Geraldton’s Town Clock

The earliest reference in the newspapers calling for a town clock in Geraldton occurred in 1878. The Geraldton Express noted several townspeople had suggested the clock, and that they were willing to “contribute liberally” towards it. If the town council brought it up at the next meeting, those people would be happy to initiate proceedings to rectify a long-standing need in the town.

At that point, there was no official town clock in Geraldton. People got the time by asking the telegraph operator for Perth’s time or from a “crazy old American clock” at the police station. The clock was described as worn out and often incorrect, sometimes ten or fifteen minutes wrong. If they didn’t use the clock, they could always listen out for when the policeman rang the town bell. It was their duty to ring it at midday, and at 10 pm, however, those times tended to be irregular.

Lunchtime, in particular, was dependent upon the policeman’s stomach. If he ate a large breakfast, then it was likely that the town bell would not ring until he ate his lunch much later than noon. If he had a light breakfast, he would ring the bell early. A similar situation occurred at night. The 10 pm bell was a curfew for convicts. Much like the noon bell, it varied in time. All the pubs had to close, and the convicts had to be back home at 10 pm. The policeman would poke his head into the pubs, warn patrons curfew was approaching, and then ring the bell at 10 pm. More often than not, the policeman’s time was early, and people had to head home anyway. There were many complaints about the inaccuracy, and a writer stated that “To set one’s watch by the town bell, therefore, is the height of absurdity…

One reporter in Perth was aware of Geraldton’s desire for a town clock. On 1 January 1879, they suggested that the clock in the Pensioners Barracks at the end of St Georges Terrace, be removed and given to Geraldton. Considering the town had made “rapid strides in so many directions,” they thought that the idea of gifting them a town clock was an excellent one.

The Pensioners Barracks in Perth with the clock visible in the middle (circa 1870s). Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (016698PD).

The suggestion had a precedent. Perth’s first town clock was placed on top of the public buildings in 1839. In 1870, the Perth Town Hall was built, which included a clock. Deeming it unnecessary for Perth to have two clocks, they gave the old one to Guildford. Knowing that fact, why couldn’t Geraldton have the clock in the Barracks? It was strongly recommended that the Geraldton town council write to the Government and ask for the clock.

The Victorian Express was more than willing to champion the cause. They stated:

With our increased public service, large shipping, railway, and commercial traffic, a clock is as great a necessity to the town as a newspaper, the one recording events, the other marking time.

Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA : 1878 – 1894); 8 January 1879; Page 3; Spectemur Agendo

Despite the suggestion, the Barracks clock remained where it was. Two years passed, and a Geraldton contributor to the ‘Country Letters’ section of The West Australian decided to broach the subject of the town clock. It had become a “long-felt and acknowledged want” and had reached a point where it was considered “absolutely necessary”.

The writer reassured readers that the people of Geraldton were not short of watches or clocks. The problem was that everyone was using a different means of obtaining the time. It meant that, despite each person feeling confident that their time was correct, it often wasn’t. Having incorrect time was hardest felt when catching the train. It was common to see people making their way to the station, only to arrive just as the train was leaving.

Newspaper reports continued in much the same way throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Differences between all major clocks in town and the inconveniences it caused was highlighted. Geraldton needed one universal time to prevent people from missing the closure of mail, the departure of trains, or appointments.

Used as a warning with regards to appointments, one story from 1882 involved a man (who was often late) who had plans to visit his beloved. He made an effort to be on time and was sure to keep track of the time. Unfortunately, the clock in his home was incorrect, and he was late. When he arrived, the woman was gone. She had lost patience and left. While she was out, she became engaged to another man. He was so upset that it was stated that no one should ask him, “What’s the time?” Of course, whether such a story is true remains to be seen.

The newspapers often asked the same question, when was Geraldton going to get a town clock? That question was finally answered in 1896. The Geraldton Chamber of Commerce held a meeting, and a motion was tabled requesting that the Government place a four-faced clock in the post office tower.

Contrary to what was ordered, a two-faced clock arrived in May 1896, and it was fixed to the post office building. With its arrival, it would be easy to assume that the clock worked, Geraldton people had the correct time, and that was the end of the story. Unfortunately, a year later, the time on the clock was varying from day to day, it tended to stop and then chime incessantly, and, eventually, it stopped working altogether. Once more sounded the rallying call for a new clock. Once more, Geraldton had to wait and put up with incorrect time. Finally (as one newspaper put it) “after two and a half years’ incessant wailing” the new clock arrived in February 1900. Going forward, they expected, there would be no more issues with the town clock. Luck was not on Geraldton’s side. Apart from the clock’s initial success, it seems that it too became a little unreliable.

Geraldton Post Office with the clock fixed to the wall circa 1910. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (006090PD).

This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast with Nat on 4 July 2020. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO

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