A Clock Tower Re-Born for the 21st Century

Saturday 14th February, 2015 saw the official unveiling of the newly refurbished Clock Tower resplendent in her new cloak of LED lighting which can be themed according to her mood.  There is also a tidal clock - the lights at the very top of the tower change colour according to the state of the tide!

The restoration project was funded by the National Lottery and Canterbury City Council at a cost of around £350,000.

Clock Tower Restoration National Lottery funded.

I am really very old. I am the grand old lady of Herne Bay. I am the clock tower.

The Old Royal Exchange London
The Old Royal Exchange in London which is thought to have inspired the design of Herne Bay Clock Tower.

Herne Bay Clock Tower - Recent

My foundation stone was laid on the 3rd day of October, 1836 and I was officially opened just a year later on the 2nd of October, 1837 with great festivities throughout the town and even in the nearby village of Herne. I think some of the town's menfolk may have over-indulged of the free-flowing ale provided by the Pier Hotel it has to be said!
In my 177 years I have seen great change in almost everything which surrounds me. To put my great age in to historical context, when I was officially opened, Queen Victoria had been on the throne for just four months. I didn't see the first motor car until I was nearly 58 years old and I would be 66 years old before man first conquered powered flight in an aeroplane and our prime minister was a chap rather grandly named The Right Honourable William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne.
I'm almost embarrassed to say that it cost £5,000 to build me in 1836 which is almost £600,000 in today's money. In fact, I wouldn't have been built at all had it not been for a very generous benefactor named Ann Thwaytes. Ann was a wealthy widow of a London grocer, William Thwaytes, and regularly visited Herne Bay with friends between 1834 and 1840 staying at what was Number 8 Marine Parade (now number 30). Ann kindly donated £4,000 to have me built to a design by the architect Edwin James Dangerfield. It is said that I resemble the architecture of the Royal Exchange in London and, as Ann Thwaytes lived close to that building, it perhaps did influence my looks somewhat.

Throughout my long life I've witnessed times of great joy and great sadness as I watch over Herne Bay. In 1880 I watched as our menfolk set sail for Africa and the Boer wars and then again in 1914 I witnessed boys as young as 15 sign-up and go to fight in foreign fields, many never to return to our shores.  In 1939 I looked on as our beloved beaches were strewn with barbedwire and concrete obstacles to deter would-be invaders, massive searchlights and anti-aircraft guns were erected and our men went away to fight a second world war.  I was in the centre of the action in 1940 during the battle of Britain when enemy bombers clouded the skies over Kent and our little fighters weaved in and out of the bomber fleets trying to stop them reaching their target but I've also seen joyous times like in 1945 on the 8th of May and what is now known as VE or Victory in Europe Day.  My goodness did our people party; singing and dancing well into the early hours of the next morning and, once more, the ale from the Pier hotel and local pubs flowed freely!

In 1953 we partied once more at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the second and we done so ever since at every possible opportunity!  Even today there are regular musical events and shows staged around my feet and I'm so proud to be a part of it all.

Herne Bay Clock Tower
This is possibly the first colour photograph of the clock tower. From evidence in the photograph we think it dates from around 1860.  The Diver's arms on the far left was built in 1847, the road is un-metalled and there are no motor vehicles.

People always ask me about my cannons atop my steps and pointing seaward.  Well they're not really my cannons as such, they're thought to be Dutch, dating from around 1667, and were discovered on the sea bed during the construction of the ill-fated third Herne Bay pier.  They were restored to firing condition and spent some years being used as a warning to ships when foggy.  They came to me in around 1902 and have sat on my steps ever since and there are some other questions you might like answers to such as how tall am I and how bis is my clock?  Well, there is some debate about my actual height but I like to think I'm around 85 feet (25.9 metres) tall, including my rather attractive weather vane.  Can you guess the diameter of my clock faces?  There are four of them and they're 5 feet (1.52 metres) across.  These days my faces are a nice white, opalescent colour but, as you will see from the photo', they were rather dark, possibly made of bronze. I also have a large bell in my tower which weighs-in at an impressive 610 kilogrammes (12 CWT).  It doesn't get used much these days and I'm not even certain my striking mechanism still works!

You can see my original clock mechanism and find out a lot more about me in the Herne Bay Museum in William Street although please do check for opening times if you're planning to make a special visit.

Restoration & tragedy

Over the years I've needed a little TLC to keep me in good shape and it's not surprising when you remember I've had 177 winters of lashing, salty sea spray, rain and wind to endure!  Living by the sea is fantastic but the weather does take its toll, especially as I'm made largely from Portland stone from Dorset which was, and still remains, a popular material for the façades of many public buildings across the world, including Buckingham Palace.  The trouble is that because it's a relatively easy stone for masons to work with that also means it's quite soft and prone to erosion.  In 1905 scaffolders, builders and stone masons were brought in to give me a bit of a face-lift.  My front two columns facing the sea were turned through 180 degrees to hide the damage, my clock faces were changed to white opal glass and gas lighting was installed behind three of my landward clock faces - the admiralty wouldn't allow the seaward installation of lighting as it feared it could mislead ships at sea.

Tragedy struck on the morning of Saturday 13th May, 1905 when two scaffolders were working on me.  They had stopped to take a tea break and while one of the men went home, the other - Edward Henry Griggs - sheltered inside the base of the Tower when two floors above, one of the hemp strike-weight ropes broke, and the 4 feet (120 cm) by 1 foot (30 cm) diameter iron strike weight, weighing about 5 cwt (250 Kg), crashed 25 feet (7.6 m) through two floors and crushed Griggs' thighs as he sat on the floor drinking his tea.  A doctor and the ambulance were called and Griggs was taken to the nearby Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital where he had both legs amputated but sadly, he died later that same day.  That was a very sad day in my history.

Modern restoration

Clock tower restoration
Shrouded in its temporary plastic coat, Herne Bay Clock tower glistens in the late afternoon winter sun.

In 2012 and with the ravages of time and tide once more taking their toll, a project was launched by Canterbury City Council to raise £348,000 for a major restoration and facelift.  With funding from both Canterbury City Council and the Heritage Lottery fund the restoration began in June, 2014 and as we speak, I am shrouded in a plastic coat which conceals the scaffolding and platforms being used by the builders and stonemasons to replace worn and damaged stonework.  Once finished I will stand magnificent once more and brought up to date with modern technology lighting and 5 web-cameras - one each looking North, South, East and West from the top of my tower and a fifth showing the workings of my clock mechanism. Visitors from all over the world will be able to see what I can see on the world wide web.

If you'd like to be involved with the current restoration or just be kept up to date with developments you can visit www.clocktowerfriends.org and further information on the restoration plans may be found on the Canterbury City Council website.