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The most famous clock in the world – Big Ben

Big Ben


The worlds most photographed antique clock has been standing proudly to dominate London’s skyline for over 150 years. Big Ben is how everyone has come to call it,  is the nickname for the great bell of the clock. Now everyone refers to Big Ben as the overall clock and tower. The tower as it so happens is to be renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honour of the Queen. This is to celebrate the Queen’s 60 year reign.

Great Tom

The clock tower as we know today as ‘Big Ben’ is not the first clock tower to stand in Parliament’s grounds. The first tower nicknamed ‘Great Tom’ was built in 1288-90. A second tower replaced the first in 1367 and this was the first chiming public clock in England. In 1707 this tower had fallen into a state of disrepair and was demolished. When a terrible fire destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster in 1834, architects submitted designs for the new Palace. Of the 97 designs submitted, Sir Charles Barry’s was picked. His design did not originally have a clock tower but this was added to his design in 1836. Construction of this tower began in 1843.

Dent Clockmaker

Clearly the manufacture of the mechanism for the clock needed to be done by a specialist. The Queens clockmaker at the time was Vulliamy and he wanted to design and make the clock. Other specialist clockmakers also believed they should make the clock. A series of disputes therefore resulted and it was decided to appoint a referee to make the decision on who made the clock. The decision was left to the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy. He set the standards by which the clock must keep, Denision a barrister and gitfted amateur clockmaker assisted in this decision.

Delays in Building Big Ben

All this led to delays in the decision. It was not until Feb 1852 that it was decided that Dent was to  build the clock to Denison’s own design. Dent died in 1853 and so the clock was completed by Dents stepson, Frederick in 1854. It cost £2,500 to make. The tower itself was still not finished though and so the clock was kept at Dents factory in the meantime.

Denison Design

Denison made refinements to the clock while waiting for the clock tower to be finished (1859). He invented a ‘Double Three-legged Gravity Escapement’. This was a revolutionary and an ingenious invention and refinement. It made sure the pendulum was unaffected by external factors, such as wind pressure on the clock hands. A constant impulse was always applied to the pendulum. This escapement won worldwide acclaim, it is now known as the ‘ Grimthorpe escapement’, and Denision was later made Baron Grimthorpe in 1886 as a result.

Long Pendulum of Big Ben

The pendulum to the clock is 13 feet long and installed in a windproof box, it beats every 2 seconds. On top of this pendulum there are old coins. Adding weight to the top of the pendulum will lift the pendulum’s centre of gravity and thus shorten the effective length of the pendulum. This has the effect of speeding the clock up by just under half a second a day.

Symbol of London Big Ben

The clock has become one of the main symbols for the United Kingdom and London in particular. From the news programs like ITN to New Year celebrations, to General Election’s end of voting. Big Ben is the centre of our life. It stands proud and has had numerous years superb service. It has sted the test of time and London would not be the same without it. A truly remarkable achievement. The clocks Westminster Chime is typical of clocks after C.1860 and is found on many modern clocks. Most Georgian antique clocks just strike the hour on a single bell.

Daniel Clements –



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Public clocks

Chester Eastgate Clock

In this piece I will be carrying on from researching antique clock makers. I suggested visiting the 17th/18th century church in the town your grandfather clock was built. Clock makers often repaired the local church clock. These public clocks used what we call Turret clock movements to operate a series of dials in the church tower.

Turret Clocks

Most churches generally had a clock in the tower. A turret clock is the technical name for any large exterior public clock. These clocks can be in churches, town halls, banks, stable blocks, pretty much anywhere. We have installed these in homes and shops as a centre piece.

Outside Clocks Mechanical or Electric

Modern day clocks like this may use electric motors to drive the hands. All antique turret clocks have a large mechanical movement, the frame is normally made of cast iron. The movement is driven by large weights and a large pendulum. Normally the escapement will beat 1 1/4 seconds or more, this is why you will not normally see seconds hands on these public clocks.  The public only ever normally see the clock dial, which again is normally a cast iron dial, with counter balanced clock hands. The hands will need to be counter balanced to stop them swinging down to the six o’clock position and stopping the clock. For more information e.mail

Timepiece or Striking Public Clocks

The clocks movements can be timepiece or they can normally strike the hour on a single bell. Maintenance is required every 20 years or so and oiling every year. They are built basically along the same lines as a grandfather clock movement but everything is on a larger scale. Information about turret clocks can be found in various places on the internet. The company Smiths of Derby are still in existence and they still make and repair turret clocks today.

Chester Eastgate Clock

The clock pictured on my blog is a famous clock from the town of Chester. Chester a lovely northern city, the clock is called the Eastgate Clock. The mechanism was manufactured by the famous clockmakers Joyce of Whitchurch. Chester’s Eastgate Clock has 4 dials. The time can be seen from Chesters famous Roman walls and from the streets from the other two sides. This clock is one of the most photographed in the world. I think we all know what the no.1 photographed clock is in the world. In my blog next week we will look at this clock, the one and only Big Ben.