Timeball Tower in Williamstown (also known as Williamstown Lighthouse) is located at Point Gellibrand to the west of Melbourne.
It is the second oldest lighthouse in Victoria after the Cape Otway Lighthouse on the Great Ocean Road.
It is a very unusual building, as most lighthouses were built circular and this is a four-sided construction.
Timeball Tower History & Timeline
Williamstown’s Timeball Tower was originally constructed to be a lighthouse in the late 1840s. Early images show it to be much closer to the sea than now, where land around Point Gellibrand has been reclaimed. It was originally timber before being completed in bluestone in 1848 using stone from the quarry in front of Fort Gellibrand. This is the construction that can still be seen today.
Whilst the light of the lighthouse could shine for 15 miles it was replaced by a floating lightship offshore at which point the lighthouse was converted to a timeball tower with the mechanism moved to the top and raised like a flag.
It operated as a timeball tower for over 60 years until 1926. The current keeper died, and most ships had more modern timing technology so it was no longer needed.
The tower was converted back to a lighthouse, having a 90ft circular tower adding to the top. It was felt a lighthouse was needed again due to the bright lights of Melbourne city which now shone behind Point Gellibrand. The light shone green and red to act as a contrast to the city lights.
In 1987 the lighthouse ceased to operate and it was taken on by the Williamstown Historical Society, who removed the circular tower and added back the timeball to commemorate its history. It was said the top tower was removed by ‘a couple of blokes with sledgehammers and no PPE’ which they did very quickly! Timeball Tower was officially re-opened in 1990.
What is a Timeball Tower?
TImeball towers are a now obsolete mechanism for signalling the correct time, usually to ships.
They consist of a large wooden or metal ball that is dropped at the same time every day (often 1pm) which enabled navigators on the ships to set their chronometers. The original timeball stations set their time using the position of the sun and stars. The ball would be raised halfway five minutes before dropping to alert the ships and then the whole way with around two minutes to go. The time was correct at the point the ball started to move, not at which it hit the bottom.
Other Examples of Timeballs
There are around 60 timeballs still standing around the world and weirdly I’ve actually written and photographed another without realising what it was – Nelson’s Monument on Calton Hill in Edinburgh.
Unusual Facts About Williamstown’s Timeball Tower
- The four corners of Timeball Tower point exactly to the four points of the compass (see image above)
- The car park in front led to one of the most brutal murders in the modern history of Williamstown, after a bitter dispute between two ice-cream truck owners ended with one ‘hacking his rival to death’. Source – Sydney Morning Herald.
- At one point the tower was painted a bright white before being restored to its original bluestone
- There is a large chip in the cornice of the west corner of the tower. This was caused during the demolition of the additional circular tower in the late 1980s.
Useful Resources About Timeball Tower
Nick visits the recently restored historic Williamstown Timeball
This is the only post I’ve found online that shows photos inside the tower.
Digital Heritage Australia: Drone Footage
Some great shots from above Timeball Tower
The Timeball Drops
Terrible quality, but the only footage I’ve been able to find of the timeball dropping.
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Williamstown Morgue: A Historic Building With Grisly Secrets