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Stroke of luck brings bell home

Friday 15 March 2019 9:25am

It’s taken 142 years, but finally the clocktower bell from the original University premises in Princes Street has found its way home.

The 25cwt (1270kg) brass bell, manufactured in Edinburgh and shipped out to Dunedin in 1863, was pride of place at the Clocktower Lawn picnic in February – the public launch of the University’s 150th anniversary.

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The bell has had a long and colourful, and slightly mysterious, past. Records from the Otago Daily Times reveal a clock and bell were originally ordered by city authorities without any definite idea as to which building they would be placed in, apart from it being a public building in the centre of the city.

After “lying idle” for a while, they were eventually put into the tower of the New Zealand Exhibition building in Great King Street in 1864.

At the end of the Exhibition, the building was converted into a hospital, and the sound of the bell became a bit of a problem – it had to be muffled with wire wound around the arm of the hammer. The editor of the ODT noted that if the clock were to be replaced it had to be by a non-striking clock – as a striking clock was “injurious” to patients.

E18 Princes St bell
Post Office building in Princes Street. c.1877 University of Otago library records, 96-111/15. S17-612B, Hocken Collections

In 1868, the clock and bell were moved into the turret of the new Post Office building in Princes Street, which from July 1871 to 1877 housed New Zealand’s first university, the University of Otago.

After the building was sold to the Colonial Bank in 1877, the University registrar was instructed to claim the clock and bell, but the directors refused to give them up, citing them as fixtures of the sale.

The Dunedin Stock Exchange Proprietary Company bought the building around 1900, and it was demolished in 1969.

Quite what happened to the bell between 1969 and 1997, when it was craned into the Meridian Mall through the roof and put on display in the lower level, has remained a bit of a mystery until recently. Apparently the bell was rescued from the demolished Stock Exchange by the Dunedin City Council and held in storage. The Meridian Mall developers were looking for iconic items from Dunedin’s history, and the council loaned the bell to the Meridian for display.

By a stroke of luck, in 2017 University of Otago Facilities Manager Michael Porter, who was previously Manager of the Meridian Mall, was cleaning out his office when he came across a typed history of the Clocktower, dated 1973, mentioning the failed attempt to reclaim the clock and bell from the Colonial Bank. He made the connection with the Meridian bell and contacted the mall owners and asked if they would agree to the University bringing the bell back home.

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It was craned out of the mall in September 2017, and in January this year it was put into place between the Clocktower and Geology buildings, where it was a star attraction of the anniversary picnic.

At the welcome during the picnic, the bell was rung by OUSA president James Heath to launch the year of festivities. Staff member Glenn Wadsworth made the recycled rimu mallet and donated it to the University.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne revealed that the bell will be part of a new tradition for Otago – when PhD students submit their theses they will get to ring the bell.