The Odyssey of the Giants of St. Dunstan’s Church

Strikers of a church clock bell, magnet for pick-pockets and the childhood obsession of the son of the Regent’s mistress, these enormous figures have seen much in their nearly three and a half centuries. After a century’s displacement, adorning the villa of a nobleman in Regent’s Park, they were returned to the same church, if not the same building, which they had dominated since the seventeenth century.

And so, the odyssey of the Giants of St. Dunstan’s …

A medieval church dedicated to St. Dunstan was built on the north side of Fleet Street, London, probably during the tenth century. Some scholars believe it may even have been built by St. Dunstan himself. It was presented to Henry III, in 1237, by Richard de Barking, Abbot of Westminster. Another London church dedicated to St. Dunstan was later built between Tower Street and Lower Thames Street. Over time, to distinguish the first church from the one on Tower Street, the church on Fleet Street came to be known as St. Dunstan-in-the-West. Though the Great Fire of London ravaged the area of Fleet Street in 1666, St. Dunstan-in-the-West survived due to the determined efforts of the Dean of Westminster. He roused the sleeping scholars of the Westminster School as the fire approached in the night, and put the forty young men from the school to work on a bucket brigade which saved the church.

There was a large clock mounted on a bracket high on the exterior of St. Dunstan’s Church from the latter decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This clock was known as "the dyall" and extended well out from the wall of the church, over the traffic passing below. It could be seen for quite some distance up and down Fleet Street. But, though the Dean and the scholars of Westminster were able to save the church building during the Great Fire, "the dyall" was badly scorched. Though it apparently still kept time, the damage made it difficult to see the clock face from any distance. Once the parish had recovered from the fire, there was some thought about doing something to celebrate the survival of the church. In May, 1671, Thomas Harrys, an inventor and clock-maker who lived in Water Lane, approached the church authorities about making a grand new clock to replace the scorched "dyall." He proposed a clock with chimes with two figures to strike the quarters, in addition to which he said, "I will do one thing more, which London shall not show the like; I will make two hands show the hours and minutes without the church, upon a double dial, which will be worth your observation, and to my credit." He offered to make the new chiming clock for £80 and the old clock. After some negotiation, according to the vestry’s minutes, Harrys eventually agreed to make the new clock for just £35 and the old clock. Some horological scholars believe that Harrys then scaled back his plans for the new clock, and mourn what might have been if the vestrymen had not been so parsimonious. At least one scholar believes that Harrys took his inspiration from a clock which was known to have been on the old St. Paul’s Cathedral from the early seventeenth century. That clock included moving figures which struck a bell to toll the hours, and from as early as 1604, it was considered one of the sights of London. This early clock was lost when old St. Paul’s was destroyed in the Great Fire.

The new clock was set up at the church on 28 October 1671, after the removal of the old "dyall." One must wonder what £80 might have gotten St. Dunstan’s Church. But perhaps he was satisfied with the credit which would come to him, for the clock which Thomas Harrys provided was quite spectacular. A large, double-sided clock dial, black with gold roman numerals, was mounted on an ornate black bracket which held it well out from the wall of the church, so it was clearly visible for a great distance. The clock was situated so that it could be easily seen by all of those entering and leaving the City of London via Fleet Street. This new clock had both an hour and a minute hand, both also gold. This was, in fact, the first public clock in London which had a minute hand. But the clock itself paled in comparison with the mechanism by which the chimes on the hour and the quarters were tolled.

The striking mechanism was an enormous automata which consisted of two bells hung side by side, in the center of a large niche set above the clock dials. A pair of over-sized upright figures flanked the bells, each with a large club in their right hand with which they struck the bells on each quarter hour. These giants were carved of wood, said to have a ferocious aspect and were dressed only in loin cloths. They were painted in realistic colors, with bright colors and gilding on their loincloths. They are clearly masculine, heavily muscled and many found them "… nude almost to impropriety." Some referred to them simply as savages, others thought the pair a mirror image of Hercules, while still others thought them to be Gog and Magog. To most people they were simply the "Giants of St. Dunstan’s." At each quarter hour, each giant slowly raised his club, turned his head and struck the bell which hung above him. Though they moved a bit stiffly, they quickly became one of the wonders of London, and certainly the most popular attraction on Fleet Street, a street which had many of them, for more than a hundred and fifty years.

One author, writing in 1708, said of the giants "… that these figures were more admired on Sundays by the populace than the most eloquent preacher in the pulpit within." But it was not just St. Dunstan’s parishioners who enjoyed the clock-striking automata. People, particularly newcomers to London, were fascinated by the giants and would stand on the pavement on the opposite side of Fleet Street, waiting for the next quarter hour in order to see the giants once again strike their bells. This regular gathering of people, looking up, with their attention of the movement of the giants, made easy pickings for pickpockets. That section of Fleet Street became notorious for pickpockets, but with so many visitors to London coming to see the giants, completely unaware of the risk, the pickpockets continued to ply their trade across from St. Dunstan’s quite successfully, to the chagrin of many newcomers to the city, right through the Regency.

Over the years, many authors would take note of the giants in their writings, including William Congreve, William Cowper, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, and Charles Dickens. St. Dunstan’s had a long history with regard to books, book-sellers and publishers. Over time, the churchyard of St. Dunstan’s had become the location for a number of book shops. Until 1812, very close by, at 32 Fleet Street, was the publishing office of John Murray. Through his doors passed a great many notable authors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Lord Byron, who often called on Murray after his fencing lessons with Henry Angelo, or a bout of sparring with Gentleman Jackson, would sometimes lunge at the books on Murray’s shelves with his walking stick, as though fencing with them. Murray admitted to a friend that on such days he was " … glad enough to be rid of him." On one occasion, when Byron was angry with Murray, he wrote to a friend that he would borrow " … the giant’s staff of St. Dunstan’s Church … " to take out his anger on his publisher.

The giants of the St. Dunstan’s clock had a rather young but regular admirer. The eldest son of Lady Hertford, who would become mistress to the Prince Regent, Francis Seymour-Conway, was a rambunctious and mischievous child who often misbehaved. One day, his nurse took him to see the clock at St. Dunstan’s Church. The little boy was so taken with the giants striking the bells that his nurse soon employed a visit to them to help curb some of his mischief. She made a trip to see the giants a reward when he was a good boy. One day, as he stood watching the giants tolling the quarter hour, he told his nurse that when he grew up and became a man he would buy those giants for his own house. She shrugged it off, of course, assuming it was simply the boast of the child of wealthy parents, used to getting his own way. But the little boy never forgot the giants, and, though it took nearly forty years, he did get his own way.

As the reign of George IV was coming to an end, the old St. Dunstan’s Church was in a terrible state of disrepair. When the old church had been built, it extended more than thirty feet out into the right of way of Fleet Street. Since the middle ages, traffic in London had become increasingly heavy, especially along Fleet Street, and the roadway needed to be widened in the area of St. Dunstan’s Church. In 1830, it was decided to demolish the old church and build a new one, set back thirty feet in order to widen Fleet Street. It was decided there would be no place for the clock and its giants in the design of the new church and they were auctioned off in the second group of items which had been salvaged during the demolition of the old church building. The high bidder was the Marquis of Hertford, the little boy who once told his nurse he would buy the giants for his own house. He paid £210 (200 guineas) for his prize and had them carted off to Regent’s Park. Edward Moxon said that the removal of the giants drew tears from Charles Lamb, who had always been very fond of that Fleet Street landmark.

As a young man, Lord Hertford, then Lord Yarmouth, had been a close friend of the Prince Regent, and had often acted as agent for him in the purchase of various works of art. Yarmouth had also purchased a great many art objects for himself and was in the process of building a new home for himself in which to house and display his collection. He had leased six acres in Regent’s Park where the architect, Decimus Burton, was building a villa for him. In this map of Regent’s Park, to the left, just above the R in the word Regent, you can see the location of Lord Hertford’s new villa. The label curves between the E and the G of the word Regent. It was here that the clock and the giants were brought and were refurbished and installed on the garden front of Lord Hertford’s villa, which he named St. Dunstan’s, in their honor. For a century, the giants remained in Regent’s Park, striking the quarter hours for the successive residents of St. Dunstan’s villa and all who passed there.

In 1930, St. Dunstan’s Villa was sold to Viscount Rothermere, a wealthy and successful British newspaper publisher. In 1935, on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of King George V, Lord Rothermere returned the giants and their clock to St. Dunstan’s Church. They were installed on the new church building and remain there to this day. The following year, Lord Rothermere sold the villa to Barbara Hutton, the heiress of the Woolworth fortune. Sadly, she did not care for the villa so she had it demolished and built a red brick house in the Georgian style. Renamed Winfield House, for her father, Frank Winfield Woolworth, Hutton eventually gave the building to the United States government. It became, and remains today, the official residence of the American Ambassador to Britain.

During the Regency, the great clock and the giants who chimed its quarter hours were still to be seen high on the facade of old St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street. They were still a magnet for newcomers to London and pickpockets alike. How many other little boys were brought to see the giants strike the quarter hours with their massive clubs? And, how many times did Lord Yarmouth, as a grown man, travel along Fleet Street, as fascinated with them as he had been as a child? Dear Regency authors, how might the giants of St. Duntan’s figure in one of your novels? Might a young lady, fresh from the country, pause on Fleet Street to watch them chime the quarter hour and have her purse stolen? Will the hero collar the thief and return her purse? Or might the governess of a rowdy child or two do as Lord Hertford’s nurse did, and take them to see the giants strike the bells at St. Dunstan’s as a treat? Maybe hoping to steal a few minutes to visit some of the book stalls in the church yard. The roadway of Fleet Street was very narrow in front of the church. Perhaps one of the children comes too close to the edge of the pavement, just as two vehicles come down the street, a little too fast for the confined space. How might that end? Please do keep the giants and their clock at St. Dunstan’s in mind if any of your characters have occasion to travel along Fleet Street.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to The Odyssey of the Giants of St. Dunstan’s Church

  1. Fascinating! I love automata, the description of the jousting knights at Wells in Heyer’s ‘Black Sheep’ always fascinated me.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I forgot about the knights! A good excuse to go back and re-read Black Sheep.

      I have loved automata since I first learned about them from a friend of my parents, who had a small collection of them. It was fascinating to watch them go through their routines, and even though I knew what each of them would do, I never tired of the sight.

      I am glad you liked the article.

      Regards,
      Kat

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    I always think historical snippets like this can add a nice bit of embellishment to Regency novels, so I love digging them out and sharing the details with those who might be interested.

    Regards,
    Kat

  3. Jenny says:

    This is going to work perfectly as a setting for some of my current work-in-progress. Thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad it will work for your story. I originally wrote this article because I was so touched by the young Lord Hertford’s determination to own them, and his success in eventually doing so. But the more I learned about the Giants and their clock, the more I realized they were an important landmark of Regency London. I am delighted to know they will find their way into a Regency novel!

      Regards,

      Kat

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