Time is ticking for iconic Brief Encounter clock at Carnforth Station

Writer Robert Swain looks at the history surrounding the clock on Carnforth Station which featured in film ‘Brief Encounter’

Thursday, 13th August 2020, 3:45 pm

The clock on Carnforth station is iconic, following its appearance in the film Brief Encounter, and no doubt it could tell many stories of what it has seen over the years.

Many are the visitors to the station who have their pictures taken beneath it, backs to the subway that Celia Johnson ran up. Going back through time, it has its own tales and mysteries. Now, it ticks steadily away, mainly owing to the work of Jim Walker of Carnforth who winds it every week, normally on a Monday and a Thursday.

Sometimes it needs a little attention if it is running a little fast or a little slow, this being mainly with the weather. Peter Yates MBE is the one who looks after the mechanics of the clock. Besides the stories it could tell, the clock itself has a fascinating story, starting with a mystery.

Peter Yates, founder of Carnforth Station and Railway Trust Co and its first chairman, holding the authors dog, and Jim Walker, the first clock winder, who is holding the shovel he used to fire the last steam engine from Burnley Rose Grove Shed. This was taken from on the ramp, looking up to the clock and Heritage Centre. Picture by Robert Swain.

There is not a lot known about the clock’s origins, but it is known from a Lancaster Guardian report that it arrived at its present site in December 1895.

The report of December 28 that year said: “A large clock has been erected above the subway on the London and North Western side of the Carnforth platform and was set on Friday last.

The clock supplies a long felt want as the other clocks are at the extreme ends of the station”.

A photograph taken circa 1910 of the south end of the station clearly shows how the earlier clock would not be seen by passengers.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter shot at Carnforth Railway Station

A size comparison with a railway worker posing below shows that it was of a smaller diameter than the present clock.

Although that newspaper paragraph refers to a new clock, it may well be that the clock was not ‘new’, but new to the station, having come from elsewhere.

A clue to this is that J B Joyce & Co, the manufacturers, have stated that the movement is a Joyce A frame and originally drove the hands on a 59 inch dial.

After 1849 the company made large clocks for many public buildings and for some of the principal railway companies.

Rarely seen, this is the gearing between the clock faces where the turning of the rod coming in from the back (from the long case by the platform) is converted to turn the gears which drive the hands on the clock faces. Picture by Robert Swain.

Unfortunately there was a fire at their premises in 1963, destroying all possible records relating to the clock.

However, its size and mechanism suggest that it may originally have been manufactured at an earlier date as later clock faces divided by six inches. Did it come from elsewhere?

It may well not have actually been fitted by Joyce, but possibly by Bells of Lancaster. Just who constructed the case for the clock mechanism, housed in a glass-fronted cabinet by one of the pillars on platform one, and the clock drum is not known. It has been rumoured that it was Waring & Gillow of Lancaster, famed for the very high quality of their work, but that is by no means certain.

Unfortunately, no records have been traced to satisfy these points. People do not always appreciate that the actual works are in a cabinet by one of the pillars on platform one and that a metal rod transmits the drive from there to a gear box in the drum. The gear box translate this drive to the movement of the hands that everybody sees.

The clock from when electrified and with the faces that were not original. Picture by Robert Swain.

When the lower glass roof replaced the old high roof in 1938, the clock had to be repositioned slightly, and its suspension modified.

While the clock was working under the care of the successive railway companies, a time signal was sent out from London to all the stations on the line.

One of the staff would use it to make any correction to the time being shown and would wind it up for its next day’s work.

The clock ticked on for many years. It twice saw troops go to war. It saw the special troop trains which briefly stopped at Carnforth and where the ‘Jam-jar Ladies’ handed them jam-jars of tea before they were taken on their journeys.

In February 1945 it saw the platform scenes for the film Brief Encounter being shot. For that, for continuity purposes, the clock was given dummy faces or the times shown in the film would have been wrong.

In the late 1980s the station became unmanned and the clock stopped because there was nobody to wind it up.

Barrow train arrives at Carnforth taken 50 years ago. Carnforth station, shortly before main line electrification. cc-by-sa/2.0 - Roger Cornfoot - geograph.org.uk/p/295949.

For a short while it was removed from the station, but partly returned as a result of local protests. However, when it came back it was run by two electric motors, one for each face.

The faces had been replaced by ones of fibreglass and the hands were replaced. The motors were driven by a master clock at Preston.

The motors became unreliable and the faces would show different times.

Pictures taken around June 1992 show one face at 15.48 and the other at 17.58 although both were taken at the same time, whatever that was. Eventually, both motors failed.

Following the setting up by Peter Yates of the Carnforth Station and Railway Trust in 1996, an unsuccessful search was made to find the original works, face and hands.

It was assumed that they had been sold for scrap, or were stored away somewhere and forgotten.

During a Channel 4 TV programme on station clocks, Peter Yates, who was then chairman of the Trust, commented to the producer that he would make it his business to find the clock.

Peter Davies, who was born in Carnforth but had moved away and was then a researcher for the BBC, assisted the station and research work.

Peter Davies set about trying to trace the clock and research on another clock led him to Twickenham. He then started talking to the man who had bought the clock which led his investigations to Twickenham about the Carnforth clock.

The man said that he had actually looked at the clock but had not been able to see a date on it.

Once over his initial shock, Peter Davies asked if he knew where the clock was, to be told that he had bought it many years earlier for refurbishment and sale, but had done nothing with it and it was in his storeroom.

He did not have the clock faces, but knew who did. With this lead Peter Davies went to see the man who had the clock faces two days later. He saw both the clock faces and the mechanism, which had labels affixed stating “Carnforth”.

A receipt from where the clock was bought described the clock as “Carnforth Clock”, so Peter was very hopeful that this really was the clock. He very much enjoyed telephoning Peter Yates to say “You know the Carnforth Station Clock? Well I think that I am standing next to it, right now!” Peter Yates at first thought that he meant that he was on Carnforth station, by the subway, and ringing him. There was an “explosive” silence when Peter Yates realised that Peter Davies was actually in London, standing next to the long lost clock.

Peter Yates then measured the holes in the mechanism case and in the clock drum. Armed with this information, he then went to London and measured the faces and the mechanism at the dealer’s premises.

Everything appeared to be exactly right. The documentation was also correct. Peter was certain that this was THE clock.

Back in Carnforth, Peter’s fellow directors had their doubts about this. However, with the financial aid of a local business man, the clock was purchased and Peter went down to Twickenham again to transport it back to Carnforth. Once back in Carnforth the clock was restored by local craftsmen who gave their services free of charge. In all restoration cost the trust £25, a very different figure from the quote which had been obtained originally for several thousand pounds.

The cabinet on the platform is now glazed at the front so the pendulum can be seen slowly swinging to and fro, alongside the weight which steadily descends over the days.

For a while, the clock was away for restoration. When the work had been done and it was time for it to be re-assembled in its case and drum, there were anxious moments until it was found everything fitted perfectly and holes for fixing all aligned.

This was the final confirmation that it really was the Carnforth clock. A small plaque tells who was involved with bringing the clock back to life and reads, “The station clock as featured in the David Lean film Brief Encounter was brought back into use by the generous sponsorship of Alan and Michael Smith.

They commissioned Terry Boxford in the year 2000 to restore the long case and clock drum.

“The original clock mechanism, which had been lost, was found after research by Peter Yates and Peter Davies. The restoration team for this part of the project included:

co-ordinator—Peter Yates and Morris Newsham—engineers, Michael Mortimer—horologist advisor, Geoffrey Parker and Steve Tonkin—finishing processes, Jim Walker—clock keeper.”

Friday, July 5 2002 saw the choir of Carnforth North Road School provide entertainment, including songs written especially for the day, from 2pm.

Also present were actors Nigel Peever and Joanne Venet who re-enacted some of the scenes from Brief Encounter. After their contributions, there was a speech by Gordon Biddle, of the Railway Heritage Trust, who welcomed visitors and guests to the station.

This was the day of the clock’s return and being re-started. Morecambe MP Geraldine Smith said it was great to see the clock back.

At exactly 3 pm, County Coun Nikki Penney, chairman of Lancashire County Council, and Mayor of Lancaster Coun Eileen Blamire cut the ribbon which started the clock pendulum,

Everybody waited anxiously for the next 60 seconds until the minute hand of the clock moved on by one minute.

After that, the Mayor of Carnforth, Coun George Birkett, proposed a vote of thanks to all those of the Carnforth district who had supported the project.

Peter Yates then thanked all of the national organisations for their support. The clock ticked steadily onwards, back now in its original position from 1895.

Jim Walker, a former railway fireman, was given the task of winder by Peter Yates, the man who successfully campaigned to have the station restored and was the first chairman of Carnforth Station and Railway Trust Co.

When the station is hushed at night with no people or trains about, the only sound to be heard is of the clock ticking steadily away, 125 years after the sound was first heard on Carnforth Station.

*On Sunday, August 9, the iconic Brief Encounter Clock was taken down and removed, temporarily for renovation and repairs by its owners, Michael Smith and family of Guernsey.

Carnforth clock weight and pendulum are in their long cabinet with the door open. Picture by Robert Swain.