The famed hill that now acts as a pretty perch from which to see the Mother City’s splendid views was not always a hotspot for evening drives. In years come and gone, Signal Hill was used to announce the arrival of visitors in Cape Town.

The signal guns that now call Lion Battery on Signal Hill home were once part of the regular artillery at Imhoff Battery at the Castle in Cape Town but when the Cape was occupied by the British in 1806, the Dutch guns were moved to Signal Hill. They fired their first shot on the hill on August 4, 1902.

The view from the road to Signal Hill in 1960.

In these days, many knew Cape Town as “The Tavern of the Seas” and sailing ships would dock from far and wide to replenish their travel rations.

With no phones or telegraphs to announce visitors to the seaside town, the sound of guns were relied on to let residents know a new ship had arrived. This purpose did not last long as it was discontinued when modern communication replaced it.

The Noon Gun decades ago.

Luckily for Signal Hill, this was not the only duty on its list. The guns were also tasked with firing a Time Signal since 1806 before the guns were even placed on the slope. According to tradition the guns allowed ships in the port to check the accuracy of their Marine Chronometers which helped them calculate longitude.

Ships would mark their time by the puff of smoke seen from the guns rather then the sound of the shot, for this reason the guns had to be perfectly positioned above the Cape Town Harbour. This method has changed somewhat over the years.

Cows grazing at Signal Hill.

Once the Galvanic Telegraph was invented it became possible to trigger a gun remotely and since 1864 the Noon Gun has been fired from the Master Clock of the oldest timekeeper in the country, the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Interestingly enough one day in June 1895 the gun fired at 10.30am instead of its usual 12pm when a spider interfered with the relay used to fire the gun. Over the years the hill became associated with signalling whether it was for arriving ships or specific times of the day and so it became known as Signal Hill.

Cape Town Docks from Signal Hill.

The guns used to signal noon are among the oldest in the world, they are 18-pounder, smoothbore muzzle-loaders and represent an important tradition in Cape history. To this day everyday at noon sharp the guns are fired, except on Sundays or Public Holidays. They are actively maintained by the South African Navy.

Over the years, many remarkable things have happened as a result of firing the guns on Signal Hill. Many decades ago it is said a horse was once killed in the city when a rammer used to trap the charge into the muzzle of the gun was left in the bore of the Cannon, causing it to fly down into the city and strike a horse when it was fired.

In January 2005, both the main gun and the Backup Gun failed to fire due to technical difficulty, making it the first time in over 100 years when the Noon Gun did not fire on schedule.

Pictures: Facebook/ Cape Town Down Memory Lane/ Heritage Portal


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