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.
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.