The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Prospect Place - Lenton

From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 17

March - April 1982

The Clockmakers of Lenton

Photograph courtesy of Nottinghamshire Local Studies Library

Prospect Place looking towards Lenton Boulevard

Few would probably linger overlong on Willoughby Street taking in this view along Prospect Place. These industrial premises are undistinguished and rather dreary looking - made even more drab by the need to ensure that the frontages are secure and vandal-proof. But the single storey building on the left, running almost the entire length of Prospect Place is of interest in that it houses one of Lenton's more unusual firms. Admittedly for the first hundred years, the clockmakers G. & F. Cope & Co. Ltd. were based elsewhere in Nottingham, but for the last 36 years they have been here in Lenton.

Early Days

Two bachelor brothers, George and Francis Cope, founded the business in 1845 and they established a factory in Holden Street, which is just off the Alfreton Road, barely a stone's throw from Canning Circus. In these premises most of the clocks that adorn the buildings of Nottingham were constructed. The tower clocks of both St. Peter's and Sneinton Parish churches were made by the brothers. And when in 1881 a new clock was required for the frontage of the Nottingham Exchange, it was G. & F. Cope & Co. who supplied it. In 1926 the Exchange was demolished to make of way for the building of the Council House, but Cope's clock was not lost to public view, as it was transferred to the tower of Trowell Church where it continues to give the right time to the many passers-by.

Photograph courtesy of David Cope

George Cope - Joint Founder
of the Firm

In 1877 George and Francis were 'joined' by their young nephew William Cope. He came to Nottingham at the age of 7 from Dewsbury in Yorkshire and decided to live with his two uncles and his maiden aunt in their family home at 79 Alfreton Road. He then attended High Pavement School until he was 14, when he began a seven year indentured apprenticeship with his uncles.

Eventually on the death of his uncles, just before 1900, William Cope assumed control of the business. In addition to maintaining the firm's wide reputation for making tower clocks of a high standard, William Cope produced a large number of remarkably fine domestic clocks, many of which are still highly prized by their owners to this day.

William Cope No. 2

In 1922 William Cope died suddenly at the early age of 52, leaving his twenty-year-old son, William W. Cope in complete and sole charge of the business. Young William had barely completed his training, but he was to be ably assisted by his craftsmen who helped him produce many of the firm's largest and most outstanding tower clocks in the first ten years of his management. One of them, which has become a London landmark, was erected on Lever House in Blackfriars. More locally there is the clock in the Trent building tower at the University. But undoubtedly William Cope's masterpiece of this period is the clock for the Council House in the late 1920s. This clock, constructed at a time when electrically operated tower clocks were beginning to be serious rivals to the older weight driven mechanisms, was then, thought an unusual blend of electrical and mechanical horology. This combining of old and new craftsmanship has since become standard practice with all large tower clocks the world over. The time piece, of giant proportions is purely mechanical, must be hand wound once a week, and follows the familiar lines of large gravity escapement tower clocks. The chimes, however, are governed by an electric motor. The ten and a half ton hour bell, nicknamed 'Little John' is the loudest clock bell in the country and has a range of eight miles. The quarter hour bells, weighing a total of six tons and the hour bell were all cast for Cope by Taylor and Co. of Loughborough. The clock is still considered by many to be the largest and most accurate electric chiming clock in the world. Less than two years ago, Cope carried out an over- all maintenance on the Council House clock and found that after fifty years' constant use, the clock's mechanism showed no significant signs of wear and tear - a testament to the fine workmanship and construction by William Cope and his fellow craftsmen.

Photograph courtesy of David Cope

View of the Cope clock - Council House, Nottingham

Changing Times

In the 1930s the activities of the firm continued to expand and the Holden Street factory began to prove too small. So in 1937 Cope moved to larger premises in nearby Portland Road. But with the advent of the Second World War, tower clock manufacture came to an abrupt halt and the firm was turned over to war work making instruments, fuse components and many other items for the forces. At the conclusion of the war the Portland Road factory was no longer considered large enough and so late in 1945, it was decided to move to Prospect Place in Lenton. The factory site had just been vacated by the Civil Defence who had used it for the assembly of respirators and as a blanket store. The single storey building has a floor area of 15,000 square feet and excellent lighting and was a big improvement over the previous premises.

The war had inevitably led to changes in the domestic clock market. Pre-war, many of the household clocks bought in this country had come from abroad. But in the immediate years following the war, these imports were to be greatly diminished. This meant the British clock industry had the opportunity to expand to meet home demand and Cope found a ready market in manufacturing and supplying components to practically every major British clock manufacturer.

Post war austerity had meant that building programmes were kept to bare essentials and this severely limited orders for tower clocks. There was, however, plenty of repair and maintenance work for Cope to do. Many public clocks required overhauling after the long neglect of the war years. One interesting restoration involved the old one-handed clock of Coningsby Church in Lincolnshire, probably the largest one-handed clock in England if not in the world - its dial an amazing 16-foot diameter. (Both the Council House and University clock faces are only a mere 9-foot wide.) The red, white and blue emblem of the Royal Air Force was painted on to the clock's dial. During the war Coningsby church had always stood out in the flat Lincolnshire landscape as a welcome landmark that the crew were almost back home. So to remember the role the church's steeple had played raising pilots' spirits, the R.A.F. paid for the restoration.

Photo courtesy of Nottingham Evening Post

Carrying out the maintenance of the Council House clock, Mr. William
W Cope and Mr. W. David Cope assisted by his son Nicholas.

There were, nevertheless, some new commissions. One, on our doorstep, was the replacement clock for Lenton's parish church in 1950. The old weight driven clock was in poor shape and so a new weight driven, but electrically wound clock was installed.

Another was the clock shown below. This is the clock that was made for the ironmongers, Lewis & Grundy, and erected outside their premises in Pelham Street in about 1950. It was later transferred to the rear of their premises on Victoria Street in 1956. The clock consists of a massive projecting oak covered beam; below which is suspended the convex dial two feet in diameter with wrought iron surround. The feature, which makes it a considerable attraction to shoppers and passers-by, are the automaton figures referred to as 'jacks' in the clock trade, cast in the form of blacksmiths standing either end of an anvil and beside a small forge. At each quarter hour, the two smiths strike in turn on their anvil, one blow from each announcing the first quarter, two from each the half hour and so on. On the hour after the four quarters have been sounded, there is a pause after which one of the smiths strikes the anvil the required number to represent the hour. The sound of the anvil is not in fact produced by the blows of the smiths, but by a gong mounted on a frame within the canopy above the forge. Unlike most similar jacks where merely the hammer moves, the Lewis & Grundy jacks are virtually unique in that they bend to reproduce the movement of the smiths striking the anvil. However, when Lewis & Grundy was absorbed into Glenn, Lewis, Bott of Lenton in 1971, their premises were closed and the clock removed and placed in the keeping of the Castle Museum. There it had been stored away, hidden from view, until recently when the owners of the 'Malthouse', present occupiers of the Lewis & Grundy premises, arranged to have the clock restored to public view. It is now mounted once again on Victoria Street and in full working order.

Photograph by David Rogers - 2008

The Lewis and Grundy clock as it looked in 2008.
The building now houses the Pit and the Pendulum bar.

It is clear that since the war the trend had been away from commissioning tower clocks as features for new buildings. Companies such as Boots would once have ordered a Cope clock for the frontage of most of their new shops and there was a day when no church, which could be thought a church, would be built without a clock but no longer. The very last tower clock built by Cope was in the late 1960s for a church at Averham, near Newark. So it became inevitable that Cope would have to run down that side of the business. They did continue, however, to carry on with the maintenance of the many existing tower clocks in Nottingham and further afield. But when in 1975 the chief employee involved in this maintenance, Mr. Alf Fisher retired, Cope decided to call it a day. Now most of Nottingham's tower clocks are maintained by John Smith and Sons of Derby.

Whilst the manufacture of tower clocks formed the more spectacular aspect of the Cope business, using the same skill and craftsmanship for which they have become famed worldwide, Cope have developed into other areas of the clock business. Despite the current recession they still manufacture at the Lenton works, a range of high quality precision mechanical clocks for the instrument industry and for the safe makers, Chubb of Wolverhampton. They are also renowned for the range of ships' clocks and barometers, a line of business started in the dark days of the war and now developed into the widest range in the country available from one firm. Cope clocks are standard fittings in the Royal Navy, many foreign navies and the merchant fleets of the world. Latterly this expertise has been extended to the smaller clocks for the weekend and amateur sailor. With the advent of the quartz clock, the firm has developed a range of attractive carriage and mantle clocks which are sold to the clock trade in general, and Cope are proud to number amongst their customers such names as H. Samuel and James Walker together with a number of other firms throughout the country.

Photograph courtesy of David Cope

Assembling marine clocks for an American order in 1978.

In addition to supplying firms far afield, Cope is now manufacturing their own range of clocks for their own retail business based in Nottingham and elsewhere. Cope first started with a shop on Alfreton Road in 1923 and moved into the centre of town when they opened their Parliament Street shop in 1926. There they soon had a wide range of clocks, wristwatches and jewellery on sale together with a repair service for all three. After the Second World War the retail side has gradually been expanded and shops established at Grantham in 1953, Mansfield in 1954, Worksop in 1956, Newark in 1968 and most recently Stamford in 1972. The growth of this retailing side of things has required certain changes in organisation and as a consequence two limited companies were formed in 1956. But control of both companies still remains in the hands of the Cope family. Carrying on the unbroken family tradition in the firm are Mr. William W. Cope's two sons, Richard and David. Mr. Richard Cope is now the managing director of the retail company while Mr. David Cope fulfils a similar role at Lenton. Their father remains Chairman of the Board but has largely retired from the day-to-day concerns of the companies.

Update on article: Smiths of Derby are no longer responsible for the upkeep of all the City Council-owned clocks. Since 2018 that reponsibility has been take on by Wayne Francis of Clockwise Restorations, who is based in Lincolnshire.

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