Duncan City Hall clock is about to celebrate a century of service

There’s a very significant birthday coming up in Duncan. As of midnight, Dec. 31, the City Hall clock is officially 100 years old!

Today’s City Hall wasn’t always that, of course, having been built originally as the Duncan Public

Building because it housed other government offices. Situated on the corner lot originally occupied by a house owned by merchant Harry Smith – he who sparked the copper mining boom on Mount Sicker and who later founded the Cowichan Leader – it replaced a smaller post office on Station Street.

But let’s get to the clock in its 23-metre-high bell tower: The 400-kilogram bell (one early account rates it as 560 pounds), was cast by John Taylor and Co., Loughborough, England. The clock mechanism, the work of J. Smith and Son’s Midland Clock Co., Derby (the makers of post office clocks throughout Canada, London’s Big Ben and the clock in St. Paul’s Cathedral), arrived in pieces so "clearly labelled that a boy would have been able to supervise their assemblage," it was recalled in 1936.

Easy to assemble, yes, but there was a glitch: The clock’s four dials were supposed to be six feet, two inches in diameter. Upon arrival, however, they measured only five feet, four inches. Rather than return them to the manufacturer (the First World

War had just begun), the clock’s faces were restyled to make the smaller apparatus appear to be as intended.

The bell, which had required the efforts of 10 men with blocks and tackle to hoist it into position (it’s said that the staircase nearly collapsed under their collective weight), rang out for the first time at its dedication on New Year’s Eve, 1914. Five minutes before midnight, Mrs. W.H. Hayward, wife of the local MPP (MLA), "cut the ribbon holding the pendulum. As the bell boomed out the advent of 1915, Mrs. Smythe, wife of O.T. Smythe, then mayor, threw into [its] capacious maw…a glass of champagne." For all its size, the ticking was no louder than that of a household grandfather clock.

That’s when it was running. Throughout 1915 there are newspaper references to the clock’s requiring mechanical attention to keep accurate and regular time. These were minor and the one real malfunction during the first 15 years of operation was when snow froze on the northern face, preventing the hands’ advancing.

Another curious feature of its timekeeping was that city hall workers came to recognize its ability to double as a barometer: "Whenever the hands are a minute too soon or behind correct time, a change in the weather is bound to be approaching. This theory has proved itself consistently."

Originally, the clock was illuminated by electric lights all night long but with the arrival of the Great Depression a timing device was installed to turn them off at midnight.

For many years the clock was wound weekly by A.B. Whittaker who raised two sets of heavy weights with the aid of a large crank. The flooring of the "sounding room" was renovated in 1924 so as to allow the bell to be heard more clearly through the louvres.

Duncan’s bell is similar to those installed in the Nanaimo and Port Alberni post offices (both demolished); in fact, the Alberni post office and Duncan’s were of the same design.

The work of J. Smith and Sons, Midland Clockworks, Derby, the eight-day clock has suffered few failures other than those cited, once in the 1950s and again in 1991. In 1970 it received a thorough overhaul by jeweller George Stenmark, who had to use gallons of solvent to remove the dirt and grime which had accumulated over 40 years before he could readjust and synchronize the hands. At that time it was estimated that the venerable clock’s gears had been in operation for 500,000 hours. Winding the clock, which continues to labour on all these years later, is accomplished by turning a large and heavy crank handle for approximately six minutes to raise the huge metal weight that drives the pendulum in the main body of the timepiece.

The great cast-iron weight, noted the late newspaper publisher Andy Bigg in 1987, is suspended on a cable that extends from behind the mayor’s chair, which is considerably shorter than when it descended as far as the main floor or the basement. This made the eight-day clock a seven-day clock. Wind-up time is every Thursday. "If I missed winding the clock on Thursday morning," Al Hudson, electrician for the City of Duncan Works Department whose duties for many years included being "Keeper of the Clock," told Bigg, "the clock would stop at approximately 2:30 a.m. on Friday morning and there would be quite a few phone calls from residents complaining about the fact. So I’m pretty careful to keep everything on schedule."

He described the clock as "a very precise and tricky piece of machinery, but basically it is of relatively simple construction. The main works are encased in glass and the only bother we have is to clear away the flies which gather on the warm casing in cold weather."

He’d once been stymied by the fact that the clock was losing a few minutes a day. It took his sitting for hours, studying the movements of the works, to finally notice that one of the hands was lightly rubbing against the clock face: "The fractional rub of that one hand on the face affected the entire sequence of the movement," he recalled in awe.

When visitors asked to see the clock close-up, he warned them not to expect an elevator ride or an ascent by an ordinary flight of stairs to the top of the tower: "There is very little space to move and part of the ascent is by two very narrow ladders… So, if you don’t like climbing ladders, just admire our City Hall clock from street level."