Waterford’s Illuminated Fountain Clock

In 1864 Waterford finally had a new fully functioning landmark installed on its bustling quays. Construction had been a protracted, disjointed and often stormy affair as it was funded through an ongoing public subscription . The intention was to provide a clock that would be visible day and night to sailor and citizen alike in what was then Ireland’s busiest port. Perhaps reflecting the Victorian era, it was originally conceived as an Illuminated Fountain Clock. But to generations of Waterford people it became known as the Clock Tower.

An early coloured postcard via Michael O’Sullivan Waterford History Site

The Clock Tower was constructed in an era when time had become a crucial factor in shipping.  For centuries time and tide waited on no man.  But with the advent of steam power, ships now ruled the tides, arriving and departing to a set schedule.  Julian Walton states that it was built to a design of Charles Tarrant and described the motivation thus: “It was vital that everyone should know exactly what the right time was- ship’s crews and masters, merchants buying or selling their wares, drovers bringing animals to or from the quay and the carters loading and unloading cargoes” [1]

1894 image via Michael O’Sullivan Waterford History Site. Jarveys took paying passengers from the location, replaced in modern times by bus

But the reality of the construction phase was far from straightforward and the whole project was not without its challenges.  Certainly the first mention I could find didn’t auger well.  This was in December 1859 when members of the corporation were asked to vote on a motion of providing £150 from the water bailiffs fee for the purpose of providing the city quays with “an illuminated clock for the benefit of shipping”.  The motion was controversial however, many members felt the city could not afford it.  The motion was eventually passed by a vote of 19 councillors for, 9 against.

In May of 1861 it was announced that John Murphy had been appointed contractor for “the erection of the clock tower and fountain at the end of Barronstrand Street” In July the papers expressed relief that the first stage of the building had been completed, and a mound of stone had been removed. It appears that the initial foundations were not firm enough to cater for the soft mud and weak soil that lay beneath the chosen location.  In an effort to ensure a solid base it appears that tons of rocks were piled high on the spot and not until these had settled was the remainder removed and foundations undertaken.  (As I’m not an engineer, I’m open to correction on this interpretation)

In November another local paper article gave a list of subscribers who made donations to support the building project.  It confirms the struggle to raise funds which was by way of public subscriptions (an early form of crowd funding!): “…received the following subscriptions to the Clock Tower on the Quay:—Messrs. Cherry, Brothers £1; John Phelan, Quay 10s; Mr. Lenehan, Quay 10s; Mr. Thompson, High-street I0s; Dr. Condell 10s; Messrs Doherty and Clampert 10s; Mr. Locke, Quay 5s; Dr Scott 5s; Mr. Kelly, Little George’s-street 2s 6d; P. K. Reid 5s; Mr. Ross, Quay 2s Mr. Sullivan 2s 6 ; Mr. Behm 2s. Mr. John Phelan, Mr. Lenehan, and Mr. Locke, additional subscriptions”. 

In June 1862 the scaffolding around the building was wearing thin on the patience of locals, provoking comment and questions relating to the ever lengthening completion date.  In September relief was expressed when a weather vane had been placed atop and the scaffolding taken down.  Unfortunately it didn’t end the saga however, as a wish is expressed that the clock would be next to be put in place! By October one paper described it as a “useless monument” while another, perhaps in an effort towards optimism, reported that the Harbour Commissioners were helping out the funding appeal by donating £50 to the construction costs and £12 towards the clock itself.

It was as late as two years later before some good news was reported – “The appearance of this building is much improved the erection of a pinnacle over each of the four dials. Mr. Mosley (a local clock maker) is engaged in putting up the clock, which will have four transparent dials, each of which will be illuminated by four gas jets. The interior of the tower is rather small, and there will be much difficulty in winding and regulating the clock, in consequence of the contracted space in the interior.”[2]

The pinnacles as they look today. I’d imagine it was part of the original design, as they fit seamlessly into the structure.

The lighting of the clock seems to have proved another challenge and at various times there are reports of the gas being turned off due to a non payment of fuel fees.  The last mention I found about this was 1897.

Hobbit like access door (north side)

The fountain element of the Clock is also a bit of a mystery to me.  I presume this worked from the outset.  The features still exist to the present (on three sides), though not now in use.  The intention was that humans and horses could drink of the water.  However, one account from 1871, explains how a debate at the Harbour Commissioners monthly meeting received a deputation to lobby about watering cattle.  The water at the fountains was claimed to be unfit for human use, and that it could be redirected to troughs to provide for cattle stating it– “…was much wanted for the poor famished cattle…and their erection would not only prevent a great waste of water, but confer a great boon on the brute creation in the city.”  In the case of all great decisions – the matter was referred to the Quay Committee, who we are assured had “power to act”[3]

The twentieth century seems to have been more kindly towards the building, at least in the reportage.  The building settled into the built fabric of the city. Its newsworthiness is as a backdrop, it’s regularly a meeting place, a departure point for political rallies, union marches and religious processions.  It also features very regularly in the 1950’s newspapers for car accidents. 

My father in law, Vic Bible, recalled that in the early fifites you were either early or late for the pictures depending on which direction you approached the clock. A report of the time explains that “…for some time past the four faces of the present clock, grown old and querulous, have been unable to agree, and an independent referee —in this case Waterford Corporation—has decided that the only way to restore harmony is to retire the old and install a new timekeeper. Work on the change-over will, it is hoped, begin early in May. The Corporation proposes to install a modern auto-wound timepiece with four skeleton cast dials, backed with opal, to replace the existing movement in the tower, which is now more than 90 years old and completely run down. The firm engaged to do the work, Messrs. Potts, Marshall, Mills, of Leeds. It is also intended to clean and overhaul the stonework of the Tower at the same time.”[4]

If memory serves the building got a cleaning in recent years, possibly for the Tall Ships. To be fair it has stood the test of time, has served its original function quite well, and is certainly a venerable city institution. The Clock Tower is a building that deserves closer scrutiny, with some fascinating architectural features. It’s humbling to think of the struggles the city had in raising the funds to complete it, but for me it was certainly a struggle that paid dividends.

[1] Walton. J. O’Donoghue.F. On This Day Vol 1. (2013) Waterford.

[2] Waterford Mail – Monday 31 October 1864

[3] Waterford Standard – Wednesday 14 June 1871; page 3

[4] Waterford Standard – Saturday 25 April 1953; page 2

2 Replies to “Waterford’s Illuminated Fountain Clock”

  1. Appreciate all the research. It truly is a remarkable structure; it has stood the test of time as a landmark. Long may it remain and the funds found for occasional restoration. The Quays are so important to Waterford visually and the clock tower is integral in that regard.

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