Smith of Derby
Telling Time
Smith of Derby, clockmakers since 1856.

So much of what we share on Taking Time is about our perception of time, but what about the literal telling of time? We spoke with Bob Betts and Jason Budd at Smith of Derby, clockmakers since 1856, to find out more about those who look after the public clocks across the country.

TT:  What originally drew you to working with clocks? Was it the chance to climb tall buildings for a living or perhaps something deeper connected to time?

Bob Betts: To be a great clockmaker you must have a passion for wanting to understand how things work - and particularly, with an engineering type mind, coupled with a deep belief that it is always best to conserve than to ignore and eventually discard!

TT: Public clocks are often central to our towns and cities, a focal point for everyone to both enjoy and use practically. However, I imagine many of them were built many years ago when we didn't all have watches and phones to keep time for us. What is the significance of the clocks that you work on?

BB: It is true that in times gone past, most public buildings were designed with a clock as a real and required service to the public. Today, the actual need to provide ‘time’ is not due to the lack of time telling devices such as watches, phones and the like, but more an appreciation of the ‘well-being’ a public clock can bring to a community. Today, the public clock is often the meeting place, a heartbeat of the community. So many of the wonderful pieces we work on today are part of the fabric of the local community and cherished as such.  

TT: How much time goes into the creation of a new clock? Do new clocks still get commissioned or is your main work maintenance of existing pieces?

BB: At Smith of Derby we enjoy working in all three areas of our business - designing and building new public time features, restoration and maintenance of existing pieces. The work is almost in equal shares across the company. We care for over 4,000 public timepieces on annual service agreements each and every year.

TT:  When maintaining a clock, what are the key elements that you need to check and ensure are in order?

BB: At every service we check the full installation for safety. Certain parts are lubricated, key wires checked and changed if required, and any ancillary equipment checked and replaced. The tower and clock room itself is also important as the room may be visited rarely and it is an opportunity to check for the effect of the environment and infestation of birds, bats or other lovely visitors. We have even met the odd snake and bees nests. All part of the day in the life of a Smith of Derby clockmaker.

TT: By what standard do you check the time keeping capacity of a clock? Is there a universal time that you set them by?

BB: Some of our clocks are regulated by GPS and a pendulum regulating device adjusts the swings of the pendulum automatically. Most clocks are regulated with a penny or keep quite accurate time itself.

TT: Do you have a favourite clock that you get to work on or have worked on in the past?

BB: St Paul’s Cathedral is perhaps the company's favourite, but then it is true to say that each and every clock is important to us and of course, to its owner. Our work is special and we are privileged to be in this wonderful industry.

(Photos by David Moore)
Jason Budd gives us an insight into the role of an IRATA specialist clockmaker. (Written in March 2021)

An unusual passion.

The start of British Summer Time (clock change) signals warmer days, lighter evenings, and spring blooms.

For Smith of Derby, this brings with it the start of dial restoration season, meaning that our skilled engineers and clockmakers are busy in the workshop and out and about around the country helping to restore and maintain public time.

Supporting this work is our seven strong team of IRATA trained rope access specialist clockmakers. The expertise they bring to the business, coupled with our rigorous bi-annual safety checks and safety critical medicals, demonstrates our commitment to health and safety along with the well-being of our team. Running alongside this is our continual training to enhance the depth and breadth of the skills we offer as a company.

The team is headed up by our clockmaker Jason Budd, who has in excess of 10,000 hours of working in rope access. Expertise gained over 20 years. Jason first qualified in Rope Access in 2001 with IRATA (Industrial Rope Access Trade Association). Since that time, Jason has re-validated his Level 3 qualification every three years, as required, and in total Jason has taken five assessments at this level. Jason has worked with Smith of Derby as a Level 3 supervisor since 2007, becoming a full-time employee in 2019.

IRATA was formed in the late 1980s and is internationally recognised as the leading authority in rope access techniques and procedures. The techniques originated from ‘caving’, and the early equipment used was taken straight from the climbing and caving world. Over the years this equipment has developed to be more suited to an industrial environment it is used in today, and much of it is a far cry from the basic caving equipment of yesteryear.

To become a qualified technician involves four days of intensive training, both classrooms based and practical. This is then followed by a day’s assessment where everything learnt over the last four days is put to the test.

There are three levels of qualification/experience in the IRATA technician training programme, level 1 is the basic principles of rope manoeuvres, the fundamentals of rope rigging and simple rescues. Any work on site as a level 1 technician must be carried out under the supervision of a level 3 technician. The level 2 qualification is intermediate in terms of skills and knowledge. To achieve level 2, a technician has to have a minimum of 12 months and 1000 hours of work experience under their belt. They need to have the ability to rig the working ropes for a variety of situations and undertake complex rescue and hauling techniques under the supervision of a Level 3 technician, as well as looking more in depth at legislation of the industry.

Finally, level 3 is the advanced qualification in terms of site work. It is all about site supervision combined with the knowledge of both levels 1 & 2 and more advanced rigging and rescue techniques. Along with this, a technician must have an understanding of the legislation, safety requirements and procedures relating to the IRATA international code of practice. To gain level 3, a technician must have been operating at level 2 for a minimum of 12 months and have logged at least 1000 hours work experience at this level. Further to these levels are trainer, instructor and assessor qualifications. These can be gained through experience and knowledge along with meeting the requirements laid out in IRATA’s Training Assessment and Certification Scheme.

As well as the formal training and safety training our team must keep physically fit – rope access work is strenuous.  Over the coming months if you see our rope access clockmakers working on churches and buildings up and down the country you will know a little more about the role and training, they do.  If you are inspired by the work and would like more details on being a clockmaker please contact

Safety Checks – We take H&S very seriously at Smith of Derby - all of our equipment including rope access are checked twice per year.
We run an award winning clockmaker apprenticeship programme.  Photographs of Mitch Eaton – learning the ropes!  Mitch also successfully completed the IRATA training programme some years ago and is part of our seven strong rope access team.

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