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From the Archives: Clocktower

Wednesday 3 October 2018 2:27pm

Putting the clock into the Clocktower

For 50 years the University’s much-loved Clocktower building didn’t live up to its name.

Built in 1879, the tower was without a clock until the early 1930s. W P Morrell’s Centennial History of the University says negotiations with the new owners of the University’s previous premises in Princes Street, the Colonial Bank, over the transfer of the clock, “broke down and the tower remained as it were eyeless.”

Clock tower pre clock
University, 1878, Burton Brothers photograph, Box-093-002, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago

In 1930, then Chancellor Sir Thomas Sidey took the matter into his own hands.

A New Zealand Herald article about a meeting of the University Council in 1930 reported that a letter from Sir Thomas stated he had long been anxious to have a clock placed in the tower, and he had received a quotation of £700 for the installation.

He informed the Minister of Education that he wanted to make a voluntary contribution to enable a clock to be installed, and received advice back that a subsidy of £350 would be approved.

Sir Thomas then matched that figure with a gift of £350 for the installation of an electric turret clock.

The report said he trusted that the Council would see its way to accept the offer, and thus remove what had been an “eyesore” ever since the University building was erected half a century before.

Thomas Kay Sidey portrait
Thomas Kay Sidey. S P Andrew Ltd :Portrait negatives. Ref: 1/1-018764-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23150883

Sir Thomas seems to have had a bit of a thing about clocks, as he was one of the first to try to introduce daylight saving, putting up a member’s bill in 1909 advocating clocks be put forward an hour in summer.

Undeterred by lack of success the first time, he reintroduced the bill every year until 1927, when an hour of daylight saving was introduced. This was reduced to half an hour in 1928, and became a permanent shift during World War II.

Architect and engineer Maxwell Bury won the competition for the design of the University, although his classical style design was replaced with the Gothic style of the Clocktower. The first section was completed in 1879.

Heritage New Zealand says the building was erected in an era of Dunedin’s pre-eminence and describes it as featuring early use of basalt stone on a dramatic and large scale, “giving Dunedin a headstart in buildings of permanence.”

The Oliver wing, named after Dunedin MP the Hon Richard Oliver, and the southern-most sections, designed by architect Edmund Anscombe, were officially opened in 1914 and 1922.

The building’s outstanding features include the former library, now the Council chamber and the main stairway.

The foyer floor is still laid with the original 1879 tiles and the stained glass windows above the main staircase feature shields of arms commemorating early members of the University’s Council.

In 2017, the Clocktower received a comprehensive refurbishment. With the help of heritage architect Tracey Hartley and award-winning stonemasons Wainwright and Co from Dunedin, a host of maintenance issues were addressed.

Cracks in the stone were repaired, broken decorative finial caps recast, and carved motifs, copper guttering and loose Oamaru stone replaced. Timber was also repainted in colours based on past records and in consultation with Heritage New Zealand.

The building has a Category One New Zealand Historic Places Trust listing.