Cathedral Square’s clocks ‘…an institution of daily life…’ – 1869

Cathedral Square, it seems, has always been a place where the time of day was displayed or sounded in one way or another – well, until the past few years at least.

As a child in the 1980’s, my ‘time piece’ was the digital clock on top of the Government Life Building whereas, for many others, it would have been the unreliable clock of the Old Chief Post Office Building that has looked over the Square for well over a century.

Before that?  Well, the attached photo of Dr. A.C. Barker at the foot of the Godley Statue was taken on 13th November 1869.  If you look at the left hand side of the statue’s pedestal, you can make out what seems to be a wooden tower.  Inside was a gong, rung out to mark the time for those in ear shot!  This could easily be the city’s first public clock!!!

As the good doctor’s house is in view on the right hand side of the photo (now the site of Rydges Hotel), one has to wonder how annoying the old time tower was for those living so close to it? Unfortunately there has been no clue so far of when this tower was first erected.  Could it have been commissioned by the Canterbury Provincial Council or the Christchurch City Council?

On 11th July 1879, the Government Building (now known to most of us as the Old Chief Post Office) was officially opened in Cathedral Square.  The building hosted New Zealand’s first Telephone Exchange.  It was common practice that all central Government buildings/Post Offices have a clock built into them – as a symbol of control.

As early as 1863, the Canterbury Provincial Council had seen the need for Christchurch to replace Lyttelton as the main postal town.  As government departments were scattered throughout the city in rented sites, a central government building was needed which would also include a new post office.

Designed by William Henry Clayton, the foundation stone was laid on 24th May 1877 with very little fanfare. The building was finished in 1878 complete with a clock and the official opening was held later the following year.

By 1913, with all government departments (apart from the postal service) having moved on, the building became known as the Chief Post Office.  The clock, a well-known icon of Cathedral Square, was infamous for always showing the wrong time.  In 1980, a fire put the clock permanently out of business – it was never repaired.

The Square’s next clock commissioning was put into motion on 17th July 1964 with the opening of the Government Life Building.  It would also give the temperature and soon became quite an icon.  Replacing the original Government structure which had been erected in 1893, it was Christchurch’s first ‘modernist glass box’ design.  Many Cantabs were upset by the height as no building in the Square should overshadow the Cathedral – and then there was the character of the area to protect.

By 1989, when the building became Tower Insurance (owned by Tower Corporation, formerly Government Life), it was already on its way to being known as Christchurch’s ugliest building.  In fact, due to lack of tenants, the clock was turned off around 1994 but was subject to change if there was an increase in office leases however, this never came to pass and its fate was sealed after finally being claimed by the 2011 earthquakes.

As we stroll across the CBD with our cellphones to glance at for our time of day, has the era of a public clock ticked its way permanently into our history?

*Image courtesy of the Canterbury Museum – – 1944.78.5

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