Building Elizabeth Tower
On 28 September 1843, the foundation stone for the clock tower was laid and work started.
Above: New Palace of Westminster 1858, Colour lithograph published by Vacher & Son. © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1656
Building materials for the tower were transported by road and boat from all over the country. Bricks came from Hendon in Middlesex, stone from Anston near Sheffield in South Yorkshire, step and paving stone from Hopton Wood near Matlock in Derbyshire and slate was brought from the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire in South Wales. Stone for the interior was brought from Caen in Normandy, France.
Hundreds of pieces of white opal glass were used for the clock dials. When boats arrived with materials, a winch lifted them on to the riverbank to masons and bricklayers. The stone was worked to produce the delicate carving before it was taken to the base of the tower.
As with most of the rest of the New Palace, the builders who constructed the tower up to clock dial level were Grissell and Peto. John Jay of London built the dials and roof section.
Built from the inside out
The tower was built from the inside out. Londoners could see the tower slowly rise above the city with no workmen or materials visible. Sixty-one meters of brickwork covered with sand-coloured Anston stone rose out of the ground before the two-tier iron spire was added.
Above: Panoramic view of Westminster in about 1854 with Victoria Tower and Clock Tower unfinished, Monochrome photographic print by Unknown. © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2389.
A special gantry was set up on the top of the tower to make it easier to assemble the brick and stone, layer by layer. Steam-powered winches lifted the materials up a shaft within the tower so that no scaffolding was needed. Jacks were used to lift the gantry up the tower as it increased in height.
The tower was divided up inside to provide:
- a tall stone winding staircase in one corner,
- an air shaft to bring in fresh air to the rest of the palace from a high level, and
- a weight shaft for the clock in the centre.
At lower levels there were rooms for prisoners – those MPs who did not follow the rules of the House of Commons. Above these, there were rooms to store official documents.
Brick floors with stone paving on top were supported by cast iron beams. Cast and wrought iron for the roof was fashioned by Jabez James of Lambeth who also made the mighty bell-frame for the five bells, as well as the four cast iron dials. Cast iron details on the roof were carried out by John Hardman of Birmingham and painted decoration and gilding was undertaken by F. Crace & Son, London.
Construction fell five years behind schedule and Parliament had to move into the new building before the clock tower was finished. From the laying of the foundation stone, it took sixteen years before the bells would ring out across Westminster.