Benjamin Vulliamy

Clock-maker to George IV

Benjamin Vulliamy, clock-maker to George IV designed the clock that still sits in the tower of St. Bartholomew's Church. He was instructed to do so by his brother Lewis, architect to St. Bartholomew's and one of the foremost church architects of his day. This article, written by the vicar, Michael Kingston, first appeared in Sydenham Life in February 2011.

Benjamin Vulliamy clock mechanism found in St. Bartholomew's Church, Sydenham London

Lewis Vulliamy was not the most famous architect of the nineteenth century. I admit that I had never heard of him before coming to Sydenham. Yet he was responsible for quite a few parish churches as well as St. Barts, for instance, St. Barnabas Kensington and St Michael Highgate. 

These are neo-Gothic buildings, but he was also an outstanding practitioner of the Italianate style such as the spectacular facade of the Royal Institution, Albermarle Street, Piccadilly. He started work on St. Bart's in 1827, at the age of 36. The tower is a feature of the building and a focal point is the clock.

St. Bartholomew's clock has been faithfully telling the time for 178 years (2011) to the hundreds who pass it every day. You may remember that a couple of years ago we did a little work on it to free off the hands, to enable it to keep displaying the time on both the south and north faces. For the last 20 years or so the action has been electric. Prior to that, a rota of people who had a head for heights would mount a ladder each week and take their turn in winding it.

Not everyone knows that the clockwork is still there and, together with the faces, is original to the church. And I have only recently found out who the clockmaker was. Who would Lewis Vulliamy get to make the clock which gave the finishing touch to his church? None other than his older brother. But what a brother this was! For Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy (1780-1854) was the last of a dynasty of high quality clockmakers.

Benjamin Vulliamy's Family

The first of the Vulliamy clock-makers was Francois Justin (1712-97) who was born in Geneva. After spending his early years in Paris, he emigrated to London in 1730, where he met Benjamic Gray, clockmaker by Royal Appointment to George II since 1742. Gray took him into the business and the alliance was cemented when he married his daughter in 1746. Justin succeeded his father-in-law as royal clockmaker on his death in 1764. His son, Benjamin (1747-1811) was probably the most widely talented of the family, and the business gained in repute during this time. His Royal appointment as King's Clockmaker came in 1773.

Clock face designed by Benjamin Vulliamy found in St. Bartholomew's Church Sydenham London

His son, Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy (our architect's brother) was the last of the family to pursue the craft. He was elected Master of the Clockmaker's Company five times between 1821 and 1847, and was clockmaker to King George IV, King William IV and Queen Victoria. From 1780 each of the firm's products was numbered and ours is  . . .Benjamin Lewis supplied clocks to many government offices and royal palaces, but the firm made a variety of beautiful timepieces, bracket clocks, drop dial wall clocks, long case clocks etc for private houses. I don't know as yet how many churches benefited from his work, or whether we were particularly fortunate because of the family relationship.

What we can say is that the name of Vulliamy is one of the most eminent in the world of horology. The Vulliamy family was one of the most important London clockmakers for a century from 1750 to 1850. Once again we see hour our forebears were able to use some of the greatest craftsmen of their day in specialist work around the church. A Vulliamy clock is of as much significance as Henry Wilson's Arts and Crafts reredos, or the organ by the distinguished firm of William Hill though, sadly, invisible to most.

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