This blog was written by Verity Jones, Archive Assistant (Graduate Trainee).
Today, 7th October 2019, marks the first day of the removal of the scaffolding currently covering the Elizabeth Tower. It has obscured the tower since 2017, with only one dial of the Great Clock peeking out. Although the tower being covered in scaffolding may seem like a novelty to visitors, this is not the first-time extensive restoration work and construction have obscured the Elizabeth Tower. This blog will explain some of history of the tower and the work done to preserve it.
In 1834 there was a devastating fire which destroyed most of the medieval Palace of Westminster. The first foundation stone for the new Clock Tower was placed in 1843. However, due to complications and delays, the Clock Tower was not completed until 1859. During this period, there was no scaffolding to be seen surrounding the tower, as it was built from the inside out. This meant that much of the tower seemed to go up as if by magic.
During the early years of the tower’s conservation, repair works were often carried out without proper scaffolding or safety measures. In 1918, it was decided that the clock dials would benefit from maintenance following the end of WWI. Rather than construct scaffolding to the tower’s full height of 96 metres, workmen were employed to hang from a cradle in front of each clock face, to service it from there. One workman, J W Hallett, recalled the perilous process of installing the cradles:
‘One of the first jobs was to get travelling cradles [to the outside of] each clock face so that they could be cleaned and painted. With my second-in-command I was going below one clock face when the rope ran through his hands and he lost control of his end of the cradle. When I looked at my end I found there was just two feet of rope between us and a fall of 160 feet.’
(Taken from a collection of personal stories in a London Evening Standard booklet to mark Big Ben’s centenary, 1959).
Nevertheless, those employed regularly at that height appeared to get used to it. In 1924, Mr Larkings was the steeplejack of Big Ben, meaning it was his job to scale the Tower to carry out repairs and general maintenance. This meant he spent a lot of time in a similar cradle, cleaning the clock face. An article from the Portsmouth Evening News explained how he went about his business at such a height:
‘Mr Larkings yesterday made a hearty lunch from a wing of chicken and later brewed himself a cup of tea using a kettle which he had taken from home for the purpose.’
(Taken from an article in Portsmouth Evening News, 1924).
As the 20th Century progressed, the safety measures slowly improved. The first proper scaffolding was erected around the tower in 1934, to repair years of damage caused by soot, smog and pigeons.
The dials were cleaned and painted black to avoid discolouration – the dials have now been returned to their original blue during the current restoration work. Although they were using scaffolding by this time, the safety features still left much to be desired. An article in 1933 recounts how Prince George, the Duke of Kent (fourth son of King George V), climbed the scaffolding covering the Tower, and the dangerous conditions the scaffolding presented:
‘During the 180-feet ascent [Prince George] had to climb up steep ladders, from which, when glancing down, he could see nothing between himself and the ground. In many places the scaffolding upon which he had to walk consisted only of a couple of planks.’
(Taken from an article in The Scotsman, 1933).
In the 1950s, extensive work was carried out using scaffolding to repair and rejuvenate the tower after the damage caused to it during WWII. The most recent significant example of conservation took place between 1983 and 1985, when the stone, painting and gilding work was cleaned and repaired, and repairs to the cast iron roof were also carried out. Some structural work was carried out in the mid-1990s in response to work on the Jubilee Line, and parts of the clock mechanisms were serviced in 2007. However, some parts of the tower have not been serviced for over 25 years!
The tower has had many repairs and refurbishments over the years, and over the next five weeks, the newly restored roof and spire will be revealed. The work will not be completed until 2021, so the scaffolding will be removed in sections as parts of the tower are finished. Nevertheless, the process of slowly unwrapping the tower, and knowing that the work done will ensure it is preserved for generations to come, is something we can all enjoy over the next two years.