What was…the Guinness Clock?

Jul 26

What was…the Guinness Clock?

It’s 1951, and the Festival of Britain is in full swing – sort of. There’s a suspicion that the whole thing is a bit of a white elephant, and it’s nine bloody shillings for a coffee. The display of British achievements in arts and science on the South Bank has been described as a ‘tonic for the nation’ by Labour deputy leader Herbert Morrison (grandfather of Peter Mandelson, who was in charge of the Millennium Dome a while ago). But not everyone is convinced. They do, however, agree that one exhibit is well worth a visit. Scuttling past the steel pan band, Barbara Hepworth’s blobs and Henry Moore’s lumps, they head to Battersea’s Pleasure Gardens.

Today, Guinness adverts are recognised as the most ostentatious on television, and the brewery’s contribution to the Festival was one of the standout displays. In the park stood a 25-foot-high clock, adorned with mechanical animals: ostriches, tortoises, lions, bears and others. You might remember these Guinness beasts from the posters – like the naughty toucan that kept nicking its zookeeper’s pint (usually beside the legend “My Goodness My Guinness”).

The clock’s mechanism made fairground music start up every quarter of an hour, whereupon its characters would embark on a somewhat surreal four-and-a-half minute routine. To the right, a zookeeper rang his hand bell, while a whirligig opened at the top to reveal the posters’ characters. On the left, for reasons best known to himself, the Mad Hatter from Alice appeared and started fishing, while at the base a collection of toucans performed ballet around a tree that had the motif “Guinness Time” suspended from it.

All very strange – had the inventors been imbibing a bit too much of the black stuff themselves? Not hardly. This was a serious piece of engineering; a clock the likes of which had not been seen in England for hundreds of years. It took five months to build, and contained nine reversible electric motors, which powered three synchronous clocks.

Soon, everyone wanted to see it; if you weren’t at the Festival, you may still have paid the clock a visit, because it appeared all over the country. Guinness was inundated with requests for a visit from local councils and department stores, and not wishing to pass up a publicity opportunity, it made eight travelling versions, and one five-foot miniature.

The first visit was to Morecambe in 1952, and for the next seven years the clock appeared in many coastal towns and department stores: Brighton, Southsea, Paignton and Leamington Spa all played host to this marvellous contraption as it travelled the land. In Barry Bay, Wales, shop owners complained that the steady flow of punters from shops to clock was damaging trade. One clock even made it as far as America, and there were sightings in Ireland. Guinness was on to something.

The brewery went a step further in 1959. The four-tonne Guinness time piece was a masterpiece of mechanisation. The keeper popped up at the front with a bottle of Guinness, then reappeared a few moments later, chasing a naughty brown bear that had somehow got its paws on his beverage.

This was an object of love for its creators, the redoubtable Polish designers Jan Hewitt and George Him. During the war they worked for the British Ministry of Information, the Post Office, the Ministry of Food and others, also for the Polish and Dutch Governments in exile, producing propaganda posters. But it’s generally accepted that the clock was their career highlight.

The clocks were, sadly, forced to retire in 1966: the animals were no longer part of the firm’s advertising, so off they went to the scrap yard. No Guinness campaign before or since, however flamboyant, carried such resonance as the characters that appeared on the clock. Perhaps the trick is that this advertising promoted a sense of fun over the product itself.  The latest advert cost £1 million and is full of clever visual graphics, but doesn’t hide the fact that the black stout’s sales fell last year. Could it be that all the computer-generated wizardry in the world isn’t a patch on a big clock with a toucan, a Mad Hatter and a mischievous bear?

This article first appeared in The Oldie magazine.