Hidden in Plain Sight

Heritage and Art Features on Victoria Streets and Sidewalks

Still Ticking After 100 Years

Text by Janis Ringuette

Photos by Norm Ringuette

Impressive Broughton St. clock

Three historic clocks in downtown Victoria have been ticking since Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire. Still in perfect condition after more than one hundred years, the mechanical clocks--two street clocks and the City Hall tower clock--will run another century or two. Human muscle power, not electricity, keeps precision gears turning, pendulums swinging and hands pointing to the correct time. Heavy weights suspended by pulleys and cables must be cranked up by hand; the pull of gravity on the weights powers the clocks.

The magnificent F. W. Francis Jewellers street clock, standing on the public sidewalk at 617 Broughton Street, is shown in the left photo. It is mounted on the original cast-iron stand manufactured by the Hutchinson Brothers, the Victoria foundry which produced the city’s signature lamppost. The clock was first erected on Government Street about 1900, then moved to several sites on Douglas before reaching its present location at Broughton and Gordon Street twenty years ago. When Rafal Zebrowski and partner Paul Groppe took over the jewellry business from the grandson of F. W. Francis in 1995, the antique clock was part of the deal.

Once a week, Zebrowski unlocks a door in the clock to wind up a rectangular lead weight hanging by fine steel wires inside. Four glass windows allow pedestrians to view the moving gears and one-metre long (39 in.) swinging pendulum twenty-four hours a day.

Opening the clock compartment                     Winding the clock mechanism

An outdoor clock must be well engineered to withstand weather changes, dust, humidity and vibrations created by passing vehicles, Zebrowski explained. But he did not expect direct hits. A month after spending $5,000 to recondition the clock in 2000, a beer truck smashed into it, breaking two light globes. After a second truck hit the clock five years later, a section was added to the base, raising the clock’s height. Vandals broke in and stole the pendulum in 2005. In August, 2007, thieves struck again, ripping out the pendulum and the heavy weight. Though sale of the metal to a recycling business was likely to earn only $15, repairs could cost $4,000 and take months of work by the store’s expert certified watchmaker, Marek Glodek. Before being recruited by the partners to work in Victoria, Glodek restored antique clocks and watches in European museums.

Government Street clock
Mike winding the clock

A second mechanical street clock stands in the Government Street sidewalk at the east entrance to Bastion Square near View Street. Like the Francis clock, this 1890 city-owned clock has taken a hit or two from passing vehicles; dangling wires are all that remain of lights on the street side. Twice a week, city maintenance technician Mike Israel unlocks a door in the original cast-iron stand to wind up the weight. Israel worries dust blowing up through Bastion Square is getting into the clock and slowing it down.

Clock expert Wilfred Craven isn’t worried about dust. “Dust doesn’t do the clock any good, but it doesn’t kill it, either,” he said. Craven ought to know. He has maintained that clock for more than fifty years. “I am a horologist,” he proudly explained, quickly adding horology has nothing to do with horoscopes but is the science of measuring time. From his home on Pender Island, where he runs The Clock Shop, Craven travels to Victoria to service the city’s two mechanical clocks.

The most spectacular clock in Victoria is in the City Hall tower, shown below left. The largest in the province when it was installed in 1891, it was manufactured in Croydon, England by Gillett and Johnson. The total cost to the city, including bell, transportation and installation, was $4,821.12. It has proven to be a fine bargain. “It’s a superb tower clock,” Craven said. “It will go for hundreds of years yet.” In the last thirty years, the only part he has replaced is one bushing.

Victoria City Hall tower                     Drawing of a clock mechanism

The cut-away view of a 1839 mechanical clock in England, above right, shows a structure almost identical to the current City of Victoria tower clock. (Illustration courtesy of Chris McKay) The City Hall pendulum swings below floor level amidst a system of cables and pulleys, as illustrated, and the vertical shaft above the clock mechanism drives gears connected to giant hands on four clock faces. In the twenty-first century, muscle power still lifts the 1500 lb. weight to drive the mechanical clock. Every other day, a city worker climbs three flights of stairs past the tower clock's swinging eight-foot pendulum and hanging weights to stand inside the giant clock, where natural light streams in through four huge glass clock faces. City worker Kenny Pollard is shown below turning the crank handle until the weight reached the correct height.

Winding up the heavy lead weight                     The lead weight must be the right height

Victoria jeweller Charles Redfern ordered and installed the clock. He decided unilaterally to name the clock after the chairperson of the city’s Hall Committee, Alderman McKillican. “The McKillican Clock 1891" is painted on the original glass case enclosing the clockworks, visible in the lower left photo.

Name of the City Hall clock                   Shafts driving the four clock faces

Huge hands pointing to Roman numerals on all four City Hall tower clock faces are powered by one vertical shaft connected to the clock mechanism below. This vertical shaft then turns a horizontal gear connected to four separate gears and shafts--one for each clock face--which drive the hour and minute hands, shown above right. Each glass face measures 2.28 metres (7 ˝ feet) and is illuminated at night.

One thing has changed since 1891. Gas lights originally illuminated the Roman numerals on the tower's clock faces at night; now flourescent bulbs do the job. Another change was attempted in 1967, but the automatic winding device optimistically heralded as the end of hand-cranking by the Victoria Daily Times didn’t work. In 2007, the clock’s heavy cast-iron weights must still be wound three times a week by hand.

Next to the clock tower on the City Hall roof, a small wooden structure covers the original bronze bell. Forged in England, it weighs a hefty 986 kg. (2,170 lb.). An F sharp tone sounded across the city when the 20 kg. (45 lb.) hammer hit the bell every hour and half hour from 1891 until 1963, when nearby hotel guests complained of disturbed sleep. It was silenced completely until October, 1991, then set to ring again during daylight hours. In 2005, the bell was turned off until seismic upgrading, installation of a new elevator, and renovation of the huge upper floor was completed in August, 2006. The $125,000 job included removing ten layers of paint from the bell to "clean up the sound." Twenty replica urns, missing for decades, were made of fibreglass and mounted on ledges above and below the clock and gold leaf was applied to the clock face. The clock once again rings every hour.

Public clocks performed an essential function in earlier eras when few people owned clocks. They relied on church bells, village square clocks, school and factory bells, street and tower clocks. Today, when residents own more clocks than they can count--clocks on wrists and walls, in cell-phones, computers, microwaves, VCRs, televisions, cars and suitcases--public clocks are of limited use, even obsolete.

Nevertheless, antique mechanical clocks are lovingly preserved and admired in cities around the world for their traditional, cultural and heritage values. Well-crafted, ingenious and even beautiful, mechanical clocks continue running while modern electric clocks pile up in the landfill.


Copyright 2007   Janis Ringuette.  Limited excerpts are permitted but please credit the author.