Topic: History of the Gisborne Town Clock by Winston Moreton

Topic type:

A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Erected to the Memory of

R.D.B. ROBINSON

Town Clerk of Gisborne

1891-1933

 

Town Clock under construction Summer 1932-33

If you have visited Gisborne, Turanganui a Kiwa, since 1934 you will be aware of the town clock tower in Gladstone Road. Art deco, terracotta pink and white top to toe, a fluted four-sided obelisk rising to an official height of 56 feet and three inches on an overlarge traffic island about sixteen paces from Grey Street.

On 19th December 1934, the day before the Duke of Gloucester (Prince Henry and third in line to the throne) was due in town, Mayor John Jackson dedicated the tower to the memory of Reginald Deason Blandford Robinson, Borough Clerk deceased and unveiled a no-frills engraved black granite tablet.

Robinson had a long career as Borough Clerk from 1891 to 1933. Forty-two years is a New Zealand record. He also holds the record, at age nineteen, for the youngest Municipal CEO ever appointed. His predecessor and employer of three years, Town Clerk John Bourke, had disappeared without notice. He told Mrs Bourke at 6.30am that he was ‘going for a bathe and would not be long;’ she never saw him again. Presumed drowned.

The memorial tablet is at eye level, about 30 feet below the white-faced analogue clock dial looking East, back along Gladstone Road into the heart of town. Five-feet in diameter, the dials each face a cardinal point of the compass. The position of the hands is easily noted from a distance of two blocks.

The pleasing low maintenance landscaping around the tower of boulders, shrubs and grasses, some of which reach above car window height, impose a calming effect on traffic.

The tower topping comprises four pairs of man-sized white Doric columns; following precise contract specifications: ‘The plasterer to form the fluting on the columns and form cap base moulds and Greek fret on the entablature.’ They still look good eighty years on and support a relatively small octagonal cupola, fitting like a pixie hat over the compact five-bell-chamber. From the cupola a thin gray-black radio aerial, five years old, points skyward; adding an unofficial five or six feet and reinforcing the pixie hat image.

My wife saw St Elmo’s fire dancing on that antenna during a violent electrical storm last September from the door of the Salvation Army Op Shop.

In 1933 there was dispute among the town’s folk about the tower site.  Some wanted it located further west; by Derby Street. An important feature of traditional town clocks is an ability to announce time aurally, an aid for those to whom analogue dials are as sun dials are to me.

The famous four-bell Westminster chimes celebrate every quarter hour and the fifth bell solemnly tolls the hour on the hour: Dong. Pause. Dong. Pause. Dong - and it’s three o’clock. Loud and, from close range, deafening.

Gisborne guesthouses had, through the first thirty years of those same bells, situated then in the Post Office clock tower at the bridge end of Gladstone Road, petitioned for silence at least between 10pm and 6am. Complaints made in 1927 alleged they were ringing several minutes slow and disturbing the rest of travellers in the Albion Hotel. The complainants’ wish, dangerous as it turned out, was duly granted.

 

An Auckland motorist, who was in the Albion Hotel (1.30am, 16 September 1932) when the earthquake came, said he was rudely awakened to see the jug and basin on the washing-stand fly into the air and crash to the floor. All the lights went out and everyone stampeded for the street. It was difficult to get out with the floor heaving beneath their feet. Bells in the post office tower chimed and 140 plate-glass windows in shops were smashed to atoms.

 

So reported the Daily News in Perth, Australia, headlining the event as a ‘Night Of Terror, Dodging Death In Gisborne.’ The bells were to be silent for eighteen months.

Immediately after the earthquake the Gisborne Borough Council, headed up by Chief Executive Officer Robinson and its Mayor, the brand-new Labour MP, David W. Coleman, began a negotiation with the Government for the repair of the post office tower and clock. The Government refused. Not until ‘there were better times,’ said the Hon Postmaster-General Adam Hamilton in the House. But, it did agree to cede ownership of the clock mechanism and bells to the Borough provided the government ‘was relieved of any cost.’

The Borough Council got on with it. In January 1933 newspaper advertisements placed by Robinson called for public subscriptions to a community fund for a new clock tower. The Council record shows the response was immediate. Despite the slump from which the world was emerging, it took less than twelve months for the community to raise sufficient to call for tenders.

Borough Engineer Eric Ray Thomas drew the plans in-house. I recently held them; weighty 80-year old blueprints, preserved in the Gisborne District Council archives.

Herbert T Reynolds won the tender for the work at £448.10s.0d against several competitors. Construction began in November 1933. By this time Robinson was dead: cancer. His successor William Montrose Jenkins  witnessed the Mayor affix the Council Seal to the contract as a deed and dated it for stamp duty purposes as 31st October 1933.

Reg (if that is what his contemporaries called him) had died at home, 309 Childers Road; ten minutes’ walk from the 20-year old Edwardian double storied Council Building opposite the Poverty Bay Club, which still stands. He was 62. The date was 3rd July 1933. He deserves his own written memorial.

The Derby Street site for the tower was approved with the east enders presumably placated. But, as sometimes happens with political policy decisions, those charged with implementation do something else. The contractor and engineer decided Derby Street was impracticable and laid the foundations at Grey Street.

To the widow Effie Robinson Mayor Jackson expressed condolences. Town Clerk Jenkins, Reg’s protégé for more than a decade, might have felt uncomfortable. He knew that Effie would miss the privilege of an introduction to the Duke. If only the unveiling was a day later as intended.

The Mayor then paid a fulsome tribute. His speech is in the Poverty Bay Herald for Wednesday 19th December 1934, a day before the date recorded for posterity in the Council Minutes for the unveiling and the same date as a letter on the building file was addressed to Widow Robinson at 309 Childers Road inviting her to attend on the 20th.

I phoned a distant relative in Brisbane whose father, Alexander Scott, did the plaster work. She recalls, as a 4- or 5-year old, being told to wave to him high above on the spindly scaffolding as she walked past on a summer’s day with an aunt in late 1933 or early 1934. She also remembers, now almost a year older, seeing the Duke on 20th December; but she does not remember the memorial ceremony.

A tiny amendment in the clock tower building file indices (not the Minute Book) causes me to believe the Mayor wanted to get the unveiling out of the way; to be free when the Duke arrived. A Royal Visit was a momentous occasion for the colony; not just Gisborne. His elder brothers, Princes Edward and George, were both later crowned.

In contrast to the parsimony surrounding the clock tower and memorial, the Council voted the Mayor £50 to cover ‘incidentals’ on the day. The typewritten date for the unveiling, the 20th, has been altered by an anonymous hand to read 19. Jenkins managed that file so it is reasonable to conclude he made the change and that he made it possible for the Poverty Bay Herald to have an embargoed copy of the Mayor’s proposed speech to allow it to be printed the same afternoon.

Gisborne Town Clerk According to that newspaper, a large gathering in town for the Royal Visit assembled for the unveiling of the clock tower. The newspaper carries the Mayor’s eulogy in full: ‘I shall never forget that when sickness had overtaken him, and he had to lay aside his duties for ever, he came and handed me a letter he had received from his doctor. I had been in office only a few weeks at that time, and I was shocked to find that the letter contained what was virtually Mr Robinson’s death warrant. His remark to me was, That is hard luck, Your Worship. Here you are having just taken office, and at a time when you need advice and experience, I am unable to help you. It was a trying moment for me. I realised in a flash what a heart of gold Mr Robinson possessed. He was utterly unselfish; he thought not of himself but of the new Mayor who needed assistance he would not now be able to give. Devotion to duty was his ideal in life. I thanked him, from the bottom of my heart, and tried to give him hope that a rest from work might help him recover his health, but it was not long before he was laid to rest. Somewhat brusque in manner at times, the late Mr Robinson had besides a most generous nature, a jovial temperament, a hearty laugh, and a spirit of co-operation of which his staff had many examples. He never spared himself in the slightest degree. It is to the memory of one so highly endowed and so highly esteemed that the citizens of Gisborne have raised the fine memorial which we now officially dedicate.’

And, dear reader if you have come this far and are wondering what is inside the tower, here is a link to the 1994 prize winning film documentary made by the late George Shannon of the Gisborne Film Society and George Burn, retired radio announcer, which offers a 10 minute tour and is worth more than 10,000 of anybody’s words. While all the original gear is still in there intact, as at December 2013, the clock timing is electronic rather than mechanical. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtAHHHcd1Rg (see below).

My thanks to:

  • Cousin Jenny: Archivist South Australian State Library Adelaide.
  • Aunt Jane in Brisbane.
  • The archivists at the Gisborne District Council.
  • The archivists at the HB Williams Memorial Library, Gisborne.
  • The Editor of The Gisborne Herald.
  • The curators at the Tairawhiti Museum for photo of scaffolding.
  • The Cyclopedia of New Zealand NZETC, Gisborne for photo of RDB Robinson.
  • Papers Past for news clipping extracts.
  • George Burn and Gisborne Film Society for unearthing George Shannon’s lost documentary.

 

This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/E864-MZ83

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History of the Gisborne Town Clock by Winston Moreton


Year:c.1930
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
History of the Gisborne Town Clock by Winston Moreton by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License