Monday, 11 July 2016

"Turret Clocks and Bells" - A History of Timekeeping in Dunedin (First Part)


"Time is Short" - The 2nd Bell Hill Bell of 1851 
as it appears today in the grounds of the First 
Church of Otago. Note the fracture in the 
rim which occurred in July 1863.
[From my own collection]

Last Update 21 Sept 2017

This four part blog series takes a look at the fascinating history of early timekeeping in Dunedin New Zealand - and specifically - of its early bells and turret clocks. I trust you will find the subject as interesting as I have.

Descending the escalator in Dunedin's Meridian Mall in George street down to the basement level there was, until September 2017, a large bell mounted incongruously - and rather forlornly - on a low plinth. A small plaque gave a short resumé of its history and that it once hung in the old "Exchange" Building in Princes street, being demolished in 1969. This bell always intrigued me as what became of the turret clock mechanism? While I initially set off to research the history of this clock I was quickly drawn into the fascinatingly compelling and sometimes turbulent history of early timekeeping in Dunedin.

While my research has taken a considerable amount of time and effort I do appreciate that were someone to fully research this subject there is a considerable quantity of primary and period records that would still need to be searched out. I hope that someone may be spurred on to attempting such a comprehensive work in the future, perhaps with the eventual aim of a small commercial publication.

I am pleased to advise that Gerard Morris, an Historian of Christchurch, and whose comprehensive thesis "Time and the Making of New Zealand : A Theme in the Development of a Settler Society 1840 to 1868" (including many references to Dunedin) can be viewed HERE, has since 2006, been researching a book on the history of New Zealand timekeeping due for publication in late 2018.


The Cannon Originally Used on Church Hill
[Source :- Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin]

But let us first go back to the beginning. From the very founding of Dunedin as a Scottish Free Church settlement in 1848, and under the very capable and astute leadership of the Rev Thomas Burns, the town had relied on various methods of timekeeping. The first had been a 12 o'clock gun. According to Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, where the cannon is now on public display, it is probably of early 1800's English manufacture, had been a relic of the Napoleonic wars, and was then brought to Otago in 1848 with the first Free Church settlers on the "Philip Laing" with the specific intention of using it for timekeeping purposes.

A.H. Reed in his authoritative 1956 work "The Story of Early Dunedin" writes that around 1849 and "Having no means of maintaining standard time, they (the settlers) devised a plan of their own. On the top of Church Hill, an old cannon, placed among the flax, was fired at noon. This, Dunedin's first timepiece was soon afterwards replaced by a bell".


Mr James Adam (1823 - 1908), responsible for
firing the Cannon on Church [Bell] Hill
[Source :- Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin]

The reminiscences of Mr John Adams, being published in 1923, provide an interesting period recollection of the cannon and of the bell :

"...Bell [Church] Hill, where long ago the cannon at the touch of the magic wand wielded by the mighty, ay, and much respected, hand of James Adam, was want to tell out the hours of 12 noon and 5 in the evening, and perhaps other hours, and where afterwards the Bell Tower held the veritable bell itself, which used to tell us schoolboys that the hour had come for us to make the hurried, even if undignified, rush for the school door."

The cannon would however, continue to be fired on special occasions such as at New Year. If it was as loud as the current Robbie Burns cannon used in the Octagon at New Year (Hogmanay) it would definitely have been heard!


The "Jones" bell
[Source :
- Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin]

The bell Reed refers to had been previously owned by the pioneering and enterprising early settler, "Johnny" Jones of Waikouaiti, having originally come from a Botany Bay convict ship before Jones fitted it to his brig, the "Magnet", to signal the watches. This ship also conveyed the early settlers to Waikouaiti in 1840. It was then used through the 1840's by the Wesleyan Mission Station. Apparently "putting himself to some considerable inconvenience to accommodate the Otago public", Jones presented the bell to the Rev Burns on the 15th July 1850; "Mr Jones called and begged me to accept the bell as a present [illegible] the church which I did with thanks". The Church Session book also confirms the gift on the 21st July. This bell was then placed on the 42 metre high "Church Hill" reserve (becoming commonly known as "Bell Hill" after 1861) where it did duty until a new bell arrived from Edinburgh in December 1851.


John Buchanan (c.1804 - 1880)
Dunedin's First Town Bell Ringer
 [Source : "The Founding of the Otago
Settlement", 1898]

Toitū state that John Buchanan, as "Minister's Man" [beadle] at "First Church", was responsible for "keeping town time" by ringing the bell at set times with his daughter Isabella sometimes assisting him, taking her father's watch with her up the hill. The family had come out from Scotland with Burns on the "Philip Laing" in 1848. Such was the importance of accurate time keeping that Burns even makes specific mention of a Mr James Buchanan having lost "a watch and other things" in a house fire on the 8th June 1848. Keeping time was important with a timepiece being a treasured possession. I recall seeing the Rev. Dr. Burns' own very large and old fashioned looking pocket watch in the former Dix family private museum at Waitapeka some years ago now (ex Bannerman family) and thinking of the history that went with this very historic timepiece. [This historic timepiece is now on display in the First Church of Otago Heritage Centre in Dunedin]


The Octagon Dunedin from the top of Church ("Bell") Hill.
William Meluish Photo, Taken 1861
[Source : "The Cyclopedia of New Zealand", 1905]

Reed notes that at a public meeting in December 1851 the New Zealand Company had, "during it's régime", paid to have the [Jones] bell rung at stated times during the day, being 8am, 12 noon, 1 pm and 5 pm, but that this practice had since been abandoned, except on Sundays when it was "tolled at the expense of the Church trustees". In the absence of any other means of ascertaining standard time this had been a public utility. As the fee to have the bell rung had only amounted to £5 it was suggested that "one shilling a year from every household in the town would suffice".

While the "Jones" bell is now on public display in Toitū Otago Settler's Museum in Dunedin they cannot confirm who actually donated it to them. Merrington, whose own historical research appears to have been quite thorough, simply states that it was given to the [Toitū] Otago Settlers Museum which was however only founded at late as 1898. As Merrington obviously knew it was already held by the OSM he would perhaps not have attempted to uncover any of its more recent history as this was a little outside his brief.

But Reed informs us that "When it ceased to be for the common good of the town, [it] was given to the English [Anglican] church, erected close to where the Gaol now stands". Reed states that the Anglicans first worshipped in the old gaol before moving to the original courthouse which they purchased and converted into the first St Paul's church in 1855. But I do note that St Paul's received a new bell in 1910 so it may very well be St. Paul's that donated the bell to the museum. The late Gordon Parry makes no mention of it in his 1994 history of the parish but does note some missing Church records at this period in time. Still, Reed must have stumbled across a specific reference to it somewhere.

In December 1851 Burns received a larger 3 cwt. bell cast by the Whitechapel London foundry of C & G Mears by way of a gift from Free Church friends in Edinburgh. With the existing small church in Dowling street "not being considered of sufficient strength to bear the strain of ringing a bell of such proportions" it was placed in "a wooden tower" on Church Hill now replacing the smaller "Jones" bell. Although Merrington, in his 1929 history of the Rev Dr Thomas Burns, claims it was this second bell that was first placed on Church [Bell] Hill all evidence points to it merely replacing the "Jones" bell. I also note that in Dec. 1851 "The Otago Witness" publicly thanked Jones "for the bell hitherto in use". The new bell, which had "a rich full and clear tone", would continue to be rung on special occasions, to ring out the hours of work for the early settlers, and as a call to Sunday worship.


The 2nd 'Bell Hill' Bell of 1851 as it appears
today in the grounds of the First Church of Otago
[Source : NZHistorySearch]


The Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns himself described the history of the bell when speaking at a First Church soirée on the 16th Feb 1865 :

"A few kind friends of ours in the home country subscribed for and sent us out a most excellent church bell. But when the bell arrived, it was thought to be far too good for our old queer-looking fabric of a church. Our office-bearers, accordingly - partly with a view to its being better heard, and partly by way of taking legal possession of the site of our future church - proceeded forthwith to plant the bell on top of church hill.

"As an accommodation to the inhabitants of Dunedin leave was granted to the authorities on week days to make use of the bell to regulate the working people's time. This use of the bell came gradually to be regarded as its proper and principal use, and the hill itself to be spoken of as if its only use was to be the site of the bell."

In reminiscences published in March 1923 his daughter Agnes Burns states that; "It was rung on all occasions - to call the people to church, when there was a fire, to call the men to work and to tell them when it was time to cease, when in fact any noteworthy event took place, It was indeed, a universal bell."

Curiously, Reed tells us that "In May 1855, an announcement was made that 'in consequence of the extreme inconvenience which has been experienced for some time past from there being no means of ascertaining the correct time, His Honour, the Superintendent has ordered the custom of firing the gun at noon on Saturdays to be resumed'." Why was the bell not being rung?

In July 1857, "The Otago Witness" newspaper makes mention of "the extreme inconvenience arising from the cessation of the practice of ringing the bell at certain hours in the day. Apart from the daily inconvenience, its effect is to destroy every thing like punctuality at public meetings from the great variation in time. A good town clock would be a great convenience to the public; but until one can be obtained, we suggest that one of the constables be instructed to ring the bell at 12 o'clock on Saturdays so that the inhabitants may ascertain the correct time at least once a week." Reed suspects that "the bellringer had became disatisfied with his honorarium and had 'thrown up his job".

Procuring a town clock for Dunedin had in fact been discussed by the Provincial Council as early as March 1855 but it would be 1863 before a clock was actually ordered.


The brass plaque attached to the plinth
under the 2nd 'Bell Hill' Bell
[From my own collection]

In July 1859 reference is now made to the ringing of the bell; "For some time past the time as set by the ringing of the bell, has been before the sun. We are authorised to state, that on and after Monday next, the correct time will be ascertained by Mr Beverly, and the bell will be rung accordingly." The need for a town clock is again mentioned at this time. Mr Beverly, a watchmaker and jeweller of Princes street in Dunedin, will feature again in this story.    

It is worth mentioning that an article from 1882 claims that the early 1848 Free Church settlers did not bring a bell with them for their new church and that "this was an overlook". It also claims that the Jones bell had been obtained for the church after "the never failing resources of Mr John Jones were appealed to" in order "to supply the deficiency". The fact is that the Presbyterian church, then down by lower Dowling street, already had a bell. The Rev Burns notes on the 1st January 1850, "a good deal of noise" bringing in the New Year, with "some scamps" repeatedly loading and firing the 8 pounder cannon on the jetty and clambering onto the church roof "until they caught the rope and rang the bell".

It would be interesting to see if the extant inventory of items brought out for the construction of the first church / school building, being lodged in the Presbyterian Church Archives at Knox College in Dunedin, does in fact include a small church bell. And what became of this pre 1850 church bell? I would assume it was given to a newly established local Parish Church when no longer needed but which one?


The Original "Church Hill", Dunedin, taken from the Octagon.
The 2nd Presbyterian Church manse is shown atop the hill.
Taken 1862
[Source : Hocken Collections]

Interestingly, Burns also mentions in his 1865 speech that the inscription on the bell and the fact that it had been erected on Bell Hill did in fact later assist the church to confirm their right to ownership of "Bell Hill" ("Reserve Block No 4" laid aside by Cargill in July 1848), such doubts, through time and lapse of memory, having been discussed in the Provincial Council. A Crown Grant was then issued for "Church [Bell] Hill", the Presbyterian Church having sufficiently proved their right of "ownership" of what would later become the site of the present First Church of Otago and grounds.
With ownership now safely confirmed. Burns and his family moved into a new manse erected on Bell Hill in August 1862, being visible in the image above. But their tenancy was inconveniently cut short as they had to vacate the manse in August 1863 in preparation for the levelling of the hill by the Provincial Government. The bell was then also removed.


"Bell Hill" in the process of being lowered.
Princes street runs between the two remaining
'hillocks'. Taken mid 1860's
[Source "The Otago Witness"]

The Provincial Government had decreed in 1862 (obviously after the manse was built) that the now so called "Bell Hill" should be reduced in height by 14 metres, this work not being completed until 1868. This removed an impediment within the town while also providing very useful stone fill for harbour reclamation.

The bell is now fractured and mute. How this occurred is related in reminiscences given by Burns' daughter Agnes published on the 23rd March 1923;

"The bell was cracked under tragic circumstances. It was being tolled when the bodies of the Rev. Mr Campbell, his wife, his children, and two maids were being brought to Dunedin. The whole Campbell family were drowned when the Pride of the Yarra was sunk [linkas the result of a collision off Sawyers' Bay. The clapper of the bell was only struck on one side instead of each side alternately, and the bell was ruined. There was nobody here at that time who could mend it."

The date that the bodies of the Campbell family were brought to Dunedin was Tuesday the 11th July 1863. We know of course that the manse on Bell Hill was not vacated until August 1863 and the bell would still have been atop the hill up to this date. But the Rev. Burns makes no mention of the damage to the bell in his speech at the First Church soirée on the 16th Feb 1865. And to further confuse matters, the bell is noted as having last been in use in the (current) First Church of Otago belfry in 1882. Had someone in fact repaired it, although not very successfully, at a later date?

The Town Board now requested the use of the Fire Bell "in consequence of the Town Bell having been broken" which was approved. The fire bell would be rung at the same times as the Town Bell, being at "the usual hours of eight, twelve, one, and five o'clock." As they would be using the Fire Bell it was hoped this would be a "temporary arrangement". It may be worth looking at Town Board records from this date to ascertain if they played any part in having the bell repaired.

As to "The Time Bell", a correspondent writes as late as January 1889 asking "why the daily ringing of the Town Bell has been discontinued." There is no reply.

Returning to the Church bell, Reed notes that "after serving for some years this bell met with a misfortune, suffered a fracture, and now rests mute beside First Church." There appears to be no newspaper reference as to when it was mounted in this manner. The first reference to it being cracked and in the First Church grounds is June 1895. The First Church Deacon's Court [who managed the church property and finances] minute books up to 1900 have most unfortunately been missing since prior to 1930 which is unhelpful [interesting that Merrington appears to have used these records in 1929]. And while I am no foundryman or metallurgist, the approx. six inch "fracture" into the rim looks like a distinct cut a good few millimeters wide which leaves me wondering if someone had indeed attempted to repair it after 1863. While Burns notes that "the bell needed a repair" by a tradesman prior to 1865 he states that it was not taken down from the then belfry on Church Hill so this presumably does not allude to repairing a fracture which could surely not have been done in situ. We may now never know the full story other than the circumstances of the initial fracture.

So, for probably the last 120 odd years this historic bell has stood silent, being mounted on it's concrete plinth in the grounds of the First Church of Otago on the now truncated Bell Hill. While one side bears, in relief, an inscription attesting to the 1851 gift by "a few Friends of the Free Church of Scotland", the other side simply reads, "Time is Short".

The next Blog in this series explores Dunedin's very early town clocks. Click HERE to view.


Further Information : Any further information on Dunedin's early timekeeping and bells is welcome. I will update this blog as any new relevant information comes to hand. A link to my email is in the right hand menu bar. To quote the Rev. W.J. Comrie, Presbyterian Church of NZ Historian, "Accuracy has been aimed at, but no doubt imperfectly attained."

Copyright - No commercial reproduction permitted without the permission of the writer. Excerpts may be freely quoted for academic use provided this site is acknowledged.

Sources :

- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- Te Ara, The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand
- Heritage New Zealand / Pouhere Taonga
- Hocken Collections, University of Otago
- McNab Room, Dunedin Public Library
- Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin New Zealand
- Dunedin City Council Website
- Otago Daily Times Online
- Diary of the Rev Thomas Burns 1847 - 1852, First Church of Otago Heritage Centre (electronic version held by the writer)
- "The Founding of the Otago Settlement - Its History and Development", 1898 (from my own collection)
- "The Story of Early Dunedin" by A.H. Reed, 1956
- "Early Otago and Genesis of Dunedin, Letters of Rev T. Burns D.D. 1848 - 1865"
- "A Brief Account of the Origin and History and Also the Income and Expenditure of the Presbyterian Church of Otago", Rev T. Burns, 1865
- "A Great Coloniser - The Rev Dr. Thomas Burns" by E.N. Merrington, 1929
- "The Cyclopedia of New Zealand", 1905
- "New Zealand's Lost Heritage" by Richard Wolfe, 2013
- "Cathedral in the Octagon - the First 100 Years of St Paul's 1849 - 1994" By G. Parry
- "Centenary of Invercargill Municipality 1871-1971"
- "Old Scottish Clockmakers 1453-1850" by John Smith
- "Post Office Directory - Edinburgh and Leith 1864-1865",
- Presbyterian Church Research Centre (Archives) website (Lost Archives)
- Te Papa Tongarewa
- Private individuals in Dunedin


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