by Old Plymouth Society
Published March 2012
Derry’s Clock is situated behind the Theatre Royal. Originally this was at a major junction of George Street, Union Street, Lockyer Street and George Place and was regarded as the centre of Plymouth. All the trams and buses terminated nearby and it used to be said that ‘Marriages may be made in heaven but in Plymouth they are arranged under Derry’s Clock’. It has been nick named the 4 faced deceiver since the beginning of the 20 century as many people thought that the time shown on each of the dials was different. This was because the hands stand out about 3 inches from the face and unless it is looked at straight on, the time cannot be correctly read!
It has its origins in 1862 when William Derry, a local businessman, presented the Town with a clock worth £220 together with a further £200 towards the cost of the coloured limestone tower in which to display it. The townspeople raised the remaining £300. He gave the clock to celebrate the fact that he had been elected Lord Mayor for the third time. Unfortunately the local authority could only perform those functions delegated to it by Parliament – they did not have authority to construct a clock tower. However, they did have powers to build a fountain, so they included three drinking fountains and went ahead with the construction. Thus, although known as Derry’s Clock it is officially a fountain, although it has never been linked to any water supply. Council minutes from the beginning of 1862 show that the original intention was to erect the clock at Cornwall Street Gate.
The architect was a Mr Henry Hall of London. It was built by Messrs Call & Pethick of Plymouth, who started work on the tower on August 8th 1862. The clock was made locally by Messrs Page, Keen and Page, a firm of jewellers and watch menders in George Street. The clock has 4 illuminated dials, each 4ft in diameter. It was constructed to run for 8 days before a re-wind. The pendulum was 15ft in length with a one hundredweight ball attached to the bottom.
There was growing dissatisfaction about the accuracy of the public clocks in the Three Towns and in 1920 a new electronic clock was installed in the Derry’s clock tower. Alderman J P Brown paid for the installation and the clock was made, like the original, by Messrs Page, Keen and Page. It was a replica of the largest electronically driven clock in the world, which was that on the Liver Building in Liverpool, although the Plymouth one only had dials of 4 feet whereas the Liver one had dials of 25 feet. It had a striking mechanism recording only the hours.
It was fitted with a controlling apparatus known as the “Pulsynetic” system. This system worked off batteries and was connected by Post Office cable to Greenwich in London, where at 10am each day a signal was sent to the clock to correct any error in the time. An advantage of the new system was that it allowed for extra power to be applied to the hands in adverse weather conditions, such as high winds, snow or heavy rain. Thus the clock became more accurate, so much so that trams, taxis and even the police relied on the clock to give them the correct time. After repainting the dials and inserting the words “Greenwich time” on each face, Derry’s Clock was re-started at 11am on the morning of Friday 1st October 1920. A Mr Edgar William Broad, an employee of Page, Keen and Page, kept a watchful eye on the workings of the clock from 1919 until the Blitz.
Although the clock tower survived the Blitz in 1941, the inside mechanism was disturbed by blast waves and the dials were broken. The clock was stopped for years before a new movement was installed after the war. It was replaced by a mains electricity operated clock and was never as reliable as the old one.
In 1999 it was restored and cleaned at a cost of £10000, ready for unveiling for the new millennium.
In September 2003, time came to a standstill when the hands were removed to allow it to become an atomic timepiece. New hands were fitted as part of a £4000 revamp of the clocks mechanism, which saw it linked by radio waves to an atomic clock in Rugby making it super accurate! The work was carried out after it was learned that the clock was slowing down.
April 2008 has seen another clean up with unsightly moss and soot removed by specialists South West Concrete Repairs, using detergent and hand-brushing.
Although now obscured by the more modern buildings that surround it, the tower is held in such high affection by true Plymothians that suggestions to have it moved to another more prominent position have always met with strong objections.
In 1930 it was thought that the clock was a danger to traffic. The clock movers were defeated.
In the early 1960s it was proposed that the clock should be re-erected in the centre of Derrys Cross with ornamental fountains. The City Engineers even built a model to illustrate this scheme, but once more it was reprieved.
In 1973, plans were afoot to move it again, but the Deputy Lord Mayor, Derek Mitchell said it was the last true link with old Plymouth and should be left where it was, not put into the middle of a roundabout at an estimated cost of £40000.
It is one of only three buildings in the City that is still on the same site as it was before the destruction of the Second World War.
On two sides of the tower, fancy lettering in the stonework tells us about William Derry, on the third side there is the Plymouth motto. On the fourth side there is a shortened Latin inscription which reads: Dulce Pro Patria Mori, which translated means: It is sweet to die for your country. It is not known why this inscription was chosen, as it is usually seen on War memorials.