From Heritage New Zealand, Summer 2008
by Rachel Macdonald
Given its connection with matters temporal, it's fitting that Lyttelton's Timeball Station has survived the years in such good shape.
View from the top of the Timeball Station
It’s three minutes to one in the afternoon and, in a property next door to Lyttelton’s Timeball Station, a small terrier runs out into the garden, barking so hard her front feet leave the ground. This canine reminder happens practically every day, but it’s not ideal for the staff charged with dropping the timeball at 1pm.
“At three minutes to one, we just haven’t got time to grab the keys, get up the stairs and wind up the mechanism,” says the New Zealand Historic Places Trust-owned station’s property manager, Jan Titus. “If she could make her announcement at five minutes to one, we wouldn’t have to keep watching the clock after lunch!”
The dog’s name is Skippy, and she’s become such a fixture that her picture is now found on most of the Timeball Station’s marketing and information material. She is almost as much a part of the building and its timeball tradition today as the station itself has been part of Lyttelton’s skyline and New Zealand maritime history for the past 132 years. As many NZHPT-owned or managed properties as possible are open to the public, and the Timeball Station is one of them.
The station was built in 1876, the third such installation in New Zealand. The first was Wellington’s timeball in 1864, followed by one in Dunedin in 1868. They were designed and built as part of a huge Victorian-era network of time signals around the globe, the first of which came into commission in Portsmouth, England, in 1829. Today, the Lyttelton timeball is one of the few in the world surviving in working order, and the only one left standing in New Zealand.
The concept of a timeball and tower for Lyttelton was first proposed to the Canterbury Provincial Council in 1870 by local businessman and farmer J.T. Peacock. The council adopted the proposal, and, three years later, the timeball, its machinery and an astronomical clock were ordered from England. The original, castle-like building housing the timeball was designed by Canterbury’s provincial architect, Thomas Cane. Its Gothic arches and windows are consistent with the revival of that style popular in public buildings at the time. It was built from local scoria, with Oamaru stone facings. The original structure consisted of a three-storey building, containing three residential rooms, the clock room and the observation room, and an adjoining octagonal tower, with a spiral cantilevered stairway.
It looked good, but it leaked like a sieve, and created an ongoing maintenance nightmare for the council. So, when the Lyttelton Harbour Board took over the station’s management in 1877, it asked architect Frederick Strouts for advice on how to make the building watertight. He was also asked to design a new kitchen addition.
Strouts suggested sealing the outer walls to keep the water out, but silicate proved unsuccessful. He then recommended concreting the exterior, but objections were raised on the grounds that it would spoil the building’s aesthetics, and the stonework would suffer. Finally, he came up with the idea of roughcasting the building, except for the quoins and surrounds. After experimenting on the tower, stucco was applied to the rest of the building in 1880.
The station was further extended in 1912 to provide better accommodation for the signalman at the time, John Porteous, and his family. The result was a two-storey extension, built over the kitchen and front door, to create a bathroom, bedroom and entrance hall on the ground floor, and two more bedrooms upstairs. Unlike the rest of the structure, it was built in brick but hidden under stucco cladding.
By then, the timeball drop was a regular fixture on the Lyttelton Harbour schedule, but its usefulness was starting to fade as increasingly reliable radio communications began to render it obsolete. So, Lyttelton’s timeball fell for the last time – as a timekeeper, anyway – on 31 December 1934, although the station keeper remained on as flag signalman until the position ended in 1941.The building was occupied by the Army in 1942-43, and by various staff members of the Lyttelton Harbour Board until 1969.
A volunteer group, the Lyttelton Maritime Association, leased it for a time, but by 1973 it was obvious that the responsibility was too much for such an organisation, and it was gifted to the NZHPT. Working with the NZHPT, the Ministry of Works commenced restoration of the station in 1975. The refurbishment was completed by the end of 1978, when the Timeball Station was officially re-opened and leased to tenants. Now, 30 years later, the renters have gone, another phase of restoration is working towards completion, and the timeball once more falls at 1pm every day.
Its most recent makeover has been a project for property manager Jan Titus since it was decided to look behind the repairs and additions of the 1970s to see what lay underneath. It has governed much of her time and that of the late conservation architect, Jim Espie, and latterly, Ian Bowman. The cleaning, repairs and conserving of the Oamaru stonework has largely been completed, as have repairs to all the woodwork and plaster and all the window and door furniture. In recognition of the 1912 addition, Jim Espie guided Titus and her team to recreate as accurately as possible the way the station would have looked from this time through to the early 1930s.
For those closely associated with the station, it has been a project that all have become involved in. Visitor host Gareth Wright, for example, is to be thanked for the newly installed black coal range, which was secured from his great grandparents’ house in Christchurch and fits perfectly into the space where the old coal range resided. As the station has always been a rental property, there are only a handful of items on display that belong to it or to people who have lived there. Props have been used to create a sense of a modest 1920s family residence. Items of crockery, trinkets and the small comforts of home lend the living quarters their period character. These are the results of Titus’s forays into bric-a-brac shops and pieces on loan from staff.
Gone is the wallpaper that freshened up the living quarters in the 1970s. The walls have been repainted according to the colours discovered underneath. Some ceilings in the downstairs rooms that had been lowered have been opened up again, presenting the rooms in their original proportions once more.
The ubiquitous white paint on the window surrounds and other unusual colours painted on some ceilings and the stone fireplaces has been removed and the beautiful timber work oiled. Along with repairs and restoration work, wiring and cabling, fire protection and security have been upgraded and modernised. The crests that flank the original front entry were uncovered in the 1970s at each side of the door that connects the 1912 addition with the parlour.
These are due for restoration, too, along with a list of other repairs and maintenance tasks. They range from restoring the bathroom, and remaking the beautiful door hinges and facings that once graced the Gothic-arched front door, to repairing all the paths and steps leading up to and around the building.
Testament to the success of the interior refurbishment is the response of one Phyllis Souter, who visited the station at Christmas, as she has done several times over the years. Her original surname was Burns, and she is the daughter of Jack Burns, the last signalman. The family moved into the station in 1932 from the signal station at Adderley Head on the other side of the water. She remembers her childhood in the tiny settlement of Little Port Cooper as being a free-and-easy one, with the children enjoying great independence as they explored the coast and hills around them.
The family’s move closer to town was a big one, as was the argument between herself and her brother regarding who got to sleep in the downstairs bedroom. He won the toss but rapidly changed his mind after seeing a midnight ghost, and screaming the house down. From then on, it was her space without dispute.
Outside the building, there is still much to be done, says Titus. She would like to see the stone walls in the garden rebuilt, and replacement of the retaining wall on the cliff is on this year’s worklist. She would also love to see the wilderness that runs alongside the terraced lawns tidied up and connected to the walking paths that roam around the hills behind Lyttelton, an idea the council is interested in pursuing. All these initiatives are expensive and the Timeball Station is only one of many properties that share the NZHPT’s limited resources.
Another planned step, the first phase of which is about to be rolled out, is the development of interpretation and education tools designed to explain the role the station played and its place in the wider maritime environment. Whimsically entitled the “Cartochronicles”, the imagery of this series of documents and accompanying interactive mechanical devices in the building draws from the forms and materials of the navigational instruments used by the English and the Spanish in their explorations of the globe. Once completed, this programme will see the station again closely associated with the traditions of time at sea.
Rachel Macdonald is a freelance writer based in Rangiora.