How the clock tower has changed over the decades
In the 1870s, early experiments with generating electric light were made in the upper gallery between the two sections of the roof. Acton Smee Ayrton, a Liberal politician, was First Commissioner of Works between 1869 and 1873. He had an idea.
Perhaps a signal light near the top of the clock tower could help light the streets of Westminster below and also alert MPs to when the House was sitting. In an early use of the direct current dynamo developed by the Belgian inventor, Zenobe Gramme, a powerful light shone from the tower on to the streets below.
The permanent ‘Ayrton Light’ was eventually installed by J. Edmundson & Co., London (originally of Dublin) in 1892 using a Wigham lighthouse lamp. Although the electric light experiments in the tower had been successful, the commercial supply of electricity was some time in the future, so the Ayrton Light was initially powered by gas jets.
Above: Light on the Clock Tower (Detail), The Illustrated London News, by Illustrated London News, © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 6141
The first street lighting in London powered by electricity, supplied from Gramme generators, was trialled in the lamps of the Victoria Embankment in 1878. The Ayrton Light was converted to electricity in 1903, and the clock dial lighting was changed from gas to electricity in 1906.
Over a hundred years later, the Ayrton Light is still in use. It is undergoing another upgrade as part of the current conservation project and will be upgraded to LED lights to reduce the tower’s environmental impact.
“All the other [clocks] are wrong”
On 31 March 1930, Mr John Remer MP asked Mr George Lansbury, First Commissioner of Works why Big Ben wasn’t telling the right time.
asked the First Commissioner of Works what steps are taken to ensure that the time given by Big Ben is correct?
The clock is checked daily by Greenwich Observatory. During the past 290 days the error has exceeded one second on eight days only.
Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied, in view of the fact that Big Ben is three minutes slow compared with every other clock in the country?
I should say that all the others are wrong and that Big Ben is right.
Bonging through the bombing
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Big Ben’s bright clock dials and the Ayrton Light suddenly became a liability.
The large building became too easy to recognise and could potentially help German bombers navigate the London sky. In 1939, the lights behind the clock dials and the Ayrton Light were turned off until the end of the war in 1945.
Above: Palace of Westminster at night, Watercolour by Unknown, © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2673
The Palace of Westminster was hit by bombs 14 times. The bombs which fell on the nights of 10 and 11 May 1941 caused the greatest damage to the Palace. The Commons Chamber was hit, and the roof of Westminster Hall was set on fire.
A small bomb struck the clock tower and broke all the glass in its south dial. The clock and bells were undamaged, and the chimes were broadcast as usual.
The bells of the clock tower have been broadcast on the radio since New Year’s Eve 1923 and they became a symbol of freedom throughout the Second World War, raising the morale of people at home and of those fighting overseas.
Work was done to repair the glass in the clock dials by Chance Brothers of Smethwick, and soon Big Ben was repaired again. In April 1945, the clock dials and the Ayrton were once again to shine brightly over London as the wartime blackout regulations were lifted.
It wasn’t until decades later it was discovered that the damage had been more severe than first thought. Modern surveying technology revealed fractures and structural damage which was not detectable by the methods available in the 1940s and 1950s.
Honouring our monarchs
The hour bell has been used to mark the death of four sovereigns – King Edward VII, King George V, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. The bell was tolled slowly. For the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, the bells were silent as a mark of respect.
Since it was built, the official name of the tower has been the Clock Tower, though to people around the world it is of course known affectionately as Big Ben after the Great Bell. MPs from across the House backed a campaign to rename the clock tower the ‘Elizabeth Tower’ to honour HM Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. On 25 June 2012, the House of Commons Commission decided to make it so.
Queen Victoria was given a similar honour when the Palace of Westminster was built. The other main tower at the southern end of the Palace, designed as the royal entrance and containing the Parliamentary Archives, was named the Victoria Tower.
Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth are the only British monarchs to have celebrated diamond jubilees and this makes them the two longest reigning monarchs in British history.
Scaffolding on Big Ben
The tower has been wrapped in scaffolding for repairs on three occasions since it was built – in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s. In 2017, the most comprehensive and complex conservation of the old clock tower began, with scaffolding removed from the entirety of the Elizabeth Tower in 2022. Read all about it here.