#9 Two Black Boys – Part one
March 15th, 2022
In part one of this episode, artist, researcher and writer Dan Guthrie uncovers the history of an object in his hometown of Stroud called the Black Boy Clock, from its creation in the midst of the transatlantic slave trade to its restorations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Part two will be released 12th April 2022
Image: A grainy black and white photograph of a middle aged white man with a moustache looking at a dark wooden childlike figure. “Experts are restoring the Black Boy and his 200-year-old clock.” Stroud News and Journal, 15 August 1974.
About Dan Guthrie
Dan Guthrie is an artist, researcher and writer whose work often explores representations of Black Britishness, with an interest in examining how they manifest themselves in rural areas.
His work has been screened at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, Focal Point Gallery, Obsidian Coast and the ICA, and he has previously worked as a submission viewer for London Short Film Festival and Glasgow Short Film Festival.
At the moment, he is developing a new body of work investigating historical and contemporary Black presences and mis-presences in his hometown of Stroud, working across moving image, sculpture and writing.
He is currently a participant in East Bristol Contemporary’s Day School programme, a panel member for Stroud District Council’s review of statues, buildings, streets and monuments, and a part-time librarian.
He lives and works in Stroud, Gloucestershire.
Dan Guthrie: Quick content warning: this podcast contains references to slavery and racism.
Hi, welcome to Loops, the podcast brought to you by Caraboo Projects.
My name is Dan Guthrie, I’m an artist, a researcher, and a writer, and my work often explores representations of Black Britishness with an interest in how they manifest themselves in rural areas.
Voice of a male newsreader: Next tonight, campaigners who want to remove a 240 year old statue in Stroud
Voice of another male newsreader: the council is currently consulting on the issue and
Voice of another male news reader: the black boy clock in Stroud is 247 years old and now the subject of a devisive debate [voices mix and over lay]
Dan Guthrie: I want to tell you a story about a clock and a town. It’s a story that’s still unfolding, but it starts in 1774, when a watchmaker named John Miles created a timepiece for the front of a long-demolished house he lived in on Kendrick Street in Stroud. Stroud is a town in Gloucestershire that at the time was known for producing the scarlett cloth used in Guardsmans jackets.
Miles wasn’t a particularly well-known watchmaker, and still isn’t to be fair, but his clock ended up being first recorded in print by a local diarist called Paul Hawkins Fisher in a passage from his book Notes and Recollections of Stroud, published nearly one hundred years after it was made in 1871. In it, he described Miles’ clock as having “a large dial-face” – pretty standard fare for something that’s meant to tell the time – and more notably also having, “the figure of a negro-boy with a bell before him, on which he sounded the hours with a club.”
OK. Let’s just take a moment to properly absorb that brief and blunt description, because that’s as much detail about the clock’s creation as we’re going to get out of Fisher. Whilst his text is often cited as the primary source of information about the clock’s origins, it doesn’t give any context for them and the artist is given more column inches than the object. Fisher instead preferring to describe in depth Miles’s fascination with perpetual motion and his outlandish claims that he could manipulate “the laws of matter”.
What’s been left out here, perhaps because it wasn’t of interest to Fisher’s audience at the time or maybe because it was such a well known fact to them already, is that the clock was made in the midst of the transatlantic slave trade, during a time where the enslavement of Black people was the norm.
Let’s bring in some context. In the years before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Gloucestershire parish records had only three entries for quote-unquote “negroes” in the Stroud area; on the 28th of February 1786, a man called Adam John Parker was buried aged 32 with a parish funeral, an indication of poverty. An unnamed man aged “about 40 yrs” was buried on the 24th of May 1800 and likely had a similar burial; and on the 7th of May 1801, a child called William Ellis, the son of a “Negro of Guinea” called Qualquay Assedew, was baptised aged 12, under the name of the vicar that conducted the ceremony. More Black residents of the area, mostly likely enslaved or working in servitude, are believed to have gone undocumented by these official records.
Throughout this period of time, artists often used images of Black people to serve a purpose in their work; either to act as peripheral symbols of wealth in portraits of the English upper-classes, heavily glamorized but true-to-life depictions, often relegated to the shadows or the margins of the frame; or to promote the sale of products which had been harvested by slave labour, like the cruder racial caricatures found in adverts and on packaging for such crops.
Let’s expand on Fisher’s description of the ‘negro-boy’ and look closer at the statue’s physical characteristics to see where it fits in here. You may not be able to see it now, but I’ll describe it to you. It’s a wooden child-like figure about a metre high with tar-black skin, thick red lips and a golden leaf skirt. It heavily draws on stereotypes, bringing it closer in appearance to the imagery used in advertising rather than portraiture.
In fact, it might have originally been an advertisement, as whilst we know that the clock was assembled by Miles in 1774, we don’t definitively know if that was when the statue was made too. The type of clock that it is, a jack clock, is one that features a decorative moveable figure whose purpose is to ring a bell on the hour as controlled by the clock’s internal mechanism. Objects like the black boy were often found in tobacco shops in the 17th and 18th centuries, so perhaps Miles bought one and decided to build it into what he was making, rather than go to the effort of making a figure from scratch.
But back to Fisher’s text. So it doesn’t reveal Miles’s motivations for making the clock, and obviously we can’t get inside the head of a man who’s been dead for well over two hundred years, but regardless of his inspirations or intent, we can see that the clock is unequivocally racist in both its appearance and its construction.
It’s a white artist’s impression of how black people were viewed at the time, and the machinery of the clock that Miles has trapped his ‘negro-boy’ within has strong parallels with the mechanics of slavery, with the black boy condemned to a life of subservience and doomed to follow the orders of a white master without respite.
The clock’s creation set out to reinforce the social dynamics present in Britain at the time and attempt to preserve them forevermore, because that’s what statues do. They’re a reflection of the then-present, created to send a message to the future; this is how we should memorialise this thing, no ifs, no buts, no changes. This is how we see Black people.
But despite all that, it’s possibly the closest thing we have to a physical record of historic Black presence in Stroud, albeit a heavily distorted one. It’s certainly not a positive depiction and it may not depict a specific individual, but perhaps it’s something that proves there was a presence in the area, something more concrete than the one-line parish records.
But anyway that was 1774, 247 years ago. The story’s far from over, so what happened next?
John Miles died in the 1830s and after his death the Black Boy Clock — a name which the object acquired soon after its creation — was bought and moved to the front of a currently defunct pub called the Duke of York on Stroud’s Nelson Street where it stayed for several years.
On the 1st of August 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force, making the ownership of slaves throughout the British colonies illegal. To commemorate the day, Henry Wyatt, a local businessman and supporter of the Stroud Anti-Slavery Society, built a triumphal arch in nearby Paganhill which has since been recognised and celebrated by Historic England as Britain’s oldest memorial to the abolition of the slave trade.
Several slave owners lived in the Stroud area and benefitted from the passing of this act, the most notable of whom, Samuel Baker of Lypiatt Park, was awarded £7,990 in compensation (worth about £535,000 today) for owning 410 slaves in Jamaica, and later helped fund the development of Gloucestershire’s railway network with some of those proceeds.
Ten years later in 1844, the Black Boy Clock was sold by the owner of the Duke of York and bought by public subscription (like a modern day crowdfunder) to be displayed on the street-facing wall of the newly built Castle Street National School, just up the road from its previous location. It is highly likely that those who helped to move the clock were aware of both the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act and the existence of the Paganhill arch, given that the two are located at opposite ends of the same town.
In its new position, on a prominent purpose-built ledge close to the roof of the building, the clock’s purpose was not to educate the public about the slave trade like the arch, but to entertain them. When the school opened in February 1844, it quickly gained the nickname of the ‘Black Boy School’ because of its distinctive decorative feature. P. H. Fisher said about the statue:
“There the Boy has stood ever since, doing the duty of turning his head, lifting his club, and striking the hours of day and night as often as they come around; and there it is hoped, he will for many years continue to perform his automatic exercises, to the wonder of strangers passing by, as he did to the admiration of boys and girls of old.”
Just because the abolition act was passed, it didn’t mean that the public changed their perception of Black people straight away. The Black Boy Clock was seen as an object of joy and affection, a quirky timepiece rather than an outdated contraption.
But those automatic exercises weren’t to last forever. Let’s fast forward about a hundred years to 1946, when the town’s local newspaper the Stroud News and Journal ran an article reporting that the part of the clock’s mechanism responsible for controlling the Black Boy had broken.
It is not known exactly how this happened or when it happened, and it may have been as a result of the Second World War as the article mentioned that the mechanism had been broken for “a number of years”, but the paper said that there was now a “distinct revival of the sentiment for the quickening of the Black Boy of Stroud”.
Fifteen years later in April 1961, the Stroud News and Journal reported that T. R. Robinson, the technical editor of a specialist publication called the Horological Journal, had visited the clock in order to see whether it could be mended. After inspecting the damage, Robinson spoke to a reporter about the potential benefits to Stroud that a restoration would bring, saying it would attract the attention of both tourists and the general public, and that the town would be missing out on “a great opportunity” if it wasn’t repaired.
Robinson was reported to have offered to fix the clock himself, but this didn’t come to pass, and a few years later the Castle Street National School closed in 1964. The building lay dormant for a while but soon reopened in 1969 as the Stroud Teachers’ Centre with the broken clock still present on its frontage.
In July 1970, Ramon R. Willey, the Warden of the newly opened Teachers’ Centre, self-published the first edition of his book called The Black Boy School. Whilst it focussed mainly on the day-to-day workings of the former school, it contained a brief chapter about its name sake clock which mostly paraphrased P. H. Fisher’s account of its creation without adding anything new.
Later that year, Willey’s text was serialised weekly in the Stroud News to commemorate the one-hundred year anniversary of the passing of the 1870 Education Act. One instalment was published on the same page as a reader’s letter to the newspaper titled ‘Licence for Minorities’ which blamed social problems around the town on the increase in migrants in the area. The author describes as ‘poor dear creatures’ intent on tearing ‘our town’ apart with the ‘evils’ of littering and vandalism. The letter is a prime example of the anti-immigration rhetoric that was prominent throughout Britain in the 1970s, complete with dehumanising language and derogatory accusations, proving that Black people were still very much seen as the ‘other’ in the area.
In March 1972, Willey published a second edition of his book, this time with newly uncovered information, such as that the clock was one of “less than two dozen” of the Jack clock type still in existence across the UK, and that the Teachers’ Centre was still referred to as the Black Boy School by local residents, who had kept its old nickname despite the building’s new purpose.
As it was still broken at the time of publication, Willey hoped that the clock would be restored back to “full working order” in 1974, two hundred years after it was first made by Miles, with the acknowledgements page of the book stating that any sales proceeds would be donated to an unnamed historical restoration project.
Whilst the clock was not fixed by its bi-centenary, on the 25th of June 1974, the Stroud Teachers’ Centre was added to the National Heritage List for England and given Grade II status for its ‘special architectural or historic interest’, and in Historic England’s words, protecting it for the benefit of ‘future generations’. In the details of the listing, the building is referred to as the ‘Former Black Boy School’ and the clock is mentioned by name as one of its distinguishing features, along with its ‘18th century figure of Black Boy striking bell’.
In August of that year, the Stroud News and Journal reported that the clock, described by them as one of the town’s ‘most interesting and familiar features’, was to be restored by local resident Michael Maltin, some twenty eight years after the damage was first reported. Whilst the article seemed to focus mainly on Maltin’s interest in horology, it contained some details about the damage that the clock — which he referred to as being “a work of art” in its own way — had sustained over the years. Maltin said that the clock mechanism was in an ‘absolutely filthy condition’ and the figure itself was in a ‘rather sorry state’ with a missing arm and a rotten head, but that he hoped the restoration would be completed before the end of the year.
However, the job took much longer than expected, and in 1977, the BBC TV series Day Out visited Stroud, with host Derek Jones meeting with Maltin in one segment, who was only then finishing the job off. Unfortunately there are no surviving recordings of the show, so it is not known if anything was said by Maltin about why the restoration process took so long, but a brief article in the Stroud News and Journal commemorated the culmination of the project, proclaiming that the town’s ‘famous little black boy’ was back to full functionality.
Despite this, the clock fell into disrepair once again when some years later the Teachers’ Centre closed and the building was acquired by Stroud Art College. A Stroud News and Journal article from 1995 outlined the worries of local residents, including Maltin, about the decay of the ‘historic Stroud landmark’ and why it had to be saved. Maltin said that the clock ‘should either be restored or put in a museum’ because of its horological history, and another resident said that it would be ‘such a great loss to Stroud to lose it’ as they described its chimes as being ‘one of those familiar sounds that gave us the feeling that all was well with the world’.
The building changed ownership once more in 1998, as a planning application was filed to Stroud District Council to convert the building into flats. As the application was approved and work began, the property was renamed Black Boy House, with the new owners adopting its previous nickname as its legal name.
Whilst the property underwent conversions in February 2004, the clock was restored a second time and an article in the Stroud News and Journal celebrated the repair. This stated that the restoration cost £8000, part-funded by a £2,000 grant from Stroud Town Council, and then-town mayor John Marjoram was quoted as saying that he was ‘delighted’ that the ‘fascinating’ object was working once again, and that it was one of the ‘little things’ that ‘make the town what it is’.
Several issues prior to this, an image of the Black Boy Clock was featured in a photo quiz run by the newspaper which asked readers to try and spot features of buildings around the town that ‘are part of our everyday life but which we may not notice as we go about our daily business.’; the winners won a bottle of Chardonnay.
With this restoration, for the first time, two hundred and thirty years after the clock was built by Miles, a plaque was added to the railings outside of the building, which reads:
The Blackboy Clock was made by John Miles of Kendrick Street, Stroud in 1774. It is the only working Jack Clock movement in Gloucestershire. It was restored by Mr A J Nicholls, MBHI, of Bristol in 2004 with assistance from Stroud Town and Stroud District Councils.
And that’s all it says.
Every time the clock has been restored, Miles was centred as the focus of the story and any opportunities to acknowledge the connection to the transatlantic slave trade were entirely sidelined in favour of emphasising the benefits that the conservation of an ‘interesting’ or ‘fascinating’ timepiece would bring. At no point did anybody stop to think about the message that keeping an object like that in public display would send, and the fact that this restoration was endorsed and financially supported by the local councils means that they are undeniably complicit in perpetuating its continued presence in the town.
But let’s leave the clock chat there for a moment. You’re probably wondering how I fit into all of this.
In the 1950s, my maternal grandparents emigrated from Jamaica to England, driven by the post-war promise of acceptance in the heart of the British empire. They chose to make Stroud their home because they used to live in a rural part of Jamaica and wanted to start their new lives in the countryside when they settled.
My mum was born in Stroud in the sixties and grew up there alongside some of her siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins. She would have been coming of age around the time that Maltin was restoring the clock in the 1970s.
I was born in London in the year 2000 but I moved to Stroud in 2003 with my parents to be closer to the maternal side of my family, many of whom had stayed in or returned to the area to raise families of their own. Census records show that as of 2001, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people made up only 1.3% of Stroud’s population, a figure which had risen to 2.1% by the 2011 census, and is predicted to rise once again for 2021.
My old primary school, about ten minutes walk away from my house, is on the same street as Black Boy House, with the two buildings less than a hundred feet apart and even sharing the same postcode. I started there in 2004 as one of only a few non-white children in the school, in the same year that the most recent restoration of the clock took place, unaware of what was happening just down the road.
When I moved up to secondary school in 2011, once again a majority white institution, my route there meant I passed the clock every day in both directions, still blissfully unaware of its existence. It was only once I was there that I started becoming properly aware of the ways that racism can manifest itself.
Since then, whilst living in Stroud, I’ve had run-ins with everything from blacked-up morris dancers performing in the town centre to white teachers reading the n-word aloud in English lessons, but this felt like something different.
It wasn’t as fleeting an experience as the others, it wasn’t as easy to brush off and try to move past. It lingered in the background and didn’t seem to go away, a constant presence in my life for as long as I’ve lived here.
I can’t remember the first time I saw the clock, but once I had, I couldn’t un-see it. Every time I walk past it, I look up to see if it is still there, acting on reflexes. It doesn’t even work properly anymore; I’ve never heard the figure ring the now-rusted bell and the clock doesn’t even tell the right time when you need it to.
At some point in the last couple of the years the statue was secured to the wall with a metal loop around its neck, arguably for support and protection purposes, but ironically echoing the inhuman way that Black people had been treated throughout the transatlantic slave trade.
When I was younger, I may have thought that it was watching over me like some sort of guardian angel, but I realise now it is a golliwog-esque relic of a bygone era, haunting me in the present day. Bound by geographical proximity and colliding histories, there is a strange relationship between this statue and myself; two opposing Black bodies — one real, one fake — situated in a landscape that still bears the scars of a colonial past.
And that’s how things were, until something happened.
We’ll leave it there for now, but tune in for part two to find out what happened next in Stroud.
Thanks for listening, this podcast was possible thanks to funding from Arts Council England.