The Exeter Civic Society has for many years contributed to the running costs of the Matthew the Miller clock, in the tower of St Mary Steps Church. This ancient timepiece with its automatic figures is one of the most appealing, if little known, sights of the city, and one of the few Exeter subjects featured in the game ‘Trivial Pursuit’. The clock chamber occupies the mid section of the tower, reached by a narrow winding stair. Inside the tower the clock mechanism stands on a wooden table, within a rectangular, wrought-iron frame from which, like some strange Heath-Robinson machine, iron rods and bars, cables and pulleys, extend in all directions to suspend the weights, turn the dial and the minute hand, hang the pendulum and operate the automata from which the clock gets its name.
The external dial is a replica of the original early 17th-century Beer stone dial (now preserved in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum) and features classical Gods and Goddesses reclining rather uncomfortably in the spandrels. Unlike modern clocks, the whole central part of the dial rotates; the hour being indicated upon it by a beaming, gilded sun set among stars. The minutes are indicated by a later addition, a gilded pointer terminated by a crescent moon. Above the dial is a Gothic aedicule framing the seated figure of Matthew the Miller, flanked by his two scowling, pike-wielding sons. At every quarter his sons strike small bells beneath their feet with long hammers; at the hour Matthew leans forward in his chair as a larger bell in the tower behind him sounds. Throughout the day the steady beat of the escapement may be heard in the church below, mingling with the smell of incense to create a splendidly timeless and restful atmosphere. Services are regularly punctuated by strange whirring and clonking noises as the clock prepares to strike, or as the modern winding motors hoist the clock weights to the base of the belfry to begin again their slow descent.
A detailed description of the clock and its history is given in Clive N. Ponsford’s superb book ‘Time in Exeter’ (Ponsford, 1978, pp 31-34). Ponsford shows that the present clock mechanism dates from 1725, replacing the original mechanism supplied in 1619 by the clockmaker Matthew Hoppin for James Taylor, churchwarden. The original clock mechanism and dial were the first parts to be installed; however in 1620-21 the automata were added at the expense of another churchwarden, Matthew Symons. The churchwardens fell out over the payments for the clock, and a bitter law suit was heard in 1633. The documents relating to the dispute prove beyond doubt that the central figure has always been intended for ‘Matthew the Miller’ and that the long-standing tradition that he represents Henry the Eighth is incorrect. Matthew was a local miller at Cricklepit, whose habits were so regular that the citizens could keep time by him. Among the original decorations of the clock were elaborate carvings depicting a loaded packhorse and ‘the portrayture of the Mill house & of ye trees growing before the same’. Unfortunately these fascinating sculptures have not survived. The present Gothic aedicule is of early 19th-century date, but the images of the packhorse and mill house had already vanished by the mid 18th century, when the church is depicted on Map 10 of the ‘Chamber Map Book’ (a record of the City Chamber’s properties compiled in 1756-8, and kept at the Devon Record Office).
Over the centuries since its installation the clock has been both a delight to the citizens and a source of endless frustration to the churchwardens of St Mary Steps. As with any complicated and intricate machine, the clock is prone to fits of uncooperative behaviour. The installation of an automatic winding mechanism, though saving the trouble of ascending the tower every day to wind it, has done nothing to prevent the clock from showing its independence of spirit. Although setting the clock is easy enough, should anything at all go wrong and the clock wind down for any reason, it is necessary to call out a professional technician. The clock also requires a regular service to ensure its survival as a working timepiece and prevent it from falling into disuse and dereliction.
Many historic clocks in the city have vanished without trace in relatively recent times. The ancient clock at St Petrock’s Church, which played psalm tunes every four hours on a set of chimes, disappeared in the late 19th or early 20th century. The Famous illuminated clock at St John’s Church was taken down in the 1930s. St Stephen’s ancient clock appears to have been stolen during the war. St Edmund’s was destroyed by Vandals in the 1970s and St Kerrian’s clock, which had survived the demolition of the church in the 1870s, vanished a century later when its brick tower was demolished to make way for the Guildhall Shopping Centre. The clock at Holy Trinity Church survives, though disused and separated from its bell and dial, at the museum. Still more public clocks have been lost within the past few years, such as that at Bruford’s premises in Bedford Street and the handsome Art Deco clock at H. Samuel in the High Street. With the loss of these wonderful pieces of street furniture the city loses in visual richness. As the bells are silenced another aspect of the city, familiar to generations of Exonians, is lost.
The clock at St Mary Steps is one of the earliest and most interesting clocks to survive in the city; the generous financial assistance of the Civic Society will secure its maintenance and hopefully ensure that Matthew the Miller and his two sons will continue to amuse and delight us for generations to come.