I well remember this song as a child being played by brass bands in Brighouse Park when we used to go on Sunday afternoon family walks during summer months. We would walk across the fields and down a long country lane from Hightown to Brighouse and at the end of the day walk the three miles back home. Both walk and fresh air would knock us out and make us ravenous. However, I liked listening to the words of ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ on the radio best of all, for the story it told.
The song is told from a grandchild's point of view and is about his grandfather's clock. The clock was bought on the morning of his grandfather’s birth, and worked perfectly for 90 years, needing winding just once weekly. The clock, however, does not act like an inanimate object and seems to have a mind of its own. It responds to all manner of events in the grandfather’s life. For instance, it chimes 24 times when the boy’s grandfather gets married and it gives out an eerie alarm that warns of the old man’s death. When the old man dies, the clock stops and never works again.
At the age of 15 years, my first job was working at a Cleckheaton textile mill called ‘Bulmer and Lumb’. I started my working life as a ‘Bobbin Boy’ (a young employee who would push away filled carts of yarn that had been spun to another department and return to the spinners and winders departments with a cart of empty bobbins to fill their machines again). During the morning tea break, the female workers in the spinning and winding departments would tell all manner of stories; more often about the things that women usually talk about in groups, like accounts about this young man or another, or someone’s husband who’d gone astray.
There were four Bobbin Boys and we would usually join the women for their morning tea break. The women seemed to like our joining them, and I can only presume it was because we presented no male threat to them, and I am sure they spoke about some topics simply to embarrass us or notice our ears prick up at the mention of certain things.
One Irish woman called Maureen who worked in the winding department was always telling tales ‘from the old country’ as she used to call Ireland. We never knew how truthful her tales were, but we just loved hearing them. Her stories were always too long for a five-minute tea break and would often be started one morning and part-told. When the tea break was over and the women were called back to their looms and winding machines, Maureen would promise to finish the tale the following day. It was thought by some of us that she deliberately told long stories so she could leave them unfinished one morning and give herself time to think of a suitable ending of the story that same night before she resumed the tale at the next morning tea break.
True or false, however, I loved listening to Maureen’s stories and would eagerly retell her stories to my mother (who was also called Maureen). When I passed her stories on to my Irish mother, mum would listen attentively and make one of three remarks. Mum would usually say, “Go on with you, you, eejit!” or “Yes, I heard that one a number of years back!” or “Tell it to the postman!”
I never quite knew why the postman was always part of one of mum’s responses until I learned the answer many years later. It would seem that if a person owed money in the 50s and 60s and was being pursued by their debtor’s via a solicitor’s threatening letter, the house owner would simply recognise the official envelope upon receipt and immediately pass it back to the postman saying, “Right surname but wrong person. This person doesn’t live here and never has!” The postman would return the letter to the sender with his official explanation. This ruse usually bought the debtor some extra time.
Today’s song reminds me specifically of one story my Irish work mate, Maureen once told. It was a tale about an eccentric and wealthy Irish widow. Seemingly, the couple had been happily married for over 55 years and when the woman’s husband died in the middle of the afternoon at 2.59 pm, the hands of the mantle clock mysteriously stopped at the time of his death. The clock had seemingly been a wedding present to his parents, and they, in turn, had given the clock to their oldest son and his new bride on their wedding day.
The story recounted was that while the mantle clock remained in the widow’s house, she never wound it up again in memory of the loss of her husband. The widow reportedly pined the loss of the only man she had ever loved for the remainder of her life, and when she died fifteen years after her husband, instructions had been left with the solicitor in her will to have the clock buried in the coffin with her. The instructions indicated that the mantle clock would be placed in her hands in a position of repose.
Being a popular villager, the widow’s funeral was well attended, and she was buried in the church cemetery at 2.00 pm one sunny day in the month of May 1916. After the parish priest had said the graveside prayers over the widow’s coffin (which was placed in the same ground above the coffin of her husband in a joint burial plot), the funeral attendees gradually dispersed. Shortly after, the parish grave digger returned and completed his task of replacing the loose soil and sealing the ground of the grave.
The grave digger, who was partial to having a few bottles of stout on a lunch break before he spent the afternoon backfilling graves, claimed he’d been so busy that morning digging two separate graves for use in the afternoon that he hadn’t time for his usual lunch break and therefore didn’t taste a drop ‘of the brown stuff’ before evening. He told his drinking mates in the pub that night about the eerie goings-on in the graveyard that afternoon after the widow had been lowered to her final place of rest.
The gravedigger said that he returned after the grave-side attendees had departed and he started to shovel back the soil over the widow’s coffin. Before he had shovelled six spades back into the opened grave plot, he thought he heard a ticking sound coming from inside the widow’s coffin, and after climbing down into the grave and placing his ear to the wooden casket, he listened again. He was certain that the clock in the hands of the deceased woman ticked. Seconds later, the clock (which hadn’t been wound and re-started for the past 15 years) chimed three times. At that precise moment, the church steeple clock struck 3.00 pm.
According to the winder, Maureen, recounting the gravedigger’s telling of his part in the mysterious burial, the couple’s clock which they had been given as a wedding present seventy years earlier had started ticking in the deceased widow’s hands at exactly 2.59 pm: the precise time of day that the widow’s husband had died fifteen years earlier!
When I told my mum the tale later that evening after I’d returned home from work, having herself been steeped in Irish folklore ever since her own childhood, my mother remarked that she was inclined to believe my Irish workmate’s story. I still think to this day though, that Maureen from the winding department in ‘Bulmer and Lumb's Mill' was winding us all up by spinning her morning listeners an Irish yarn which had originated from the mouth of a drunken gravedigger in ‘Murphy’s Pub’ in May of 1916.
Love and peace Bill xxx