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Friday 26 March 2021

Maritime Media Volunteer, Julie Corbett tells us more about the Guildhall and the significance of it's Time Ball. The Time Ball is currently being restored, thanks to funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

If you look up at Hull’s Guildhall clock tower you will see scaffolding. A project is underway renovating a special time piece.

Hulls Guildhall Clock Tower
Hull's Guildhall clock tower

So, what are we looking up to see? What is a Time Ball?

How many of you have been encouraged to look up at the roofs and facades of Hull’s buildings? If you have been on any of the excellent history and heritage walks provided by guides in Hull City Centre, read articles or listened to programmes in our local media then the answer will be ‘a lot’.

Do you have lots of photographs of family and friends in front of Queen Victoria, Alan Boysen’s mural on the British Homes Stores building, Hull Minster and the William Wilberforce statue?

I know I have. What about photographs at The Deep or perhaps further west at the Lord Line building at St. Andrew’s Quay.

Were you one of the thousands that came to see the opening event of the UK City of Culture in 2017 when several walls became projection screens for own Hull’s story and its place in the world. I thought I knew most of Hull’s skyline and was equally delighted and annoyed with myself for not knowing one I must frequently have seen from the top deck of buses coming over Drypool Bridge into town.

Scaffolds Around Hulls Guildhall Clock Tower And Time Ball
Scaffolds around Hull's Guildhall clock tower and Time Ball

This Guildhall and the associated Law Courts were built between 1906-1914 by Sir Edwin Cooper. Built in a Baroque Revival style, the building was described by the renowned architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83) as a tour de force, both inside and out.

The Time Ball was not part of the original design and was added into the plans 1914-15. Here you can see the top portion of the square lantern-style clock tower. The clock inside was made by Cooke & Johnson for the previous town hall built in 1865.

The lantern is surmounted by four putti supporting a stone cup into which a time ball falls.

The Putti Representations Of Cherubs Or Cupids Holding Aloft The Time Ball Cup
The putti, representations of cherubs or cupids holding aloft the Time Ball cup

What hour of the day is it?

Having a consistent measure of time, knowing what time of day it is something we take for granted now. We do not begin our day with the cock crow or sunrise we set an alarm or simply look at a clock.

Of course, we could measure time by how we feel. We could say midday is always when we get hungry. This is fine but what if you want to meet a friend for a midday meal, could you guarantee that you will be hungry at the same time? What about catching a train or preparing a boat for a journey? The need-to-know what hour of the day it is where you are is crucial to be able to organise life and work.

It was the Babylonians who developed the system of dividing the day into hours and along with Arabic mathematicians and navigators created the divisions of an hour into sixty minutes.

Before the mechanisation of clocks sundials, fire clocks and hour glasses were common means of time measurement. These are fine if you stay in one place but not good for travelling or for making appointments. You could not really ‘keep the time’ with them.

Once the mechanical clock, cogs, pendulums, winding mechanisms became either publicly visible or portable it was possible plan to a time. You could say ‘all being well I shall meet you at 4 o’clock in the afternoon’ to someone in person or by letter. Of course, both of you would need to be able to see the same time. This might be a clock on a church tower, or you might hear a bell or be a worker with a ‘knocker upper’ and mark time from there.

What is a Time Ball?

Time Balls were part of a communication system. They were the end point. You could set your clock by the dropping of the Time Ball. However, when your day and night happen depend on the earth’s position in relation to the sun.

One of the best ways of experiencing this is watching New Year’s Eve celebrations on the television. Spectacular but not entirely useful for timekeeping.

In 1833, a Time ball at Greenwich, London was calibrated to one of George Graham’s astronomical month clocks.

Initially, the five-foot round leather and wood ball, fitted on a mast high on the roof of the north-eastern turret of the Royal Observatory was hand operated. It was raised at 12.55 to be dropped under gravity down at one o’clock and could be seen from boats anchored in the Thames.

The coordination of this precise time around the country came in 1852, when connection to the telegram system by electric signals became possible. Time Ball mechanisms could be connected to the Greenwich Time Ball in this way. Time could now be reliably published across long distances.

Hull’s Time Ball was decommissioned around 1922.

**We endeavour to make sure all the research and facts we present by staff and volunteers is accurate and checked with rigor. However, we are only human so please let us know if you spot any errors.**