By Ipswich Historical Commission chairman John Fiske:
It’s not often that a major purchase in 1762 turns into a major headache in 2017. But that is what happened with the First Church’s clock in Ipswich.
The First Church (uppercase C: the institution) built its first church (lowercase c: the building) in 1634, the year that Ipswich was founded. The church stood on the highest point in town and was the town’s first public building – besides being a house of worship, it also served as a meeting house and even as a fortress guarding against French or Indian attacks.
This first church lasted only a dozen years. In 1646, the Church decided it needed a better church, so it built the second church — which lasted all of 50 years. Then it, too, was torn down to make way for the third First Church that, in 1749, was replaced by the fourth First Church (all this seems weird to me: I grew up in England where churches were built of stone and were expected to last for eternity. In Ipswich, England, by way of contrast, the parish church was built in the 1350s and is still going strong.)
By the middle of the eighteenth century, a modern town needed a public clock. People needed to organize their businesses and activities on a common schedule: a public clock signals the beginning of scheduling – without which life today would be impossible. Before then, the church bell had been rung every day at 5.00 am, noon and 9.00 pm, which at least did something to keep people within a common timeframe. A town clock had become a necessity, but there were no capable American clockmakers at the time, so the Ipswich clock had to be ordered from England. The maker is not recorded, but construction and stylistic details suggest it was John Hawting of Oxford.
As the parish records tell us, “A clock purchased by subscription was landed in Ipswich May 29, 1762. The Parish on May 31st voted their readiness to receive it into the steeple of this meeting house and September 16, 1762 they voted to be at the charge of putting it up there.”
Then in 1846 (here comes another church), the First Church built the fifth church and relocated the clock into the new steeple where it continued to keep the town clicking along like (ahem!) clockwork. And then – calamity! In June, 1965, the church was destroyed by lightning and the clock reduced to a jumble of cogwheels lying in the ashes. Parishioners gathered them up, put them in a box and promptly forgot about them.
Fifty years later, a tower clock expert comes on the scene. Donn Lathrop heard about the pile of clock parts, inspected them and volunteered to take them to his Vermont workshop and put them back together again. And he did just that. Today the clock is back in town in full working order and probably more accurate than at any time in its history – it loses just one minute in 24 hours.
And here’s the problem. There’s no question of the clock’s importance: it’s the first town clock and it’s one of the earliest in New England. But it’s huge. It’s around eight feet high and six feet wide. It can’t be fitted into the tower of the sixth church (are you still keeping count?) and for the time being it’s sitting in a hallway outside the pastor’s office. The Town Hall can’t find room to display it, nor can the Ipswich Museum.