Located with a commanding view over Ōhinehou Lyttelton, the Upham Clock is a prominent landmark in the port town, a towering timepiece similar in scale to the Timeball Station on the ridge above Officers Point.
The modernist sandstone obelisk was designed in the early 1950s by renowned Christchurch architect John Hendry, a founding member of the National Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) and long-term supporter of the Canterbury Pilgrims and Early Settlers Association. Intended as a tribute to Dr Charles Hazlitt Upham, the much loved local doctor who served the port community and visiting seamen for five decades, it is surrounded by rose gardens in the middle of the site of the old Lyttelton Gaol (the site itself is a Category 1 Historic Place).
In the founding phase of the planned European settlement of Lyttelton, a wattle and daub lock up had been built on this land in 1851. In the ensuing years this proved woefully inadequate for the growing demands of the Victorian penal authority; thus a monumental gaol complex was constructed between 1871 and 1876 to Provincial Architect Benjamin Mountfort's design. It was later upgraded and extended under the eye of his successor, Thomas Cane (the man responsible for the design of the Timeball Station).
The monolithic gaol was a highly visible, imposing reminder of the penal attitudes of the era for five decades, until its demolition in 1922 when prisoners were moved to the new prison at Paparoa. Housing recalcitrants of all ilks – from 1863 inmates with mental health issues were interred at the purpose-built Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum in Addington in the city – its Hard Labour gang were responsible for many of the stone walls, breakwaters and other structures in the town and Harbour (including on Ripapa Island).
Seven men were hanged at Lyttelton Gaol between 1868 and 1918, and the incarceration without trial in 1880 of pacifist Maori there and on nearby Ripapa Island is now commemorated on Parihaka Day on 5 November each year. Followers of Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi of Taranaki and Te Āti Awa iwi, these men practised peaceful resistance to the large scale invasion and confiscation of their land at Parihaka in Taranaki by Government troops.
The Upham clock flanks the few remaining cell blocks that back onto a large original concrete retaining wall. Unveiled in 1953 in front of a large crowd by Mayor George Briggs and other dignitaries, the clock was a community statement of appreciation for Dr Upham's life of service. Affectionately known as “The Little Doctor”, Dr Upham had first come to Lyttelton in 1898 as naval surgeon on HMS Torch and eventually took over the local practice from Dr Guthrie, and the role of Port Health Officer. He also served the needs of men with leprosy interred on Ōtamahua Quail Island.
Dr Upham’s conscientious and compassionate demeanour, especially through the 1918 influenza epidemic and the depression of the 1930s, endeared him to the local populace. Bereavement notices in ‘The Lyttelton Times’ often carried heartfelt expressions of appreciation for such qualities as his “never-tiring attention”. His habit of always being accompanied by his beloved dogs, most notably little Fluff and Billy, was also a source of admiration.
The doctor left his artistic mark in a collection of over 300 watercolour and pencil portraits of local men, from seamen to coal merchants to men of the cloth, which the Museum holds in its collection; these quirky caricatures are often accompanied by short poems and word play. Dr Upham's nephew, who carried the same name, would become New Zealand's most decorated soldier in WWII, being awarded the Victoria Cross twice. There is often a misunderstanding that the Upham Clock was dedicated to this well-known soldier, but it was to his humble uncle (who even declined a knighthood) that the clock is dedicated.