Called erratic, eccentric, and “two-faced” the Petone Town Clock has survived 103 years. It has also survived the demolition of the Petone Municipal building, a move into a modified clock tower, and savage criticism.
Crowds gathered for the opening of the new Petone Municipal building by Premier Sir Joseph Ward on September 10, 1906. The clock face is bare. The idea of buying a clock wasn’t proposed by Petone Borough Council till 1908.
The electric impulse chiming clock, the first of its kind in New Zealand, was installed in an opening ceremony in July 1913. It was based on the ‘weighting train’ mechanism newly invented in 1907, and kept time by a swinging pendulum, similar to a grandfather clock.
But as early as 1914 the ‘first of its kind’ chiming clock was creating problems. It had reportedly done little chiming since its inception, and residents had “to be content with the silent passing of the hours”. It was a controversial topic for Petone Borough Councillors, some of who regarded the clock as a lemon.
But just occasionally the clock exceeded expectations – such as by not stopping in an earthquake.
The clock was switched to run from “a direct electric current” instead of batteries in 1917, in the hope this would improve its reliability. However the clock continued to run at its own pace, infuriating residents.
Getting an expert to look at the clock was tricky as it was so unique.
In 1925, in an effort to correct the clock, it was moved down the tower which was “by no means stable, and in addition to sinking slightly, also vibrated in a heavy wind”.
The clock tower was still reported as unstable in 1927, supposedly preventing the clock mechanism from working correctly. Councillors were scathing about the clock, adding it cost £650 and had not yet been paid for.
The clock gained a reputation for its unreliable time-keeping.
Weather events added to the mechanical problems – a hand was blown off the south face of the clock in a 1938 storm. The clock was also disturbing people in other ways – not everyone appreciated it chiming every quarter of an hour, and the quarterly nightly chimes were silenced in the 1930s.
In February 1960 the wooden clock tower was found to be rotten, impossible to repair, and was demolished. Removing the clock face was necessary.
The clock tower was rebuilt from roof level with steel, and instead of the dome shape it rose to a peak with a small spire on top.
The controversy about the clock continued, with complaints about the hourly chiming during the night, and the cost of maintenance.
‘The clock was possibly not a good buy’ Petone Councillor J. McNeill commented in December 1977, and was giving a local firm looking after it ‘some headaches’.
In 1984 the clock spontaneously started partial striking and by 1986 silenced itself totally just before it was moved.
Petone Borough Council voted in 1985 to demolish the landmark Petone Municipal Building as it was an earthquake risk. Special provision was made for the town clock to live on.
The Petone town clock was lifted from the old council buildings on the corner of Jackson and Bay Streets in 1986, and later placed in the entrance to Doreen Doolan Mall in a glass tower, on Jackson Street opposite its original site. The 1907 pendulum invention is now helped by electronics (installed in 2002) to keep the time.
The Petone town clock, the eccentric survivor, began chiming again (daytime hours only) on 21 March 2013 to celebrate 100 years since its 1913 installation.