Going back in time

The Big Ben of Colombo - the Chatham Street clock tower

"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 security zone.

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.

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