Thirteen O’Clock

Great Tom of Westminster, illustrated c. 1776.

Snippets 163. One of the great pioneers of the trivia book was Scottish Author Robert Chambers (1802-1871), who edited The Book of Days, from 1864. His work is packed full of fascinating information, and the following quote is taken from the first volume. It concerns a London legend, “the clock which struck thirteen, and saved a man’s life”.

There is a traditionary story very widely diffused over the country, to the effect that St Paul’s clock on one occasion struck thirteen at midnight, with the extraordinary result of saving the life of a sentinel accused of sleeping at his post. It is not much less than half a century since the writer heard the tale related in a remote part of Scotland. In later times, the question has been put, Is there any historic basis for this tradition? followed by another still more pertinent, Is the alleged fact mechanically possible? and to both an affirmative answer has been given.

An obituary notice of John Hatfield, who died at his house in Glasshouse-yard, Aldersgate, on the 18th of June 1770, at the age of 102 — which notice appeared in the Public Advertiser a few days afterwards — states that, when a soldier in the time of William and Mary, he was tried by a court-martial, on a charge of having fallen asleep when on duty upon the terrace at Windsor. It goes on to state — ‘He absolutely denied the charge against him, and solemnly declared [as a proof of his having been awake at the time], that he heard St Paul’s clock strike thirteen, the truth of which was much doubted by the court because of the great distance. But while he was under sentence of death, an affidavit was made by several persons that the clock actually did strike thirteen instead of twelve; whereupon he received his majesty’s pardon.’ It is added, that a recital of these circumstances was engraved on the coffin-plate of the old soldier, ‘to satisfy the world of the truth of a story which has been much doubted, though he had often confirmed it to many gentlemen, and a few days before his death told it to several of his acquaintances.’

An allusion to the story occurs in a poem styled A Trip to Windsor, one of a volume published in 1774 under the title of Weeds of Parnassus, by Timothy Scribble:

‘The terrace walk we with surprise behold,
Of which the guides have oft the story told:
Hatfield, accused of sleeping on his post,
Heard Paul’s bell sounding, or his life had lost.’

A correction, however, must here be applied — namely, that the clock which struck on this important occasion was Tom of Westminster, which was afterwards removed to St Paul’s. It seems a long way for the sound to travel, and when we think of the noises which fill this bustling city even at midnight, the possibility of its being heard even in the suburbs seems faint. Yet we must recollect that London was a much quieter town a hundred and fifty years ago than now, and the fact that the tolling of St Paul’s has often been heard at Windsor, is undoubted. There might, moreover, be a favourable state of the atmosphere.

As to the query, Is the striking of thirteen mechanically possible? a correspondent of the Notes and Queries has given it a satisfactory answer. ‘All striking clocks have two spindles for winding: one of these is for the going part, which turns the hands, and is connected with and regulated by the pendulum or balance-spring. Every time that the minute hand comes to twelve, it raises a catch connected with the striking part (which has been standing still for the previous sixty minutes), and the striking work then makes as many strokes on the bell (or spring gong) as the space between the notch which the catch has left and the next notch allows. When the catch falls into the next notch, it again stops the striking work till the minute hand reaches twelve again an hour afterwards. Now, if the catch be stiff, so as not to fall into the notch, or the notch be worn so as not to hold it, the clock will strike on till the catch does hold. … If a clock strike midnight and the succeeding hour together, there is thirteen at once, and very simply. … If the story of St Paul’s clock be true, and it only happened once, it must have been from stiffness or some mechanical obstacles.’

In connection with the above London legend, it is worthy of remark that, on the morning of Thursday the 14th of March 1861, ‘the inhabitants of the metropolis were roused by repeated strokes of the new great bell of Westminster, and most persons supposed it was for a death in the royal family. It proved, however, to be due to some derangement of the clock, for at four and five o’clock, ten or twelve strokes were struck instead of the proper number.’ The gentleman who communicated this fact through the medium of the Notes and Queries, added: ‘On mentioning this in the morning to a friend, who is deep in London antiquities, he observed that there is an opinion in the city that anything the matter with St Paul’s great bell is an omen of ill to the royal family; and he added: “I hope the opinion will not extend to the Westminster bell.” This was at 11 on Friday morning. I see this morning that it was not till 1 a.m. the lamented Duchess of Kent was considered in the least danger, and, as you are aware, she expired in less than twenty-four hours.’

So could there be any truth in the legend of the clock that struck thirteen?  Opinions are divided.  According to Mark Twain, “the thirteenth strike of the clock is not only false of itself, but casts grave doubt on the credibility of the preceding twelve.”

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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4 Responses to Thirteen O’Clock

  1. Mike Basil says:


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