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Marking the Hours – The Halifax Town Clock

For the week of Monday October 17, 2005

On October 20, 1803, the chimes of a new Town Clock greeted the citizens of Halifax, N.S. In 1799, HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent commissioned a clock for the Halifax Garrison and collaborated with native Haligonian, Captain William Fenwick, to design a distinctive clock tower as part of his plan to “render the town more civilized.” The site, on the green slope of the Citadel glacis, was chosen to allow both the garrison and the townspeople to see the clock.

The Halifax Town Clock
© Parks Canada / 2003
Initially associated with Halifax’s military role, today the Town Clock is an internationally recognized symbol of Halifax. The three-tiered, octagonal clock tower design is rare for a town clock and the entire structure is an excellent example of reconstructed early 19th century Palladian architecture. London’s noted Royal House of Vulliamy supplied the one-tonne clock mechanism that continues to keep time. These clockworks are entirely contained within a cast-iron frame located in a room immediately below the belfry. The clock must be wound weekly to keep its 4-metre pendulum in motion and its durability can be attributed to the slow movement.

The Halifax Town Clock has been witness to both tragic and joyful events. Its pendulum marked time’s passage from the War of 1812 through to the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, and then stood tall as the new nation grew with the arrival of immigrants, refugees, freedmen and settlers. Its chimes were likely drowned out by crowds cheering on Canadian soldiers embarking for wars in the Crimea, South Africa and Europe. It continued its beat while city churches pealed a death knell for victims of the 1912 Titanic tragedy and later for the victims of the terrible Halifax Explosion of 1917. It witnessed the birth of the infant Canadian Navy (1910), the arrival of occupied Europe’s remaining merchant fleets (1940) and the departure of numerous Atlantic convoys seeking to supply a beleaguered Great Britain during the Second World War.

Young immigrants awaiting clearance at Pier 21, Halifax
© Library and Archives Canada
For 202 years, the Town Clock underwent alternating periods of neglect and attention. A major reconstruction of the structure (1960-62) and a complete exterior restoration in the early 1990s ensured that future generations will be able to enjoy this Canadian landmark for many years to come.

The Halifax Town Clock, a recognized symbol of Halifax with a regional, national and international standing, forms an integral part of the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, which was designated in 1935.

For more information on the Halifax Explosion, please visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic web site.

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