More August seaside fun! My post a few weeks ago about the origins of Floral Clocks proved popular so here’s a follow-up about their heyday in the inter-war years when they became tourist attractions and when seaside towns almost felt they had to have one to keep up with rival resorts.
I’ve been surprised to find that very little has been written about these very popular features and I can’t even find a list of places that had one, so I’ve started to compile one which you’ll find at the end of this post.
Maybe the time is right for a revival of interest? or even a Ph.D thesis? [I’m now an honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham and would be very happy to supervise one!]
Apart from postcards where do we start tracking them down? The obvious sources are almost useless. A search for “floral clock” on the Parks and Gardens UK database gives 48 responses but almost all are for either “floral” or “clock” not the two words together. Meanwhile there are just 3 mentioned by Historic England in their descriptions of registered parks, although none are listed in their own right. No-one gives any detail of their history or installation which just goes to show how easy it is to lose track of the details of commissioning, costs and maintenance of garden features, even impressive ones like this.
Southsea Common is a Grade II listed park and has a lengthy and detailed description on the Historic England register which includes the fact that “a bedding scheme between two paths runs north from a five-sided pond by Southsea Castle to a floral clock.” That’s the entire mention. So I thought I’d see what else I could find. That too was very revealing about the lack of knowledge. The local Portsmouth paper The News gave a potted history – although as you’ll see rather vague – in 2018.
“A floral clock had sat opposite the D-Day Museum in Southsea for decades.While the history surrounding the clock is cloaked in some mystery, it was first reported on by The Evening News in 1940. The memorial originally displayed a message spelt out in flowers. It quoted Nelsons’s famous signal flown at Trafalgar, but with a difference. Honouring the bravery of those who gave their lives during the war, it read: ‘England Expects This Day That Every Man Will Do His Duty.’ In the years that followed, the landmark fell into disrepair and was refurbished and presented again in 1946. The clock mechanism was electric and presented to the city by clock company Smiths. Inscribed around the clock were the words ‘Southsea For The Best of Times’.”
So far so good you might think. There’ll be someone out there with a long memory who can help out with the early history but get ready to be surprised… the article went on
“The D-Day Museum is undergoing renovations ahead of its reopening on Friday and some residents were left baffled when they discovered that the clock ..had been dug up.”
It goes on to quote local residents who were worried about its fate and and spoke about how and why it was important it was to them.
When I was little it was a regular meeting point for me and my friends. When I had my first child I would go for walks along the beach in the summer and when you see the clock’s flowers in full bloom it’s just beautiful. If the council have removed it then I think it’s a disgrace. I know many Southsea residents enjoy the clock and honour what it represents. It’s a staple part of the town. Why should the council be allowed to just uproot it and take it elsewhere?’
Because that’s what the council had done. It had indeed been removed the clock although luckily it wasn’t being thrown away but was going to a new home in the City Museum. Then it emerged that the mechanism of the clock had long stopped working and when that happened the numerals, which as you can see in the image above had been created with plants, were replaced by a concrete perimeter and it was the slab that was relocated and replanted at the City Museum. Talk about tokenism and penny pinching!
Another floral clock that moved, although in a different way, is one of the two created in Hove. The first was installed in Palmeira Square for the coronation of the Queen in 1953. It was the first [and perhaps the only one!] to be double faced. Designed by the local parks director the mechanism came from Richie and Sons of Edinburgh who were the leading, indeed almost only, manufacturers of floral clocks. Its two 9ft diameter faces initially required about 35,000 plants a year, and often commemorated special events such as jubilees or Brighton & Hove Albion’s rare football successes.
The second clock is the one that went on a journey. It was built by Hove’s parks department for the 1966 Chelsea Flower Show. One of the gardeners recalls that it was made in four sections which were filled with carpet bedding plants several weeks before the event, and then kept clipped in shape before being transported to the show along with the clock mechanism and many extra plants and then assembled on site. Does anyone know what happened to it after that? For more about this see mybrightonandhove.org.uk
There’s a happy story to report from Weston-super-Mare which once again shows the power of volunteers. In 2012 Avon Gardens Trust updated the description of Alexandra Parade in the town on the Parks and Gardens UK database. It was “a typical small public garden….and well looked after by the local council. At the western end is the floral clock, which is carefully planted throughout the year. It has a working electric clock motor and a clockwork cuckoo house.”
Things must have deteriorated rapidly thanks to austerity because by 2020 the local Lions Club had taken over caring for the clock and were praised by the local paper for “its hard work and dedication to maintain a floral clock in town.” This included regular watering, dead-heading and replenishing both the soil and the planting, including winter bedding.
The result may not be as spectacular as it once was but as a reader commented it was: “a small ray of light, colour and hope for the future … I’m not sure what Weston would do without its very willing band of volunteers.”
While I was hunting round for information about this floral clock it transpires that Weston once had two! The other was in Clarence Park, and Historic England has a photo from 1913 but where is the clock now? Anyone know?
Another impressive example of volunteers stepping up to save our listed garden heritage can be seen in Weymouth. Greenhill Gardens ( now registered as grade 2*) were handed over as a gift to the local council in 1902 and a floral clock – complete with cuckoo call – was installed in 1936 by Richie and Sons of Edinburgh at a cost of £200. The mechanism was installed in a nearby small hut.
Unfortunately the hut has become decayed and in need of replacement at a cost of about £15-20,000. The Friends of Greenhill Gardens who already help share in the maintenance of the park with Weymouth Town Council decided to fundraise to provide a new building that would match the historical ‘between the wars” era, and allow the mechanism to be visible to visitors. They raised over £7,500 in 2021 – let’s hope they make it this year, especially as it’s believed to be the only mechanically driven floral clock still working in the UK. The Friends website has more photos and information.
Hastings too installed a floral clock in 1936 to commemorate the coronation of George VI. It’s in White Rock Gardens and featured a ‘cuckoo’ that appeared from the hedging at the back. As elsewhere the planting was laid out to commemorate significant events or organisations within the town. It cost £157 and an extra £5 charge for the model cuckoo.
The clock was dismantled during the Second World War and planted up with vegetables before returning to its floral state in 1952. That involvement in the Dig for Victory campaign wasn’t enough to save it during the worst days of austerity, and when it stopped working sometime in the 1970s it wasn’t repaired. The basic structure is still there but perhaps not quite as impressive.
Almost all of the floral clocks I’ve found were in public parks and paid for out of public funds. But of course everyone likes a bargain or a free gift so when, in 1926, Liverpool City Council was offered one for the former walled kitchen garden at Woolton Wood they were delighted. For many years the Woolton estate had been owned by the Gaskell family, who were prominent local industrialists as well as keen gardeners and plant collectors. In 1917 the grounds were bought by the city council for a park with the walled garden being opened to the public in 1921 as an Old English Garden.
The clock which was based on the same design as the one in Edinburgh, was presented in memory of by the family of Lt Col James Bellhouse Gaskell. It carried the inscription”Precious moments, golden hours, told by cuckoos and with flowers”, one of a s series of rhyming floral quotations which adorned the feature in bedding. These were devised by Harry Corlett, the Gaskell’s head gardener, who stayed on and continued to develop the garden as a municipal park. It opened in July 1921 to the claim it was ‘the finest garden in the city’.
The clock was according to the local paper noted “for its originality and colourful designs, which have been replanted every year even during the war. Cuckoo chimes call the quarter hours.” Some of these the displays varied to commemorate notable events, such Liverpool winning the Football Championship.
You won’t be surprised to hear, however that all this stopped, and although the clock face is still there and surrounded by some basic annual bedding the mechanism has stopped working and there are no plans to restore it.
Why did Col Gaskell’s family choose a floral clock as a memorial? Not only were they keen gardeners but it transpires that he was a collector of clocks, some of which are now in the British Museum.
Let’s finish this roll call of civic horology with two good news stories. A much more recent private donation can be found at Morpeth in Northumberland. It was presented to to the town in 1972 honour of Bertram Jobson, a former mayor. It’s the most recent new installation I can find. Unfortunately it stopped working in 2008, and surprise surprise was thought too expensive to repair.
However, in 2018 once again local volunteers stepped in and raised the £10,000 cost for Smith’s of Derby, the original manufacturer, to restore to full working order. In a sign of the times a security camera has also been installed, and the Friends of Morpeth Floral Clock say its future isn’t secure yet because they estimate it could cost up to £5,000 a year for maintenance and the labour-intensive carpet bedding.
And finally let’s go to Whitby where the floral clock in Pannett Park is not only one of the handful still working, but is well maintained, and its history well-recorded. It was commissioned in honour of the Queen’s Coronation and cost about £220. As elsewhere a different theme for the planting was chosen each year, and at one time a water fountain even circled the clock. However by 1979 the clock had fallen into disrepair, its hands were removed while the planting reverted to a normal flowerbed. By 2005 the park was in a parlous state and a Friends Group had formed to help obtain Heritage Lottery Funding and sponsorship. They were successful and the clock reinstated in 2006 as part of a major programme of improvement.
I could have gone on trying to track down the stories of individual floral clocks for a long time but instead I’m going to try and hand over to you, by listing the sites I’ve found and asking for any information anyone has to include a future post.
So here’s the list in toughly chronological order…
Undated but pre-1914 Dartmouth Park, West Bromwich.
Undated : Crook, County Durham mentioned by the great architectural historian Ian Nairn, although I can’t find any more about it: “The town can indulge in preposterous gestures: a place for absurd statues and an enormous floral clock”
Undated: Vale Park, New Brighton on the Wirral. There’s a detailed history but with no mention the floral clock.
Edinburgh 1903 , and then c1905 the static clocks in Penge, Darnall Park, Summerfield Park in Birmingham and St Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, 1907 Bridlington, 1911 People’s Park Halifax, 1912 Victoria Park Swansea [all covered in the previous post]
1907 Sheffield [probably not built] and Hull
1921 Falkirk, recently restored for its centenary after years of not working. Another volunteer led effort.
1928 Bath where the clock was installed at a cost of about £200 by the new parks superintendent who had previously been at Swansea
1929 Nottingham [suggested but not built for the main market square]; 1930 Glasgow
1931 Stanley Park, Blackpool, where thousands of visitors went to see it in the first week it was installed, and the cuckoo was thought to be too quiet and had to be amplified. I suspect the mechanism has stopped but the planting was redesigned for the jubilee by a local student.
1934 Folkestone [proposed but turned down]
1934 Fleetwood [deferred and probably not built]
1935 Weston-super-Mare, Southsea [see above], Great Yarmouth and Hesketh Park in Southport.
1936 Weymouth Greenhill Gardens [see above], Manchester ‘s Belle Vue Zoo, Queen’s Park Crewe [electric at a cost of £97], Swadlincote [£65 raised by public subscription but replaced in 2014 by a sundial], Hastings [see above]
1937 Croydon, paid for by Grants, a local department store. Burton-on Trent ??, Dundee ??, West Hendon [outside a local shop] Falkirk , Dollar Park
1951 Leamington Spa, Jephson Gardens a gift from a local councillor as a memorial to wife. Fears that maintenance costs would be high were dismissed. No longer there.
1953 Whitby’s Pannett Park [see above]
Any more information gratefully received!