Even though Sri Lanka was declared an independent state in 1948 many of the remnants of colonialism was left behind. The last state to occupy the country were the British and their architectural structures have forever influenced our country and our history. The Colombo Lighthouse and Clock Tower in Sri Lanka is one such noteworthy architectural site.
The Colombo Lighthouse was initially constructed as a clock tower in 1856 and completed on the 25th of February 1857 and the tower was designed by the wife of Governor Sir Henry George Ward. The construction work was undertaken by the Public Works Department. It was supervised by the Director of Public Works himself; Mr John Flemming Churchill.
The proposition to build a lighthouse for the Colombo harbor was put forward in 1815.
The original time-piece was commissioned for a value of ₤1,200 in 1814 by the Governor at that time Sir Robert Browning. But the unit was stored in a warehouse without being installed due to economic hardships until it was finally put in place in 1857 after the work on the lighthouse ended in 1856.
Located at the corner of Chatham Street in the North West of Colombo Fort lies this elegant Victorian era clock tower. The tower also functioned as a light house as evident by the lamp that still exists on top to this day.
The first light was powered by Kerosene oil and is claimed to have cleared an area of 17 miles out to sea in clear weather. According to the plaque on the side of the tower it displayed its beam seaward every 5 seconds. Atop the semi globe roof is a metallic arrow that is used to show the direction the wind is blowing.
The original Colombo Lighthouse and Clock Tower in Sri Lanka was of a “Neo – Classical” structure.
The clock mechanism in the Colombo Lighthouse and Clock Tower in Sri Lanka takes much significance due to its origin. It was constructed by renowned British watchmakers “Dent”. Dent is also behind the manufacturing of the world famous “Big Ben” in Westminster Palace, London. The main bell in the time-piece weighed approx. 250kg or 550 pounds and the 2 auxiliary supporting bells weighed about 150kg or 335 pounds each.
The navigational light, the most prominent part of the lighthouse was positioned in 1867. The operation of the Diroptic-Light was constructed by the “Chance Brothers”. The light is claimed to have been visible to an eye located 60m above sea level up to a distance of 27km in clear weather. The light would have a triple flash being each of 1 second duration which could be seen by sailors far and wide.
Initially the light was powered by kerosene, a very popular and efficient means of portable energy generation at the time. As time progressed in 1907 the kerosene was replaced with Gas, which was deemed far more practical and safe since kerosene was difficult to replace and was difficult to carry up the tower. Finally in 1933 the light was powered by electricity, which was readily available and very efficient though primitive at the time.
In 1913 the clock unit was replaced with the clock that exists today. It has a six foot glazed opal glass for illumination and after its installation the Colombo Lighthouse and Clock Tower in Sri Lanka was inaugurated in 1914.
At the time when the clock was commissioned, it was one of the tallest standing in Colombo. It fulfilled its purpose of showing the way to many sailors for many years until its light became obscured by buildings that quickly rose all around it. It was finally decommissioned on the 12th of July in the year 1952 with the modern Galle Buck lighthouse located in Marine Drive taking its responsibility.
The Lighthouse is considered a historical and cultural landmark giving the fact that it is one of the few lighthouses of the colonial era still operational to this date. It is claimed that the clock in the lighthouse was commissioned so that worker in that area of Colombo can be more punctual since personal watches could not be afforded by everyone back in the day.