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Toronto's timekeepers: inside the clock at Old City Hall

CityNews.ca went behind-the-scenes at three Toronto landmarks where time is of the essence to learn about timekeepers and their craft. In the first part of this three-part series we introduce you to horologist David Abernethy, who cares for the city’s best-known clock and believes the historic timepiece will still be running in 500 years.

The winding wood and metal steps in the tower at Old City Hall lead to a bright, lofty and tidy room contained by the four faces of Toronto’s best-known timepiece. David Abernethy’s tools rest neatly on the floor inside a large glass box that encases the clock movement; its gears and parts, painted red, black and yellow, constantly clicking.

When Abernethy and his son, both Manchester-trained horologists, took over the job of maintaining the historic clock at Old City Hall two decades ago the timepiece was in bad repair. Each face displayed a different time and the bells chimed erratically.

“The first few years that we were here we just kind of ignored it until it became a real problem,” he said. Then he and his son “decided to roll our sleeves up and give it a go.”

Horologist David Abernethy at Old City Hall. CITYNEWS.CA/Shawne McKeown.

The clock movement at Old City Hall. CITYNEWS.CA/Shawne McKeown.

In 1992 Abernethy completely dismantled the movement and his brother flew in from England to perform the intricate task of painting the cast iron, bronze, brass and steel components.

“You’ve got to keep the integrity of these clocks,” he said while standing behind the impressive machine. “It’s important to keep it original, to keep it as it should be.”

During a stop on the 280-step climb to the top of the tower — an elevator originally built into the structure was removed in the 1920s — Abernethy relayed an old rumour that Toronto mistakenly received a movement originally destined for Boston. The mechanism was of a higher calibre than the one Toronto officials had ordered, so the story goes — a tale Abernethy described as “horological scuttlebutt amongst the boys in the business.”

David Abernethy in the clock tower at Old City Hall. CITYNEWS.CA/Shawne McKeown.

The stairs leading to the Old City Hall clock. CITYNEWS.CA/Shawne McKeown.

The city managed to complete construction of the clock in time for New Year’s Eve celebrations in 1900 and the timepiece made it by the skin of its teeth. The movement arrived six weeks before the party while the bells sat out on Bay Street. Abernethy said they were hoisted up into the tower with pulleys powered by a team of horses.

Image credit: City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 200, Series 376, File 3, Item 1.

The mild-mannered horologist made a point of displaying a part described as “our pride and joy”:  the double legged, three armed gravity escapement — a piece weighing a mere 30 grams that drives the clock’s 270 kilogram pendulum, which in turn keeps time on the six meter dials.

The clock used to be wound by hand, but conversion from manual to automatic happened in the 1950s, Abernethy said.

The three bells — the largest weighing 5443 kilograms — ring out across the downtown core with a “ting-tang” at quarter past, two at half past, three at a quarter-to and four on the hour. Twenty-seconds after that the great bell, or hour bell, rings.

Image credit: City of Toronto Archives, Series 376, File 3, Item 5. Nov. 22, 1900.

Toronto’s historic clock is in good hands and should be for some time. A passion for watch and clock-making and restoration runs in the Abernethy family. David’s father became an horologist after serving in the British Royal Air Force during the Second World War, working on timepieces for aircraft.

“Just like my children, I lived in a house full of clocks and watches,” he said.

David and his son both honed their timekeeping skills at Openshaw Technical College in Manchester, U.K. In a time when building mechanical timepieces appears to be a fading art, Abernethy’s grandsons have expressed an interest in taking up the family trade, he said.

“A lot of watchmakers aren’t fortunate like me to have young sons and family following their track,” he said.

David Abernethy behind clock movement at Old City Hall. CITYNEWS.CA/Shawne McKeown.

Abernethy said keeping time at Old City Hall is a “plum job”.

“It’s a bit like being taken off Honda Civics and being put on Rolls Royces, if you will,” he said with a chuckle.

“This clock will go. This will be here in 500 years, it will be here in 1,000 years providing it’s kept up to good condition and when it’s necessary for repairs to be done,” he added.

“It’s a treasure.”