This story might have begun by saying that Whangarei’s Clapham’s Clock Museum is no more than a display of superfluous anachronism to those of us who don’t wear watches and prefer to tell the time by looking at the sky, listening to our bellies or succumbing to fatigue.
But the museum, which houses 1200 clocks and watches along with other clockwork items and related curiosities, defies expectations. With its hand clock, circa 1730, it caters even for horological simpletons. Entitled “The Country Man’s Companion”, the hand clock is a set of instructions for making a sundial out of the palm of your hand and a small stick.
The museum had its origin in a lifelong private collection assembled by Whangarei resident Archibald Clapham. He started with a music box given as a present on his seventh birthday. He visited New Zealand from his native Yorkshire in 1903 on a “working holiday” which lasted the rest of his life.
In his 80th year Clapham vested 400 clocks and watches in the Whangarei City Council, after displaying them to the public in his own home for many years.
In 1962 the collection was installed in its own building, an ex-restrooms/ dental clinic/Plunket rooms in downtown Cafler Park. Since then, the collection, administered by the now Whangarei District Council, has grown through purchase and donation to become what is said to be the largest clock and watch collection in the Southern
Hemisphere. Two years ago the building was extended to accommodate the growth.
Clapham, engineer, orchardist, farmer and mechanical fanatic, is reputed to have spent hours drilling lengthways through a pin with an Archimedes hand-drill just for the fun of it. His sense of humour and his loyalty to the clockmakers’ dictum “a good clock should amuse and charm as well as instruct” are, along with his skills, evident in the clocks of his own devising on display.
There’s the frying pan clock, complete with painted chook and egg and a butter knife and cake fork for hands, and “The Nark” from which the time is read anti-clockwise. To add further confusion, the dial has been moved round one hour. Reversed clocks originated in US barber shops where they allowed customers to read the time in the mirror while undergoing the shave and bay rum.
More mischief can be seen in the 1930s mirror mounted, moving-eyes clock into which Clapham set photographs of his own eyes. These now slowly rove the domain of his enthusiasm, watching the watchers watch the watches.
Although the museum houses many antique clocks, it is for the variety that the collection is known — everything from an oversized Mickey Mouse watch, through a gaggle of gilded rococo timepieces, to a sea-going coconut water clock which, floating in a barrel, filled with water through a pinhole and sank upon the hour.
From the esoteric to the scientific to the kitsch and frankly commercial, the array is stunning. Peacocks, elephants, hummingbirds hovering over twisted glass waterfalls, gothic cathedrals, rose onyx pedestals, ferris wheels, appliqued shells and even Hickory Dickory Dock with mechanical mouse contrast with the complexities of self-winding atmospheric clocks, an airforce clock for plotting flight positions and a large speaker’s clock from Parliament. More sinister are a World War II time bomb mechanism and
a small, silver desk c lock and calendar which stopped during the Napier earthquake and has never been wound since.
One of the oldest on display is a brass lantern clock made by Robert Hynam in London (later watchmaker to the Czar of Russia) in 1750, but the oldest in concept is a clepsydra (thief of time) a facsimile of a clock made in 1715 in Salisbury, which itself was copied from an Egyptian water clock in use in 2000 BC.a small, silver desk clock and calendar which stopped during the Napier earthquake and has never been wound since.
Most of the clocks and watches on display actually go. Attendants wind them once a day. One, an English grandfather or long case clock, is kept at the accepted time with a notice affixed stating “Correct Time”. Staff say, “We let the rest do their own thing.”
The unwary visitor may be unnerved by a cacophony of ticks, bangs, tocks, dongs, tinkles, cuckoos trilling and buglers bugling; frightened at close quarters by serious chimes, and soothed by the resonant tones of the giant “Komet” juke box (1890-1900). For ten cents (converted from a penny), the Komet plays the William Tell Overture or any one of 50 different pieces, reading the tunes from 26″-diameter spring steel discs stored in racks inside the cabinet. The Komet, which originally played on the coastal ship Whakatiri, sits incongruously next to the thoroughly ’90s soft-drink dispenser, not far from a metre-long clockwork waka which proclaims in large letters along its hull “Does Not Tell The Time”.
Clocks, like lives and times, are full of the eccentricities that reflect politics and society. The large, hand-carved, German trumpeter clock (1810) reveals two distinctly Scots kilted trumpeters. Apparently, around that time Lowland Scots, persecuted by the imperial English, left home and threw in their lot with German mercenaries, who allowed them to retain their chosen mode of dress — hence their appearance in a German clock.
Clapham’s Clock Museum offers its own ironies in a town where time matters perhaps less than anywhere else in the country, given that Whangarei has New Zealand’s highest unemployment rate per capita.
Staff at the museum leave out bowls of catfood and milk for the park cat, but you can’t help noticing that no one feeds the derelict humans who sleep under newspapers in the punga gazebo down past the formal beds of roses and the wrought-iron wishing well.
Clapham’s Clock Museum is open seven days per week, 10am-4pm.
Group tours are welcome and can be guided.