From The Historian's Corner:

Tempus Edax Rerum – The Polk Family Clock

Polk Family Clock In “Polk Family and Kinsmen” W. H. Polk quotes a letter he had received in 1874 from Colonel William T. G. Polk of Princess Anne, Maryland, describing certain items that he claimed had come to America with Robert and Magdalen Polk when they arrived at Dames Quarter about 1687.

"…. I will also state in this connection that there are three articles of personal property, two of them, at least, in our current possession, which were brought from Europe by our family. (Mention is made of a family bible and of a large case with 15 square glass bottles.) …..

Polk Family Clock - closeup of clock face “The third article is a large brass clock, which in the case stands eight or nine feet high, with great leaden weights of ten or twelve pounds each. In addition to keeping the hours of the day, it keeps the day of the month and the phases of the moon, and is a repeater. A string may be attached to a lever inside the clock and carried to the foot of your bed. At any hour of the night, if the string is pulled, she will repeat the last stroke, unless it is within a half hour of the next strike. So you can know within a half hour the time, without rising from your bed. Seventy years ago it was given by my grandfather [William Polk] to my father [Samuel Polk], with the old homestead. When he took possession of them he found the old clock in a lumber room covered with dust. Supposing it to have finished its work, he proposed to a clockmaker to trade it in part payment for a new clock, if there was any value in it. It was sent, and when my father saw the clock-man, the latter told him that no man need want a better clock. He cleaned it up for a few dollars. I left it thirty years ago on a farm which has been in my immediate family one hundred and nine years, with some servants, and although it has not been cleaned in that time, when I have occasion to spend some days on the farm, or when I send mechanics to repair or build houses, if she is wound up, she will run eight or nine days and keep excellent time. My father laid aside the old case and had a new one of mahogany made. This clock was made, I suppose by “W. Nicholson, White Haven,” which is inscribed on a plate screwed to the face and there is an inscription, also on the face – “Tempus Edax Rerum,” and I find it true in reference to our family, for Time has consumed almost everything relating to its early history."

I had long wondered about this clock – whether it still existed and if it might be seen. Answering this question has taken a long time and the clock itself has lived through something of an Odyssey before settling in its present home. By good luck about 10 years ago I came across a typewritten account of the later history of the clock in the local history files of the Princess Anne public library. As it turned out, the clock had passed by a rather circuitous path to W.T.G. Polk’s grandson, Brigadier General James Brittingham, about 1966. BG Brittingham was an artillery officer who had a distinguished career in the U. S. Army, serving in World Wars I and II and the Korean War, and retired near Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He took his stewardship of the clock very seriously, had it appraised and carefully restored by a clockmaker in Wilmington, Delaware, and transported out to Oklahoma. He also wrote the history and must have sent a copy to Princess Anne where I eventually found it.

BG Brittingham passed away in 1983 and left the clock to his daughter, Mary Polk (Polly) Brittingham who was married to Colonel Jack Lee, also an artillery officer, as I found out when I obtained a copy of BG Brittingham’s obituary. When I tried to contact Polly Lee I found out that she had died in 1992 but I was able to speak with Colonel Lee and ask about the clock. He told me that they had decided to donate the clock to Colorado College in Colorado Springs because both of their daughters had attended college there. Colonel Lee died several years ago and the clock was bequeathed to the college as planned and given a nice home there in Alumni Hall. Last year I had an opportunity to visit the campus and see the clock for myself, bringing my long quest to an end. It was quite a special experience to touch something that goes so far back in the history of our family. The clock itself is a truly beautiful piece of furniture that would grace any home. I am personally very gratified to know that it will be well cared for and is available to be seen by all.

Colonel Lee’s widow by a second marriage was kind enough to meet me at Alumni Hall to see the clock and gave me some additional materials of BG Brittingham’s relating to the clock’s history and restoration. I have skipped some of the details in this shortened account. There are considerably more contained in the correspondence between BG Brittingham and Marshall Dull, the Wilmington DE clockmaker who did the work. Nonetheless, the clock has left us with a bit of an enigma as to its true origin. Colonel W. T. G. Polk relates that it was brought from Ireland by Robert and Magdalen, but none of the original parts have survived. His account mentions how the original case was replaced, and the later appraisal by Mr. Dull makes clear that the original clockworks had also been replaced with another set dating from around 1810, so the provenance of the clock is older than any of its parts.

Truly Tempus Edax Rerum (time consumes all things).

John F. Polk, Ph.D.
Clan Historian, Clan Pollock International
First published in the March 2009 Pollag.