News. Alexander Cummings' tavern clock

6th of January, 2017

His name might not be familiar to many, but we all encounter his legacy on a daily basis: Alexander Cumming, the mathematician, inventor, mechanic and watchmaker whose patented creations include the flushing toilet. Cumming’s influence on Dumfries House goes beyond his most ubiquitous legacy though: in the corridor linking the Pink Dining Room and the Earl’s Study, visitors will come across a tavern clock, thought to have been made in his workshop some time between 1750 and 1760.

“It would have originally hung in an important public or civic building or perhaps even a country house,” explains Thomas Breckney, Dumfries House’s Curator’s Assistant, adding that the clock became something of a prototype for timepieces that proved popular a few decades later. “In an attempt to generate revenue for the country, in 1797, William Pitt imposed yet another tax – the clock tax,” he says. “This tax required a payment of five shillings on every clock, even within a private home, two shillings and sixpence on pocket-watches of silver or other metal, and ten shillings on those of gold. As you can imagine this was immensely unpopular and was scrapped after only nine months.”

Larger clocks such as this became referred to as tavern clocks, as public places were quick to use large clocks so people could get a sense of the time without paying tax. “It wasn’t really until the railways came along that everybody started to rely on standardised time,” adds Breckney.

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