Duncan’s Big Ben

The building on the corner of Craig and Kenneth Streets that houses Duncan’s City Hall is also the home of a familiar landmark to residents of the Cowichan Valley: the “turret” clock in the building’s tower. The commercial Italianate‐style structure has been the home of Duncan’s City Hall since December 6, 1975. “I am truly thankful that the Council of the day had the foresight to acquire such an iconic building. The clock tower provides an inspiring presence for City Square and for Duncan,” said Mayor Kent.

This New Year’s Eve, at midnight, the clock will be 100 years old. The story of its installation and official unveiling is told in Duncan’s longest running newspaper.

The December 28, 1939 issue of the Cowichan Leader recalled the story of how Duncan’s clock chimed for the first time shortly after it was installed. The newspaper described a bitterly cold winter night in 1914 when ten men hauled a half tonne bell up the clock tower stairs. The report goes on to describe the clock’s christening:

Five minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve…Mrs. W. H. Hayward, wife of the M.L.A. for this district, cut the ribbon which restrained the pendulum, and set the clock ticking. Civic and government officials stood in both bell and machinery rooms. As midnight struck, Mrs. O. T. Smythe, wife of the mayor, threw a glass of champagne in the bell’s mouth, christening it “Duncan’s Big Ben.”

The bell came from John Taylor & Co., Loughborough, England, and the clock from another English firm, J. Smith & Son, Midland Clockworks, Derby, a family‐owned business established in 1690 and now known as Smith of Derby, Ltd.

In 2014, the City’s Public Works department began a correspondence with Nicolas Smith, of Smith of Derby, Ltd, regarding the clock that was shipped to Duncan in 1914. Smith supplied a copy of the original sales ledger, dated October 2, 1914, which listed the clock’s shipment on the SS Missanabie, a Canadian Pacific Railway ocean liner that made its maiden voyage on October 7, 1914. The ledger indicates that the clock was shipped
to “Canada – Public Works, Caretaker, Public Bldg, Duncan, BC”. The Missanabie had its own interesting history: during World War I, it was sunk by a German U‐Boat (submarine) on September 9, 1918 off the coast of Kinsale, Ireland.

Mr. A. B. Whittaker wasthe clock’s custodian for many decades and was responsible for winding the clock once a week. City of Duncan Public Works employees now have the task of winding Duncan’s Big Ben.

Phil Kent

Kathryn Gagnon
Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives