Four-Three-Two-One, Happy New…

Typically, London’s horological icon has four names, so nobody knows what to call it: St Stephen’s Tower, the Elizabeth Tower or Big Ben (correctly its The Elizabeth Tower incorporating The Great Bell), and for a city whose time, both past and present, features so heavily, you’d have thought we’d got it right.

After all, London is the home of time itself, with the Greenwich Observatory setting Greenwich Mean Time (even that is now incorrect see the previous post).

Big Ben is not even the largest clock in London, that place belongs to number 80 Strand (note typically that lacks the definite article). Shell-Mex House faced a height restriction problem when it was built in 1930, but the restriction only applied to inhabited parts of a building, so a clock tower was exempt. It has two faces, best seen from the Golden Jubilee Bridges (even they have a time and date element).

All of us carry very accurate timepieces we use every day, obviating the need for the clocks that decorate the city, whose function has now become obsolete, but remain quite impressive.

Caledonian Market Clock Tower. The park in which it stands once housed London’s largest cattle market and the tower was supposedly built to stand the force of a bull charge. It’s now open to the public.

Sold off as part of a modernisation programme the clock above St. Pancras’ concourse has a fascinating history. During removal, it was accidentally dropped from the crane and the fragments, no longer fit for its new owner, were destined to be scrapped. Enter a British Rail guard with a passion for Victorian architecture. He was granted permission to salvage everything, which he painstakingly reassembled onto the side of his Nottinghamshire barn. Thirty years later, the heritage movement that had witnessed the loss of the old clock and almost the destruction of the whole station now saw its rebirth as the 21st-century international terminus. High Speed 1, the new owners, wanted the original reinstated but it was too fragile. E Dent & Co who had built the clock, and the Big Ben clock, commissioned Smith of Derby to partner with them to build a replica. Were it not for the original, which the owner who was now well into his 90s allowed them to inspect and measure, such a project would not have been possible.

I’ve always liked the art deco clock on Cambridge Circus, with four women balancing a clock like a beach ball, and the grand Queen of Time double clock that stands above the entrance to Selfridges, but Fleet Street and Holborn have an array of clocks, some hidden. St Dunstan-in-the-West has a clock installed five years after the Great Fire which features London’s great guardians Gog and Magog hitting the central bell with hammers.

The church of St George the Martyr in Southwark has its celebrated three-sided clock, with the fourth face blacked out because the residents of Bermondsey were not prepared to contribute to the church, so the church denied them time. Eventually, they capitulated and put the clock face in, but blacked it out as a reminder that it wasn’t paid for.

The bird clock of the London Zoo which squawks and swings and automates toucans, much like the Guinness Clocks of old did.

Churchill’s astronomical clock at Bracken House, said to have been named after Churchill’s illegitimate son, has Churchill’s face at its centre, it measures time by the heavens and is set in pink to reflect the colour of the newspaper it housed until the 80s. Since May 2019 the Financial Times has returned to this building and its iconic clock.

2 thoughts on “Four-Three-Two-One, Happy New…”

  1. Shell-Mex House is one of my favourite art deco buildings in London. When I last returned to the city in 2016, I noticed how many clocks no longer told the correct time. I would like to see that rectified.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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