At the top of the Elizabeth Tower is the Ayrton Light, a lantern-like structure installed in 1885 which shines whenever either House of Parliament sits after dark. Restoration of the ironwork, casing and access areas are now complete. All we are waiting for is the energy efficient light fittings.
This blog was written by Nicole Hartland, Assistant Archives Trainee.
In this blog post, we will take a look back at the early history and perceptions of the Ayrton Light amongst members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Ayrton Light during the two World Wars and the use of light to transform the Houses of Parliament into a site of remembrance or celebration.
Acton Smee Ayrton was a Liberal Party politician, MP for Tower Hamlets (1853-1874) and First Commissioner of Works (1869-1973) – pictured here in one of the Archives’ earliest photographs from the 1860s. As First Commissioner of Works, he oversaw early experiments with generating electric light in the upper gallery between the two sections of the roof of the clocktower.
It has been said the light was requested by the Queen, so that she could see from Buckingham Palace when members of either the Commons or the Lords were sitting after dark. Ayrton’s idea was to help illuminate the streets of Westminster and alert MPs to when the house was sitting. In an early use of the direct current dynamo developed by the Belgian inventor, Zenobe Gramme, a powerful light shone from the tower on to the streets below.
Ayrton and his successors answered many questions about the light in the clock tower during the 1870s, following the initial experiments with electrical light. There were many concerns about the light – ranging from the more financial and practical to the aesthetic considerations of Palace of Westminster’s ‘disfigurement’ by the light’s projections.
MR. BOWRING He (Mr. Bowring) also asked what was about to be done with regard to the light in the clock tower, which had been very unsatisfactory of late as compared with previous years
MR. AYRTON stated, with regard to the light in the clock tower, that before finally determining what light should be adopted, several persons were exhibiting the merits of their inventions at their own expense, and when the qualities and costs of each had been ascertained the decision of the Office of Works would be submitted to the House.
On Tuesday 21 April 1874, the Question of The Light in the Clock Tower was debated, recorded in Hansard. here:
MR. JAMES asked the First Commissioner of Works, If the light in the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament is to be permanently retained; and, if so, whether its objects might not equally be secured without the projections by which the architectural outline of the building is at present disfigured?
LORD HENRY LENNOX The Clock Tower was proposed to the House as an experiment by a right hon. Predecessor of mine at the Board of Works—Mr. Ayrton. So purely tentative was it that Mr. Ayrton declined, at the time, to insert any sum to meet the expenses connected with it in the Estimates of that year. The question whether the light is to be made permanent or not is one in which I shall be guided solely by the wishes of hon. Members. I can, however, assure the hon. Member that, under any circumstances, it was never contemplated to retain the present glass lantern, which disfigures the Victoria Tower; at the same time, it is my duty to state that the cost of establishing a permanent light would be considerable both in the process of fitting up and its maintenance.
Others viewed the light much more favourably, asking for its time to be extended to aid ‘the working classes and others who are compelled to leave their houses at an early hour’ navigate London in the winter darkness:
MR. RITCHIE asked the First Commissioner of Works, Whether the light of the clock in the Tower of the Houses of Parliament is extinguished at midnight when the House is not sitting; and, if so, whether, seeing the great advantage of an illuminated clock in such a prominent position, he will give instructions that in future the light be not extinguished until daylight?
LORD HENRY LENNOX I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for having put this Question. It is true that the light in the Clock Tower is extinguished at midnight when the House is not sitting; but, as it has been represented to me that it would be a great convenience, especially during the winter months, to the working classes and others who are compelled to leave their houses at an early hour, I will give the necessary directions that the light shall be kept burning until daylight.
Despite the mixed reception of the Ayrton Light in the chamber, the permanent ‘Ayrton Light’ was installed by J. Edmundson & Co., London (originally of Dublin) in 1892, using a Wigham lighthouse lamp. Although the earlier experiments with electric light had been successful, the Ayrton Light was initially powered by gas jets as the commercial supply of electricity was not possible. In 1903, the Ayrton Light was converted to electricity and a few years later, so too was the clock dial lighting in 1906. As part of the ongoing conservation and restoration project, the Ayrton Light will be upgraded to LED lights to reduce the towers environmental impact.
LIGHTS OFF: THE AYRTON LIGHT IN WARTIME
Since its installation in the 1890s, the Ayrton Light has been illuminated when the House of Lords or House of Commons is sitting after dark. The only time the Ayrton Light has been turned off was during both world wars. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Big Ben’s bright clock dials and the Ayrton Light suddenly became a liability – the instantly recognisable outline of the Houses of Parliament would help German bombers navigate the London sky. Lights were turned off in 1939 as part of the wider blackout and turned back on at the end of the war in 1945.
The Palace of Westminster was hit by bombs 14 times. The bombs which fell on the nights of 10 and 11 May 1941 caused the greatest damage to the Palace. The Commons Chamber was hit, and the roof of Westminster Hall was set on fire. A small bomb struck the clock tower and broke all the glass in its south dial. The clock and bells were undamaged, and the chimes were broadcast as usual.
LIGHTS ON: REMEMBERANCE AND CELEBRATION
The Houses of Parliament are an iconic part of the London skyline, and a powerful symbol throughout the UK. The building itself is transformed into a site of commemoration, celebration or remembrance at certain points throughout the year with coloured lights and projections creating a powerful focal point throughout the UK and the world for occasions such as Holocaust Memorial Day, Pride, Disability Awareness, Remembrance Day and the Queen’s Birthday.