Nostalgia: Ormskirk Clock Tower history revealed
ON APRIL 4, 1876, the keys to the new Clock Tower were handed over to the Ormskirk Local Board by representatives of the Court Leet.
The events leading up to that simple ceremony contain a considerable catalogue of financial, technical and planning issues which were to eventually be overcome by sheer dogged determination on the part of local solicitor and Steward of the Manor, Robert Wareing of Charlesbye.
Anecdotal evidence from the memoirs of the townsfolk in the 19th century, confirms that prior to the familiar Clock Tower, the site at the Cross was occupied by a two tier fountain, the upper circular trough being for humans and the lower one for livestock.
In the centre of the circular structure, certainly from the mid 19th century, there was a large lamp, quite likely supplied with gas from the Ormskirk Gas Company, established in the 1830s in Aughton Street.
Before the fountain and lamp, it is recorded deep in the Parish Chest records that a cross marked the spot where the turnpike and the byways met.
It is also probable that, like many towns and villages in the county, the cross was removed and buried away from the town at the start of the Civil War.
In 1876, there was certainly no living memory of the cross.
Robert Wareing (18011881), was the Steward of the Manor in 1876, but it was not as important a position as it had been.
Under the Public Health Act of 1848, Ormskirk became a Local Government District.
The Earl of Derby, as Lord of the Manor, appointed a steward in earlier times, and the steward held a Court Leet annually on a Wednesday in the third week after the Feast of St Michael.
Michaelmas Day being September 29 this would put the court dates usually as the third Wednesday in October.
The County Court was built in 1850 and the Court Leet, though continuing after that date, lost much of its legal influence.
In 1874, the Earl of Derby offered the local board of health the opportunity to purchase the right to the market and fair tolls. Once a figure was agreed on, the local
authority took control of the market and the Court Leet was left as just a tradition of the town. The tower plan was first announced at the Court Leet in October 1875, the offer from Lathom-born stonemasons Charles and John Wells to build it was accepted at the meeting. The Wells brothers had based their business in Everton and were huge employers in that area in the 1870s and ’80s although they had a brother, Robert, in Burscough and a brother, Joshua, in Newburgh, both also stonemasons. The architect was announced as Peter Balmer of Aughton, who was only in his late 20s in 1876, an architect and surveyor, the son of Edmund Balmer who was the Surveyor of the Turnpike for the district. The Balmers lived at Quarry Drive, Aughton and were owners of the quarry. The cost of building the tower was estimated at £300, not counting the clock mechanism itself, and much of that had been offset by the Court Leet, although a public subscription campaign was started and raised sufficient funds to complete the work. The tower design is an early gothic style and the stone is Yorkshire “shoddies” (Yorkstone) and Bootle red stone.
Two drinking fountains were initially planned, fronting Church Street and Moor Street.
The plan was changed however and the fountains faced Church Street and Aughton Street.
The clock was to have illuminated dials set 25ft from the ground.
In the first few weeks after the clock was installed, before the official handover, there had been some issues with the clock’s time-keeping, which had caused some good-humoured comments to appear in the
Advertiser columns. The top was designed with a battlement capped by an octagonal bell turret to rehouse the centuriesold town fire bell which had hung over the Town Hall buildings.
The bell is no longer in the tower.
There were decorative shields added to each side of the tower with plans to insert the coats of arms of families connected with the town, the Court Leet and the local board.
That plan relied heavily on the funds raised from the appeal to the public for funds.
There appears to have been a problem with the funding as the coats of arms, if ever added, have not survived.
Within just a few years, the gleaming Yorkstone was blackened with soot and grime.
For more than a century it was a dark, grey casualty of domestic and industrial smoking chimneys.
In the 1970s, when it was cleaned and restored to its former state, the contrasting stonework once again showed the true vision of design of Peter Balmer and the Wells brothers.
In August 1972, the 96-year-old Clock Tower was given grade 11 listed status as a building of historical interest.
On Saturday, July 29 Ormskirk Community Partnership’s Gingerbread Project, Ormskirk & District Family History Society and representatives of Lathom Park Trust will be manning a market stall on Moor Street for the day.
They will be presenting a unique display of photographs of the town and offering help and advice on family, local and social history aspects of Ormskirk and district.
Please call by to offer support or seek advice on your own research.
The newly cleaned tower decorated for The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, and, below, the grimy tower in the late 1950s or early ’60s.