Great Westminster Clock

All through this hour
Lord be my Guide
That by Thy Power
No foot shall slide

The chimes of the planet’s most famous clock are set to the above verse from the aria I Know that My Redeemer Liveth in Handel’s Messiah. But ‘Big Ben’ is not the name of the clock (the Great Westminster Clock) or, indeed, its tower (the Clock Tower) but is actually the nickname of the Great Bell – the largest of the five bells. Weighing in at 13.76 tonnes, it wasn’t the original bell either. The first was a 16.3 tonne beast that cracked beyond repair during testing.

The purpose of this piece is to celebrate a birthday – a 150th birthday, in fact, for the Great Westminster Clock first chimed in 1859. Earlier buildings on the site were destroyed in a giant fire in 1834 which led to Barry and Pugin’s famous Gothic design for a new Palace being chosen by the Royal Commission soon afterwards. The clock was built from designs by the clockmaker Edward Dent which had been modified by a leading barrister and amateur horologist called Edmund Beckett Denison. His ‘double three-legged gravity escapement’ separated the pendulum from the interference of weather on the clock hands; one of the reasons behind its remarkable accuracy.

During my time working in the Houses of Parliament, I have taken the opportunity of climbing the Clock Tower’s 334 steps on several occasions on the official tours. Contrary to popular belief, the Clock Tower is not actually the tallest part of the building (it feels like it though when you’re walking); it is 96m tall so is just beaten by the Victoria Tower on the other end which stands at 98m. Quite amazingly, after having to be winched up the Clock Tower on its side, Big Ben actually cracked. It was turned a quarter and cuts were made to stop the crack spreading but the fact remains that the bell that is there today remains damaged.

Locally, we have several impressive clock towers including the Clock Tower at the foot of Queen’s Road in Brighton of 1888 along with Preston Park’s Clock Tower of 1891. Both are distinctive but neither compares to that which houses Big Ben. It’s obviously unfair to compare though.

The Great Westminster Clock began keeping time on 31st May 1859 so be sure to send a decent birthday card. See www.bigben.parliament.uk for more details.