Today marks Big Ben’s 160th anniversary and there is much to celebrate

Posted On: 
11th July 2019

Today not only marks 160 years since the Great Bell, Big Ben, began striking on 11 July 1859 – but also the midway point of the Elizabeth Tower restoration project, writes Charlotte Claughton

Charlotte Claughton, who is Senior Project Leader

Big Ben’s birthday comes just after the Great Clock celebrated the same milestone birthday on 31 May. But, in addition to this significant birthday, we are excited to be reaching the halfway stage in the Elizabeth Tower restoration project. This is a complex programme, with hundreds of experts around the country working on different elements of the project. Their hard work and dedication means we have reached this midpoint with many major components restored and ready to go back in place. It means that late next year we will be in a position to start taking down scaffolding to reveal this much-loved landmark restored to its former glory.

One of the milestones we have reached has been the removal of the entire cast iron roof of the Elizabeth Tower: 3,433 individual pieces of cast iron roof have been repaired and replaced where necessary, and reinstallation has commenced. The Ayrton Light at the top of the Elizabeth Tower is a lantern-like structure installed in 1885 which shines whenever either House of Parliament sits after dark. It has been taken offsite and refurbished – and will be replaced once the roof is complete.

Meanwhile, the North Dial has been re-glazed, repainted and re-gilded in the original Prussian blue and gilt Victorian colour scheme. It is visible from below and will be for the remainder of the project. Restoration of the remaining clock dials continues. Each cast iron frame is blast cleaned and repainted – 324 individual pieces of mouth-blown and hand-cut glass are then painstakingly installed into the frame by an expert team of stained-glass artists. The bespoke glass is opal in colour and has been tested and colour matched to ensure that it replicates the Victorian original. When lit from behind, the glass must diffuse the light and show a consistent colour across the dial, despite being made up of hundreds of separate pieces.

All repairs to the stonework are being worked and carved by hand. Gilding is also in progress, including on the cross and orb at the top and the carved writing around the clock dials. 

The Great Bell, Big Ben – thought to be named after Sir Benjamin Hall, Chief Commissioner of Works at the time the bell was installed – has remained in place throughout the works. The first bell, cast in 1856 at Stockton-on-Tees, was brought to London by rail and sea. During tests in New Palace Yard a fatal crack appeared. The bell was broken up and a second bell was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. After just a few months of use the new bell also cracked and was silent for four years. It was restored in 1863 when the bell was rotated 90 degrees and a lighter hammer was installed to make sure it would not happen again. 

'The Great Clock itself was dismantled into thousands of components, weighing more than 11 tonnes in total' 

While Big Ben is still in good condition, the Great Clock itself was dismantled into thousands of components, weighing more than 11 tonnes in total. These were winched down from the Tower before work could begin to ensure that the clock mechanism was protected from dust. It also enabled our team of clock mechanics to complete a full overhaul of all the components – including the original clock hands. An electric motor has been installed to drive the temporary hands of the clock whilst the mechanism is restored. 

When the essential work to conserve the Elizabeth Tower is completed, the clock parts will start making the journey back up the Tower to be reassembled. Then the mechanism will be reattached to the hands and the bells. Standing at 96 metres tall, the Elizabeth Tower is a focal point of the Grade I listed Palace of Westminster, which forms a part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Not only is it a world-famous landmark, it is also one of the most photographed buildings in the UK. I am sure many will be eager at the prospect of photographing its newly refurbished condition soon.

Charlotte Claughton is Senior Project Leader