Northland: Time is on their side

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles rekindles his love affair with the country’s National Clock Museum.
Whangarei Town Basin. Photo / Tourism Northland.
Whangarei Town Basin. Photo / Tourism Northland.

When a cuckoo popped out of its little wooden home right in front of me, I got ready to stick my fingers in my ears. After all, there were about 1400 clocks in the room. If they all struck the hour at once I'd be deafened.

Fortunately guide Gerry Brackenbury was on hand to calm things down. "We keep the clocks set on different times," he pointed out. "We don't want them all going off at the same time."

Sure enough, the cuckoo piped its call - and did it again when I missed the photo of it in action and Gerry wound the hands back - but the assorted bells, gongs, chimes, whistles, barks, crows, tweets and other noises poised for action all around us stayed silent.

This is Claphams Clocks, the National Clock Museum, which this year celebrates its 50th birthday in a new purpose-built home near the picturesque Whangarei Town Basin.

The name and the first 400 clocks in the museum came from Archibald Clapham, a mildly eccentric Yorkshireman who arrived in New Zealand as a marine engineer on a ship in 1903 and stayed to raise a family and amass a huge collection of mechanical wonders.

A year before his death in 1963 he sold his collection to what was then the Whangarei Borough Council for a token amount and it formed the basis of a clock museum.

I thought Claphams Clocks was fascinating when I first wrote about the museum three years after it opened, in the first of the five different homes it has occupied over the years. Today with more pieces and more room to display them it's even better.

Claphams National Clock Museum.
Claphams National Clock Museum.

Making my return visit even more interesting was the unexpected arrival of Archie's grandson, Keith Clapham, who had some nice reminiscences to offer.

A singing bird clock, for instance, reminded him of how "grandad used to regularly load clocks into his car and take them around the country as a sort of travelling exhibition.

"I remember once when he came to our place, he put the bird clock in the window of our house and turned it on and it attracted all the wild birds to come and have a look."

Keith also recalled how Archie used to welcome visitors calling at his home at Whareora to look at his collection.

"There was no charge but he did put out a donation box to help cover the costs.

"Sometimes we'd get a couple of buses and when they left he'd send me to look at the box to see what they'd given. And I'd come back with a collection of washers and maybe a few halfpennies."

The old man also had a keen sense of humour. For one clock, with two sets of twitching eyes, he cut out photos of himself and his wife and put them over the top of the original faces to keep a watch on visitors.

One of his favourites was an 1806 German clock in which, bizarrely, the hours are signalled by a small parade of Scots wearing mini kilts. Then there's the whistling clock. And the eye-rolling devil clock. And lots more.

Since Archie's death, the collection has continued to grow and now numbers about 1400 clocks and related mechanical devices.

In fact the oldest piece in the museum, a Gretton Long Case Clock, is also one of the most recently acquired.

"We've got so many clocks now that we usually can't take the ones people offer to give us," said Gerry. "But that one we had to accept."

The tall, elegant timepiece was made in London by Charles Gretton, a famous British clockmaker, around 1690, and donated by Marie Anne Hammond of Waipu.

"It was bought by her family maybe 200 years ago, brought to New Zealand and passed down through the generations before she gave it to us. Unfortunately, it wasn't going when we acquired it . . . but maybe one day."

There are clocks powered by steam and by candles, by oil and by chemical reaction, by solar power and by falling weights, by rolling balls and by dripping water, by sand and by swinging pendula. Other clocks feature dogs and cats, impudent small boys and elegantly gowned women, bicycles and trains, roosters and foxes, ballerinas and bells. And dozens of cuckoo clocks of all sizes and shapes.

There are braille clocks, tea-making clocks, pigeon-racing clocks and factory clocks in which workers had to punch their timecards.

There's a big clock made of meccano and an even bigger one made of matchsticks.

Inevitably, most of the exhibits come from overseas but some of the items on display have New Zealand connections. There are some appallingly kitsch clocks housed in kiwi and Maori whare and paua shells.

Guide Jenny de Weyer is an expert on the museum's different timepieces. Photo / Northern Advocate
Guide Jenny de Weyer is an expert on the museum's different timepieces. Photo / Northern Advocate

There's a Parliamentary Speaker's Clock which, in the 1880s, tried to ensure MPs didn't go on too long.

And I rather liked the early jukebox that once provided entertainment for passengers on the the old paddlesteamer Wakatere which plied the coast in the 1890s.

"We've even got one of the original halfpennies," said Gerry.

So saying, he popped the halfpenny in a slot and, lo and behold, a giant metal disc revolved to produce a lively version of Mendelssohn's Midsummernight's Dream March.

Archie Clapham would have liked that, I thought. In fact when it broke into a lively glockenspiel version towards the end I could well imagine the old boy dancing a jig. Maybe with the ballerina clock in the corner.

Fact file:

• To find out about visiting Claphams Clocks see

• The Discovery Settlers Hotel is at

• For more about visiting Northland see

Jim Eagles visited Whangarei with help from Destination Northland.


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