The extraordinary story of the Clock Tower’s move to the Triangle 90 years ago

By Brian Thornton

Triangle clock full 600It should never have been here at all and was actually supposed to be just a fountain and not a tower, but somehow against all odds the iconic Clock Tower is celebrating its 90th year in Bitterne Park.


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It’s been such a familiar sight at the heart of the Triangle for so long that many people don’t know the extraordinary story behind its arrival in 1934.

It only became a Bitterne Park landmark thanks to an amazing sequence of events – there was the animal lover who paid for a fountain she knew she would never see, the architect who dreamed bigger than anyone else and the technological revolution that made their creation homeless.

The story of the Clock Tower begins on 24th October 1887. This was the day Henrietta Bellenden Sayers passed away at her home in the Polygon in Southampton. When her solicitor examined her will he discovered that the elderly widow had included a very strange – and expensive - instruction. Mrs Sayers had set aside £1,000 – a sum equivalent to over £100,000 today – to build a drinking fountain for people and animals. Old Mrs Sayers’ affection for animals was well known and neighbours were used to the sight of her out in all weathers around Southampton with her beloved dogs.

every beast of the forest 600px

“She was a great lover of dumb animals and befriended them on every occasion,” her solicitor, Beresford Turner, would later explain. The inscription on the tower bears this out: “Bequeathed to the town by the late Mrs Henrietta Belleden Sayers in evidence of her care for man and beast.”

A delighted council gratefully accepted Mrs Sayer’s kind gift and immediately announced it would be holding a competition to find the best design for the new fountain.

There were more than 60 entries but the winner was Sydney Kelway Pope, of Portland Street, Southampton. He claimed the 20 guinea first prize for his plan entitled “Patience”. The judges appear to have liked that Mr Pope went well over his brief and instead of just creating a fountain, he had added an elegant clock tower to his winning design.

The Hampshire Advertiser County Newspaper of June 8, 1889, described his winning design:

“The selected design is in the Gothic style of architecture, in three stages, 15ft square in the base and tapering up in symmetrical proportions to a tower, the topmost limit of which reaches 43ft 6in. The fountain will be built mainly of Portland stone, the ornamental parts being of red Mansfield stone. The base will be a drinking fountain with drinking accommodation for passers-by, cattle, and dogs, gas lamps standing out from each corner. Towards the top there will be a clock illuminated from within at night with dials facing four ways, each 4ft 6in in diameter, inserted in gabled sides. Striking bells belonging to the clock will be contained in the second division of the structure.

On the north and south sides are large cattle troughs, with two dog troughs under each. On the westside is the people’s fountain and on the east the entrance to the tower. Altogether the drinking fountain and the clock tower will have a most pleasing effect and be a decided addition to the rather prominent position in the main thoroughfare of Southampton which has been selected for it. The work is expected to cost altogether over £600 and the cost of lighting and water supply will be borne by the authorities of the town.”

During the construction of the Clock Tower, Mr Pope proved to very particular indeed about his vision. He was unhappy with the first top that was put on the tower and had it replaced “with a more ornamental one”, along with “more suitable lamps” and a “more powerful clock bell”.

clocknewroad The Clock Tower before it moved. Photo from 'The Illustrated History of Southampton's Suburbs', by Jim Brown, published by Breedon Books and available from Bitterne Local History Charity Shop

The completed Clock Tower, located at the entrance of New Road, Above Bar, was officially opened on Monday, 9th December 1889. Politicians, dignitaries and a large number of locals attended the ceremony which culminated in the mayor turning on the water for the fountains.

“I hoped the structure will not only be an ornament to the town but give forth the correct time and refreshing supply of water for thirsty men and beasts for generations to come,” said Mr Turner, the executor of Mrs Sayers’ will.

But no one in the crowd on that cold winter’s day could have foreseen the dramatic changes that were coming. Within a generation Southampton would be utterly transformed by the arrival of the automobile. A fountain created to provide water for horses now looked increasingly like a relic from another age as buses and cars took over the city’s streets.

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For years the Clock Tower had been a city centre landmark, a place to meet up with friends - it even appeared on many Edwardian postcards of Southampton. But by the 1930s the council started to see the Clock Tower as nothing but an obstruction to traffic now flowing through the city. Its time was up. The decision was taken to dismantle it and move it to a quieter spot in the suburbs, and Bitterne Park was chosen as the perfect spot.

On January 27, 1934, the Hampshire Advertiser and Southampton Times stated: “The Clock Tower in Above Bar is being removed for traffic reasons, and will be re-erected in the Triangle at Bitterne Park. When the Clock Tower has been removed the road is to be widened.”

It apparently cost about £500 - £30,000 today – to move the Clock Tower to Bitterne Park. There may have been an opening ceremony but it doesn’t appear to have been recorded and so it is difficult to identify the exact date when the work was completed and the Clock Tower was unveiled in the Triangle.

Triangle clock full 600The (now leaning) Clock Tower as it stands in the "delightful suburb" of Bitterne Park today

But a report on 17 March 1934 in the Hampshire Advertiser does describe how a local boys’ brigade organised a party at the Clock Tower in the Triangle as an “official acknowledgement that the famous structure is now in their delightful suburb”.

Other sources also point to the Clock Tower moving to Bitterne Park in March 1934 – making it exactly 90 years old this month (in Bitterne Park Years).

Though it has had its troubles over the last 90 years – from subsidence that has made it the leaning tower of Bitterne Park, to the clocks that seem to stop as often as they go – it is now such an integral part of life here that it would be impossible to imagine the Triangle without it. It may have started its life somewhere else but it has found a home in Bitterne Park and is definitely a Bitterne Parker now.

And though it was built for a different time and for a different purpose it’s not unreasonable to think that the great nature-lover Henrietta Sayers – whose dying wish led to its creation - would be pleased to see where it stands now, overlooking the bobbing swans on the river and the broad green sweep of the park beyond.

Photos: Brian Thornton, other than the Clock before it moved, as credited

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