An elegant green Edwardian clock stands at the heart of Birmingham’s beloved Jewellery Quarter, towering above the bustling lives of residents, workers, shoppers and visitors. The Chamberlain Clock has been an impressive sight since it was unveiled by Joseph Chamberlain back in 1903 to commemorate his visit to South Africa after the controversial 2nd Boer War.
For over a century, it has been a major landmark in our city, despite its gradual decline into disrepair. Some years ago when I worked in the JQ at a small but inventive publishing company, we joked that the day the Clock showed the correct time was the day we’d get a pay rise…
Years later, it has continued to fascinate me, towering proudly above glittering jewellery shops and the brooding Rose Villa Tavern, like a dignified old soldier who refuses to admit defeat – standing tall despite the constant change all around.
And there has been huge change in the JQ – from its heydays at the centre of our country’s jewellery trade and silverware, when it churned out millions of badges, pen nibs, police whistles, etc, through the agonising degeneration caused by mass production and cheap imports, to its ascendant position today as an historic tourist attraction boasting a café culture and boutique nightlife, and a sought-after high end residential area. We have also changed the way we view monuments to the not-so-glorious Empire.
Finally, in 2020, the ageing and corroded cast iron Clock was taken away for restoration by Smith of Derby. At 16m tall and more than ten tons in weight, it was painstakingly dismantled and months were spent refurbishing and replacing key parts, before it was carefully returned in 2021. The old soldier was back, his dignity restored.
Like the area, the Chamberlain Clock has undergone a huge transformation over the years. Nowadays the dials are backlit by LED lighting triggered by a timing device, after the photocell sensor was rendered useless by pigeon poo; the wind-up clock movement from 1903 has become an electric synchronous mechanism, though the original copper ‘hands’ have been retained; the bronze bell is struck 7am till 11pm by an electromagnetic striking hammer rather than a cable-operated drop hammer. The Clock might look the same, but it’s morphed into a very modern entity.
Yes I feel sad about the decimation of our jewellery trade, but BCU’s School of Jewellery some 100 metres from the Clock offers some compensation – though that is arguably more concerned with art than business. But any sadness I feel is tempered by the enduring and spectacular JQ architecture and the youthful and modern culture that now thrives there.
My play, Timeless, takes place next to the Chamberlain Clock and explores the contrasts of time and culture, imagining two people from very different worlds falling in love. Rehearsals start next week, and I can’t wait to see the actors bringing my script to life and sharing the finished piece with a lively audience. Liz John
Join us to enjoy Gem of a Place on 9/10/11th & 16/17/18th September. Tickets and more information at : www.gemofaplace2022.eventbrite.co.uk