Friday, March 4, 2011

Lyttleton's Timeball Station to be demolished

Image from Wikipedia.

They've decided to demolish the badly damaged Timeball Station at Lyttleton.
The earthquake-damaged Timeball station in Lyttelton is to be demolished. The decision was made after the station was hit by 70km/hr winds and a series of strong aftershocks, after being damaged in last Tuesday's 6.3 magnitude quake. The station had already been damaged by last September's 7.1 earthquake. The station was built in 1876 and was one of only five remaining timeball stations in working order in the world until Tuesday's quake. Its flags were used to communicate shipping advice to the town and its ball slowly dropped to signal the time to ships in the harbour.

[Update: NZ Historic Places Trust in their news today refer to this as "dismantling", with hopefully reuse of the materials in a way to reflect the heritage aspects of the site. My fingers are crossed.]

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) confirmed today that the Timeball Station in Lyttelton is to be dismantled. One of 48 properties nationwide cared for by the NZHPT, Timeball Station is a Category I historic place and internationally significant because of its maritime history.

“This is an extremely difficult site. It was chosen as a building site over 135 years ago for the Timeball Station because of its elevated position, allowing ships to see it clearly from the harbour. That’s now working against us.
“The steep site means there’s no way to drive on and the potential to position a crane, below or above it is very limited. We are constrained not only by issues of access, but also by the risk of injury to any personnel who will need to be involved with this work. We are not prepared to put anyone’s life at risk.

“That said, if we can find a way to dismantle the Timeball Station that allows us to retain as much of the building’s materials as possible, we will do so. This site remains significant and we would hope that in future we can do justice to this important building.”

 Dating from 1876, according to the NZHPT registration info (online as at today's date).

The Lyttelton Timeball Station (1876) is one of a handful of timeball stations that have survived throughout the world, and the only original one still standing in New Zealand. The first timeball was dropped at Portsmouth in 1829. The Lyttelton Timeball was the third in New Zealand, the others being Wellington (1864) and Dunedin (1868). Timeball stations became an important part of many ports during the nineteenth century. Timeballs were constructed to drop at a known Greenwich time, so a ship's master could check the chronometer. Various forms of visual time signals such as timeballs became an important feature of ports worldwide.

The Lyttleton timeball station was erected by the Canterbury Provincial Council on a site visible from the Lyttleton heads and harbour. In 1873 the machinery and an astronomical clock were ordered from Britain. German firm Siemens Brothers supplied the timeball and its 'necessary apparatus', while the clock was provided by London-based Edward Dent and Co., noted as clockmakers for Big Ben. The castle-like building was designed by Canterbury Provincial architect Thomas Cane (1830-1905) and completed in mid-1876. It was built in local scoria with surrounds and quoins of Oamaru stone. It initially consisted of the octagonal tower that housed the timeball, and an adjoining three-storey building, which contained three residential rooms and two working rooms, the clock room and the lookout room. From late December 1876 the timeball was dropped every day at 1p.m., except when there were high winds. After May 1877 Alexander Joyce (1840-1927) became the first timeball keeper to be appointed at Lyttelton.

The timeball mechanism is fifteen metres high. The timeball consists of a hollow sphere made from a wooden frame covered with thin sheets of painted zinc. It measures one and a half metres in width and weighs over 100 kilograms. An Oregon pine mast is threaded through a hole in the ball's centre. The ball is hoisted by handwheel to the top of the mast and rests there on a catch. When the catch is pulled away the ball is released and drops down the mast. At a predetermined time the timeball was released. Ships in the harbour took their readings at the instant the timeball left the top of the mast. 

In 1877, the year after it was completed, the local harbour board paid the "Timeball keeper and signalman, Lyttleton" £234 per annum. (Christchurch Star 17 February 1877) That's about $32,846 today. The timeball, machinery and buildings were bugeted at £750 in 1874, or nearly $100,000. (Star, 5 June 1874) This was built right at the end of the Provincial Council period, so it is another building associated with that long-gone body of administrators, like the Canterbury Provincial Council chambers, which has been lost in the great February quake.

Update 1 July 2011: NZHPT have started a Facebook page on the dismantling, here.


  1. Really sad to hear that. I found it quite fascinating when we saw it.

  2. The NZHPT site uses the word dismantled and also talks about future reconstruction:

    This sounds potentially more optimistic than demolition.

  3. That sounds much more positive, Tony, thanks! I'll add that as an update to the post.

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  5. Such a shame. I heard an interesting interview with on Jim Mora's program on National Radio about the Timeball Station during the week, Apparently before is was restored it was used as a home and they last person to live there was Bob Parker Mayor of Christchurch.

  6. That's interesting, Helen. Yes, a lot of history and stories attached to the building. I regret that when I was in Christchurch in '07, I wanted to see Lyttleton as well but ran out of time! A great shame, now.

  7. Yes totally tragic indeed. Lyttelton has lost so much of what people went there for.

    A closeup photo of the beautiful stone work of the Timeball Station that i took in 2008


  8. Gorgeous shot, Sandy. Thanks for putting that link here.

  9. Welcome Lisa.

    Lee Hanner and family also lived there from 1987 -1995. He was a well known DJ who worked at Radio Avon... the IT station of the day when i was growing up in the '70's.