Culture Victoria

The Main Line Starter Clock: keeper of public time

By Admin Posted Under Inside Museum Collections

Guest post by Harriet Gaffney.

Children’s literature from E. Nesbit to J.K. Rowling evokes the thrill of the railways: the sweat of the engine worker piling in more coal, the smoke and the soot, the way the day can be measured by a train’s shriek as it enters a tunnel in the morning or its more sedate call as it finds its rhythm mid afternoon. There is something in the impending promise of a journey, the physical presence of a station, the very act of waiting for a trip to begin, which continues to appeal to adult and child alike. The animal heft of a train, its raw power, is tempered, however, through the fastidious management of time.

Wall Clock - Victorian Railways No 1, circa 1871. Photographer: Rodney Start, Museums Victoria.

An authoritative presence on Platform One at Spencer Street Station for almost one hundred years, the Main Line Starter Clock stood over the people of Victoria from its installation in 1871 until 1960, when the station was re-developed and the clock was gifted by Victorian Railways to the Melbourne Museum. This majestic artifact is now cleverly housed in a model ‘Museum Station’ in the new Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery.

Built by watchmaker Thomas Gaunt at his premises in Bourke Street’s Royal Arcade in consultation with Government Astronomer Robert Ellery, the clock weighs some 150kg and stands – as you can gauge from this image of Conservator Sarah Babister as she repaired paint loss and removed decades of accumulated grime from the face – an imposing 1820mm high by 1190mm wide.

Museums Victoria Conservator, Sarah Babister working on the Main Line Starter Clock. Source, Museums Victoria.

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century it is easy to forget how recent the phenomenon of accurate public time is, yet prior to the clock’s installation at Spencer Street there was no system that allowed precision timekeeping across the state, and, with the advent of the railways as a fast and economical means of transport, this became increasingly important to the rapidly expanding colony.

As the Museum’s Head of Humanities, Dr Richard Gillespie, explains:

 “Accurate time was essential for the railways, as timetables and the safe running of trains depended on the entire railway network operating on uniform time. Melbourne Observatory established the correct local time by observations of known stars with the observatory’s transit telescope and introduced a system of providing public time signals in 1871. The time signals were carried by telegraph line to Flinders Street Station, Spencer Street Station, Customs House, Parliament, and watchmaker Thomas Gaunt’s premises at Royal Arcade and Collins Street. This system of public time ensured that the major city clocks provided accurate Melbourne time, and allowed Melbournians to set their watches and clocks correctly. The electrical signal was used to control the swing of the clock’s pendulum, ensuring the maintenance of ‘observatory time.’”

Elaborate regulations were put in place to ensure that the correct time was transferred by telegraph signal at 10am each morning from the Main Line Starter Clock to every suburban and country station. The second most important clock in the system after the Master Clock, careful checks were made of its accuracy every day, and, as Dr Gillespie notes “it was never found to be more than 5 or 6 seconds out in a week.”

In this way the clock can be seen to manifest the imperial push of Victorian England, sending out along the line a new world order, tying the land and its newest inhabitants to a system of reference that was unheard of less than half a century before.

Train guards were required to check their watches against the nearest station clock soon after 10am, and to convey this information to smaller stations that were not connected by telegraph. By the early 1900s examiners maintained some 1300 clocks, and as many watches for guards and engine drivers.

Despite being consulted hundreds and even thousands of times a day we rarely consider the toll that the passage of time takes upon a station’s clock.

After many years of overseeing operations from the city’s regional hub, the Main Line Starter Clock required extensive conservation treatment for its move to the Children’s Gallery. Remedial action aimed at reversing old and poorly executed repairs, as well as approaches necessary for reinstating the clock’s appearance including cleaning, infilling and in-painting, were undertaken.

The clock had many areas of paint loss across the dial face, including to the roman numerals, which was visually distracting and hindered communication. Attention was focused on treating these areas with materials that were reversible and compatible with the substrate. Surface cleaning, focused on the removal of accumulated dust and foreign accretions, was also applied, but was carefully balanced in order to improve its appearance for display while preserving its original materials and significance.

Wall Clock - Victorian Railways No 1, circa 1871. Front and side view. Photographer: Rodney Start, Museums Victoria.

It was also requested that the clock be activated for display. This required that it be changed from mechanical to electromechanical, removing the need for the clock’s face to be opened up for it to be wound by hand. To ensure these works were completed with minimal alteration to the original parts, antiquarian horologist Vivian Kenney was engaged to make the changes.

Yet no matter how much technology helps relieve us of some of the more mechanical aspects of the day-to-day, it does not eradicate the place an object such as this holds in cultural memory. Part of the significance of Thomas Gaunt’s great clocks lies in the role they have played in public life, what they have meant to the culture they have served.

The Main Line Starter Clock has acted as a silent adjudicator for Victoria’s inhabitants; quietly watching the comings and goings of generations of people as they rush to catch the last train or fight their way through a crowd to find a loved one. An impartial arbiter who never falters, it has observed them as they flock in from all parts of the state before launching off again to the next part of their journey.

It is this sense of calm certainty and order that the clock invokes most in its new home. The Museum has consulted widely on the fit-out of the Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery, in particular with Amaze Victoria, to help create zones that enable children to self-regulate when feeling sensory overload by moving into quiet or warm spaces, cold or light-reduced spaces; or by giving them the tools to demarcate their journey by measuring out pockets of time on the clock’s analogue face.

Main Line Starter Clock, installed in the Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery, Melbourne Museum. Photographer: Roisin O'Dwyer, Museums Australia (Victoria).

The early years of human life, more than any other period, are managed by concepts difficult for children to comprehend. The physicality of this great clock, its impressive size, its swinging pendulum, embodies containment, holding, encapsulating. It affects, in this setting, comfort – humankind’s ability to manage, to control. It invokes order while inviting exploration – somewhat like the museum itself.

This guest blog post by Harriet Gaffney is part of a series coordinated by Museums Australia (Victoria) highlighting treasures, stories and what happens behind-the-scenes in museum collections across Victoria.

View the full catalogue record for the clock online at Museums Victoria Collections:

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