Two miles inland… a strange place for a Lighthouse!

Stephen Dutfield

There’s been a great deal of news coverage lately on the project which located the wreck of ‘Endurance’, the ship which took Ernest Shackleton and his team on their failed 1915 Antarctic expedition, lost for over a century at the bottom of the Weddell Sea. This reminded me that it’s now 110 years since Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole in his ship ‘Terra Nova’, when Scott – along with Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, Laurence ‘Titus’ Oates and Dr. Edward Wilson - reached the Pole on 17th January 1912 only to find that Roald Amundsen’s party had been there a month before. Capt. Scott and his men perished on their trek back from the pole, caught in a lengthy blizzard just eleven miles short of their supply depot. Despite his apparent failure to be the first to conquer the South Pole, Scott was hailed as a national hero, and various memorials to the courage of his endeavour were erected – the most unusual of which is a clock tower in a Cardiff park.

What, you may ask, is the Welsh capital’s connection with Scott’s polar expedition? Although the Terra Nova’s captain Edwards Evans had Welsh parents, the only Welsh-born member of the South Pole expedition was Edgar Evans who came from Rhosilli in Gower, west of Swansea but, despite that, the citizens and businesses of Cardiff donated more funding and materials towards the Terra Nova’s voyage than any other city in the UK. Rallied by the editor of the Western Mail, William Davies, major contributions came from ship owners Daniel Radcliffe and William Tatem, the department store owner James Howell, who also donated a Welsh flag to be flown from the mast of the Terra Nova. Davies even persuaded the then Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George to provide a government grant of £20,000 (equivalent to around £1.5M in 2020) for Scott’s voyage. In view of the support received from the people of Cardiff, it was chosen as the port of departure. On 13th June 1910 Cardiff Chamber of Commerce hosted a fundraising farewell dinner for Scott and his crew in the Alexandra Room of Cardiff’s Royal Hotel. Now renamed the Capt. Scott Room, an anniversary dinner is still held every year to mark the date. Two days later tens of thousands of people congregated at Cardiff Pierhead to watch Terra Nova leave the dock and head out through Cardiff Roads to the Bristol Channel on its journey south. It was a much more subdued crowd of 60,000 – including Lady Kathleen Scott and their four-year-old son Peter - which gathered three years later to see her return.

Memorial plaque

It was the return of the ship in 1913 which prompted its owner, F.C. Bowring, to donate the figurehead to be displayed on the promenade at the city’s popular Roath Park as a memorial. In his speech at the unveiling Bowring expressed his wish to make a permanent memorial to Scott and his comrades and, as the Scott Expedition Memorial Fund hadn’t raised sufficient money for this, the following year the council accepted from him the personal gift of a clock tower for the park. There are many municipal parks which include clock towers or floral clocks, but what sets the Scott Memorial apart is that it’s surrounded by water!

Lord Mayor on balcony

I find it sad that, a decade ago in publicity to commemorate the tower’s centenary, Cardiff Council wrongly attributed the clock to John Smith & Sons of Derby. This ‘fake news’ has endured since, so this is a good opportunity to set the record straight. The order for the clock was placed in 1913 with J.B. Joyce & Co. of Whitchurch, Shropshire, and they supplied a flatbed timepiece with 11” great wheel, gravity escapement and compensated pendulum, driving four 4’9” glazed and illuminated skeleton dials. Details of the contract appear in the surviving Joyce records, and we are indebted to Steve and Darlah Thomas for including a transcription of ‘The Big Book’ in their excellent book on the firm. This reveals that the cost price – less carriage – came to £34 14s 6d but regrettable doesn’t record the price the customer paid, although we can project it as being somewhere around £55 to £60. Although the tower was completed and the clock running by 1915, due to the Great War the official presentation to the city of the memorial by Bowring didn’t take place until 1918.

Designed to represent a rock lighthouse, the tower sits on an island near to the southern end of the lake alongside the raised promenade. The rocky island is man-made, the lake being drained so that a strong square concrete foundation could be built below water level, topped with a rubble perimeter. The approximately 50’ tower was built in reinforced concrete and the main circular body tapers in the classic lighthouse shape. At ‘lantern’ level there is an octagonal balcony with balustrade which surrounds the square clock chamber, and the tower is topped by a shallow domed roof carrying a central weathervane representing a fully rigged three-masted ship. This is widely believed to be a model of Terra Nova but, in fact, is of Scott’s earlier ship Discovery – a name shared by a nearby pub built in the 60s and originally full of Scott memorabilia.

Jim Ash restoring weathervane

The Scott Memorial tower, known to generations of Cardiffians simply as “the Lighthouse”, rapidly became one of the most photographed clocks in the country. And appeared in picture postcards of the park which continued to be produced for sale there up to the 1980s. A popular tourist attraction if you were in the park at the right time, was to watch the weekly visit of the council clock winder, who would borrow a boat from the boathouse on the west shore, row across to the tower, tie up, go in and wind the clock, then return across the water. One wonders whether rowing was a skill listed in the job advertisement! The tower has appeared in a variety of light colours, but during WWII was painted in a very dark shade which endured until the late 1950s. Throughout the 60s and 70s it appeared in cream but was repainted white in 1977 as part of a restoration and has remained that colour since.

The original clock movement ran until 1972 when a very bad winter storm caused extensive damage in the area – including the demise of Barry Island’s funfair’s enormous scenic railway. The Lighthouse suffered the loss of several pieces of glass from the dials, and bent and broken hands on a couple of dials. There seemed no enthusiasm to repair it, and it remained in this forlorn state until 1977 when a local resident who had long enjoyed walking in Roath Park bequeathed money for its restoration. Gillett & Johnston Ltd held Cardiff council’s clock contract, and it was they that restored the dials, replaced the original Joyce-pattern hands with their standard design, and removed the mechanical movement (which I’m assured nearly sank the boat on the way back to shore) and replaced it with a synchronous electric unit, utilizing the existing Joyce leading-off and motion work. One unfortunate side-effect of the restoration is that the dial frame centres, previously all white, were repainted black to match the chapter rings. This, along with the new hands which were somewhat ‘chunkier’ than the slender Joyce versions, rendered it far more difficult to read the time accurately, as the dial centres now look rather visually complicated. This decorative scheme has endured through subsequent re-paints.

Original dial paint scheme

Dials Interior

Lake drained showing foundation

Weight Shute

In the 1990s, by which time Smith of Derby had long taken over the Cardiff contract, the movement was again replaced, but this time all the original leading-off and motion work was also removed. Instead, a synchronous drive with integral motion work is mounted directly on the centre of each dial, and all four units are controlled by a master unit which automatically takes care of GMT/BST alterations, and corrections following power failures. As a result, the tower is now rather empty, and I have been unable to locate a single photograph showing the original clock movement, though the wooden weight shaft is still in situ in the centre of the structure. In November 2001 Cadw (the organization responsible for Welsh historic monuments) accorded the tower Grade II listed status.

With the Scott Memorial tower again having started to look a little shabby, another generous local resident financed the full restoration of the structure in 2021 in memory of his mother and of his wife, and this much-loved timekeeper continues to give those enjoying the delights of Roath Park as much pleasure as the ducks, the swans, and the ice cream.

Credit to WalesOnline for historical images