The Big Ben of Colombo - the Chatham Street
"Colombo landmarks - We pass them
every day but do we know their significance? In our new series,
Dr. K. D. Paranavitana delves into the history of some of Colombo’s
famous names and places"
Any clock or watch is designed with two hands.
The hour hand makes exactly two complete revolutions in a 24-hour
period and must rotate at as uniform a rate as possible so as to
show the correct time at the intermediate hour.
The first known mechanical clock was made in Italy
around 1335. The first domestic clock apparently was also made in
Italy in 1364 and depended on the same type of mechanism as the
tower clock, though smaller. This was followed by the spring driven
clock introduced about 1500. In 1658, Christiaan Huijgens, a Dutch
mathematician, worked out in detail the mathematics of the pendulum
and designed a clock controlled by a pendulum.
Navigators and sailors often used sundials and
the hourglass to measure the hours of the day. Sri Lankans had a
similar instrument called pe tetiya, in which a cup with a tiny
hole in the bottom was placed on a container of oil and the time
taken to fill the cup was considered as an hour.
The mechanism of the clock reached Sri Lanka with
the Dutch. However, there is no reported instance of the construction
of a clock tower anywhere in the island. Only a few know that in
the Fort of Colombo there is a clock tower, facing Galle Face to
the south, Chatham Street to the east and Janadhipathi Mawatha to
the north. Almost three decades ago, this area of the Fort was the
busy city centre filled with public servants, shoppers and vendors.
Things have changed with the passage of time and it is now a high
The clock tower at the Chatham Street-Janadhipathi
Mawatha junction is 148 years old. It is two years older than the
‘Big Ben’ of Westminster in London, the chime of which
we hear daily over the BBC world service. The ‘Big Ben’
of Westminster was cast on Saturday, April 10, 1858. Its history
even goes back several decades. George Meurs, the then British master
bell founder states that the ‘Big Ben’ took 20 minutes
to fill the mould with molten metal and 20 days for the metal to
solidify and cool. The ‘Big Ben’ rang across London
for the first time on May 31, 1859. The British Parliament summoned
a special meeting to decide on a suitable name for the monument
at which Sir Benjamin Hall (MP), a large and ponderous man known
affectionately by colleagues in the House as ‘Big Ben’,
delivered a lengthy speech on the subject of the new tower clock.
At the end of his speech the House erupted in laughter and decided
“why not call the new clock Big Ben”.
Getting back to our country, the ‘Big Ben’
in Sri Lanka which is two years older than its counterpart in London,
also has a fascinating story. The ‘Big Ben’ in London
celebrated its centenary on May 31, 1959 and the Chatham Street
clock tower celebrated its century on February 25, 1957.
The need for a clock tower to the city of Colombo
was felt as far back as the early days of the British administration.
Governor Robert Brownrigg (1812-20) in 1814 suggested that a clock
tower be built in Colombo. A clock was imported from England. Nevertheless,
it was not a time to concentrate on such minor affairs as they were
on a war footing with Kandy, later suppressing the rebellion of
1818, etc. Therefore, the clock was left in abeyance at the commissariat
or the government stores and the matter faded from everybody’s
memory. It was left unnoticed by a number of successive governors.
Some 42 years later, Governor William Anderson (1850-55) took the
matter up but at the tail-end of his tenure and it was too late.
Governor Henry Ward continued to carry the momentum
and as P. M. Bingham records in his famous work on the History of
the Public Works Department, the Chatham Street clock tower was
designed by Lady Ward in association with the Governor Henry Ward.
The arduous task of construction was entrusted to J. F. Churchill
of the Public Works Department. ‘The clock originally cost
1,200 sterling and was abandoned in the stores to avoid the expenses
of ‘putting it up’. Governor Ward stated that ‘It
is highly creditable to those who had charge of it that the works
have not been injured during the long period though they have incurred
cost of 280 sterling for cleaning and oiling’.
As the tablet inside the tower-arch confirms,
construction was completed on February 25, 1857. It was handed over
to the citizens of Colombo the following month. The clock which
had been imported in 1814 ultimately got a permanent house in 1857
at a height of 96 feet. After another 50 years, in 1907, the clock
gave trouble and was beyond repair. It was replaced with the present
machine that ticks the seconds and announces the time quarterly
and hourly with a mechanism of three bells. The present clock has
a six-foot dial glazed with opal glass for illumination.
Until recent times the clock was fitted with a
mechanism for synchronisation with the master clock at the Meteorological
Station in Colombo and was checked daily for accuracy. But a recent
inquiry made from the Meteorological Department resulted in a negative
reply to say that the system has been abandoned. The process of
keeping the clock dead accurate according to the Greenwich Mean
Time has ceased to exist. The clock tower served a dual purpose,
not only keeping time for citizens but was also as a light house
indicating direction to seafarers in the Indian Ocean.
This function of the light house commenced ten
years after the construction of the tower, in 1867, with oil lamps.
This was further improved with dioptic flash lights installed in
1885. In 1897, oil lamps were replaced with gas lamps. The brightest
beam from the light house flashed across the Indian Ocean to an
approximate distance of 16 miles. The fascinating pattern of tiled
glasses magnified the stream of lights across the sea. The dioptic
flash light was replaced in 1932 with a 1500 candle power electric
bulb. After nearly a century, the light house shifted to the new
tower and doused its flashes giving way to brighter flashes from
Galle Buck Tower.
The clock tower, eased from the burden of housing
the light house, however kept on ticking.