Iona and the Town Clock


Industrial Technology – internal mechanism of Iona’s clock.

Watching a recent documentary about the restoration of the Elizabeth Tower (aka Big Ben), it became clear just how much of a treasure Iona’s clock is. While the scale of Iona’s clock doesn’t compare in either size or infamy, it is the product of the same clever and ingenious thinking characteristic of Victorian engineering and innovation. Turret clocks like the Palace of Westminster and Iona, were common in churches, municipal buildings, train stations and monasteries. You need only look around Dunedin to see how English Victorian architecture was incorporated into the design of churches and public buildings like Iona.


Like Pugin’s tower, Iona’s clock mechanism is set into its own neo-Gothic tower. Turret clocks shows the time on large external dials for the public to see. Hours, and quarter hours, are announced with the characteristic bell or chime that rings out across the town or city. Iona’s bells can be heard within a mile radius of its site. 

In the early days of the Port, the clock kept time for the small community when hand watches (or today’s cellphones) were not everyday objects. People could trust the clock to get to work, head home and generally go about the day safe in the knowledge that time was accurately kept for them. 

Iona’s 8-day turret clock was installed in 1885 by Littlejohn and Co of Wellington. Way before batteries were commonplace, clocks had to be wound. An 8-day mechanism meant that the clock needed to be wound once a week by hand. This required the clock custodian to climb three ladders in the tower to maintain accurate time. A sole sum of £300 was paid for Iona’s clock by the Borough Council, and was guaranteed for five years, to be kept fully wound for 12 months. The clock has well exceeded this guarantee. 

Since the amalgamation of the Port Chalmers Borough into the Dunedin City Council in 1989 the clock is now owned by the DCC. They now maintain the clock and initiated the recent restoration project.

Although the time is pretty accurate, strong winds can and have been known to stop the hands making timekeeping a little harder in the face of a good old southerly.


The trains if gears required to run Iona’s clock are contained within an iron frame. This drives the hands to tell the time on all four faces of the clock. A striking train within the mechanism strikes the bell every hour and quarter hours.

Access to the clock is mostly limited to the clock winder who climbs  three sets of ladders that are not for the faint hearted. 


Both the age, and the wear and tear of the clock faces, required a delicate approach to a difficult job. Restoration began in 2014 with a steel engineering company and specialist glazier working in collaboration to take care of the degraded clock faces. During the restoration each of the cast iron faces were removed for the first major repair in over 100 years. The stained glass of each face was also replaced with special illuminating glass sourced from France. LED lighting was also installed within the clock room, bringing the clock up-to-date and bright enough to stand out upon the hill.

The restoration was carried out so that any progress in 3D techniques could be applied in the future if and when they became possible.

For generations the hands of all four clock faces and the bells have rung out to remind people of the time of day. Now, after these recent restoration efforts, this gracious lady will keep ticking away for generations to come, just as Big Ben too undergoes its face lift.


During the war clock custodian Walter Davidson ensured Iona’s time was always in sync with Big Ben. In those days the recorded chimes of Big Ben on BBC Radio rang out across the Empire at 9.00pm on the dot. The “silent minute” was introduced and people were encouraged to dedicate silent contemplation and prayer for  those on the battlefield. Ironically this silence was carried out during the 60 seconds Big Ben chimed before latest news bulletin.

Walter took great pride in the accuracy of the clock as a mark of respect for our soldiers fighting for king and country. The clock chimed at exactly the same time as Big Ben

Iona’s clock continues to keep time for the seaside community and port. Thousands of cruise ship passengers and crew are reminded of the time during summer visits. The clock’s foundations in Victorian engineering and innovation have stood the test of time. It has linked Port Chalmers back to the place from where early settlers began to think of a new life, and offered space for contemplation in the darkest of times. Its custodians have treated it well and with careful restoration the clock will continue for further generations.


McKay, Chris. Big Ben: the Great Clock and the Bells at the Palace of Westminster. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2010. DOI 20 Jan 2019 DOI 18 January 2019 DOI 18 January 2019 Church Records

The Old Iona Clock

When most of people are asleep, 

The old town clock it’s vigils keep,

Telling the time both day and night,

So we get to work on time alright.

It ticks away all on its own,

Telling the time already gone,

Of months and years, it takes no note,

In its whole life this is its lot.

Of course it needs a little care,

For that a keep is stationed there,

To regulate and sometimes wind,

And other jobs he may there find.

Now, many lives have come and gone,

Since this old clock was built upon,

Its seat up in the old church tower

To tell the time and strike the hour.


Walter Davidson

Clock Custodian (1937-1950)

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