Grafton Marking Time- Post Office Clock

The story below is another extract from one of my local history booklets “As Time Goes By-Grafton’s Fascination with Time-Pieces”,which I wrote and published in 2009, for our Sesqui-Centenary Celebrations of Local Government. This booklet has long been out of print, and I am now sharing some extracts on my blog.

The Grafton Post Office Clock

Thomas Fisher had been the Postal Officer at Grafton at his store on the river bank between 1859 to 1870. The Telegraph Office was originally housed in the Court House in 1862 and was later transferred to rented premised in Prince Street in 1865. In 1870 the Postal Department was also transferred to the Prince Street premises and both services continued there until 1878.

In 1872, Thomas Bawden, the local parliamentary member was requested to approach the government to secure monies to build suitable premises for the rapidly expanding needs of the post and telegraph services at Grafton. He was successful and plans were prepared by James Barnett the Colonial Architect , with tenders being called soon afterwards. William Kinnear was the successful tender. John Sutherland, Minister for Works, visited the Clarence later that year, and Graftonians further petitioned him for a proposed a sum of £2500 to be provided the following year, but the project was very slow, and little had been done by the Government by September 1874.

Thomas Fisher was Mayor of Grafton and the honour of laying the foundation stone was bestowed on the Mayoress, Mrs Fisher. After the ‘time-gun’ affair preparations were quickly made and Mrs Fisher, laid the foundation stone on the 8 October 1874, amid great ceremony which was followed by an official luncheon and a ball that night. The building plans were a James Barnett design of a two storey impressive sandstone and brick building with the postal and telegraph departments on the ground floor and the Post Master’s residence on the first floor.

William Kinnear, the contractor pushed on with the building and stone work of the main and ancillary buildings, which were nearly completed by the following April. However, due to problems within the Post Master General’s Department the project came to a halt. By December 1875, the citizens in Grafton could see that a clock, time ball and signal staff were needed additions to the Post and Telegraph building and Thomas Bawden, Thomas Page and Thomas Fisher, travelled to Sydney to petition the Postmaster General about these matters. He replied that their concerns were being addressed and that plans of a clock tower, with a four dial clock, had been prepared, and the project would be pushed forward.

In July 1876, Grafton experienced serious flooding and there were further delays with the building. Much comment, concerning the lack of progress with this necessary addition for public convenience, was made in the local papers throughout 1877. Finally by early 1878 the main building had been been completed and the staff quickly moved in without permission or ceremony. There was no official opening of this building. However, although there was finally a clock tower it remained empty for over a year.

The clock was installed by the maker, Mr Tornaghi, in March 1879. ‘The four dial plates were of iron, four feet in diameter, painted black, with the hour and minute hands in gold. The bell which was fitted in the dome was made of the best bell metal, and weighed nearly 400 lbs. The bell was struck every hour by a hammer weighing 18 lbs making 156 strokes every 24 hours. The tone of the bell was extremely clear and could be heard at a considerable distance. The works were placed about 7 feet below the dials, the hands being turned by a perpendicular connecting rod, and were of an entirely new construction, specially adopted for this kind of clock- the movement being known as the ‘gravity escapement’. The works were kept in motion by two suspended weights, each of approximately 50 lbs, which run down inside the front walls of the building in iron groves. The pendulum, second and half movement, was about 7 feet long, and had a bulb weighing approximately 102 lbs.To keep the clock going these weights had to be hauled up daily from the ground floor to the clock tower, by a windlass manned by two of the Postal staff.

The Post Master’s residence was on the first floor, with the main bedrooms in the front of the building. Locals recall that one of the early Post Masters, when he discovered that the 102 lbs iron pendulum swung to and fro in the ceiling just above his bed, wasted no time in changing his bedroom.

Grafton Post Office

This clock when well maintained, kept very good time, but the Postmaster General’s department did not see the need to send a clockmaker to Grafton to do this work, so within a few years problems arose concerning the time variances. In April 1884, ‘A.B. McM’, a regular contributor of topical verse to the Clarence and Richmond Examiner penned the following:-

The Post Office Clock

I’ve had many troubles since I have been born,

And I oft scarce know what I will do,

When bad luck comes on me, and leaves me forlorn,

But the greatest misfortune I’ve had,

Was one when I get a hard knock

And I have been driven abstractly mad,

By that erratic old Post Office Clock.

When I rise in the morning ’tis just about six,

Then away to work I must go,

But I find I am late- and get into a fix,

As that clock is ten minutes too slow.

Then I have a row and get turned out by the boss,

9And my labour comes to a ‘dead-lock’,

Of course it is me that will suffer the loss,

Brought on by that Post Office Clock.

Some times I knock off for my dinner at one,

And think that my troubles are past-

But I meet my employer and know that I’m ‘done’,

As that clock is just ten minutes fast.

Then what can I do , when I have such bad luck?

My misfortune gives me a great shock.

Of course it is me that will suffer the loss,

Brought on by that Post Office Clock.

Some days it’s too fast-

Some days it’s too slow-

And some days it won’t go at all;

It is only lately we’re getting to know,

The value of it is so small

Yet I believe the Government paid a high price,

Which from my rates and tax’s they’ll dock,

But for the same money, we could get something nice,

In the shape of a Post Office Clock.

Surely someone in Grafton in the clock-making line,

Can put the erratic thing straight.

I remember one time, when it struck twenty-nine,

Yet both hands were pointing to eight,

I can’t see myself, where it’s been any use,

As our time it seems simply to mock,

And from housewives it gets a fair share of abuse,

Does this misleading, old Post Office Clock.

Let all concerned take heed of these lines,

And to make matter properly go,

Also let them think of the working man’s ‘fines,’

When the clock is too fast, or too slow,

And I’m sure I don’t want to write any more,

or give them another quiet knock.

What I want to see is, not faster or slower,

But ‘right’ by the Post Office Clock.

Finally the Postmaster General’s Department consented to have a local clockmaker attend to the maintenance of the clock, so for many years the old clock gave the city remarkable service with the correct time, striking in unison with time ‘pips’ broadcast over the radio.

Grafton Post Office Clock

Today, sadly nearly 138 years after the clock first chimed out over the city, it is still and silent. The Post Office building is now privately owned with Australia Post and Clarence Consultants as tenants, who are not responsible for the clock. To their credit the present owners of the building tried to get the clock mended and working again, but the works have finally worn out and the parts are no longer available and so another Grafton time-piece era comes to a close.

Grafton Marking Time-One O’Clock Time Gun

Last week I led a series of History Walks in our beautiful city. The Friends of Grafton Library organized these as part of the celebrations for the “History Near Me” Festival, which was celebrated throughout the Clarence Valley for the full week.

These walks were a great success, but there wasn’t time to tell many of the stories associated with some of the city’s icons and places. I promised to share some of these stories through my blog.

The story below is an extract from one of my local history booklets “As Time Goes By-Grafton’s Fascination with Time-Pieces”,which I wrote and published in 2009, for our Sesqui-Centenary Celebrations of Local Government. This booklet has long been out of print, and I will now share some extracts on my blog.

The One O’Clock Time-Gun

In the late 1860’s the Half-day Holiday Associations were being formed in many towns throughout New South Wales. Their agenda was to better regulate working hours for workers, particularly in shops and businesses by directly approaching business owners. By 1873 Grafton had formed a Half-day Holiday Association and had convinced most Grafton businesses to close mid-week on Wednesday afternoon.

The firing of the steamships’ gun to herald their arrival, as they approached Grafton, had been tradition since the first steamers arrived in the 1840’s. In 1873 the Half-day Holiday Association saw it as a solution to the problem of ‘standard time’ by using the telegraph office and a ship’s cannon as a ‘time-gun’.

In May 1873 the Half Holiday Association decided “that the Secretaries should communicate with the Clarence and New England Steam Navigation Company to ascertain whether the company was willing to dispose of the brass gun, lately used on the Susannah Cuthbert, to the Association for use as a time-gun.”

By July the time gun had been acquired by a ‘shilling subscription’ and securely fixed into place behind the telegraph office in Prince Street. The Superintendent of Telegraph, in Sydney, had been communicated with, and kindly promised to furnish the Grafton Office, with the time, as the one o’clock gun was fired daily at the Sydney Observatory.

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The gun was fired for the first time on 19 July 1873. It was subsequently fired each day at ‘one p.m.’. The gun was sufficiently loud to be heard all over the town, and the businessmen in particular saw it as a great boon to the place to have a ‘standard time. The Telegraph Master was Thomas Quirk, who had just been appointed to the office staff at Grafton. Isaac Hyam lived in part of the building in Prince Street that the Post and Telegraph Office occupied. Mr David Braham, who had a watch-making and jewellery business lived next door. A common passageway ran between the two businesses.

Not everyone was happy with this new ‘time-piece’. Women and children were scared out of their wits, dogs made themselves scarce, and those who lived nearby had to make preparations to save their precious belonging from falling from walls and shelves as the reverberating ‘boom’ was to be heard.Those who have seen the Disney film ‘Mary Poppins’ can have some idea of what the canon might have be capable of.

The gun would be readied and loaded with the cotton wad in advance, and all the operator had to do was to light the fuse, when the signal arrived over the telegraph wires. However, sometimes the man, ready at the gun, was not able to get the signal off in time, due to perhaps damp powder in inclement weather, and it would be several minutes after one o’clock before the explosion was heard. Or sometimes a call-up from Sydney over the wire was wrongly construed as the one o’clock signal and the gunpowder was lit too early.

Although throughout the following months, several complaints were made about the ‘time-gun’, it continued to make it’s daily presence felt until April 1874, when it became silent. On inquiry it was found that the constant recoil had dislodged it from its position and it could not be discharged without great danger to the gunner.Isaac Hyam was employed to secure the gun to better footings and on 20th May he began to pull a log through the common passageway to the telegraph yard. However an altercation ensued between Hyam and David Braham over the right of way, which finally ended up in Court with assault charges being laid against each other. After evidence was given by several witnesses the verdict was given for Hyam.

On 25 May a letter appeared in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner (now Daily Examiner),which was purported to have been written, by David Brahams to the Telegraph Office,demanding the firing of the gun should cease. However, Brahams refuted the claim that he had written such a letter.

A petition of over 600 names was sent off to the Postmaster General urging the return to duty of the time-gun. The following week the gun started being fired daily, but three weeks later it was silent again, when it was discovered that it had been ‘spiked’. The Half Holiday Association offered a reward of £5 for information on who had done this terrible deed. They also publicly thanked Edwin Cox, a blacksmith, living nearby, for drilling out and repairing the gun, so it could resume its duty.

By early September the gun had again returned to its daily ‘booming’, but a few nights later the gun completely disappeared. Some had theories that it had been thrown in the river, others thought it had been thrown down a well, however it was never found.

The Half Holiday Association immediately offered a reward of £50 for information on the whereabouts of the gun, and to the guilty parties, but all to no avail. When they advertised that they intended to replace the missing ‘time-gun’ with an 18 ton gun, an article appeared in the Clarence and Richmond Examinerr suggesting they give up this plan, as it would only lead to a further battle amongst the citizens of Grafton. The Mayor sent several telegrams to the Postmaster General urging him to intervene, and a few days later he sent a telegram announcing the immediate laying of the foundation stone of the new Post and Telegraph Office in Victoria Street.

Whether it was feared there would be a riot in the streets between the pro-time-gun and anti-time-gun factions, or that there might be a lynching if the time-gun had been found and the guilty parties brought to justice, is not recorded, but there was much rejoicing at the announcement of the building , of the new Post and Telegraph Office, and the ‘Time-gun’ period of Grafton’s history drew quietly to a close.