The story of Big Ben through our collections
Big Ben is an iconic part of the London landscape as well as a visual metaphor for British politics. Artists have found in Elizabeth Tower—the building in which the clock and its bell sit—everything from mechanical marvel to topical satire. Parliament’s Heritage Collections contain many representations of, and responses to, Big Ben. You can view several of these in this exhibition, which starts with Ben’s predecessor and finishes with its 21st century restoration.
Use the buttons below to scroll through the exhibition, and make 12 stops around the clock.
Midnight: Before Ben
Before Ben, there was Tom. This cityscape preserves a vision of Westminster before ‘Big Ben’ became synonymous with the capital’s skyline. It shows us the old Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey’s towers rising behind it.
In this earlier building, a bell known as ‘Great Tom of Westminster’ summoned people to Parliament and to the law courts near Palace Yard.
In 1800, the ‘old’ Westminster bridge, a Portland Stone construction by Charles Labelye, was just 50 years old. The city of Westminster grew rapidly in the eighteenth century, reaching over 160,000 inhabitants by 1801, roughly the time this painting was made.
Palace of Westminster about 1800 Painting by Unknown ©UK Parliament WOA 5410
1 O’Clock: The Tower Rises
This engraving of the ‘new’ Westminster Bridge also captures the steadily rising tower of the new Palace of Westminster.
The construction of the tower involved innovative engineering that dug away chunks of land from the banks of the Thames.
Ten years before the date of this engraving, watermen (taxi drivers of the Thames) petitioned the government about the disruption to their usual landing spot. It was now underneath the foundations of the Houses of Parliament!
The engraver of this image is standing on London’s South Bank. We can see sailing barges and wherries in the foreground, transporting people and goods (note the sails and oars). To the right, there are two paddle steamers. “The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters,” a melancholy Thomas Carlyle observed some years earlier; “there is no end to machinery.”
New Westminster-Bridge – General View – Thomas Page, engineer; about 1850 Print by Unknown and Smyth & Co ©UK Parliament WOA 1894
2 O’Clock: Ben Being Born
This is a wooden pattern wheel, which helped to cast some of Big Ben’s mechanism. By placing pattern wheels into sand, forgers created moulds into which molten metal would be poured. This mould is 71.8cm wide and 14cm deep and produced one of many parts which form the bell mechanism/clockwork.
The right to design the new clock for Parliament was determined by a competition. The winning design was by Edward Beckett Denison, who was selected by The Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy. Denison was a barrister, and later a vicar, with a wide array of interests.
The clock was made by Edward Dent, who was born close to the Palace of Westminster in 1790. Dent was initially bound to become a tallow chandler (a candlemaker), but after a stay with his watchmaker cousin he became fascinated by clockwork. He pursued an array of timekeeping experiments and by the 1850s was an established name. He successfully tendered for the commission, but he passed away in 1853 and it was his son, Frederick, who finished the job.
Great Clock by Unknown © UK Parliament AFC 005002
3 O’Clock: Ben is the Biggest
What was the sound of London in the 1850s? Henry Mayhew’s famous survey of the working poor emphasises the ‘thousand different cries of the eager dealers, all shouting at the top of their voices, at one and the same time.’ They were selling chestnuts, oysters, paper, grapes, fish, bonnets, bootlaces, and whelks in a great ‘Babel.’
Author, Charles Dickens, described the ‘whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of oxen,’ and elsewhere conjured the ceaseless industrial sound of steam and railroad works. The new bell had to compete with this busy soundscape.
Perhaps that’s why, as this engraving from ‘The Illustrated London News’ boasts, it was the largest ever cast. However, the bell pictured here, cast in 1856 in Stockton-on-Tees, proved short-lived. It cracked during testing and was deemed ‘porous, homogenous, unsound, and a defective casting.’ It was replaced by a new bell, cast nearby at Whitechapel by the Mears foundry in 1848.
Its name, Big Ben, may have been in honour of the MP who was Commissioner of Works at the time of its construction, Sir Benjamin Hall. It rings out (amid the London cries, hisses, and roars) in the note of E.
Big Ben the Largest Bell Ever Cast in England, Print by Edward Lewis & Co. ©UK Parliament WOA 1414
4 O’Clock: A Beacon
By summer 1859, the new tower was complete. What might it have been like to notice, for the first time, the new Palace and its iconic towers?
Henry Mayhew suggests Londoners would have only a few moments, ‘as the streets grow blue with the coming light, and the church spires and roof-tops stand out against the clear sky with a sharpness of outline that is seen only in London before its million chimneys cover the town with their smoke […].’
To cut through the infamous smog of the city, and so Queen Victoria could see when debates were in progress, experiments began in the 1860s to establish electric light in the top of the tower. Acton Smee Ayrton, who was Commissioner of Works from 1869-70, led this effort. This image captures the innovative and early attempts at electrification within (or on top of) a large civic building. By 1885, the new ‘Ayrton Light’ was installed at the very top of Elizabeth Tower, which shines after dark whenever one of the two Houses is sitting.
Detail from Light on the Clock Tower, Print by The Illustrated London News ©UK Parliament WOA 6141
5 O’Clock: Big Ben’s Little Sibling?
The clock in Elizabeth Tower has smaller siblings elsewhere on the parliamentary estate, which is filled with chronometric design.
This regulator – a highly accurate timekeeper by which other clocks were set – was made by James Brook (1826-1893). Brook was a foreman in Dent’s workshop, which oversaw the building of the Great Clock itself. Like Big Ben, Edmund Beckett Denison designed this smaller timepiece. It counts the hours in the Law Lords’ Corridor near the House of Lords Chamber.
Regulator by James Brock and Sir Edmund Beckett ©UK Parliament POW 10855
6 O’Clock: An Emblem
The Elizabeth Tower rapidly came to be associated with British democracy and its processes. In this pen and ink cartoon drawing by J. P. Stafford, the clock tower is the metaphorical seat of democracy—or rather, a perch.
The sketch transforms the leading Parliamentarians of 1892 into birds ‘Coming Home to Roost’. The two titans of late nineteenth-century politics are present: Prime Minister William Gladstone in the top-left (with his characteristic upturned collar) and his opposite Benjamin Disraeli on the top right.
The Speaker of the House, Arthur Wellesley Peel, whose job it would be to manage the debates in the chamber, perches on the top of the spire. Other major political figures are noticeable: the Marquess of Salisbury on the right sports a large curly beard. Below him is the bespectacled Lord Arthur Balfour, known for being slim and tall and so depicted here as a stork with long legs and neck. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Harcourt, hovers to the left of the clock with a plume of pound notes for a tail.
Coming Home to Roost Drawing by John Philip Stafford ©UK Parliament WOA 6481
7 O’Clock: Mother Ben
The British politician and reformer John Bright declared in 1865, ‘England is the mother of parliaments.’
The phrase, which was reported out of the context of his speech in Birmingham in favour of political reform, quickly came to serve as a nickname for Westminster’s democratic system and its buildings.
Here, the prolific twentieth-century cartoonist Joseph Lee takes the phrase quite literally. This sketch was made on the 9 May 1974, following a dramatic week in the House of Commons. The tower holds up her skirt and walks away, a peg on her nose— perhaps a commentary on the tone of political debate.
The old Lady is not amused Mother of Parliaments The innuendo session, Drawing by Joseph Lee © The Artist’s Estate, Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 3791
8 O’Clock: Lives Another Day
On the 10 May 1941—the worst night of the Blitz in London during World War 2—several parts of the Parliamentary estate caught fire and Big Ben was itself reeling from attack.
This visually arresting painting shows the Palace on the defensive: lights emerge from all over the building, looking for enemy planes. An earlier bomb had shattered the glass on the clock’s south dial. The bell itself and the clock mechanism, however, were not to be silenced; Big Ben rang on the hour throughout the entirety of the war. They were defiant chimes, heard around the world thanks to the BBC World Service.
Our Story on the Blitz explores more details about the Palace during World War 2.
Palace of Westminster at night Drawing by Unknown ©UK Parliament WOA 2673
9 O’Clock: Inner Workings
This watercolour study of the inner mechanics of the tower was made as part of artist Paul Osborne’s preparations for an aerial view of Westminster. Rather than a bird’s eye view, however, here we have an engineer’s eye view.
The climb to the clock of Elizabeth Tower is 292 steps. A further 42 will take you up to the Belfry, where we see here Big Ben fixed at the foot of the spiral stairs. Another 65 steps take you to the Ayrton Light at the top.
There are four bells other than Big Ben, known as quarter bells, which combine to make the chimes.
Osborne has also painted other studies of working buildings in Britain, such as Chatham Dockyard. While Parliament may be an iconic institution, this sketch reminds us it’s also a workplace built in high industrial England.
The Belfry of Big Ben in the Clock Tower, Palace of Westminster. Drawing by Paul Osborne © Paul Osborne, Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 3715
10 O’Clock: The River’s Companion
Brendan Neiland’s work explores light and space in the built environment. He is known in particular for his ‘reflective’ paintings of urban buildings and objects.
As we have seen, since its inception and construction, the new Palace of Westminster has had a complex and enduring relationship with the Thames. Neiland’s detailed acrylic painting playfully privileges the river’s view of Parliament.
Westminster Reflected, 1990, Painting by Brendan Neiland © Brendan Neiland Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 7480
11 O’Clock: A New Day
Reyntiens Glass Studio, based in London’s Hoxton, were key in the 21st century restoration of Elizabeth Tower.
John Reyntiens, a stained glass artist, explains, ‘we’ve been honoured and thrilled to be involved in this project.’ After the metalwork of the clock faces were clean and freshly painted, the company cut and installed 324 pieces of white opalescent glass by hand.
Reyntiens gifted this artwork to Parliament. Each member of the team who worked on the glass clock faces has signed the print.
Time here is unfixed by any clock hands. The restoration project might help return us to the years during which the New Palace of Westminster was constructed: ‘the illimitable, silent never-resting thing called time, rolling, rushing on, swift, silent, like an all-embracing ocean tide’ Thomas Carlyle, 1840.
Timeless, Print by John Reyntiens © John Reyntiens, Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 7737