St Martin's clock with the figure of the 'Little Admiral' is one of York's best known sights

The clock overhanging the street, topped by the figure of a naval officer affectionately known as the Little Admiral, is one of York's most familiar sights. Its refurbishment in 2011-12, the biggest since it was restored to the rebuilt church in 1966, has ensured that it now looks better than ever.

An historic clock

There has been a clock overhanging the street at St Martin's probably since 1668. Although nothing now remains of the original, the famous Little Admiral dates from 1779, and the decorated bracket and ornaments from 1856. Damaged when the church was almost destroyed by fire in 1942, the local clockmaker Geoffrey Newey built a new movement in 1966 which like its predecessor was housed in the tower and drives the hands by means of a series of connected rods running some 20 metres over the roof. His is one of the last traditional turret clock movements to be installed in this country.

A restored clock

The 19th century bracket and decoration suffered from corrosion and in 2011 it was decided to remove it completely in order that it could be properly stripped and rust proofed before being given a weather resistant epoxy finish. The wooden face of Father Time at the end of the drum was found to be completely rotten and had to be replaced by a resin cast. The decorations and details on the newly repainted figure were given a better standard of gilding than had been possible when it was still in situ. Dismantled in the workshop, it was also possible to install new and much better lighting in the dial, and to make the admiral turn for the first time in nearly 200 years.

A tuneful clock

The 1856 clock was made to strike the hours, and in 1925 chimes were added by Geoffrey Newey's grandfather GJF Newey. The original intention was to restore these to the restored church. After the bells were stolen in about 1960 it was not clear whether this would be possible. One new bell was installed which enabled it to strike the hours; however that was quickly disconnected when the caretaker of the press works who had a flat close to the tower complained that the sound kept him awake. The bed for the new clock was also made large enough to contain a chiming mechanism, but that was never commissioned.

So it was that the clock remained silent for 70 years. But the mechanism for the strike was still there, and although to build a mechanical chiming movement would have been too expensive modern electronics triggered from the clock movement, together with electro-hammers striking the bells, have made it possible not just to have the clock chime but to do so on all eight of the bells installed in the 1980s. The quarter chimes written by York composer Andrew Carter provide a original and tuneful way of celebrating the glory of the restored clock.

Find out more

For more about the history of the clocks since 1668 see this page.

For the Little Admiral see this page.

For the bracket and illumination see this page.