Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Story of the Invercargill Town Clock 1860 - 1989 (Part Two of Four)

The Invercargill Post Office and Town Clock,
Published in "The Otago Witness" 4 Apr 1906
[Source : Alexander Turnbull Library]

Setting the Clock in Motion

1892 - 1899

This continues the story of Invercargill's 1893 'Littlejohn' Town Clock and chimes. You can read the first part HERE. This second part describes the building of the clock tower, the ordering of the clock mechanism and chimes, the starting ceremony, and some of the initial unforeseen problems encountered with the clock.

By April 1892 it was noted by a correspondent that "the Post Office building is in course of extension" and that now was the time to have a town clock incorporated as a central part, preferably in a clock tower over the entrance portico as "if the building goes on without regard to the requirement , it will be difficult hereafter to supply the deficiency."

On the 14th April 1892 a deputation duly waited upon the Hon. J.G. Ward, Postmaster-General, to urge that provision be made to having a large clock placed on the new Post Office building. The Mayor noted that both in Wellington and in Wanganui the Government had erected clocks above new Post Office buildings and as Invercargill would;

"ultimately become the 'City of the South', [it] had a reasonable right to an equal concession... If the Government provided a clock the Corporation would probably agree to provide for the lighting of the clock by giving the gas free."

The Hon. Mr Ward replied that a clock would "require a fairly large sum of money", going on to suggest that "if a little effort were made by the people of Invercargill in the way of subscribing a small contribution towards the cost of purchasing a clock, he could undertake to say that a turret would be provided." The Mayor noted that the citizens had been "canvassed freely of late in connection with other calls" and if the Postmaster-General could see his way to give the clock, the citizens would, he thought, provide the chimes by subscription. This offer was noted as "a reasonable one" and if the citizens provided the chimes and the council the lighting, "he would promise to erect the tower and clock."

The Borough Council duly approved a resolution (with four dissenting votes) agreeing to light the clock and also, after some discussion, to keep it in repair. The Postmaster-General had since learnt that other corporations were responsible for the maintenance of their town clocks and that this would be "a primary condition". The Mayor noted that Dunedin's Town Clock, of English manufacture and having been purchased in 1880, "had cost nothing in repairs" nor had the clock at Ashburton which was of New Zealand manufacture.

But it appears the chimes would not please everyone. A letter to the Editor from "Sweet Silence" dated the 29th April 1892 is quick to point out that;

"When I go to Dunedin I pass my night a-bed in vain attempts to get to sleep between the chimings of the town clock there. The inhabitants no doubt get used to the musical sounds, but to strangers they are a nuisance, and as our clock will be right in the middle of our hotels, if chimes are attached to it, visitors will bless those who, in their great desire to mark their era by some great work, inflict such a sleep-murdering device on weary mankind."

A "South Ward Ratepayer" writing on the 27th August 1892 was also quick to query the Borough Council voting to contribute the sum of £250 towards adding "toy chimes" to the Town Clock at the cost of other necessary projects;

"The Council can find money to throw away in ding-dong toy chimes - which can only amuse children, while they treat the jetty with neglect and so treat the trade of our port, which is certainly a matter of vaster importance to the community that town clock chimes."

In February 1893 tenders were duly called for the erection of the clock tower. But a delay ensued after the tender prices were considered too high so the contract was re-advertised in March. Finally, and in April, Mr G. Morrison would be awarded the tender. But already there were grumblings about the lack of height for the tower meaning the clock could not easily be seen from around the city. The height of the tower would be 90ft with the height to the centre of the clock dials being 85ft.

As regards the tender for supplying the clock, the Council were advised that only one tender had been received so this would be re-advertised in June, the stipulation being that "the time-piece to be made in the colony". A Councillor moved that an "hour bell" be included additional to the chimes. The Mayor reported that there would be four bells weighing a total of 30cwt, the largest to be about 10cwt. A separate bell would cost at least £200 and alterations to the tower would be necessary. The motion was therefore lost.

Curiously, "The Southland Times" note on the 18th July that although a tender had recently been accepted for the Invercargill Post Office clock, they had it on good authority that the successful tenderer had already completed the work, it being well known that there was only one firm in the colony which could complete the work. Littlejohn and Sons of Wellington were the successful tenderer at £685 The four bells would be cast by Messrs Cable & Co. of Wellington, the largest now weighing in at 11½ cwt. and the smallest at about 7 cwt. The chime would be the same as at Westminster London, being known as the St. Mary's chimes, of Cambridge. At the end of the 18th century words were written to the musical chimes by the Rev. Dr. Taylor (as shown on the card below).

The four open clock faces on the tower were now completed and boarded up, but; "As that facing Dee street had on the boarding a well painted representation of a clock dial, not a few passers by imagined that the big clock was already in position."

While the new Post Office would be formally opened on the 7th August 1893, it would be some months before the clock and chimes, together with the clock faces, would be installed. This work would commence under the supervision of Mr W. Littlejohn after the "Waihora", having carried the clock, bells and machinery down from Wellington, arrived at the Bluff on the 15th March 1894.

Hoisting the bells up into the tower by the use of a derrick and winch proved difficult and time consuming, not helped by it being found that the largest bell, having a diameter at the bottom of 3ft 6in, would not fit through the window which was only 3ft 2in wide. This necessitated the removal of a number of bricks. Additionally, the floor upon which the clock would rest was found to not be sufficiently stable and needed strengthening. Lead flashing would also need to be laid on the floor of the bell tower to carry away water that would surely find its way through the louvered windows in stormy weather. The clock tower inner walls would be whitened "so that the illuminating power of the gas at night may be fully utilised."

By the afternoon of Monday the 2nd April work had advanced sufficiently for the Dee street clock face to be connected to the mechanism, now faithfully recording the time. But the official ceremony of starting the clock would be at 3pm the following day.

A card printed by Mr Nicol when the Post Office clock
was erected in 1893 with the musical score for the chimes
[From a card formerly in my possession]

With Tuesday the 3rd April 1894 being declared a public holiday and with the weather all that could be wished for, a large gathering of citizens had gathered in the Post Office Square to witness the official starting of the clock and the chiming of the bells. With space in the tower at a premium, only a select group, comprising mainly of past Mayors, councillors and the contractor, would witness the current Mayor, Mr Raeside, cutting a slender bit of twine which then set the pendulum in motion. Various speeches (each one reported on) were then given but were only heard by those guests in the tower with the public having to content themselves with just hearing the chimes and hour bell.

"His Worship said that the ceremony might appear to some to be a small one and of little moment, but he regarded it as a very important function and felt no small pride in his part in it."

Mr McFarlane, immediate past Mayor, along with others present, noted that a tower 30 or 40 feet higher would have been an improvement. While they had reason to be thankful he believed that had the question of adding another storey to the tower been put to the ratepayers at the time they would have authorised it. It was noted that even the Architect had protested from the start against the short tower.

But overall, all were pleased and grateful to the Government, the clock being "one of the evidences that the Government fully recognised the importance of the district." Councillor Mair added that he "hoped its presence would relieve the citizens of the scream of whistles and jangle of bells which now made certain portions of the day hideous."

Mr William Nicol, Watchmaker and Clockmaker in the Athaeneum building next door, would initially hold the tender for maintaining the Town Clock. His son, who entered the business in 1893, had in fact previously worked for Littlejohn's in Wellington so was quite conversant with their timepieces.

But the clock early on "disgraced its elevated position by playing practical jokes". The headline on the 26th January 1895 reading "Oh you Giddy old clock! What were you thinking of?" reports the first problem with the clock; "The Post Office clock, heretofore a model of propriety, behaved in a most erratic fashion for about half an hour, making time fly with the recklessness of a chronological millionaire." It appears that the clock struck the hour 383 times - and at night - making it "383 o'clock" although "The Times" made it 550, "but at that hour of the night the reckoning of a few hundreds is neither here nor there." The cause is not given.

While the clock would safely usher in 1896, with Mr Nicol sending off coloured flares and catherine wheels from the clock tower, the beginning of 1897 would highlight a major problem which had in fact been previously highlighted - that of the floor supporting the clock;

"Mr Wm Nicol, custodian of the post office clock states that the partial and unharmonious chiming of the quarters, which has been so noticeable recently, is not due to any defect or derangement of the mechanism which he can remedy, but to the warping of the floor of the tower. Upon the rigidity of this depends the accuracy of the work of the striking movement and the recent hot dry weather has so twisted the woodwork, that, as no doubt been noticed, one of the hammers does not get in its blow and a note is of course omitted. Mr Littlejohn, of Wellington, who built and erected the clock, remarked at the time that the construction of the floor was such that it was likely that the chimes would not at all times be perfect. A few days of humid atmosphere would probably bring the floor back to normal conditions and nature would thus rectify the defect, but the insertion of a light iron girder would be the best solution of the trouble as it would not be effected by the weather." [Sthlnd Times, 28 Jan 1897]

At the same time Mr Nicol requested Borough Council approval to have a heavier weight cast for the chiming barrel, the present weight being insufficient as highlighted by the current warping of the wooden bell frame on which the bells were hung. This request was left to the Mayor "With power to act". As to if he 'acted', this question would appear to be answered in February 1899 when the same chiming problems occurred. "Hour Hand" writes asking not only why the clock had not been lighted for the previous three nights but also why the chimes are frequently wrong or do not strike at all; "When a clock neither strikes nor is seen, one begins to ask the use of it." In March it was noted that one of the hammers was not striking but again, the cause is not noted. At this time Mr Nicol still held the tender for maintaining the clock.

You can read the third part HERE.

Correction of any unintentional errors or additional information welcome. My email link appears in the right-hand menu bar.

Sources :

- Papers Past [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- "Centenary of Invercargill Municipality 1871 - 1971" by J.O.P. Watt, 1971 (from my own collection)
- McNab Collection, Dunedin Public Library
- Dunedin City Council Archives
- "The Southland Times"
- "New Zealand's Lost Heritage" by Richard Wolfe, 2013

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