Thursday, September 16, 2010

The history of the Atkinson Clock Tower

The Atkinson Clock Tower is the oldest standing structure in Kota Kinabalu. It was originally known as the Atkinson Memorial Clock Tower and sits in solitary on the bluff along Signal Hill Road overlooking this seaside city and capital of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. 

The clock tower was built in the memory of the late Francis George Atkinson, Jesselton’s first district officer who died of Malaria or ‘Borneo fever’ at the age of 28 on December 1902. His mother Mrs Mary Edith Atkinson had presented a two-faced clock to Jesselton town as a tribute to the memory of her son and it was decided later that a clock tower would be built in his honor. The structure was commissioned on 20th April 1905.

A road was also named after him – Atkinson Drive, now renamed as Jalan Istana that links Tuaran Road over the ridge and downtown Kota Kinabalu.

The clock tower was originally built using Mirabau wood. Its construction was financed by the late Atkinson’s friends and most probably built with additional funds channeled from shiprights of visiting naval vessels (the internal carpentry of the clock tower has all the hallmarks of a ship’s carpenter). While still under construction the clock started working on April 19, 1905 and its chimes could be heard all over the town. The structure was finally completed in 1905.

Measuring 50 feet (15.24 metres) high x 6’3” x 6’3” at its base, clock tower stood from its lookout point on the hill facing towards the township of Jesselton. A weather vane with initials of the wind direction added a few more inches to the height of this elegant monument. Ships calling port at the wharf used the Atkinson Clock Tower as their navigation landmark, as it could be seen from the sea. The clock tower was illuminated at night and was used as a shipping landmark right up to the 1950s.

It is hard to imagine how this relatively small but historical clock tower, standing on its own on this hill could ever be any ship’s point of reference; after 105 years, the narrow strip of land in front of the tower has been extensively reclaimed, with tall commercial buildings blocking the views of the clock tower to the sea. But one has only to look at early photos of Jesselton township from its formation in 1900s to present day to see how vital the clock tower was as a reference point – and still is – as a marker for the growth of this quaint former British Colony township known as 'Jesselton' into 'Kota Kinabalu' - the bustling modern Malaysian city that it is now.

Over the years the clock tower underwent many transformations. Subsequent repairs and renovations have altered its appearance. Machine-gun fire during the war had damaged the dial and cog of the clock tower’s mechanisms. It was repaired by Yick Ming Watch Dealers of Kota Kinabalu who have continued to be the maintenance contractors till today, a practice passed down from father to son. Therefore, the story of this historical clock tower is intricately tied to the lives of generations of Sabahans who have lived in its vicinity over the past one hundred years.

The clock tower was extensively renovated and altered for Jesselton’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1959. Defective structural members caused by the tropical weather were substituted with other hardwoods, while the roof timbers were stripped and replaced. Its new facelift was completed in November 7, 1959. However, the brass plaque that was placed at the foot of the clock disappeared after the Jubilee renovations.

In 1961, the Atkinson Clock Tower's clock face was altered yet again. The dials of the Clock were changed and the face replaced with translucent Perspex, with black figures on white background for internal lighting. But the building itself has remained intact in its exact location for more than a century.

Radio Sabah’s broadcasting department used to be located near the clock tower in the 1950s and some old timers still remember the chimes over the radio before the BBC world news broadcast.

Sadly, for its centennial anniversary in 2005, there was virtually no celebration to mark the centennial anniversary of this important historical KK landmark. Despite this, the Atkinson Clock Tower continues to watch over the citizens of Kota Kinabalu, a silent but reassuring constant reminder of our proud history.

In conjunction with Malaysia Day - it is time for us, the citizens of Kota Kinabalu and people of Sabah, to appreciate and watch over our beloved clock tower – our only remaining link to a glorious history and a important lesson for our future generations. The clock tower has seen the formation of our city, the determination and resilience of our people in surviving two harrowing world wars, our people’s struggle for its own governance, and finally, the clock tower watched as our independent state of Sabah - together with Sarawak and Singapore - joined Malaya to form the country we now know as MALAYSIA on 16th September, 1963.

Are we going to allow our precious historical landmark to be smothered by the ambitions of a developer's 16-storey commercial shopping mall?


NOTE: Francis George Atkinson was appointed Acting District Officer of Jesselton including Papar on 24th January 1901 and District Officer of Jesselton (South Keppel district) on 23rd May 1901. He died on 16th December 1902 at age 28 and was buried in the Labuan Cemetery. 

1 comment:

  1. Well documented piece. Excellent work. Thanks, Richard.

    Tony, Auckland, NZ