The Birks clock doesn’t just tell the time. It loves to play tunes and has a repertoire of 200 songs. At high noon yesterday, in its new home at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market, it played Happy Birthday to itself.

The timepiece, officially known as The Clock of the Charging Horsemen, turned 82.

In 1929, just weeks after the great stock market crash that would give the world the Great Depression, J.E. Birks announced a present for downtown Hamilton.

He had commissioned a one-tonne clock, to be made in England and patterned after the famous Wells Cathedral clock in Somerset. And on October 11, 1930, the clock was set into motion outside the Birks jewelry and gift shop at the south-east corner of King and James.


In 1986, they put a plaque on the new Birks clock pedestal at King and James. The clock's gone, the sign remains. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Crowds watched in amazement as the knights came out to joust every 15 minutes. And for decades after, people would say, "I’ll meet you under the Birks clock."

But the 1980s brought trouble. By then, the Birks building – maybe the grandest structure ever in downtown Hamilton – had been torn down. The clock needed a new home.

For awhile, it was even spirited away to a warehouse in Toronto. Hamilton cried foul. Birks brought it back.

And in 1986, on the clock’s 56th birthday, there was a ceremony at King and James, outside the entrance to Jackson Square. The city had spent $40,000 to erect a tower on which to mount the clock. And Birks, just inside the mall’s front doors in those days, paid to refurbish the clock. A bronze plaque was unveiled.


The tower built for the Birks clock is a handy place for a police surveillance camera these days. (Paul Wilson/ CBC )

But the timepiece was never happy out on that rough and tumble corner. It usually provided the wrong time and its knights refused to charge.

So now, after a major restoration, the clock has come inside, bringing the market the right time, a short song and a manly clash on the quarter hour.

Alas, out on the street we now have a sign past its time. That plaque from 1986 remains on a tower that holds nothing but a fisheye police surveillance camera.

The plaque won’t be coming inside. The city has something grander in mind to tell the story of the Birks clock, maybe for its next birthday.

A Sign Past Its Time pops up every now and then on CBC Hamilton. If you’ve spotted an old sign that needs its story told, do let me know. 

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson.