The town clock in St. John’s


June 1, 1859

Basilica 1841On June 1, 1859 the talk in St. John’s was all about the installation of a ‘Town Clock’ and ‘Sundial’.   The “town clock” was being installed in the East Tower of the Basilica Cathedral and the “sundial” in the West Tower.   For the residents of St. John’s the installation was significant. The “town clock” was a symbol of self confidence, a symbol of permanence.

In 1859 a town clock was considered one of the principal characteristics of a town. Could you really have the status of a town without a town clock?

In St. John’s, a comparable installation in modern times would have been the installation of the first escalator in the Old Woolworth’s Building.  This new contraption signaled that St. John’s was taking on the trappings of a modern city!!

The “Town Clock” that was being installed was manufactured by Borrel of Paris, and boasted a dial in enameled lava. In the tradition of the town clocks of the day, it was not a clock to be “watched” but rather designed to be “listened” too.  Residents of the town would listen and on the hour and half-hour, as the new clock struck the great bell (the Bourdon) it would sound out.  There are reports that when the clock struck it could be heard for miles around even as far away as Torbay.   (The word “clock” comes from the same root as glocke, the German word for bell.)

In the “west tower” the sundial was being installed primarily for aesthetic balance. The sundial is the most ancient instrument for measuring time. Before the invention of mechanical clocks mounted on towers, “sun clocks” were the only instruments used to indicate the public time.

In 1954, the mechanical works of the clock were converted to an electrical system, and a new dial was installed.  The ‘sundial was removed.

In 2009 two new clocks were installed in the towers of the Basilica replacing the original clock and sundial.

Recommended Archival Collection: What do we have in the ‘Rooms Archives’ on this subject? Type  “Basilica”  in the search bar here:

Recommended Website: Take a virtual tour of the Basilica.