Keith Scobie-Youngs

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Keith graduated in Horology from BCU’s School of Jewellery back in 1984 before he found his own business, the Cumbria Clock Company, which maintains and repairs clocks across the world, including Big Ben.

Keith discusses his life and career and explains how he has built his business, what it has been like to work on landmark clocks all over the world, the importance of heritage crafts and courses like Horology, and what his lasting legacy will be.  

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Alumni Podcasts

Discover the incredible journeys of BCU alumni in our captivating podcast series. Join us as we delve into their diverse experiences, successes, and lessons learned, offering inspiring insights into the world beyond graduation.

Alumni Podcasts

Hello and welcome to the BCU Alumni Podcast. I’m Beth from BCU’s alumni team. And in each episode we welcome a different member of the BCU alumni community back onto campus, to tell us all about what they've been up to since they graduated. Today we're joined by Keith Scobie Young's. Keith graduated in Horology from BCU School of Jewellery back in 1994 before he founded his own business at the Cumbria Clock Company, which maintains and repairs clocks across the world.


Keith's company, which employs 22 people, are responsible for the maintenance of the country's oldest clock in Salisbury Cathedral. They also often work on the most important astronomical clock at Hampton Court Palace, as well as major restorations, at least town Hall, Manchester, Town Hall, Durham, Hereford and Worcester Cathedrals and the country's largest dials on the Royal Arthur Building in Liverpool.


In recent years, though, Keith's main focus has been on the working of the restoration of Big Ben, the timepiece on Queen Elizabeth Tower in Westminster. In this episode, we're going to find out more about Keith's life and career and how he has built his business, what it's been like to work on landmark clocks all over the world. The importance of heritage crafts and courses like Horology and what his lasting legacy will be.


Keith, thanks so much for coming on to the podcast today. It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me. I've been really lucky, actually, in the last few years to work with you on quite a few things, so it's great to see you again. You started here back in the eighties, so what was it like to be a student in Birmingham back then?

 For me it was wonderful because I'd been brought up in a little village in Gloucestershire and to come to Birmingham and to be immersed in so many different cultures and meeting different people and Birmingham was such a different place. It was much more industrial than it is now. And when I went to Victoria Street with the school, the jewellery, the jewellery quarter was a lot more active.

 So there's a lot of hubbub and a lot of connections between the school and the jewellery quarter. So I had a great time. It was very, very fundamental in forming what I became later in life. So what was it that led you to City Hall in the first place then? It's quite straightforward, really. I'm one of five children and my father was the teacher of metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing at a local Comprehensive school in Gloucestershire.

 And at the age of 14, my father kind of always brought me and my brother up working with our hands, and I was at the stage, were looking at what I wanted to do when I left school, and he suggested clock making. So I went to the local library, got a book out on clock making, started making bits in his workshop, and then we suggest I should go to Birmingham.

 He looked up the courses and I came here as a 17 year old straight out of school. So after graduating then, what did you kind of go on to do first? And at what point was it that you set up the business? It was a bit of a journey, really. I had a great time in Birmingham. I really enjoyed the course.

 There's only five people per year back then with two two lecturers. Yeah, and then I always wanted to go to London. So off I went to London hoping to get a job doing the domestic clocks and repairs, which I'd studied at college, but I couldn't get a job and the jobs I were offered were very poorly paid.

 Yeah. And I got offered a job doing church and public clocks and I thought, Well, I'll do that until a proper job came along. And I just fell in love with it. I was traveling around London and the home counties, going to wonderful buildings, seeing these wonderful clocks. It combined other things like steeple jacking, working wood led work.

 So it really did push my skills and working out and about, which was which was great. Whilst I was there, I met my wife Lynne in London, and we decided to get married and I realized I needed to earn more money. So I was going to go and get a job doing set building. But Lynne said, No, you're a good clockmaker, let's go and set up the Cumbria Clock Company.

 So we left London in 1990 and headed up to the Lake District to set up the Cumbria Clock Company with with Lynne. Can you tell me about your workshop in Cumbria? It sounds so picturesque. Yeah. I mean the whole the whole thing with Lynne himself setting up the Cumbria Clock Company, we were very, very keen to do conservation and restoration.

 The Horological world in public clocks was moving away from that. It was going more for making new fiberglass clocks, electric movements, which wasn't my thing. And so to get the mainland set up the company, we had a very small workshop at Blind Katharine Business Center and we started working there and the hard part was kind of getting a reputation of being able to do good work because at the time the Horological industry in turret clocks was ruled by kind of firms which had been around for 100 odd years, if not more.

 So it was a slow burn and we we always knew we had a couple of things in our mind. One was that we weren't going to be frightened of employing people. And secondly, we wanted to make our own products. Well that was important. And so that's what we started to do. And we employed somebody within a couple of years of forming the Cumbria Clock Company.

 We then made started designing and making our own products, which were for conservation and restoration of the of the clocks, making automatic winding systems, making lights onto systems, all these things which you needed to make. And then we moved from that small unit to another one in the same business center, expanded a bit more, making more stuff, working all over the country by then, because it became evident that I had to go wherever the work was.

 So it meant long, long car journeys and to make whatever money we could and Lynne would work beside me would, you know, Lynne would be working on the building sites in the eighties as a as a clock maker with me. And then we eventually brought some workshops In 1996, we brought the 1200 square foot old tractor shed and we set the company up in there and continued to just grow.

 And we stayed there and we ended up employing my nephew Peter, who who actually came to Birmingham, and Mark, who's been with us, still with us and a couple of other guys and we started we soon outgrew that and then we moved to where we are now, which is about 8000 square feet of workshop behind a medieval castle in the village, you know, we it's an old farm buildings which are being converted which have their pros and cons.

 And now from there we have 22 actually 23. We just employed somebody new this week. Then don't all work from there. We have satellite engineers like the ones which work. We have one based in Devon, we have one in Dorset, we have another in Shropshire, we have another in Derbyshire, we have one in Leeds and and so forth.

 So we have these satellite engineers who we supply the work to and that's where we are now. You've worked on some incredible projects. How have these opportunities come about then and what have been some of your biggest highlights? I mean, this incredible journey. I'd never believed that we would be working on some of the clocks that we work on now.

 I think it's just the case of we we backed the right horse at the right time in going into conservation and restoration, and that became very important to all the churches. It clocks in churches are protected so they can't be removed so that you have to keep those traditional skills alive. And because we've been passionate about doing that, I think that's why we've been able to get a reputation for for doing this good work.

 I mean, there's been so many you know, it's been the prestigious ones, which you've mentioned already. There's been work your way down in Fiji, which was just remarkable. Yeah, well, that was a fantastic project to do. But also down to the little churches, there's a little church in the village of Buckland, which was one of my most enjoyable jobs I did nearly 25 years ago.

 So it's about the clock. It's about the object which is in the as well as the prestigious buildings that we also work on. Your team obviously works on the restoration of Big Ben then. Yeah, I mean, that's got to be the most famous clock in the world. It is the most like it. You can go anywhere in the world and say, I worked on Big Ben and everybody knows.

 Yes. Can you talk me through how that came around then and what it has been like to be involved in the work? And am I actually right in thinking that you originally went up the clock tower when you were a student? That's right. But part of the third year at Birmingham when I was here was that you had a trip up Big Ben as and I'd have been 20 then, and I never imagined that I would ever be undertaking largest restoration of the famous clock.

 Yeah. And we kind of I saw it then I worked in London, as I explained, for a company, three of those people have been heavily involved in the restoration of the Westminster clock when it broke down in 1977. So they used to tell me the stories about it, and I used to think that, well, I'll never work on it.

 So when the opportunity arose to be part of that team and funnily enough, working with the palace team of Alex and Hugh and Paul, there's a chap in who is also ex Birmingham who, who works as part of the clock team. So there's more of a Birmingham connection. Yeah, but, and when we got the contract to, to, to do it, it was a case of pinching yourself, you know, to believe that you would actually going to do this work and, and it tested all of our skills.

 I mean everybody at the Cumbria clock family did something not everybody worked on site but they did something in the workshop, became part of it. So it was a massive team effort and you know, we made a replica set of hands and you movements because they always had to have a dial showing the right time. And because we were having to remove the whole original clock, we had to make one of those.

 We made a totting unit so that they could strike the bell for Remembrance Sunday and for New Year's Eve. And also, sadly, for the passing of Her Majesty the Queen. And and then the whole clock movement was brought up to our workshops in secret, which was good fun. It's not a little secret, you know, that everybody in the village knew It wasn't quite kind of that zombie world where the locals are hiding in haystacks.

 But there were lots of people who knew. But the it didn't get out. The press didn't find out about it. And we just worked through the whole clock with the palace clock ticking there and restored it back to what it was originally. We took full sets of drawings. We took full sets of photographs. We overhauled the Alter winding system, which had been with it for over 100 years, would not work properly for a long time and it's just remarkable, you know, when it was uncovered and it put a delay on the project.

 Yeah, we had the clock still ticking away and our workshops. It was like having the heartbeat of the UK in know in our test room in Cumbria, which was great, you know, and then putting the whole thing back in and the whole kind of course of events where you, where you put in this clock back in, there's a lot going on because they're trying to finish the tower and, and we made lots of friends, new connections and as I often say there, the Elizabeth Tower is not just the clock tower to me now.

 It's a beacon, a 97 meter high beacon for heritage craft skills, because there's so much going on. They're not just clock making. There's gilding, painting, glazing, stonework, and young people kind of realizing they're given this privilege to work on the tower. We're actually displaying your replica Big Ben Dolls as part of the alumni exhibition. Yeah. Do you have replicas for all the clocks you work on?

 Then it was like just a special. That was just a special because we had to make a set of hands so that we could put them on the dial and they could, you know, show the correct time. We wanted to make them. So they looked as much like the original. So all the tourists coming by wouldn't think, Oh, they look rubbish.

 We wanted them to look like the proper dial and for nearly two years they were perhaps the most photographed object in London. So we've we've got this set which we'll put on display with one of the drive units, and it gives an impression of how big those stars are. 23 and 22 and a half foot diameter. Those are big and I would suggest while they're here, if people can come along and get their photograph taken, it's a good opportunity for have a good photograph.

 Yeah, it's very cool. Yeah. You've had an incredible career then, thanks to your experience and skills and her all the J So how important are courses like of all that you then and would you say the heritage crops are in danger watches and clocks that link through generations? You know, I wear my father's watch. He brought that in Venice in 1947 and I wear it now.

 And he's told me the stories when he wore it. I tell on a note, pass on down my family that you can't put a value on that and we can't lose the skills to make sure that these keep going. The same with clocks. You know, you wind that clock in a mantelpiece, you know, you can have several generations of your family doing that.

 And the same with turret clocks. They're kind of like the backbone of history, the sinews which hold the history together. They that time these clocks like Big Ben, tick away time. So horology is really important and the courses are really important. And you know, as as the advert says, you never really only watch you're passing it on. And so we have to make sure those skills are alive.

 And Birmingham is one of the only places where you can go and do that. There is a massive need for watchmakers now. I mean, the watches are still very, very popular and you could go and study at Birmingham, do your, you know, degree come out of there as you know, a graduate, go and get a job which is relatively well paid.

 But also you could travel the world. They you know those skills can go out to America, to Australia, to wherever you want to go. And you know, there is a career path within that. So it's really, really important we keep them going. Horology is on  the Red List, the 200 endangered heritage craft skills. And without Birmingham we could be in in a big, big mess really.

 I mean, I know I'm biased, but, you know, I, I think the benefits are not just a career, but to be able to do and work with your hands is something which is incredibly satisfying and rewarding. And I think unfortunately at schools nowadays, young people aren't getting the opportunity to take things apart and and the enjoyment we all got from that, from especially from my generation.

 And I kind of like to think that we can bring this back into schools and and people can get what the rewards I've got from it. Yeah. And, and then, you know, you might get a watch maker who decides that he wants to move into clocks and eventually turret clocks and that person could be the next person undertaking the next renovation of Big Ben or something else.

 Great to see your whole family have such a connection to the school of jewellery. It must be really special to see them following in your footsteps. I'm immensely proud of seeing that happen, but that pride also goes to the school of jewellery itself as well.

 You know, I. You know, when I stand outside, even now, you know, I'm very proud of that school and it's just nice to see, you know, Callum was the last one to come through it. Peter went through 20 odd years ago, perhaps even more, and getting the same feeling from it. Yeah, that I got And I mean, he's just one of hundreds of students who have had that.

 But it is, it does make me smile. When he was there in his final year, it did make me smile. When I first met you a few years ago, you told me that you are really keen to build a legacy and you want to leave something behind for future generations. So what are your plans around this? It's really interesting.

 I mean, the company is moving on and, you know, I'm coming to the end of, you know, running the Cumbria Clock Company. I've got a few more years left in me. But yeah, and I mean, I want to make sure that that continues, that that company continues with those heritage craft skills, keeping the clocks throughout the UK working and and throughout the world.

 If we can. You know, these clocks, I've often said these clocks can work for 500 years, a thousand years. They're brilliant. But the only reason they won't is we'll lose the skills. And so what I'd like to end up doing when I finish working is to leave a a training program. Of all the things I've learned, all the things I've been taught by those people I've worked for in London.

 Yeah. And put that all together and leave that and make sure that people can be trained in my field of horology and terracotta warriors. And if I can do that and leave a workshop fully equipped and the people there enjoying what I've enjoyed, I don't think you can ask much more, can you? This is what we're asking in every episode, Birmingham, a quick fire round that's blues or Villa?

 I'm not a football man, so to say Moseley.

 If you see what is your favorite Brummie landmark? The bull ring from the 1980s, you can have that one. 0000 yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. That's right. Yeah. Well, okay, I'll let you all for that one.

 It is I think, you know. What is your favorite like brummie word. I had to think about that one. Yeah right. Yeah. It's a from a joke from Ozzy Osborne. That's where I'm going to leave it. You've been selected as one of our industry icons at this year's online festival. So what does that mean to you? I'm really very touched by that.

 I never thought that that would happen to me. And that's going to be a load of people who who were there, who in my eyes have achieved a lot more than me. And it's just very humbling to be here even now doing this with you. Yeah, but I'm very proud of it. I know it's nice that we have know I've got that recognition.

 Final question then, if you could go back to your very first day here at BCU, what is the one piece of advice that you would give yourself?

It gave me everything I wanted, I think. I think I had really good lecturers, but I don't know what advice would give a young Keith without getting into trouble.

 So Keith, thanks so much for coming on the podcast todayThank you.