The Elizabeth Tower is the face of the British Houses of Parliament. It houses the clock, which faces out to the world on four faces, and contains the bells which chime, the largest is known as Big Ben. The Tower was known as Big Ben until 2012 when it was renamed Elizabeth to honour the 60-year reign of our monarch.
Built in 1859, then called the King’s Tower, it was renamed the Victoria Tower to mark the 60th year of her reign. Much more information is available at https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/big-ben/
As a child on an exciting trip to London my parents took me to climb the 334 steps to the top of the tower. It will still be possible to join a group, once restoration is completed. Look at https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/tours-of-parliament/bigben/. You must ask your MP (I know mine will not join me. the stairs would kill her).
I signed my name of the white wall behind the west-facing clock face and was fascinated to be told that the clock’s accuracy was determined by placing a Victorian penny on the regulator. There’s plenty of detail about the clock at https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/big-ben/facts-figures/great-clock-facts/
That’s all about to change as the tower is being completely restored. The original cost was £29 million, that has now crept p to £61 million, no doubt thanks to the vigilance of the quantity surveyors (QS) on the project. As I was once a QS I can only applaud their determination, as a tax-payer I remain doubtful.
Started in 2017 it is nearing completion in 2020. The scaffolding is slowly being removed. Once complete we shall see several changes. Plenty of gold leaf, black paint removed by a tasteful blue. The new colour scheme brings the Tower back to its original state, with over 14 layers of black paint removed.
Restoring has meant undertaking key internal and external conservation and refurbishment works, including waterproofing and addressing severe condensation problems as well as modernising the building to improve standards in safety, access and visitor and workspace facilities. The project includes:
- Work to prevent the clock mechanism from failing, as it is currently in a chronic state.
- Addressing urgent problems caused by decay to the fabric of the building, both internally and externally.
- Health & safety and fire safety improvements, including installation of a lift.
- Enhanced energy efficiency through modern lighting of the tower face and other measures.
The first clock tower was erected in New Palace Yard. It had one dial and a bell
The early clock tower was replaced with a new tower and clock. This was the first public chiming clock in England.
The clock tower had fallen into disrepair. Its bell was sent to St Paul’s Cathedral but broke en route
The medieval clock tower was pulled down and a sun dial put up in its place
The bell from the clock tower was recast and later hung in the South West Tower of St Paul’s Cathedral. If Big Ben is ever unable to strike, the bell in St Paul’s is heard instead
The Palace of Westminster was almost completely destroyed by fire.
Construction of the new Palace of Westminster began. Architect, Charles Barry won the commission to design the new palace and included a clock tower in his final designs.
Construction began on the Clock Tower. Foundation stone was laid.
A competition was held to decide who should build the clock. The Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy was the referee. Stipulations for the clocks accuracy meant it took seven years before the designs were finalised.
John Dent was appointed to build the clock to the designs of Edmund Beckett Denison. This was the same year that the new Palace of Westminster, designed by architect Sir Charles Barry with the assistance of Augustus Welby Pugin, was opened by Queen Victoria at the State Opening.
The clock mechanism was completed.
The first ‘Big Ben’ bell was cast at Warners of Norton near Stockton-on-Tees, the bell was originally to be called ‘Royal Victoria’.
The first ‘Big Ben’ developed a four foot (1.2m) crack during testing and was condemned. Warners, the bell’s manufacturer, and Edmund Beckett Denison, designer of the Great Clock, clashed over who was responsible for the damage.
In April, the second ‘Big Ben’ was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London. It was transported to New Palace Yard on a carriage drawn by 16 white horses and raised to the belfry.
The Great Clock started ticking on 31 May and the Great Bell’s strikes were heard for the first time on 11 July. Later that year, Big Ben was found to be fractured in two places. While a solution was sought, Big Ben remained silent with the largest quarter bell striking the hourly chime.
At the suggestion of Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, Big Ben was turned by an eighth and the hammer size was reduced thus allowing Big Ben to strike the hours once more. A telegraphic link to the Greenwich Observatory was installed to check the accuracy of the time keeping.
BBC Radio first broadcast Big Ben’s chimes to the United Kingdom on New Year’s Eve.
Big Ben’s strikes broadcast internationally for the first time by the Empire Service (later the World Service) as part of King George V’s Christmas broadcast.
From this date until April 1945, the clock dials remained in darkness to comply with blackout regulations during the Second World War.
The clock dials were re-illuminated when the wartime blackout regulations were lifted.
In the middle of the night on the 5 August, a mechanical failure caused serious damage to the Great Clock. The pendulum weights spiralled out of control down the weight shaft and the clock mechanism exploded. Big Ben was silenced for nearly nine months. The repairs were completed in time for the bells to ring out to mark the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee visit to Westminster Hall in May 1977.
Big Ben and the quarter bells were silenced from 11 August to 1 October while the Great Clock underwent essential maintenance work.
Big Ben celebrated its 150th anniversary with a year of events and activities.
The Clock Tower was renamed the Elizabeth Tower to honour Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
The House of Parliament are about to face a restoration project of its own. That cost will be considerable. Ideally (in my opinion) we would gain much by building a new Parliament somewhere around Lindley Hall Farm, Leicestershire (near Fenny Drayton and Higham on the Hill) (52°33′42.942″N 1°27′53.474″W; SP 36373.66 96143.05)  A plaque denoting this point, and disputing the “traditional” centre of England as being at Meriden in the West Midlands, was erected by Ordnance Survey on 14 June 2013.
This location assumes that Scotland will leave the United Kingdom. Whatever place is chosen it will help us all to move the centre of power out of London. After all Canberra became Australia’s capital once all the indigenous folk had been removed. Think of the housing possibilities, and the reduced risk of running into Al Jemal.