To stand the test of time

Ben McArthur


LAST month, on a Saturday afternoon, Bruce Arnup unlocked the door to the Sale clocktower and climbed an orange 65-foot, rickety, steel ladder to reset, wind and maintain the clock as he has done so for the past 40 years.

When he reached the top, he looked outside at the clear glass panel that reflected the clock’s time and then at his mobile phone.

“These times don’t match” Mr Arnup thought to himself, and so he began winding, a manual and physical process, especially for someone in their early 70s.

Although, Mr Arnup understands in a way that his efforts are futile as the clock will never be right. On most days it’s about a minute behind; an insurmountable delay against today’s technology that registers milliseconds with the same importance of a nuclear countdown.

As Mr Arnup reset the clock that he helped rebuild for the last time, he became sentimental – it had been an honour he thought. One of the first to serve the clocktower that told 150 years of our city’s history was Mr Arnup, a working man from Sale.

The Sale clocktower stands above everything. It doesn’t have any windows, but if it did Mr Arnup might have looked outside at the Gippsland Art Gallery; the place of Mr Arnup’s old workplace as an Esso engineer. And the place where he became dedicated to rebuilding the old clocktower.

As very few people know today, Sale had two clocktowers, and the one visible today is actually the second.

The first clocktower, (or “the poor man’s version of Big Ben” as Mr Arnup calls it) was designed by a famous Melbourne clockmaker called Thomas Gaunt and built in 1884, as an extension of the Post Office located on the corner of Raymond and Foster Street.

Mr Arnup gives the clock that name because it uses the same time-keeping instrument as Big Ben. The instrument is called a turret mechanism; a complicated series of interactions between gears and weights that gives accurate times.

“The only difference between that (first) tower and Big Ben is that Big Ben is bigger and has a lot more bells,” he said.

But the federal government demolished the first tower along with the Post Office in 1964, saying the building was too small. The Sale City Council sold some of the clock components to the public but other items like the clock’s mechanism, hands and rings went to the Sale Historical Society, then to the East Sale RAAF Base and through a few other hands until the late 1970s, when it ended up with Beaumaris clock restorer, Mat Behar who was told to wait for instructions.

But instructions didn’t come, and through this period, former Sale City Engineer Alan Lewis seemed to be the only person coming up with ideas. Mr Lewis envisioned a new tower to be built same as the old, but with a glass exterior instead of brick so people could see the clock’s inner workings. This design was also electronic, removing the need for constant attention. But this never happened and so the parts stayed with Mr Behar.

Then in the early 1980s, the enthusiastic Mayor of Sale, Peter Synan, began gathering local support to rebuild the clocktower as part of Victoria’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 1984. With council approval, he formed a sub-committee called: The Clock Committee. Mr Arnup was elected president.

However, 1984 was an optimistic target and the committee quickly realised they needed more time, and changed the deadline to 1988 – 200 years after the arrival of the first fleet.

Getting council to agree to the construction was simple, according to Mr Arnup, who said all he had to prove was that they had a ‘workable’ design, and he did; one that was verified by engineering firm Hardcastle & Richards.

But Mr Arnup struggled to get council to agree to the location, as the area where the tower is now, and where Mr Arnup advocated for, was designated for sculptural artwork displays.

“I said it deserves that spot because it will be a highlight feature. Some wanted to put the tower in the mall, but it had to be higher than the existing buildings, and within the centre of town so it would be a recognisable landmark,” he said.

With council agreeing to the location, the next step was to visit Mr Behar and pick up the clock. However, Mr Behar never repaired the clock mechanisms because he was never given funding to. And even worse, Mr Behar was only holding onto some parts; the rest were scattered around Gippsland in the most random places.

Some parts were easier to find than others. For example, everyone knew that old Bill Williams had purchased the clock’s railing in 1964 and stored it at his house on Raglan Street where it was collecting dust, but very few knew that the clock doors had spent the last 20 years in a farmers shed until it popped up at a clearing sale in Desaily’s Flats for $1.

And Mr Behar, well, he had been waiting for instructions for so long that by the time the subcommittee visited, Mr Behar decided he was too old for restoration work and gave the job to his friend and clockmaker from Blackburn, Ken Day.

Regardless, members of the ‘The Clock Committee’ were enthusiastic, and so was the Bicentennial Commission, a state government initiative overseeing Victoria’s 200th anniversary celebrations and providing funding to projects. Additional funding came from Esso, BHP and community fundraiser events. Local companies helped too, the steel platforms which hold the clock, came from GNS Engineering and the clock’s outer rings were built by Laceys, a local engineering company that doesn’t exist anymore.

Things seemed to be going well, but the design wasn’t as ‘workable’ as Mr Arnup thought. Hardcastle & Richards kept finding faults in the design, and Mr Day kept reworking it until he was told by Mr Arnup to just recreate the original. Mr Day accepted this task relentlessly. In fact, Mr Day was so dedicated to originality that he even installed the original clock’s faulty mechanisms.

“One day, the clock will have to be dismantled so those faults can be fixed up,” Mr Arnup said.

But about four years, $100,000 and 20 builders later, the clock was finished, re-revealed and made the sound that can only be made when bronze strikes bronze. The bell, now 140 years old is still in remarkably good condition. It’s over a metre tall, weighs a ton and maintains Thomas Gaunt’s original form without many cracks or wear.

“The clocktower and the bell will be there forever as long it’s maintained, otherwise there will be expensive disasters that won’t be fixed. The clock’s mechanism is like a house that always needs fresh paint; and if it’s not painted, it will only get worse,” Mr Arnup said.

Therefore, what the clock needs isn’t a ‘timekeeper’ with a massive knowledge about how old clocks work, but people willing to constantly apply ‘fresh paint’.

However, this could change. The clock needs constant attention because it is mechanical, but Mr Arnup admits it could ‘very easily’ be electrified. Only he doesn’t want to do this because Mr Arnup thinks massive hand-wound clocks are becoming a ‘collector’s item’. And just like other rare and vintage collector’s items, it sits on display, costing nothing to the public to maintain.

“The clock’s cost the public zero for 40 years because of the volunteers. And it would have been expensive to get somebody to keep winding it or if electrical, to find somebody that understands the clock and can fix its problems,” he said.

But the days of Mr Arnup winding the clock are over, and regardless if any successor will keep turning the clock, his legacy as the towers pioneer will be seen as long as the tower is still standing, which Mr Arnup believes could be forever.