It would be forgivable to presume that John Askew was an exceptionally punctual man, as over the course of his life he accumulated more than 100 clocks. Today these timepieces still tick away at Museum Victoria – precious for their historical value and testament to the constant and unstoppable passing of time. Symbolic too: For even when your time is up, traces of your existence remain in the things you leave behind.
John Askew was born in 1890 in ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, so-called at the time because the barely 60-year-old city had grown and prospered thanks to the Victorian gold rush. The streets of the city centre jostled with horses and carts, while grand structures such as the Hotel Windsor and the (long-gone) Federal Coffee Palace dominated the developing CBD.
John’s father David was an architect of one of the early landmarks, the Block Arcade, completed just two years after John’s birth and beautifully preserved to this day. It remains a much-loved thoroughfare with Melburnian locals and tourists alike; strolling through the Block is like winding the clock back to that opulent Melbourne of yesteryear.
John followed in his father’s footsteps and by age 30, was working as a partner in the same architectural and civil engineering firm, called Twentyman and Askew. At the time, Melbourne was continuing to grow and had added the iconic clock tower of Flinders St station to its skyline, which to this day remains a favourite meeting-spot in the city – often referred to by locals as ‘meeting under the clocks’.
Not that John himself was in need of public timepieces. He already had so many clocks of his own that he began loaning them to the Industrial and Technological Museum, a forerunner of Museum Victoria. This was apt, as the Great War had not only accelerated scientific and technological development but stoked public interest in these fields. By 1928 Askew had 80 clocks on long-term loan to the Museum, with the intention that he would bequeath them all when he died.
In 1930, however, Askew wrote to the trustees in frustration that only half of his 120-clock collection was on display. He referred to an unnamed ‘interstate museum’ that had reached out to offer him extensive space for a new collection, then inquired “whether there is any possibility of my collection being allotted a similar space in your Museum, as my feelings are that I do not want to start another collection for an Interstate Museum necessitating further duplications while there is a possibility of concentrating on one, at the same time I do not feel inclined to keep on adding to a collection which is only being exhibited in part.” The trustees took the hint and promptly promised Askew that space would be found for the whole collection.
That bump in the relationship overcome, Askew continued to donate objects of interest to the Museum, from household items to tools of trade – although how he acquired them was usually a mystery. By the time he died on 21 December 1945, he had donated a total of 543 objects – predominantly clocks and watches – and in his Will, carefully prepared four years earlier, also left an annual bequest to the Museum that continues to this day, funding the ongoing acquisition of timepieces for the collection.
However, Askew’s legacy isn’t simply about clocks and watches. Perhaps a more conventional component of the legacy is the John and Maud Askew Scholarships, set up by John Askew in his Will “for the benefit and advancement of State School pupils”. Each year, a Department of Education and Training (DET) panel submit to Equity Trustees a shortlist of enthusiastic and well-performing, but financially challenged, students from across Victoria. Equity Trustees faithfully continues the task set by the Will to award scholarships to dozens of these students from year 4 all the way up to year 11. During the past decade the Trust distributed an amount of $566,000 towards these scholarships.
Perhaps John Askew, surrounded by all those time-pieces, recognised better than most that time goes on no matter what – and that even after your own time is done, your legacy – just like a clock – can continue to tick on.