The Great Clock

Chris McKay

He wasn’t the sort of person you wanted for a neighbour, he was direct, rude, bombastic, right-wing, opinionated and… generally right! This was Edmund Beckett Denison the designer of the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster and the bell ‘Big Ben’.

Born in 1816, Edmund inherited a baronetcy from his father and was later created Lord Grimthorpe. He went to Eton then to Trinity in Cambridge where he was the 38th Wrangler (a student gaining first-class honours) in his year for the mathematical tripos; very close to the bottom of the class. Edmund entered law where he was involved in the Parliamentary Bar, drafting private bills for the introduction of railways. His father was the chairman of the Great Northern Railway. When Edmund died in 1905 his estate was worth just over £2m.

In 1850 Edmund wrote a book on clocks, watches and bells, the first to have a sizeable section on turret clocks, the big ones up church towers. Edmund was asked by George Airy the Astronomer Royal to become a joint referee for the provision of a great clock for the new Houses of Parliament, built following the fire of 1834. (Among the reasons for the fire was a money-saving drive that meant the heating flues were not maintained. The man who over-stoked the fire was dismissed, but his managers all got off.)

Edmund was a clever mechanic and soon designed the Great Clock the drawings of which were signed by himself and Airy. Edward John Dent, a skilled clockmaker, won the tender to make the clock in 1852. Dent also supplied clocks to Airy in the Royal Observatory and had made the turret clock for the Royal Exchange to a design by Airy. Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy, clockmaker to the Queen was irate. He was asked to tender for the clock but declined since he did not do tenders. Back in 1844 Vulliamy had been asked to produce clock plans by his friend Charles Barry the architect of the new Houses of Parliament. Vulliamy’s terms were 100 Guineas for the plans and another 100 Guineas if he did not get the order. The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, a London Livery Company of which Vulliamy was a Past Master, petitioned the government. They wanted the order cancelled, the tendering process restarted, or to have Dent supervised by a committee the membership of which was proposed by the Clockmakers Company. The commissioner of works declined.

By 1854 the Great Clock was finished, but the clock tower stood at about half its final height. EJ Dent died in 1853 and the business was then carried on by his stepson Frederick. Frederick asked the government for payment as the contract was payment on installation. He claimed that since the building was not ready this was not the fault of the clockmaker. The government was anxious to avoid paying at that time so claimed they had no contract with Frederick, it was with his late father, so they would not pay. Frederick pointed out that he had the clock, the only clock, and they should rethink. They rethought. A deal was struck.

In 1856 a bell was cast to the design of Edmund Beckett Denison. It acquired the nick name ‘Big Ben’ after Sir Benjamin Hall who was the then commissioner for works. It was installed in New Palace Yard, Westminster and rung daily for the public. In 1857 it cracked and had to be recast in 1858. A year later the tower was ready, the new bell was hauled up, and the clock installed behind the four 23½ foot diameter glazed dials. In May 1859 it was set going.

The whole arrangement far outstripped any previous clock. It drove huge dials, the norm for a parish church was about six to ten feet. The dials were illuminated by gas, the bell was huge, 13½ tons, where in most churches a large bell was just one ton. Above all, the timekeeping was exceptional; the specification calling for the first bong of the hour to be accurate to one second of time. If a church clock managed a minute a week it was doing well. The clock was constructed on the flat bed principle, wheels were bolted to a flat cast iron frame so any part could be dismantled easily. The clock is a credit to Edward and Frederick Dent and to Edmund its designer. The escapement that connects the pendulum to the clock, is a joint design between Frederick and Edmund. Edward designed the compensation pendulum that avoids timekeeping variations caused by temperature changes. Together the escapement and pendulum are responsible for the clock’s excellent timekeeping.

In September 1859 the bell cracked again and it was silent for four years whilst they figured out what to do. The solution was to partially turn the bell and use a much lighter hammer.

‘Big Ben’ is colloquially the whole clock, bells and tower, it has done great service during its lifetime. It keeps excellent time and is the iconic representation of Great Britain and London.

In October 2015 it was announced that extensive repairs were needed on the clock tower that might cost £40m.

On Monday 13 August 2017 it was announced that the bells would be silent for four years, initially for health and safety reasons and then because work would be carried out on the clock. The bells had been silent before, for nine months in 1976 and for six weeks in 2007. The media dined out on this and on Wednesday there was a U-turn when Theresa May said “it can’t be right” that the famous bongs would not be heard again until 2021. The House of Commons said it would look again at the length of time Big Ben would be silenced during renovation work after “concerns”. Perhaps a scaffolder would be startled when the bell struck, causing them to drop their hammer. Interestingly, health and safety has achieved what the Luftwaffe failed to do in 1941; when a bomb blew out a dial, the clock just carried on ticking and striking.

There is a big bill of £29m for repairing the clock. Most of that will go on stonework, a new roof, a passenger lift and internal services. For the clock, it gets a complete overhaul, the dials have their hands removed, the gearing behind them is refurbished plus new glass and repairs.

The clock was born in controversy; as an unpaid referee Edmund Beckett Denison bullied the clock into existence. He once said “The ideal committee consists of two persons, myself as chairman and the second member is an absentee”. Today the clock is surrounded by committees. Hopefully the restoration work will all be safely done, on time and within budget. We hope.

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