You can set your watch by Terry Roelich. Phil Penfold meets the guardian of Doncaster’s clocks for 75 years.
It makes you wince to even imagine the hazards. A 15-year-old lad is sent out, unsupervised, to wind a clock on a tower that is way high above the ground. He has to get onto a roof, pitch a ladder (which has a dodgy rung at the very top) against the narrow ledge of the clock itself and somehow scramble inside to make the necessary adjustments. He then has to wriggle out again, descend the ladder, slither down the roof, and make his way back to his bosses’ shop. It happened regularly, back in the forties. And the lad, now a spritely 81 years young, was one Terry Roelich.
Doncaster-born Terry (he now lives in nearby Sprotbrough) had found a job that he liked after leaving school – as an apprentice at the long-established firm of Bell Brothers, still going strong on the high street. And Bell’s had the contract to wind and maintain many of the town’s iconic clocks, both public and private – everything from the famous Clock Corner timekeeper, to the one in the branch of the local MacFisheries.
“As I recall it,” says Terry, “I was sent out with a senior bloke, who was probably only a few years older than I was, and shown how to do it all – once. Then I was on my own. When I think back, I shudder at what they asked me to do – it wouldn’t be allowed today. But back then, well over 60 years ago, it was all a bit of an adventure. There were no thoughts of good old health and safety regulations back then. Quite the opposite, in fact. You were told to do something, and if you wanted your wage packet at the end of the week, you went and did it.”
The clock on the Racecourse grandstand was the most difficult to reach and when asked if he ever made a mistake, Terry grins.
“Yes, I did. I’d done the long climb up and the climb back down, and put all the ladders away, and I was halfway up Grandstand Road when I looked over my shoulder, and I saw that I’d put the hands 30 minutes fast. What happened? Simple, I had to get those ladders back out and do it all over again. I wasn’t that daft ever again – you do indeed learn by your mistakes, believe me.”
To say that Terry knows the ins and outs of the clocks of Doncaster is a bit like saying that Michelangelo was familiar with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Clock mechanisms have been (and are) his life, and he is just about to embark on yet another project, to get the impressive four-faced clock of the old Beechfield Road School ticking again.
Terry explains: “It used to stand on the roof of the school which I actually attended as a kid and it was taken down a few years back when the building wad demolished to make way for construction in the Cultural Quarter.
“Doncaster Council started asking around if anyone could find it a new home, and I gather that several local firms put in bids for it. The winning one was from Walker’s Nurseries, who are based out at Blaxton. They said that, if they ‘won’ the clock, they’d get it restored and eventually put it on a tower and, on a very wet day in July, it was taken through the streets of the town by low loader and out to Walker’s, where it now sits.
“The lovely thing is that I’ve been asked to be the one to get the hands moving again. It will be an honour and a pleasure, but don’t ask me how long it is going to take, it’s a bit like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ Lots of things will need replacing, but the mechanism itself seems pretty sound. And the lovely thing is that when repairs have been done in previous years, some of the lads doing them have scratched their initials on the inside. I really would love to know who they are, and what part they played in the clock’s history.”
After his time at Bells, Terry did his time in the RAF on National Service, and discovered to his delight that his old boss had written to one of his officers suggesting that young Mr Roelich did something more useful than working in the cookhouse.
“You know what the services were like,” he says. “Tell your CO that you wanted to be in the Pay Corps, and you’d end up driving a seven tonne truck. Say that you wanted to be posted to Gibraltar, and you’d end up in Aden. But someone must have listened, and I was trained properly as an instrument mechanic, and that more than served me when I returned to civvy street.
After his service, much of which was spent in Germany, Terry emerged in the mid-Fifties to court and marry his late wife Joan and to join the old Yorkshire Electricity Board, where he was a skilled meter repairer. In his spare time, he repaired the clocks and watches of friends and neighbours and later worked for British Nylon mending and making hundreds of machines from clocks to high-precision instruments. “You name it,” he says. “I got it running.”
When he finally retired he went on working as hard as ever. Among many other things, Terry Roelich is deeply involved in Tools for Self-Reliance, a charity that restores old tools which are sent to African building projects.
“There’s a branch of the charity which does the same thing for unwanted sewing machines,” says Terry proudly. “We believe that there’s very little that can be thrown away.”
He does talks on clocks to local groups, makes wedding videos (he has had a long-standing love affair with the motion picture camera) and is active in Sprotbrough Methodist Church, where he is in charge of the sound and projection systems. He is active in his local Talking Books for the Blind group and helps organise the regular magazine which is now supplied on memory sticks to around 200 users, after using old-fashioned cassettes for years.
“I am very pleased to say that I don’t have an idle moment,” he says. “Well, that’s not entirely true... I’m at a stage now when I have to have a wee nap in the afternoon and that re-charges the batteries. Retirement doesn’t suit some people and it certainly doesn’t suit me. You hear horror stories of men who retire, find that they have absolutely nothing to do and they’re gone a year or so later. Keeping active, being active, having something on the go, that’s what keeps you – sorry about this – ticking along”.
Terry has 10 of his own clocks at home and apart from the Beechfield clock he is thinking about offering to help get the clock at the entrance to the Doncaster Marketplace going again. It stopped a couple of years ago after a fire in the room below and Terry has already scaled a longer ladder to have a look.
“My dad was infinitely patient,” he recalls, “And as I grow older, I am rather less so. I do have a vocabulary when things don’t go quite right, and no-one else is in earshot, I own up to that. Only one clock – to date – has ever defeated me, a grand-daughter clock that would never ever keep running. I tried everything, but the darned thing defeated me in the end. The only one, touch wood, that ever did.”
He still drives, uses his computer to send emails to his children and grandchildren – his daughter Jill currently lives with her own family in San Francisco – does all his own minor car engine repairs when needed, and he has double the vitality of men a quarter of his age.
One friend describes him neatly as “simply a lovely bloke, it’s an honour to know him”. I don’t quote that to his face. But as the interview ends, Terry leans forward, shakes my hand firmly, and asks if I’ve “got all you need”. Then he looks at his watch, and explains, “because I see that it’s stopped raining, for a change, and I have promised myself that I shall tackle painting the garage doors this afternoon.
“What with everything else, they’ve been waiting 10 years.”