News | 19 March 2024
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The timeless tale of the Courtenay Place clock

While London has the Big Ben, Wellington has the Courtenay Place Clock. It may not be 96-metres tall, but at a modest 4-metres it has it's own unique history.

The courtenay place clock in the old Te Aro Park.
Looking east down Courtenay Place from the tip of what was formerly known as Pigeon Park (renamed Te Aro Park c. 1992)., circa 1928. Wellington City Libraries, 50010-148.

Situated on the corner of the Courtenay Place and Dixon Street junction, stands a seemingly normal clock.

While many people might see it as part of the landscape of the area, this special clock was previously known as the Tramways Clock and has been around since 1927, and served a special role in the tram service that used to run through the city.

Between 1878 and 1964, Wellington’s public transport was dominated by trams. The very first trams had one main route from the Railway Station to the southern end of Adelaide Road in Newtown, along with a short line to Queens Wharf through Lambton Quay. These initial trams were run by steam and were noisy and smelly – often frightening the horses that pulled cabs and carriages on the same roads. 

This eventually turned the Council to invest in electric trams, with steel tracks and overhead wire systems. From 1911, trams ran across the city, reaching suburbs as far as Seatoun and Karori Cemetery. 

Old trams and tram lines on Courtenay Place.
People boarding trams on Courtenay Place with the Embassy Theatre in background, circa 1936. Wellington City Council Archives, 00146-290

To keep track of the timing of the trams, Bundy time-recorders were set up all along the tramlines – these were smaller clocks found inside tram depots that recorded when a tram was on the move. Conductors would leave the car, open the box under the dial and then insert a key which would make a bell ring. It would then mark the number of the tram and send it off to the head office as proof of the schedule running on time.

The large Tramways Clock was a joint gift from the Municipal Electricity Department and the Tramways Department, and was connected to these Bundy time-recorders, and used by conductors to keep their trams on time when they were on route.

Initially, this clock was found on the corner of Manners Street and Dixon Street in what we know now as Te Aro Park and was visible to people on Cuba Street or down the far end of Courtenay Place.

It was painted green and had two large opal plate-glass faces and illuminated at night so Wellingtonians coming out of the nearby theatres would be able to see the time. 

The clock itself was also run by electricity and the electric clock motors were controlled by a master clock at Mangahao Hydro-Electric Power Station. This station opened in 1924 and was the latest and greatest thing in the city as the mechanism was advanced for the time.

Courtenay Place clock close up.
Wellington's version of Big Ben.

A publication from around the time says that while this clock was fashionable, it posed a larger risk to the city as “there is nothing to prevent extension of the system, and the erection of duplicate clocks at all-prominent street intersections and in homes and offices, thus doing away with not only the central ‘town’ clock but with all the innumerable time pieces telling a different tale which are scattered about mantel pieces, distributed in waistcoats or worn decoratively on wrists".

Trams continued on in the city until 1964, when the last surviving tramcar route closed, removing the function of the time-recorders and turning the Tramway Clock into a regular clock.

When Te Aro Park (formerly known as Pidgeon Park) was being redeveloped, the clock was eventually moved to across the road to sit on Courtenay Place and was then restored by Brian Thatcher.

Over the lifetime of the clock, it has been severely damaged, and the clock motors have needed to be changed. In March 2024, Wellington City Council will restore the clock again to keep its storied (and forgotten) history over the course of six to eight weeks.