Arms of the Cathedral of St Michael and St George Anglican Compass Rose

Cathedral of St Michael and St George

Grahamstown Cathedral Tower and Clock An Outline History

Mr M. Berning 12 May 1986

Grahamstown Cathedral began life as St George's Parish Church - a basically Georgian building which is probably familiar to members of this Society. It was begun in 1824 and when finished some six years later had a west tower rising to a height of about 120 feet (36,5 m) and projecting about 10 ft (3 m) above the roof of the nave.

If you stopped a local citizen in 1830 and asked him what this tower was for, he might have said: (1) churches, certainly Anglican ones, had towers and he would have been right - the tower did lend an ecclesiastical air to a fairly plain but large building; or (2) that the tower was to house the bell(s), and again he was right as the first bell might well have been erected as early as 1830 and in time there came to be two bells.

The early inhabitant might also have said that the tower was "where they hope to put the public clock." Certainly by 1845 the Cathedral Vestry (parish council) was proposing to raise the tower 20 or 30 feet (6 - 9 m) to take a clock but the idea that the tower could be used for this purpose might well be much older.

Why the St George's tower as a home for a public clock? Partly it was a question of practical convenience. The St George's tower was in a good central position and was quite large. It could be adapted for a clock rather than having a special tower built.

To some extent church clocks solved an ecclesiastical problem - "get me to the church on time" - but they, performed a much wider function. Proof of this can be found locally in that in 1845 the vestry hoped that the Governor might contribute £500 towards the cost of the clock and by the approach made in 1853 by the Town Clerk to the Vestry about the possibility of a public clock in the tower. What was needed was an agreed time check against which citizens could regulate their private watches or clocks. It was a problem as old as cities and towns and many solutions had been tried - drum rolls, trumpet calls and ringing bells. A public clock which could be seen by all during the day and heard striking at night and which gave the official local time could only improve the situation.

However powerful the ecclesiastical and secular arguments for a public clock in the St George's tower were, nothing actually happened. Despite several attempts in the 1840's and 1850's no success was achieved. Neither town authorities nor Vestry nor even both together seemed able to find the funds and the Town Clerk's suggestion in 1853 that funds should be raised by public subscription was not successful.

Local time-keeping had become a little less chaotic when the firing of a signal gun from Fort Selwyn was instituted (perhaps by Gov. Napier in 1838). This sounded like Ha clap of thunder" and the flash could be seen in the town and the inhabitants were then supposed to "regulate, wind-up or set going" their watches and clocks.

St George's becomes a Cathedral

Meanwhile another quite different lot of plans was being prepared which could change the history of the tower from another direction. In 1853 St George's became a Cathedral. It didn't look much like what people thought a Cathedral should look like - "miserable in point of architecture" said Bishop Gray, "plain and uninteresting in the extreme" said Bishop Armstrong, "that old barn in High Street" said Bishop Merriman.

It was inevitable that the "new" St George's should have been planned in a gothic style. While gothic spires did not exclude the possibility of a clock this would not have been a first consideration with these planners. They would mainly have hoped to see the old square tower converted into a spire.

The Prince Alfred or Alfred Tower

In 1860 Prince Alfred, young second son of the Queen, ~was visiting the Colony. It occurred to someone that he should be asked to lay the foundation stone of an Alfred or Prince Alfred Tower - and possibly that if he did so sufficient subscriptions might be generated to allow the tower to be built. This latter scheme was sunk when the Governor said that the Prince's name could not be associated with any foundation stone unless funds to complete the project were already available. But this hurdle was overcome by creating a fund into which money was transferred from other Church funds until the required sum was ensured. The Prince duly laid the stone.

Nothing further of the gothic tower, to designs by Joseph Flashman, with clock and ring of bells, actually emerged. The 1860's were not a good time to raise funds. The money lent to the tower fund had to be repaid amidst much embarrassment and the Vestry found that it had to pay for the useless stone which served only to trip people approaching the West door.

In 1862 the army left Grahamstown taking their gun with them and all that could be done was a return to a bell signal (this time the "great bell" of St Patrick's). In 1864 the troops returned and the gun flashed its signal again until 1870 when the army left finally and St Patrick's bell came into service again.

A public clock at last

By the early 1870's a successful Clock Fund under a committee was at last established - the loss of the signal gun and a better economic climate probably helped. A clock was ordered from Thwaites and Reed of London together with a 14-hundredweight bell for the hours - the halves and quarters to strike on the existing bells. The existing tower was raised and adapted for the new clock. This was shipped from London to Port Alfred and then conveyed on waggons to Grahamstown, where it was erected between August and November of 1873.

The new clock tower and four-dialled-clock were matters of some local pride. An agreement of August 1872 recognised three parties in this achievement -

  1. the vestry which sanctioned the adaptation of the tower and would house the clock,
  2. the "citizens" who had subscribed to and erected the clock and
  3. trustees who would maintain and regulate it and had right of access.
It was agreed that these "trustees" would be the City Council, but until all the required funds had been raised the clock was not handed to their care, though the Council did take on regulation and maintenance.

So at last the city had its time standard regulating the life about it to a new non-human rhythm. It was expected that people would find their new master so interesting that the works were glassed in to allow for inspection by visitors.

If civic pride was running high it was soon to come to a fall. In November 1874 the tower was reported as unsafe. The extra weight of the raised part, heavy rains through open bell-windows, the movement of the bells and the condition of the original fabric were all blamed. The vestry's expert advisers could not agree and after more rain the Dean (Williams) and Vestry approached the City Council. They sought advice from their own experts and on being assured that the tower was unsafe decided to treat it as any other unsafe building and order the Vestry to demolish it. This was, perhaps, unfair as the Vestry had only allowed the extension on being assured that it could be done and had been under much public pressure to take part in the scheme.

While demolition was going on a public meeting was held to decide what to do next. The long desired public clock was now useless and in storage in the Cathedral and the St Patrick's bellringer again in service.

Rival towers

At the meeting several rival towers emerged as possible homes for the clock. The Cathedral authorities had continued planning a new cathedral and had made the bold move of approaching Gilbert Scott for designs and these soon included a Scott tower in place of Flashman's. Dean Williams was for a tower which would inaugurate the new Scott cathedral and hold the clock. The Journal disapproved, referring merely to plans for a clock tower and a side building. Others wanted the clock housed in the 1820 Settlers Jubilee Memorial Tower then being planned. Bishop Merriman was not inter ested in any tower but an Alfred Tower to keep faith with the promise made in 1860 (to which he but not the Dean had been a party). The Journal was not alone in pressing for a clock tower without other ties.

Reuben Ayliff tried to solve some of these problems by suggesting that the Cathedral, Public Clock and Jubilee Towers could all be combined in Scott's tower. This brought fire from all quarters - Bishop Merriman would have no other name but "Alfred" though he was prepared to have Jubilate Deo inscribed on the fabric. Samuel Cawood supported the Scott plan but wanted a separate Jubilee tower. Councillor Barker wanted a tower separated from the Cathedral so as to leave no doubts about ownership. Others supported the Alfred idea as less denominational but were opposed by the Dean, who seems to have seen the Alfred tower as tied to Flashman's plans.

In the end the Alfred idea died, a victim perhaps of the Merriman-Williams dispute and the Jubilee tower went its own way and has been swallowed up by City Hall rather than Cathedral. Williams had his way and the Scott tower was built attached to the Cathedral - a triumph for the energy of the Dean and major supporters like Sam Cawood, a Methodist, and also probably for Scott's design.

Scott's tower

The new tower was built by public subscription - the Vestry handed over £1,000 early in 1875. Funds were collected in Grahamstown and beyond Cawood and Williams had a very successful trip to Port Elizabeth for example. The final result - claimed as the tallest building in South Africa until the 1920's - was not achieved without technical and organisational problems. A great crisis was precipitated when the Dean, somewhat surreptitiously, relaid the Prince Alfred foundation stone.

Despite all, the great project succeeded. Work began early in 1876 and was mainly completed by mid-1879 though the last workmen were not dismissed until early 1880.

One feature of the re-erection of the clock in its new home is worth noting. It was a complex process requiring the adaptation of the works to their new chamber and a striking arrangement on three (4, 6, 8) of the new ring of 8 bells. For this, and other, reasons it was delayed and by the time the hands were to be erected the external (wooden) scaffolding had been removed. To overcome this problem William Gilbert, the builder on the spot, arranged for an "ingenious cage" to be suspended from the windows above the clock and so installed the hands - so anticipating by some 17 years George Cory's justly celebrated use of a bosun's chair to regild the dials. By one of the quirks of history Gilbert's achievement seems to have been forgotten.

Once erected the clock became subject to an agreement between the City Council and the Vestry which stated basically:

  1. the clock was the property of the citizens and public of Grahamstown,
  2. the Council would act as trustee for regulation, custody, maintenance and repair of the clock,
  3. the clock would be lodged in the Cathedral Tower,
  4. the Council would have right of ingress and egress,
  5. the clock would not be removed from the tower by the trustees.

This tripartite agreement (citizens of Grahamstown - City Council - Cathedral authorities) still exists and despite the odd difficulty seems to have worked, though only the hardier citizens climb up to inspect the works now.

A new Cathedral

Scott's giant tower now "towered" over the old nave producing a slightly ludicrous effect. If Dean Williams had planned it, he could hardly have chosen a better way of ensuring that the replacement of the old building went ahead, but he was not himself to see any further stages complete.