by Don Ross, Office of Public Works
The Farmleigh Clock Tower rises to 58.3m (about 200 ft.) in height and from the time of its construction it has been a significant landmark in the Castleknock area. It is believed to be slightly taller than Liberty hall which rises to 58m and because it was part of Farmleigh House estate, the private estate of the Earls of Iveagh, it could only be viewed from a distance. People often assumed that it was just another monument associated with the Phoenix Park which borders Farmleigh to the east. It is a very impressive structure which was built over a period of five years and completed in 1880 to the highest standards available at the time. The tower was constructed using limestone from a local quarry at Palmerstown but the balcony and the internal floating staircase are made from granite sourced in the south east of the country. The tower is capped by a copper pyramid and at the time the completed structure was said to have been a harmonious combination of colour and texture. The walls of the tower are 1.2m (4ft.) thick at the bottom and 0.76m (2.5 ft.) at the top.
The tower was said to have been designed by a British architect, T.H Wyatt who came from a renowned family of architects and he specialised in the design of hospitals and churches. It is said that Wyatt lost out to the architect James Franklin Fuller for the contract to redesign and rebuild the main house which began shortly after the construction of the tower. We know that from correspondence between Edward Cecil Guinness and a Col. Craddock that Thomas Wyatt’s name had been mentioned as a possible contender for the house design. We also know from an article in Country Life by Jeremy Musson that Wyatt’s name was referenced in October 1879 in the Edward Cecil’s private papers regarding the bells for the tower.
One school of thought believes that Wyatt was only involved in the design and purchase of the bells as he died in 1880. There is a reference to the hour bell cast for Farmleigh for Mr Guinness Wyatt (sic) on a data base of bells which shows that the bell was cast in 1880 by the Van Aerschodt foundry of Louvain in Belgium. To further confirm this the bells themselves bear the manufacturer’s imprint “Van Aerschodt 1880”, this leads one to believe that the construction of the tower may only have begun in 1880 and that it was not completed until at least 1885. The reason given for the completion date of after 1885 is that Sir Howard Grubb (the designer of the clock) gave a presentation on the construction of the clock to the Royal Dublin Society in March 1885. At this presentation Sir Howard displayed a portion of the clock mechanism’s “going train” prior to it being installed in the tower.
What concerns me about this information is that there is a date “1880” on the lintel over the door of the tower which would normally indicate its completion. It is believed that the construction of the tower took five years to complete and surely this work would not have been carried out in tandem with the House reconstruction (1881-1884). It would seem unusual for two separate major construction projects by two different concerns to be working at Farmleigh at the same time. What really adds to the puzzle is that the clock mechanism and tower could not have been designed together as alterations were needed to the drive train of the clock to allow its compatibility with the earlier built windows in the tower. Because of this the two faces of the clock are at different heights. I am more of the opinion that the tower was finished or nearly so while the clock design and manufacture was still a work in progress, hence Sir Howard’s necessity to work around the already completed building. It is a possibility that the construction of the clock was behind schedule due to its complicated design and the ongoing adjustments that were required. All records indicate that the bells were cast nearly five years before the clock was installed and a note referring to a delay in the clock’s completion date would seem to confirm this.
The actual construction of the tower was supposed to have been carried out by the engineering staff of the brewery and the clerk of works was a man called James Wilson. The principal stone mason was Patrick Connolly whose work on the tower was rewarded with a good position on the engineering staff of the brewery when the work was finished. The rest of the building team were local men James Cambell, Patrick Murray and John Finnigan.
Towers such as the one at Farmleigh were a popular form of folly at one time as they could be used for practical as well as aesthetic reasons and our tower is a perfect example of this. From a practical side, the tower houses a clock to tell the time and a reservoir containing water to supply the estate. From an aesthetic point of view, a tower such as this allowed the landowner survey his estate while enjoying the magnificent surrounding views. This was a particularly pleasurable experience at Farmleigh tower as the commanding views from the balcony stretch from Malahide in the north to Dun Laoghaire in the south while also taking in the Dublin mountains. Edward Cecil commissioned a telescope from Sir Howard Grubb at a cost of ninety pounds at the time to take full advantage of the vistas. It was said that he could see the brewery with ease from the tower, but this is no longer possible as this view has long been lost to the growth of the trees in the neighbouring Phoenix Park.
One of the functions of the tower was to act as a reservoir for the water supply to the estate and by default assist in the electrification of the house. This was a very innovative project at the time, probably making Farmleigh the envy of its neighbours. In 1910 a weir and pump house were constructed at the Strawberry Beds on the river Liffey, near where the Wrens Nest pub is situated. From the pump house, water from the river Liffey was channelled through a turbine to a reservoir in the tower via a mile-long millrace, a metal bridge over the river was specially constructed for the project. This water catered to the needs of the farm on the estate while a small turbine at the base of the tower pumped fresh water to the house. The main turbine generated electricity for the house and in 1910 Farmleigh became the only second house in Ireland to be illuminated by electricity after the Vice Regal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin). It was said that the idea for the installation of the turbines came from Edward Cecil, after seeing a similar one being installed at a mill owned by the Shackleton family (of Earnest Shackleton fame) in the Lucan / Palmerstown area. The water fills an 8000 litre (1800-gallon) tank in the tower which has two distribution pipes, one to distribute water to the farm and estate and the other to turn the second turbine which pumped fresh water from a spring well. There is very little left of this ingenious system other than the reservoir which continues to supply water to the farm, gardens and fountains. It is believed that a laundry on the far side of the Liffey was connected to the system which was fed by a pipe that ran over the metal bridge that now stands forlorn at the Wrens Nest. This bridge served as a shortcut to and from the estate for some of the employees.
There are two faces on the clock and they are fixed to the east and west walls about seven metres below the balcony. The dials are 3.3 metres (11 ft.) in diameter, cast in iron, painted and gilded and the hands are made of copper. The dials are actually at two levels; this was to allow for the minimum intrusion by the installation of the clock on the already constructed tower. A small gear box compensates for this anomaly. Internally the clock mechanism is at balcony level and an extension bar carries the movement down through the centre of the stairwell, to a diverter gear at the level of the dial. The reason for this diversion was to separate the mechanical movements including the hammer striking mechanism from the clock and thereby increase the accuracy of the time displayed. Sir Howard realised that the fine tuning of the clock could only be achieved while it was in situ and working, so for many months after its installation he received daily readings of the movements to monitor its accuracy. It is said that this unique clock has the same chock mechanism used in a steam engine combined with the fine-tuned release mechanism of a pocket watch.
There are five bells that hang on the top floor (from the floor framework) of the tower under the copper dome. There are three sections to the clock mechanism: the time, strike and chime sections. The time section drives a two second pendulum which provides the drive to the hands. A chime section controls the four hammers which strike the five bells on the quarter to play the Westminster chime. The strike section controls one hammer and strikes the largest of the five bells (weighing 5 tonnes) suspended in the centre, on the hour only. The bells were cast in 1879/80 and each one bears a Latin inscription (said to be endearment to family members) and the maker’s imprint. The weights used for the different clock trains are, the quarter bells (chime train) 12Cwts, for the hour bell (strike train) 8Cwts and for the (going train) 10.5Cwts. These weights along with the pendulum are suspended in the stairwell. At the bottom of the stairwell there is a large timber container of sand to protect the pendulum/weights in the unlikely event of a fall.
In Farmleigh records the hour bell is described as weighing five tonnes (5000kgs) however there is documentary evidence which puts the weight of the bell at 2.24 tonnes (2240kgs). The first record is in an article in the Freemans Journal Tuesday March 17th 1885. This article gives a review of the presentation that Sir Howard Grubb gave to the Royal Dublin Society the previous evening. The article records the largest bell’s weight as being two tons. This weight is further confirmed in a data base called “Great Bells of GB” which gives a weight of 2240kgs (44-0-22) for the bell. This data base evidence was kindly supplied by Mr Frank O’Connor, a local historian who has a great interest in the history of the Castleknock / Blanchardstown area.
The clock was wound up manually every day and after more than one hundred years it was still in perfect working order. In the seventies the job of winding the clock was carried out by a local man, Mr O’Hanlon who worked in Farmleigh for many years. The clock mechanism was restored in 2001 and at that time it was decided to replace the laborious manual winding and raising of the weights with electrical power but there was no alteration to the clock itself. The clock was reconditioned and restored in 2018, again with no alterations or changes to the integrity of this wonderful piece of Victorian engineering.
The Main bell described as a tenor bell was for the hour strike. It bears the inscription: Patrick Turres Renovatas art Paterna Turrigula wati Patrigus Specular Scumptibus ECGuinness A Srurriuo Dan Arrsrbadt fusa Louvin ad 1880.
The Clock Manufacturer
Farmleigh tower clock is unique as it’s the only known tower clock designed by Sir Howard Grubb, a renowned Dublin instrument maker and designer in the late 19th century. The clock itself was constructed with the assistance of Booths of Dublin. The only other time pieces that Sir Howard designed were the equatorial clockwork drives used to move his telescopes in tandem with the movement of the stars as they crossed the sky. Sir Howard’s speciality was in the design and construction of telescopes so to undertake the commission to build the Farmleigh clock would have been very unusual. It is very likely that Edward Cecil and Sir Howard were acquainted with each other as they would probably have moved in similar circles at the time. Edward Cecil was very open to technical and scientific progress throughout his life and a project such as the clock would have fascinated him
Howard Grubb was born in 1844, the son of Thomas Grubb, a renowned instrument maker from Rathmines in Dublin. Thomas started the Grubb Telescope Company in 1883. While Dublin at the time boasted some very fine instrument makers, the Grubb company was considered one of the best. Thomas Grubb was also chief engineer to the Bank of Ireland printing works. The company specialised in the manufacturing of optical instruments and in particular telescopes, the latter bringing the company to international prominence during the golden age of telescope design. Coincidently, the laneway adjoining the Grubb premises was called astronomy lane.
In 1862 Thomas was given what was considered a huge commission at the time, to construct a large reflector telescope. That year while Sir Howard was attending Trinity College his father Thomas was recommended for the commission to build a large 48-inch reflecting telescope for the Government of Victoria in the southern Hemisphere. Howard left college in 1864 in order to assist his father in this huge undertaking. When the telescope was completed in 1868 it was considered to be a “world masterpiece in engineering” and until recently it was considered one of the largest of its kind in the world. When the commission was completed Thomas retired and the control of the company passed on to Howard. By that time Thomas and Howard had pioneered the use of equatorial mountings with clock drives on their large refracting telescopes. These mountings allowed the telescope to be pointed at any object above the horizon and maintain visual contact with it as it crossed the sky on its orbit. This timed mounting also had the advantage of allowing for longer exposures in photographing objects which meant that images could be captured in greater detail.
In 1887 a large international project was undertaken by astronomers from around the world to measure and photograph the stars in both hemispheres. This plan known as the “Carte Du Ceil” project, as it originated in Paris, was to standardise the photographs taken of the sky. To do this, telescopes of similar dimensions were required for the various observatories involved in the project. In 1888 Sir Howard’s company was given the commission to build seven of the 13-inch refracting astrographs, for Cape Town, Greenwich, Oxford, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Tacubaya in Mexico. Actually, for the Sidney telescope they only manufactured the prism / lens. The company also built telescopes for Armagh, Dunsink, Vienna and Cork “Crawford” observatories.
What are unique about the Grubb telescopes are the clock drives which he developed to move them; some were electrical. These drives were critical in creating the accuracy they achieved in following the objects that they were focusing on.
At the end of the 19th century the demand for large telescopes began to wane and the company began to develop and manufacture military optics which included gun sights and periscopes for the Government. This diversion proved to be a prudent decision as the company survived throughout the First World War. In 1918 Sir Howard moved the company to St Albans, but the company did not prosper and it eventually ended up in financial difficulties. The company was acquired by Sir Charles Parsons in 1925 and it relocated to Newcastle upon Tyne where it became known as Sir Howard Grubb Parson’s LTD. Sir Charles was the third son of the Earl of Rosse (of Birr observatory fame) and he was renowned for his work with steam engines. The company traded until 1985 where it continued to design and build optical components. The last telescope it constructed was for the observatory at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.
Sir Howard died in 1931 at Monkstown county Dublin where he lived, there is a plaque to him on a house on Longford Terrace.