Belfast. Picture: Gavan Caldwell/News Letter archives

Belfast’s first public clock was set up in the Old Corporation Church in High Street, which was formerly on the site of St George’s early in 1706. Robb wrote: “All we know for certain about this clock is that it had slate dial, being made by one William Wasson, who described himself as ‘black-and-clock-smith’.”

The timepiece was renovated in 1730 and a striking train fitted on the new bell set up in 1731.

Belfast’s premier clock in the 18th century was, however, the Market House Clock, which projected like on a cantilever beam at the corner of Cornmarket and High Street.

The News Letter reported in 1739 that the dial fell to the pavement and fractured a man’s thigh.

In 1761 the clock was renovated and a newly cast bell fitted. During the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 several men were hanged on the beam of this clock, for Major-General Nugent in an official return briefly recorded their fate: “Hanged on the clock of this town.”

These rebels included Henry Joy McCracken who had led the insurrection against the Crown forces in Antrim town on June 7, 1798 as part of the failed uprising.

The Joy family made their money in linen manufacture and founded the Belfast News Letter. Henry was the older brother of political activist and social reformer Mary Ann McCracken, with whom he shared an interest in Irish traditional culture.

This corner, later known as Foster Green’s Corner, was in those days called ‘The Clock Corner’, and it was also the centre of Belfast.

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