Conserving Australia’s oldest public clock

On its 200th anniversary, Australia’s oldest surviving public clock received some much-needed conservation and care. 

Built on the instructions of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the Hyde Park Barracks was designed by convict architect Francis Greenway and constructed with convict labour between 1817 and 1819. The new compound was strategically sited in Queens Square at the top of Macquarie Street, where it holds a commanding position opposite Greenway’s St James’ Church (completed in 1824). 

At the centre of the Hyde Park Barracks’ tympanum (the triangular pediment on the front of the main building) is Australia’s oldest surviving public clock. It’s set in a finely carved stone cartouche, or ornate panel, surmounted by a crown and inscribed along its base: ‘L. MACQUARIE ESQ GOVERNOR 1817’. The clock was originally assembled in 1819 by James Oatley, a convict clockmaker. It was only the second public clock in colonial Sydney; the first had been installed in a tower on Church Hill in 1798. 

Keeping time in the colony 

The Hyde Park Barracks clock played a crucial role in the daily life of colonial Sydney and the supervision and control of convicts, managing their workday and symbolising the rigid new regime imposed by the compound.

However, the inconsistent timekeeping of the town’s two public clocks was a constant source of ridicule and frustration. The Sydney Gazette reported in 1830: ‘The disagreement of the two public clocks in Sydney has been frequently complained of in this journal, but the evil has never been properly remedied, ten, fifteen, and twenty minutes being still the frequent extent of their variation’.1 

Around seven years later, the Hyde Park Barracks clock mechanism was replaced. The new mechanism, a twotrain turret clock, was made by the clockmaker to King George IV, Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy, who had succeeded his father, Benjamin Vulliamy, as head of the Vulliamy firm. The new clock mechanism was installed by the Keeper of Government Clocks, Charles Phillips, lifting the standards of public clock timekeeping in colonial Sydney. 

We don’t know exactly when the Vulliamy clock mechanism was installed, but it’s likely to have been in the late 1830s, along with the bell that’s there now, which is stamped: Thomas Mears, London, 1837. The Sydney Gazette reported on 25 July 1837: ‘The face of the clock at Hyde Park Barracks has been taken down and well washed, so that it exhibits its former youth and beauty. The figures have been regilded so as to enable those who run to read’.2 

The plain stone bellcote, or gable, built above the tympanum to hold the bell is visible in a late 1860s photograph (main image on this page).  It was replaced in 1869 with the current timber bellcote.

  • 1. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 9 December 1830, p2. 
  • 2. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 25 July 1837, p2. 
Sepia-toned photo of building enclosure, with horse and cart out the front.
Photograph of the Hyde Park Barracks showing a single bell set within a stone bell gable, before its replacement with the current timber bellcote, Edward Turner, engraver, c1865–70. State Library of New South Wales

Conservation and cleaning 

The materials and workmanship of the Vulliamy clock mechanism are of excellent quality, but by early 2019 – 35 years after the clock’s last major restoration, by horologist Dennis Eccles in 1984 – the components showed considerable wear. A grant of $120,000 from the Commonwealth Government’s Australian Heritage Grants Program 2019–20 and additional Sydney Living Museums funds allowed us to undertake essential conservation works in late 2019. 

Master clockmaker Andrew Markerink completely disassembled the clock mechanism and thoroughly cleaned it of grit and dust. The two yellow brass pinions showed signs of excessive wear; rather than replacing them with new components, Andrew was able to re-use them by rotating the pinion alignment 180 degrees to adjust the contact area with the great wheels. This will ensure at least a further 200 years of use before the pinions will need resurfacing or replacement. 

Strike train 

The distinctive sound of the Hyde Park Barracks clock striking the hour is achieved by means of a ‘strike train’. A thin wire extends from the clock case and up through the ceiling to the bellcote, where it operates the bell hammer that strikes the bell. Two steel cables run from the clock case, pass over the take-off drums, through the clock-room floor and down through three levels of the building. Attached to the cables are large cylindrical weights, each weighing 20 kilograms. Every week the clock is still wound by hand, bringing the weights to the top floor and providing the driving power for the clock and for the striking. During the conservation works, the bell hammer was conserved and returned to its correct position to strike the bell with a clear chime. 

Clock dial 

The clock’s convex copper dial, or face, was installed with the original mechanism in 1819. Typical of the ‘make do’ early days of the colony, it appears to have been made from recycled material, possibly sheathing from a ship’s hull. It wouldn’t have been Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy’s material of choice; in 1828, he wrote: ‘[copper dials] are objectionable on the score of expense as well as appearance … the description of face I recommend is of stone, forming part of the building’.3 However, the significance of the copper dial cannot be overstated: it provides physical evidence of the ingenuity of the original colonial clockmaker, who formed the convex dial by joining together nine sheets of copper. During the conservation works, the dial was refinished and gilt numerals reapplied. 

Stone cartouche 

With a scaffold erected for the removal of the dial and bell hammer, it was an opportune time to undertake conservation of the sandstone and masonry elements around the dial. The stonework conservation included three primary stages: cleaning; lime mortar injections and fillet repairs; and handpainting the inscription to Governor Macquarie. 

The stonework was cleaned by hand to remove bird droppings and pollutants. To assess whether the crown should be regilded, we analysed paint flakes with the assistance of the Art Gallery of NSW to determine whether it had been painted in the early period of the Hyde Park Barracks. 

The paint analysis confirmed that the crown had been painted several times. We were intrigued by the soot below the first layer of paint, which suggested that the crown had remained unpainted for several years after the building was completed in 1819. Based on this analysis, we decided not to regild the crown. Perhaps, with the passage of time and the continuing flaking of the paint, the stone crown will one day appear in its original unpainted state – matching the crown on St James’ Church, directly across Queens Square. 
As well as protecting, repairing and conserving the clock face, mechanism and finely crafted stone cartouche, the project has allowed us to create a detailed archival recording of this highly significant clock for future generations, including measured drawings and photography. These join the superb documentation by Dennis Eccles of his restoration in 1984, and the extensive research and study of other Vulliamy clocks carried out at that time which contribute to our current knowledge of the Hyde Park Barracks clock. 

  • 3. B L Vulliamy, Some considerations on the subject of public clocks, particularly church clocks with hints for their improvement …, 1828, p7. 

Footnotes

  • Man with high-vis gear and white safety helmet holding clock face, exposing mechanism behind.

    Copper dial being removed for regilding.

    Photo © Evolving Picture/Chris Bennett for Sydney Living Museums

  • Set of grooved brass pieces.

    A realigned brass pinion with its undamaged portion now in contact with the great wheel beneath.

    Photo courtesy Andrew Markerink/Master Clockmakers

  • Coarse black hammer sitting on matte silver bell.

    The bell and bell hammer.

    Photo Mel Flyte © Sydney Living Museums

Authors

Michael Ellis, Head of Heritage, and Mark Brandon, Heritage Project Manager

The project team

SLM Heritage Team 
Andrew Markerink, Master Clockmakers 
Sach Killam and Matthew Johnson, Rookwood General Cemetery, stone conservation 
Peter Scotton, The Archivist, archival drawings 
Michael Bielby, timber conservation 
Grace Barrand, Art Gallery of NSW, paint analysis 
Chris Bennett, Evolving Picture, archival photography 

This project received funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Australian Heritage Grants Program 2019–20. 

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