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Stroke of luck brings bell home in time for anniversary picnic

Tuesday 5 February 2019 12:16pm

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, will be on show at the public launch of the University’s 150th anniversary – the Clocktower Lawn Picnic on 15 February.

ANews0219 Bell with crane 650px
Bringing home the clocktower bell from the original University premises in Princes Street.

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.

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, is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps a reader might be able to fill this gap?

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 contacted the mall owners and asked if they would agree to the University bringing the bell back home.

It was craned out of the mall in September 2017, and last week was put into place between the Clocktower and Geology buildings, where it will be a star attraction of the anniversary picnic.

The family-friendly picnic is a chance for the whole University community to join with the City of Dunedin to welcome in the 150th year and celebrate the strong connections between the two. It is also an opportunity for new students and their families arriving in Dunedin to join in the celebrations.

An informal, fun event, the picnic is for all ages. Starting at 5.30pm, children’s entertainment on the night includes giant bubbles and Jenga, face painting, a balloonologist and science communicator Armadeo Enriquez-Ballestero.

Local band Loose and Colourful will be playing, actors in historic dress will mingle with the crowd, and 10 food trucks will be offering a variety of food for those who haven’t bought their own picnic.

Picnics are also being held in Auckland and Hong Kong.