Chatham Street Victorian Clock Tower

Beginning of Chatham Street, where it intersects Queen’s Road, on the western end, is the Lighthouse Clock Tower. Many have considered this as the most significant landmark in the Fort since old times and even until today.

Built in 1857, this Victorian monument, still stands tall and proud of its heritage even though now dwarfed by the many skyscrapers that have sprouted all around it. It is still one of the very proud legacies of the architecture of the British Raj in Colombo. The idea of constructing it in the Fort was initially put forward as far back as the year 1815.

The idea of constructing it in the Fort was initially put forward as far back as the year 1815. The design was created by Lady Ward, wife of Governor Sir Henry Ward. The clock was commissioned in 1857. but kept in a warehouse, due to economic reasons, A clock duly arrived from England yet it was gathering dust in the government stores, uninstalled. The ‘timing’ of the arrival of the clock was such it was a phase of political turbulence in the country. The signing of the Kandyan Convention in 1815 followed by the first independence struggle- Uva-Wellassa uprising in 1818, were significant among them. This chaotic period no doubt made the clock dwindle into mere oblivion! “For 42 years the clock was tucked away in the stores until Governor Henry Ward assumed duties in 1855,” says the historian.

The four dials are created according to a standard British design showing the tme to all four points of the compass. In its heydey the lighthouse, standing at 132 feet above sea level, had a white revolving double light which showed a triple flash lasting a second with an eighteen second wait. Powered by kerosene oil, the light could be seen from a distance of 18 Km away in clear weather.

The lighthouse was discontinued after the construction of large buildings in the Fort which obscured its purpose in 1954. A new lighthouse was commissioned at Galle Buck where it still strands and operates as a beacon to all ships entering Colombo Harbor. The plaque found inside the tower says that clock tower had been ceremoniously declared open by Governor Ward on March 25th, 1857. The plaque also confirms that it is the only lighthouse clock tower in the world. As Prof. Paranavitana explains, ten years later, in 1867, lighthouse was installed with oil lamps. “It was later upgraded to ‘dioptic flash lights’ in 1885. Two years later gas lamps were introduced.” The lights as the scholar describes had enabled a pattern of tiled glasses illuminating the ocean. In 1932 the dioptic flash lights were replaced with an electric bulb equaling 1500 lit candles. In the early 1950s, the light house was dimmed forever as it shifted quarters to Galle Buck Tower

Credit – Sukumar Shan

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