Monday, 1 August 2016

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


The new "Post Office" building and clock tower in 1870.
 then the Otago Museum and City Corporation Offices, 
Burton Bros. Photo
[Source Te Papa Tongarewa]

This concludes my four part blog on early timekeeping in Dunedin and specifically of its early bells and turret clocks.  Click Here to read the first instalment. This final part continues to focus specifically on the highs - and unfortunate lows - of Dunedin's municipal turret clocks. I trust you will find the subject as interesting as I have.

Having occupied the intended "new Post Office" since July 1871, the University of Otago Council decided in 1875 to sell their building in order to fund new extended and purpose built premises. The Colonial Bank submitted a tender £27,000 but were declined as the University did not consider this to be a sufficient amount. In the hope of purchasing the building as a new town hall the Dunedin City Council also tendered the amount of £21,000 The "City Corporation" had of course used part of the building from 1867 to 1871. But it may have been for the best. In December 1875 the Dunedin correspondent for the Bruce Herald notes tongue in cheek that;

"It is not known whether the clock will be sold with the building, but if not, it should fetch a good price; for a more extraordinary time-keeper there is not this side of the line. That clock can be backed by your humble servant to do an hour in less time than any other one in this city. It will do with ease 60 seconds in ten minutes under the hour, and never turn a hair. It has caused more persons to miss trains than any clock I know."


The Colonial Bank Building and Clock Tower,
taken circa 1890's
[Source : "The Cyclopedia of New Zealand", 1905]

A correspondent notes in July 1876 that for "the last few weeks, the University clock has been dancing about to anything but correct time, sometimes as much as ten minutes in one day." Tenders were now to be "called for cleaning and keeping the public clocks in repair".

But discrepancies in timekeeping were again noted in April 1877 when the Dunedin Fire Brigade "obtained permission to affix a rope to the clapper of the clock in the tower of the University building, for the purpose of using it to give alarm in the case of fire. It was pretty generally conceded that the arrangement could not have the effect of making the clock more erratic than it is at present."

In June 1877 the University finally sold the building to the Colonial Bank for £27,000., being the same amount tendered in 1875, and it now became their New Zealand head office. After the University Registrar was instructed to claim possession of the clock and bell the Manager of the Colonial Bank replied that the directors of the bank considered them as part of the sale which included "fixtures as they now stand". This forced the University Council to give up their claim.

The "inexplicable phenomena" of the University clock tower without a clock would not be remedied until 1930 when the Hon Sir T.K. Sidey donated funds to Otago University for a turret clock which is referred to further down this page.

From 1878 the Colonial Bank allowed the Dunedin City Council "to have the University clock [ie now the Colonial Bank clock] for the nominal rental of 1s per annum, providing the council would light it and keep it in repair."

The poor timekeeping of the Colonial Bank clock continued to be occasionally noted in the press, especially as the Dunedin Tramways - and their passengers - "take their time" from this clock. In 1888 the Secretary of the Tramway Company formally wrote to Council complaining of the poor timekeeping as "numerous complaints had been made by the public in consequence". Planned stoppages for repairs or cleaning were normally advertised in the newspapers but unforseen breakdowns often brought forth public displeasure which demonstrated the great reliance the public placed on it. In 1896 it was noted that the minute hands had a "drop" of two minutes and would be fast two minutes after the hour and two minutes slow before the hour, this defect having existed since 1881.


The 1880 Town Hall and Clock Tower in 
The Octagon Dunedin. Architect Mr R.A. Lawson
Morris Photo, taken circa 1903
 [Source : "The Cyclopedia of New Zealand", 1905]

In 1879 the Dunedin City Council finally purchased their own striking and chiming clock for the new Town Hall in The Octagon being started on the 2nd Dec 1880. Constructed by the Gillett and Bland Steam Clock Company of Croyden, London, the full history of this clock and its unique "discordant jangling" chime, may be read by clicking Here. I therefore need not repeat the history of this clock other than to mention that on the 20th May 1910, and by order of the Mayor, the clock "tolled" the minutes continuously from midday until nine minutes past one to mark the funeral of King Edward VII. In 1988 the R.A. Lawson designed Municipal Chambers of 1880 were restored, including rebuilding the rather fanciful clock tower to its original imposing height and splendour. This clock is today kept in excellent working order by Dunedin Horologist Jeff Martin. [UTube link to hear the chime here]

Regular setting of the Town Hall clock to "New Zealand Greenwich mean time" commenced in March 1898 with the correct time being "flashed" from Wellington by telegraph. The "absolute reliableness" of this clock would now make it very much the "authoritative standard" for time in the city. Although the Colonial Bank clock would be regulated by the former it quickly appears that "mean time" did not always agree with the latter. And as "Railway time" was some minutes ahead of the Colonial Bank clock travellers were urged to take note. In 1899 the contractor, Mr C.H. Tweedie, was publicly blamed by a correspondent for forgetting to wind the clock before he departed on his holidays. Upon his return, and in explanation, he states that someone got access to the tower and clock chamber (not for the first time) and interfered with the clock causing it to come to a stop, the matter being reported to the City authorities. The council paid for a padlock.

The lack of or inadequate gas lighting of the University / Colonial Bank clock dials also brought forth complaints. As early as September 1872 "the proprietor of the Gas Works" generously supplied the gas necessary for lighting the dials "free of charge" having been "for some years past... been left in darkness at night". The council appear to have eventually taken over this responsibility and cost.

By 1890, and with the Colonial Bank refusing to now bear part of the expense, the cost of gas at £89 p.a. was such that the council ceased lighting it altogether bringing forth comments "on the niggardliness shown by the City Fathers" and that strangers to the city would think it "a peculiar and poverty-stricken town". In 1891 the City Council Gas Committee agreed to light one dial at night at a cost of 7s 6d per week.


The "Exchange" Building and Clocktower
[Source :  Wikipedia]

After the Colonial Bank suffered financial reverses in 1895 and were taken over by the Bank of New Zealand the latter put the building on the market. Finally, a syndicate of small shareholders calling themselves "The Dunedin Stock Exchange Proprietary Company Limited" bought the property in 1900 for £28,710 It then became "a rabbit warren of shops and businesses". But it is this last owner who have left their name on the building and on the clock.

In 1900, and also being very mean spirited, the new Stock Exchange Building owners refused to contribute towards payment of the cost of £50 p.a. to be able to light all the clock dials. It appears that the Council now took up the full cost only to have the Stock Exchange have their name written in black letters on the dial obscuring legibility at night. The bell strike appears to have been inoperative from prior to "the days of the old Colonial Bank" until August 1906 when a new complete striking mechanism was installed. In August 1907 it was announced electricity would replace gas lighting of the dials at a cost of £55 14s p.a., gas lighting having latterly cost £92 p.a. But gas had a reprieve after the experience of electric lighting of the Railway Station clock not being bright enough was pointed out to Council. It would be October 1923 before electricity finally won that battle.


An Advertising Posibility for the
Exchange Clock, October 1952
[Source : Otago Daily Times]

We now fast forward to October 1952 when we find that the "existing mechanism is in a very bad state of repair" and had ground to a halt with the hands stuck at just past 1.30  In an "uncompromising statement", Mr Skinner, the Chairman of the Stock Exchange Proprietary Company", advised that as "no material benefit accrues to the company from the ownership and housing of a clock", and as a public amenity "it could hardly be expected that the company should maintain it". Although the company paid a small sum each year to the council towards the cost of maintenance, after rates, taxes and other costs were met "there was little [left] for the shareholders" so either the clock should be removed or council should bear the cost of repairs or a replacement. And, as Mr Skinner ominously states, not only was the clock in need of attention but also the clock tower. The company even seriously suggested that they could use the clock faces for advertising purposes to generate revenue for their shareholders, in fact they had already been approached by a potential advertiser. So what was to be done?

The Dunedin City Council were now forced to explore possible alternatives in order to maintain what was a "valuable, even essential service in the interests of [the] citizens". The cost of repairing the old clock was estimated at between £1,000 and £1,200 The City Engineer now made enquiries of his counterparts at Auckland and in Invercargill, both councils owning dismantled turret clocks. Auckland advised full details on their chiming clock at a guide price of around £450 and Invercargill likewise on their old Post Office clock and bells at around £400 based on scrap brass value, both availability and final cost being subject to respective council approval. Additional costs would accrue for scaffolding (£250), dismantling, repairing and modifying the clock platform, transporting and erecting thus adding in the order of £1,000 to the total cost.

By the end of the month the Invercargill Town Clerk advised, "that the council, after consideration, regrets that the clock and chimes are not available for sale". The offer of the services of their retired clock service-man to install it was likewise withdrawn. To their great credit, Invercargill finally 'exhumed' and restored their precious 1893 "Littlejohn & Son" turret clock and chimes in 1989 (also using parts from the dismantled Bluff Post Office turret clock). I can well remember being fascinated but saddened seeing the dismantled dusty remains and clock faces stored in their water tower during a school visit in 1970.

We now find on the 23rd December 1952 that the Council accepted a quote from "Armstrong and Springhall Ltd." of £388.0.0 to install an "International Business Machine Master Control Clock System" with a one year guarantee, in other words an electric clock. Only certain parts of the existing mechanism would be used, but despite all being "in a very bad state of repair", those parts re-used would be guaranteed for three months. These would, I assume, be the gears and linkages from the mechanism to the hands. All work was to be completed within two months.  I am assuming that henceforth it would be a silent rather than a striking clock. As to who the original 1863 clock mechanism was initially sold to I do not know but ownership still rested with the Stock Exchange Company and I would imagine it was then disposed of according to its value as scrap.

It is interesting to note that an alternative clock being concurrently discussed with the Postmaster-General was a three-faced clock on the Princes street - Water street angle of the 1937 Chief Post Office Building. This did not proceed.

So, while the "Exchange" clock would continue as before, but without it's old and worn out turret clock movement, it is perhaps not surprising that in 1954 we find that the Stock Exchange building itself was sold by the "syndicate" to the New Zealand Government. It does sound as if the returns to the shareholders on the building had latterly been relatively meager.

One helpful source advised me that latterly the "Exchange clock" was looked after by the late John (Jack) Dever. I assume this to be the post 1953 electric clock and original mechanism driving the hands. Mr Dever reminisced that due to the nature of the crumbling lime mortar in the old Oamaru stone and brick building the weight of the tower was causing it to compress and literally sink on its foundations. The poor condition of the tower is mentioned by Mr Skinner in 1952 but this "sinking" of the masonry was undoubtedly further exacerbated by a shameful and calculated lack of maintenance on the building by the Ministry of Works after purchase by the Government in 1954.

By the time it was demolished in 1969 many actually wanted this neglected "eyesore" gone in favour of something modern. As Historian Lois Galer commented, "Retaining, strengthening and renovating the 100-year-old building was never considered... in the end, the community let it go". Such was our then complacent and disinterested attitude to the rich history of this city.


UTube Demolition of the Exchange Building 
and Clock Tower, Dunedin. January 1969 

It is well known that upon demolition in January 1969 the building came down very easily and to prove that point the demolition can be viewed in colour on UTube, including good views of the clock tower. Only the west and south facades as well as the clock tower facades were of limestone but the rest was of brick. Another film showing at Toitū Otago Settler's Museum appears to show that the clock faces were removed immediately prior to demolition but it is only a quick shot and still less than clear.

As to the Stock Exchange clock, I understand from an independent knowledgeable source that parts from the 1868 clock faces and actuating / linking mechanism (only) are held in Council storage in Balclutha. From another source I was able to confirm that various "parts" definitely known to be from the (1863 built) turret clock mechanism are privately held in Dunedin by more than one individual who wish to remain anonymous. I do not believe the trail of ownership post 1952 is clear, even to them. They have however been slowly progressing their own independent research on this and the Hospital clock but I have not been given the opportunity to view this research or the said "parts".

It is therefore certain that what remains of the historic 153 year old turret clock mechanism from 1863 will never again serve the purpose for which it was originally built. And of course, the bell, after having been in storage for many years, is now somewhat incongruously on public display as a permanent fixture in the basement food court of the "Meridian" in George street and cannot be rung. I believe it may have been placed there by the architects, Mason and Wales, being successors to William Mason who had designed the 1864 Exhibition building where the clock and bell had first been housed. So for that we must at least thank them as it also helps to keep alive in the public memory a little bit of Dunedin's very early horological history.


The Dunedin Railway Station and Clock Tower.
Muir & Moodie Studios Photo, circa 1910
[Source : Te Papa Tongarewa]

The Dunedin Railway Station non-striking turret clock, with three dials and a gravity escarpment movement, was made and installed by W. Littlejohn and Sons of Wellington at a cost of £179 and commenced operation at noon on the 15th February 1907. The first person responsible for its care was Mr D. Dawson. In July 1910 this clock was included in the station synchronous electric clock system comprising of 20 small clocks, the two five foot dials of the platform clock, and of the turret clock. Being wound electrically with a one-twelth horsepower electric motor, the old mechanism, which included a "going" weight of about 150 lb and a pendulum weighing about 130 lb was replaced, with the "going" weight now reduced to about 15 lb and the pendulum entirely dispensed with. The Dunedin City Council have owned the now fully restored Railway Station building and clock since 1994. Illumination of the dials has always been by electric light.


The Otago University Registry Building and Clock Tower.
George Chance F.R.P.S. Photo, circa 1930's-1940's.
[Source : Te Papa Tongarewa]


The Otago University Registry Clock Tower turret clock is the result of the Chancellor of Otago University and Member of Parliament for Dunedin South, the Hon. Sir Thomas K. Sidey, offering in March 1930 to make "a voluntary contribution" towards the cost of an electric turret clock for the tower and a master clock for the main entrance. After approaching Messers Littlejohn and Son of Wellington and receiving a quote of £700 [around NZD$33,565.00 in today's values], Sidey then asked that "under the legislation of last [Parliamentary] session, a £1 subsidy be granted on this contribution." Government then approved a subsidy of £350. for the clock. Sidey, in making this offer to the University, "trusted that the council would see its way to accept the offer and thus remove what had been an eyesore ever since the University building was erected half a century ago." Naturally agreeing to this generous offer, the members of the council then joined in singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". In regards to his offer, Sidey further added "that if at a later date it should be decided to install chimes, he would be prepared to bear an equal proportion of the cost." This obviously occurred as the clock plays a Westminster chime besides tolling the hours [UTube link here].

While Dunedin still has a commendable number of "turret clocks" in operation, being the Town Hall chiming clock of 1880, the Railway Station clock of 1907, the University Registry chiming clock of 1930, and the Dunedin City Council owned 1885 "Littlejohn & Son" striking clock in the Iona church spire at Port Chalmers, the permanent loss of two of the earlier examples of such turret clocks is to be deeply regretted - even if  one example should early on have been consigned to a museum 'celebrating' colonial New Zealand's horological history.


"Watching the Clock - Dunedin's Time keeping Landmarks"


Further Information & Feedback : Any further information on Dunedin's turret clocks 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. Any feedback is also appreciated.

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
- Dunedin City Council Archives
- 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 Cyclopedia of New Zealand", 1905 (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
- "Cathedral in the Octagon - the First 100 Years of St Paul's 1849 - 1994" By G. Parry
- "Centenary of Invercargill Municipality 1871-1971"
- "New Zealand's Lost Heritage" by Richard Wolfe, 2013
- "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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