The Noon Gun in Cape Town

Lion Battery, nestled on the lower slopes of Signal Hill, is home to one of Cape Town’s best-kept local secrets: the daily noon gun. Upon arrival, the first thing you’ll notice is the breathtaking view of the city’s western coastline stretching out before you. On a clear day, you can see the Atlantic Ocean, Table Mountain, Durbanville Winelands, and Blouberg beaches, offering panoramic vistas of Africa’s Mother City. The next sight to catch your eye will be two large cannons perched on a raised platform.

Named after its original use of flying signal flags to communicate with nearby ships from the 1700’s, Signal Hill, which stand 350 m (1,150 ft) in height, marks the transition between Cape Town’s City Centre and Sea Point, a stunning coastal neighbourhood renowned for its white sand beaches and ocean views. It’s here, in the surrounding areas, that locals and visitors await the tell-tale ‘BOOM’ signalling 12 noon sharp, Monday through Saturday. For travellers to the city, this iconic blast signals the perfect time to plan a well-deserved lunch break and check your watches so you can adjust them accordingly as the cannon fires.

Did you know that the Noon Gun is Cape Town’s oldest living tradition (and one of the oldest working daily guns in the world)? The original guns are still in use today and are maintained by the South African Navy. Having managed to survive the establishment of a Dutch and British colony, a Dutch renaissance, the British occupation of South Africa, the Anglo-Boer War, the rise and fall of apartheid, and the hard-won emergence of new democratic society — the Noon Gun is a true testament to time.

All About Cape Town’s Noon Gun

The two green cannons (there are two of them, just in case one fails) are 220 years old and have been fired since February 1806. Originally designed by Captain Thomas Blomefield and cast in 1794 by London’s Walker and Company, the guns were brought to the Cape in 1795 during the British occupation. The crest of George Rex (founder of Knysna) as well as the British crown is still visible on the machinery as well as the markings of W&Co (Walker and Company). The serial numbers 330 and 249 can also be seen, thus making is relatively easy to trace the old weaponry back to 1794.

Although both Cannons are loaded six days a week (excluding Sundays and Public Holidays), only one is fired daily whilst the second is used as a backup. Should there be a misfire, the cannoneer’s colleague is on standby and will quickly change over and fire the second gun. The original 1794 18-pounder smoothbore muzzleloaders are still used today and are reportedly the oldest daily used guns in the world. Each cannon weighs more than a whopping two tons and are loaded with 1.5kg of gunpowder.

For over a century the muzzleloaders were housed and fired from the Imhoff Battery near the Castle of Good Hope. The practice of the noon firing, however, wasn’t as simple as some trigger-happy individuals wanting to let of a bit of steam. The shooting was two-fold – for time-signal purposes and as a mark of respect. Shortly after the Imhoff Battery was destroyed in 1896, the cannons were moved to the Castle. However, in 1902 (most probably owing to their deafening volume), it was decided that the devices would be moved to Lion’s Battery on Signal Hill.

The History behind the Noon Gun

Owing to the Cape of Storms’s bad weather – the high sea and big winds – many vessels travelling around Cape Town took refuge in the sheltered Table Bay. However, after staying for a couple days, the ships would experience a loss of time owing to their inaccurate time keeping methods. Thus, the British decided to fire a cannon at (more or less) noon everyday to act as a time signal for sailors enabling them to check that their marine chronometers were correct. A marine chronometer is a precision instrument used aboard ships to help calculate longitude, a rather vital component for ships navigating by sextant on the high seas.

The firing of the guns was also used as a mark of respect for the lives lost during the wars. Sir Harry Hands, the Mayor of Cape Town at the time introduced the daily Pause of Remembrance (a two-minutes of silence) to follow the 12pm gunshot on 14 May 1918. It was said that the first minute is a time of thanksgiving for those who have survived whereas the second minute is to remember the fallen. In 2008, a plaque was unveiled at the Battery to commemorate the two-minute pause.

Is the Time Signal Really 100% Accurate, Every Day?

Believe or not, but yes it really is — down to the millisecond. Originally, the signal guns were fired according to a flare set off at approximately 12h00 from the South African Astronomical Observatory. After seeing the flare the Noon Gun artilleryman would then fire the Noon Day gun. However, this became unreliable and the SA Navy began to use the City Hall clock situated at the Cape Town parade as the suitable time. However, this too became unreliable as they soon realised that, while the Noon Gun was using the City Hall Clock for the accurate time, the City Hall Clock was using the Noon Gun to reset their clock.

These days, it is far more precise. An electrical signal is sent from the Astronomical Observatory (which has an unfailingly accurate atomic clock) a few milliseconds before noon. This burst of energy zips across the telephone lines, ignites the firing cap on the cannon, sparks the gunpowder and Boom! the cannon goes off at 12 noon, sharp. Allowing for all locals to use the opportunity to check their schedules and for all unbeknownst first-time visitors to jump out of their socks as they are given a rather startling introduction to Cape Town’s midday blast.

How to watch the firing of the Cannons at Lion Battery

Spectators and visitors can witness the firing of the noon gun every day (except Sundays). Located at Lions Battery, on Signal Hill, you’ll find two old cannons overlooking the city and Atlantic seaboard below.

Where: Access can be gained from the city centre where you can follow the ‘Noon Gun’ signs from the corner of Bloem and Buitengracht Street through the Bo-Kaap via Military Road. Although the road is not too steep, it is narrow and rather windy and should be driven with caution.

When: Arrive from 11:30am to so that you have the opportunity to appreciate the beautiful surrounding scenery and other incredible armoury located at the Battery. The SA Navy’s history presentation usually commences from 11:45am. (Signal Hill and Lion Battery are open 24/7)

Cost: Free

Fun Facts about Cape Town’s Noon Gun

What is gun-time?

During the 19th century, it was scarce to have the accurate time and therefore, all came to rely on the gun for the accurate time. Travellers from Cape Town were often asked if they had the correct ‘gun-time’ as the Noon Day firing was accepted as the ultimate accurate time.

Has the cannon ever not fired?

On 7 January 2005, both the main cannon and the backup cannon failed due to technical difficulties. This was the first time in 200-years that the cannons did not fire as per schedule.

What is the Gun Run and why are the noon cannons used?

There is one exception regarding the non-firing on Sundays – The Gun Run. The Gun Run is an annual half-marathon that takes place in the city. The race ends at noon and the gun is fired as a signal to those who have not crossed the finish line that they have not completed the race in the pre-requisite qualifying time.

How can I see or learn more about the noon blast?

The Noon Gun has its very own Twitter page: @Signal_Hill_Gun – be sure to check it out!

What if the cannon doesn’t fire?

A second gun is loaded as a stand–by, just in case the first blast misfires.

Why does a cannon fire in Cape Town every day?

As early as 1806, the Noon Day gun was used as a time signal for ships anchored in Table Bay and the cannon was fired from the Castle of Good Hope.

Why do they fire the Gun at 12 Noon?

Today, they are the oldest guns in daily use in the world and are fired every day at noon sharp to mark the time (except on Sundays and public holidays to not disturb those who wish to sleep in).

Is it really Cape Town’s oldest living tradition?

As early as 1806, the Noon Day gun was used as a time signal for ships anchored in Table Bay and the cannon was fired from the Castle of Good Hope. It was moved in 1902 to its present position, where it overlooks Cape Town, the harbour and Table Bay.

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