Watching the Clock

Keeping time on the Great Western Railway. . . . . . .



A Lancashire Watch Company Great Western Railway guard’s watch and the J. Hudson & Co’s Acme “Thunderer” whistle (with ceramic pea!). Photo: Mike Peart.

The Great Western Railway (GWR) timetable for January 1841 explains railway time as follows. “London time is kept at all the stations on the Railway, which is about 4 minutes earlier than Reading time; 5½ minutes before Steventon time; 7½ minutes before Cirencester time; 7 minutes before Cheltenham time; 8 minutes before Chippenham time; 11 minutes before Bath and Bristol time; and 14 minutes before Bridgewater [sic] time.”


The January 1849 timetable goes into more detail: “TIME – London time is kept at all the stations on the Railway, which is 4 minutes earlier than Reading time; 5½ minutes before Oxford time; 7½ minutes before Cirencester time; 7 minutes before Cheltenham time; 8 minutes before Chippenham and Gloucester time; 11 minutes before Bath and Bristol time; and 14 minutes before Exeter time.” Further west, Plymouth which was reached by rail in 1848 was 20 minutes later than London.


As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the Corn Exchange clock in Bristol, installed in 1822, had two minute hands. One red hand showed London time and the other black hand showed Bristol time. Bristol was reached by the GWR in 1840 so Bristol’s potential rail travellers needed to know the times so as not to miss anything. In 1847, the Railway Clearing House adopted Greenwich Mean Time across Great Britain as the railway network had grown vastly and timetabling needed to be kept simple and consistent. Public clocks across the land had mostly caught up by the mid-1850s. Bristol changed to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) in 1852, but its famous clock still has two minute hands. GMT standard time became law in 1880.



The GWR Paddington telegraph office instrument of 1843.

The “London time” was taken down the line by a timepiece on the first train every day until the telegraph was installed. From the 1st November 1852, a GWR General Order stated that hourly signals would be transmitted regularly by telegraph at stated times. Telegraph operators had to keep lines clear for two minutes before the hour and watch for the signal so that all station clocks could be checked. By this time the GWR telegraph had reached Swindon, Gloucester, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, Birkenhead and South Wales. Winding and regulation of clocks at stations had to be done by, or under the direction of the Stationmaster who kept the keys. The telegraph was still in use in the 1930s and guards had to set their watches daily after 11.00 a.m. by the clock at the first station which had telegraphic communicationat which they stopped or started. Guards also had to pass on the correct time to stations which didn’t have the telegraph. It was a company rule that when on duty, each guard had to satisfy himself that his watch was correct. For signal boxes, time was transmitted by telegraph or telephone bell with a signal of 18 beats – 8 pause 5 pause 5.



The 1906 three-face Kay’s clock on Platform 1 at Paddington station. Photo: Mike Peart.

The GWR’s clocks, watches and other timepieces were bought in, mainly from Kay’s of Worcester from 1896. The famous triple-dial clock on Platform 1 at Paddington was made by them in 1906 and still works today thanks to repairs after damage sustained in both World Wars, particularly the Second, when in 1940, 1941 and 1944 bombs fell by Paddington’s platforms 1, 6, 7, 11 and 13.

Kay’s also had mobile repairers who travelled the GWR system to tend to timepieces in need of repair. Then in 1921, the GWR’s Reading Signal Works opened its own clock and watch repair shop where its specialist staff dealt with thousands of items each year. In 1936, almost 2,000 clocks and 4,259 GWR staff watches were repaired at Reading. Kay’s of Worcester continued to supply some brass drum clocks for offices and 8-day clocks of the type seen in waiting rooms and on platforms. In later years, the company developed into a catalogue, mail order and home delivery business, and their timepieces live on.


As a footnote, whether it’s GMT or British Summer Time (BST), British Railways (Western Region) adopted the continental 24-hour system in June 1964, whilst other British Rail (from January 1965) regions followed suit on June 1965. This led to quite a bit of 20th century horological confusion for a while!


Mike Peart

Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961.



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