‘Topping Out’ as Big Ben project reaches highest point

‘Topping Out’ as Big Ben project reaches highest point

Iconic clock tower is shrouded in 800 tonnes of scaffolding as conservation work continues

The Great Clock of Westminster, arguably Britain’s most iconic landmark, is  barely visible under 800 tonnes of scaffolding – equivalant to around 63 double decker buses – as the three year conservation  project continues.

Work to conserve Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower began last year and is expected to cost around £61 million. It has taken around 11 months for the tower to be scaffolded to reach above the uppermost finial some 98 metres above ground level. During this time  work has been going on inside, including dismantling the clock.

A  rooftop ‘topping out’  ceremony – a centuries old ritual celebrating the highest point of the building work being completed – was held in May.

Palace Clockmaker Paul Roberson, who is Vice Chair of the Guild, is among a three-strong team responsible for the maintenance of the clock, tells the story.

‘Initially work seemed very slow to start but behind the scenes there has been much going on.

‘The first main job was to get the  scaffolding up which was no simple task as a thorough survey was necessary to check that the ground could take such a huge structure.’

One of the first jobs before conservation work could begin on the Great Clock was to stop the mechanism which involved silencing the chimes, the strike, and stopping the going train. We then needed to set a synchronous motor running to keep the hands showing the correct time.

Once this was achieved, the mechanism’s three weights were lowered to the ground, removing all the sandbags at the base of the weight shaft first. Once on the  ground, the steel cables were removed and lowered too.

In order for work to proceed on the dials, we needed to remove the clock’s original hands. It was always said that while the conservation work was underway, at least one of the dials would continue to show the correct time using sets of replica hands.

Two synchronous drive units enabled us to remove all of the bevel and lead off work. The first dial to run with its own synchronous motor and replica hands was the East Dial, overlooking the River Thames.

All four sets of the original hands were lowered to the ground. These are being stored and will be checked thoroughly, cleaned, repaired and, if necessary, painted before being eventually placed back on the clock.

The next job was to completely dismantle the movement. We left the actual bed as it is so big and heavy and it also underwent extensive repair work in situ after the accident in 1976.

Every other component has now been lowered to the ground. This is almost certainly the first time in the history of the clock that so much of it has been removed from the mechanism room.

Lowering the barrels was probably the trickiest job. A large and impressive scaffolding was put up in the mechanism room with winches to lift the barrels and other heavy components from the clock.

With the aid of an electric winch all the components were lowered to the ground through the weight shaft. To give you an idea of the weights we are dealing with, the chime barrel alone weighs about 280kg.

Once at ground level, every component of the clock mechanism is being taken to a storage area where it will be then be photographed and catalogued.

All components will be taken to the workshop, cleaned, thoroughly examined and any work required will be carried out. It makes sense to use this rare opportunity to assess every part of the mechanism in detail. 

As work on the mechanism progresses,  the rest of the Elizabeth Tower has also been a hive of activity.  Apart from the dial on display, all the other glass (312 panels in each dial) has been removed to examine the cast iron dials and carry out any repair work. Most of the cast iron roof panels have also been removed, lowered to the ground and sent to a specialist company where they will be stripped, repaired where necessary, and re-painted.

Paint samples are being taken, a layer at a time, from all over the Elizabeth Tower. These will be analysed to build up a picture of the original colour scheme. Old wiring is also being removed and work is taking place to prepare for the installation of a lift.

You really can’t begin to imagine what a huge project this is unless you are on site and see the number of skilled craftsmen from so many different trades busy working away. I’m sure the finished job will be spectacular and will ensure that the clock continues to serve many future generations, as it has served many generations before.

Look out for more details in TimePiece as work progresses.

News Reports

Welcome to the Guild's blog. This is where you will find all the latest news and reports about the Guild and developments in the horology industry.

Traditional bagpipe music is played at the Elizabeth Tower topping out ceremony in May.  Picture copyright UK Parliament/Mark Duffy.Every one of the 312 pieces of ‘pot opal’ glass has been removed to allow work to be carried out on the cast iron dial frames.Chime and going weights coming to rest at the base of the weight shaft. Picture copyright UK Parliament/Mark Duffy.Removing the hands.  Picture copyright UK Parliament/Mark Duffy.Removing the hands.  Picture copyright UK Parliament/Mark Duffy.The clock bed is all that now remains of the clock in the mechanism room.

The British Watch and Clockmakers' Guild logo

Representing and Supporting the
British Watch and Clock Industry
for Over 100 Years

Get in touch