Before Big Ben there was Old Tom

As the restoration of the Palace of Westminster’s Elizabeth Tower reaches its final stages this summer, Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project, takes a look at the clock tower that existed before ‘Big Ben’…

The story of the at times fraught development of the clock tower of the palace of Westminster is well known. A late addition to Charles Barry’s plans for the new Houses of Parliament, construction of the clock tower began in 1843 but it was not until 1863 – 20 years later – that the clock was finally functioning as intended. Delays had sparked questions in Parliament, while the cracking of the original great bell, known as ‘Big Ben’ (made in Stockton-on-Tees) had required a new bell to be cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This second ‘Ben’ was finally hoisted into place in 1858 only for another crack to be discovered and it was to be another five years before the familiar sounding E flat was finally heard by the public.

The Building of Westminster Bridge
John Anderson, 1860
Parliamentary Art Collection via ArtUK

What is less well known is that this was not the first clock tower of the Palace of Westminster or Ben the first great bell. According to some sources, a stone tower may have been constructed to the north of the main entrance to Westminster Hall as early as the 1290s. Records of this edifice appear hazy, but what is known for certain is that by the 1360s a tower – either the 13th-century one, or a replacement – was present on the site.

Legend told that the tower had been funded out of a fine levied on a judge for accepting a bribe. Whether that was so or not, during the reign of Henry VI responsibility for the clock tower was delegated to the dean and canons of the college of St Stephen in return for a pension of sixpence a day. Like the present Elizabeth Tower, the structure housed a clock, though in this case with a single dial facing towards the palace. There was also a great bell tolling the hours. This appears originally to have been christened Edward (possibly after Edward the Confessor) but came in time to be known as ‘Old Tom’ or ‘Great Tom’.

By the late 17th century the tower appears to have fallen into considerable disrepair. At least one anecdote suggested that the chiming mechanism was no longer reliable, with one soldier on sentry duty in Windsor claiming to have heard the bell sound 13 times at midnight as part of his defence when accused of sleeping at his post. His story was corroborated by witnesses who agreed that the old clock was given to such things.

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)
Godfrey Kneller, after 1711
St Paul’s Cathedral via ArtUK

Faced with a dilapidated tower in dire need of serious intervention, in 1698 the churchwardens of St Margaret’s Westminster petitioned for the clock house and bell to be sold for the benefit of the poor of the parish. In response, a report was submitted to the treasury commissioners by Sir Christopher Wren on how best to respond. Wren noted that some 18 years before a scheme had been laid before the then king, Charles II, for the tower to be renovated. The plan was for it to be encased in ashlar, a lantern added, the bell raised and a new clock installed, but the price – £1,500 – proved prohibitive, and nothing more had been done.

While Wren may not have advocated undertaking anything as elaborate as the previous plan, he made no effort to hide his preference for restoration over demolition. Like so many other features of the Westminster palace complex, by the 1690s the Tower had become surrounded by an array of more or less jerry-built tenements making access difficult and dangerous. Besides, Wren doubted that the materials recovered would cover the cost of the works needed to take the structure down. The bell he reckoned to weigh around two tonnes, which would yield a modest £149 6s. 8d. If it was nearer three tonnes, it might be worth £224.

Wren’s principal objection, though, aside from the practicalities of taking down ‘Old Tom’ was the principal of the thing:

Pardon your surveyor if out of duty, he modestly aske, whether it be better to pull down a public building, for so small a consideration, or to repair it with advantage to the beauty of the towne; which would most certainly be done in any of our neighbour countries, who are more sensible than wee, that to adorne their towns is a lasting benefit to the poor…

Calendar of Treasury Papers, II (1697-1702), pp. 181-2

Wren’s appeal against the cultural barbarism of those intent on demolishing the old monument clearly fell on deaf ears and at the foot of the report was a minute noting the king’s agreement to give the materials to the poor of Westminster. Two years later in April 1700 a further minute noted that the ground occupied by the ‘late clock house’ was to be leased for a period of 31 years at a ‘moderate rent’ to the inhabitants of St Margaret’s. The bell was taken down and presented to the almost completed St Paul’s cathedral for its new clock tower. During transit, or while in storage, Old Tom appears to have been significantly damaged. In 1716 it was recast by Richard Phelps, proprietor of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, and it was thus as a new bell, weighing in at over five tonnes, that it took its place in the south-west tower of the new cathedral.

There is one final puzzle about the fate of Westminster’s old clock tower. The April 1700 minute was quite plain in referring to it as the ‘late clock house’ and an entry in the Calendar of Treasury Papers in January 1705 also referred to the ‘structure being demolished’ when proposing the installation of a ‘good large sundial… near the same place’. This rather mean-spirited replacement for the old public clock was approved by the lord treasurer, on the understanding that the cost would not exceed £20.

However, a ground-plan of the coronation procession of George I in 1714 quite clearly included the clock tower in its old place opposite Westminster Hall. Had the cartographer simply relied on an older plan and failed to notice that it was no longer there, or does this suggest that in 1714 some vestiges of the old structure were still to be seen? The latter may well be the case as at least one antiquarian book on old London noted the tower being demolished as late as 1715. Possibly, it was just the clock and the upper stages that were dismantled a decade before, leaving a small portion of what had once been ‘Great Tom’ to witness the accession of the new dynasty.


Further Reading:

Calendar of Treasury Papers II (1697-1702) and III (1702-1707)

Old and New London

David Hughson, Walks Through London including Westminster and the Borough of Southwark… (1817)

Follow Dr Eagles and the research of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project at @GeorgianLords on Twitter and find more blogs from the section here.

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