Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Story of The Invercargill Town Clock, 1860 - 1989 (Part One of Four)

The Former Invercargill Post Office
"Littlejohn" Clock Mechanism as it appears today

The Importance of An Accurate Knowledge of Time
 1860 - 1891

(Last Update 12 Jun 2017)

In 1989 the southern City of Invercargill finally resurrected their precious Town Clock and chimes, having once graced their 1893 Post Office building before spending almost half a century in storage.

When I myself saw the dusty remains of this clock, including the bells and partially broken clock faces, in storage and gathering dust in the Invercargill Water Tower during a school visit in 1970 I, along with almost everyone else who had seen them, would never have imagined that this clock would realistically ever see the light of day again, let alone once more becoming a fully functioning timepiece. But from a "peep show" and "ding-dong toy chimes" to "dismay and indignation" the long fight to not just obtain - but also retain - a Town Clock over the years has not been without its many challenges. This four part blog is not intended as a comprehensive history of Timekeeping in Invercargill although other clocks are mentioned in passing or where relevant.

I am aware of a three page article pertaining to this subject by John Watts in the NZ Postal History Society quarterly journal, "The Mail Coach" of Feb 2011, but am unfortunately unable to access it locally nor does it appear to have been published elsewhere.

Our story commences back in 1860 when Invercargill became the centre of the new self-governing Province of Southland. It was natural for the residents to now expect those civic amenities that other towns enjoyed and which would also reflect their 'importance'.

As early as the 10th July 1863 the local "Invercargill Times" writes;

"In Dunedin, the importance of an accurate knowledge of time, or rather an accurate standard, has so impressed itself upon those in authority, that a large clock has been constructed so as to peep out from the higher story of the Custom House building, and thus prominently inform all of the progress of the old gentleman with the scythe. Were the same idea followed out here,... it would be in its results most useful to the inhabitants, and conduce towards preventing the community in general being 'behind the time'. There is scarcely a village, either in old countries or new, which has not its public clock."

In September 1863 the same newspaper again stressed the need of a public Town Clock, referring to the present woefully inadequate arrangement at the Post Office for ascertaining mail time closures, being sarcastically referred to as a "Peep Show";

"We have before adverted to the necessity there exists for a clock, placed in such a position as to be of service to commercial men and others. The present peep show at the Post-Office is of little use. Strangers cannot of course be aware of it, and townspeople have not always the time in the crowded portion of the day to fight their way to the 'hole in the wall'. On the last English mail day towards half-past eleven o'clock, there were so many scrambling to ascertain the hour, that ordinary folks thrust their letters into the box regardless of late stamps, and reckless for a month's delay. The Provincial Government would earn the thanks of the community, by placing a large legible clock on a public site such as the Government buildings, or the General Post-Office. We do not think the expense would break their bank."

The Invercargill Railway Station showing
the clock above the Entrance, circa 1860's
[Source : Centenary of Invercargill Municipality]

By July 1864 it appeared that the closest to a town clock for the time being would be a timepiece placed above the main entrance of the new Railway Station, being the new "Grand Termini of the Bluff and Oreti Railways", but primarily for the use of travellers. This clock, featuring a 30 inch dial, and manufactured by 'Elder' of Bourke street, Melbourne, would be fitted up in October 1864.

But in September 1864 Mr Broad, a Jeweller of Tay street (and previously of Beverley's, Dunedin), would make the town a generous offer. He had in his possession a large eight day clock with two three foot diameter transparent dials, a seven foot pendulum,and lighting, having been made by "Messrs Syms and Sons" in Edinburgh for "a Town Hall, Church or other public building" and costing £200. This timepiece he would offer to the Town of Invercargill "by subscription" and to place it in the hands of three gentlemen "who should appoint a site for its erection". "The Southland Tmes" optimistically noted that;

"Seeing that so much inconvenience is felt in this town from the want of correct time, we trust this opportunity would not be lost by the Inhabitants of Invercargill, and that the sum required for the purchase of this clock may speedily be found."

But there is not one further comment in the paper regarding this offer and Mr Broad must have then sold it on. But another clock would at least be erected at this time. On the 4th April 1894 an "old identity" called into the offices of "The Southern Cross" after the new Post Office Clock had been started the previous day. He related that "a good many years ago he assisted to put up the scaffolding for a clock on the old iron building in Dee street where the Theatre Royal now stands." Mr Watt had erected an imported iron building on this site in 1863 before it became Sloan's Theatre about 1875 and Broad Smalls hardware shop from 1903.

But from this gentleman's comments it would appear that the clock, known as the 'Exchange Buildings' clock, soon "lost its tick and suspended operations" so was no more reliable as a town clock that any of the others. It appears that this "large clock", which included a ninety pound weight, had been erected above Mr Watt's 'Exchange' building some time just prior to June 1866. I have no idea if this had been Mr Broad's clock mentioned above but this two-faced clock must have been driven by a mechanism inside the Exchange Buildings so it is certainly possible that Broad's clock had been adapted for this use.

Next we find an editorial dated the 5th July 1867 referring to the General Government purchasing and installing public clocks;

"The want of a public clock has long been felt in Invercargill. In most other towns in Australia and New Zealand the want is met by a post-office clock. True it is that there is a railway clock of erratic notoriety; and inconveniently placed for general utility. The following paragraph will show that the Postmaster-General is giving his attention to clock erections, and it is to he hoped that his operations will be extended to this town. The 'Canterbury Times,' 22nd June, says :-'In the absence of a public clock in Lyttelton, it is gratifying to notice that the General Government have supplied the telegraph office with a clock of a superior description, manufactured to order in Melbourne... The office at Christchurch has also been fitted with a clock of a similar kind'"  

We then find that a new clock would be fitted up at the Post Office in September 1867. But as this clock would show Wellington rather than Invercargill time [New Zealand then had different time zones] would it be a 'convenience' or an 'inconvenience'? ;

"The business of the Electric Telegraph Department will now be regulated as, regards time, by a new clock which has just been placed in a prominent position over the outer door of the office. It will be necessary, however, for those doing business through the wires, to bear in mind that as the clock is to be kept to Wellington time, it will always be some forty minutes in advance of Invercargill time..."

Dee Street Invercargill showing the Elegant
 "Exchange Buildings" at right with the Clock
highlighted by an arrow. Taken 1860's.
[Source : Centenary of Invercargill Municipality]

There were evidently reliability issues with the afore-mentioned Exchange Buildings clock as it was taken down, cleaned and oiled, and placed on a new and stronger stand in October 1869 "so that the vibration of the building will not disturb the works". Additionally, "a patent copper cord, presented by Mr R. Tapper would replace the native flax cord previously used so that sudden stoppages, through breakage of the cord, will now be avoided." At this date the clock was "placed in the hands of E.D. Butts, Esq. [the Chief Postmaster], who has authorised Mr Renwick to collect subscriptions for its purchase for the public". This will be the clock projecting from the Exchange Building in the photograph above.

But as with Mr Broad's clock there is no further specific mention of this clock. Perhaps the public considered it was not "grand" enough for their town. At any rate it appears to have disappeared by 1874. While Mr H.E. Osborne, Auctioneer, advertised a "large clock" for sale in early 1872 this was only "suitable for a church or public hall" so would probably have been a 14" Station type clock.

"The Sign of The Clock" (George Lumsden)
when located in Tay Street, pre 1872
[Source : Kete Invercargill]

George Lumsden, a Watchmaker and Jeweller with premises known as "The Sign of the Clock" located in Tay Street "opposite the English Church" prior to Oct 1872 and thereafter in Dee Street "opposite the Post Office" had a public clock with two faces above his shop. The same clock can be seen above his old shop above and above his new shop below. But this appears to be too small to have been Broad's clock which had three foot diameter dials.

"The Sign of The Clock" (George Lumsden)
when located in Dee Street, post Oct 1872
[Source : Kete Invercargill]

In May 1874, an anecdote is related of how a traveller wanted to start from Invercargill by one of the morning coaches. This perfectly demonstrated the farcical lack of reliable public timekeeping in the town. After ascertaining the time with the Post Office he made doubly sure by testing his watch by the telegraph clock. This showed such a variation that he determined to check the time at the "Sign of the Clock" over the road. This proved "worse than ever" and on going round to the other side, he was still further puzzled to discover "that this two-faced clock was a perfect conundrum, as the two sides did not agree with each other!". In desperation he then rushed round to consult the Railway clock which was different again, the variation between all the clocks had been up to to fifteen minutes.

August 1875 would see a Meeting of the "Railway and Immigration Committee" in the Town Council Hall making a representation to Mr Cuthbertson, the Invercargill Member of Parliament;

"to use his utmost endeavors to get the additional sum necessary for the completion of the Government buildings placed on the estimates, and, if possible, to obtain the sanction of the Minister of Public Works to the erection of a tower and clock in the centre of the block."

Mr Cutherbertson advised in November 1875 that the site had now been secured by the Government and that, "next year, if he still remained member for the town, he hoped, by energy, and by having better reason on his side, to be able to secure money for the completion of the buildings." The Minister of Public Works would shortly be in Invercargill and would also see for himself. But such are the promises of politicians and Cuthbertson would be ousted in the 1875-76 General Election.

The New Clock placed above the
"eastern window" of the Telegraph Office
[Source : "Centenary of Invercargill Municipality]

In May 1877 "The Southland Times" reports that the Telegraph Office had obtained a clock from Wellington and that it had been placed in the eastern window of the building, "where it can be seen by the public, to whom it will be an excellent guide, as Mr Bush informs us the time is derived from Wellington every morning." This is the Government building shown above, having been designed by Colonial Architect Mr W.H. Clayton with tenders called in January 1875. The Telegraph Office moved into the upper floor of the eastern wing on the 15th July 1876. This building would form the south wing and part of the central wing of the new Post Office building opened in 1893.

A correspondent writing to the Editor in May 1883 notes that having travelled through Victoria and New Zealand he thought; "Invercargill is behind the towns of the sister colonies in not having a town clock." He goes on to suggest that a public meeting be called with a committee to be formed to divide the town into wards and have a subscription list prepared for the purpose of obtaining and erecting a clock. This was no less that twenty years since the desirability of a town clock for Invercargill had first been publicly highlighted. Even a "Stranger to Invercargill" remarks later that year that although "Invercargill is a very nice town", he goes on to suggest that "Perhaps a town clock in one of your beautiful buildings would be an improvement." But still the residents of Invercargill would be left wanting.

It appears that the Town Council, unlike the majority of councils and boroughs in New Zealand, desired the Central Government to pay for a town clock rather than out of their own funds. And of course the (by then debt ridden) Southland Provincial Government had been re-amalgamated with that of Otago in 1870 with all Provincial Governments themselves being abolished in 1876.

So, had it not been for this intransigence and southern 'penny pinching' Invercargill might have had a Town Clock as early as 1863. But does this, I wonder, also say something about the naturally thrifty nature of the predominately Scottish settlers of the south? Obviously it existed all the way up to their elected City Councillors and Mayor.

But the need for accurate town time had obviously now become acute. At a Council meeting in June 1887 Councillor Stewart moved that;

"Whereas the want of a correct public time is a great source of trouble and annoyance to employers and employed, and until a public town clock is provided it is expedient that the Fire Brigade Engineer ring the fire bell at 8, 12, 1 and 5 o'clock daily, Sundays excepted..."

The time would be set by the Telegraph Office time which came from Wellington.

With the bold heading "What O'clock?" a letter from "Northerner" to the Editor dated July 1891 again questions the lack of a Town Clock;

"One very great want and noticed in Invercargill - at least so nearly every stranger or visitor will tell you - is a town clock which could be seen and heard by night as well as by day - something reliable and worthy of the name. Surely our city fathers might make some move in so desirable a direction, seeing that every borough of any importance in the colony, with the single exception of Invercargill, possesses one, leaving us behind the time."

You can read the second part of this Blog 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


  1. Was George Lumsden later the mayor of Invercargill?

    1. Yes, that's him, Mayor of Invercargill 1873-74 and again 1878-79. I hadn't noticed that connection.There's a good bio and photo of him in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand Otago & Southland edition


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