diamond geezer

 Monday, March 07, 2016

One clocktower in Westminster gets all the press - Big Ben, one of London's most iconic buildings.
(and which yes, isn't really called Big Ben at all, that's the nickname of the bell inside, whereas the tower itself is the Elizabeth Tower, formerly St Stephen's Tower, now sssh)
But at the other end of Victoria Street is a lesser known clocktower, similar in shape but ten times shorter, and appropriately named Little Ben. And one reason it's lesser known is that it hasn't been there for the last four years. But at the very end of February they put it back, alas with one crucial flaw. We'll get to that later.

Clock at junction of Victoria Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road (Little Ben) Grade II Freestanding clock. First erected 1892. Cast iron. Square in section, 4 main stages of decorated cast iron, clock stage widest, pinnacled and crowned by narrow octagonal stage with ogee dome and weathervane.
The Gothic clocktower was built by Messrs Gillett and Johnston of Croydon, established 1844, then one of the first steam-powered clock factories in the world. Over the next hundred years more than 14000 clocktower installations were manufactured at the factory, these once a popular way for civic bodies to celebrate or commemorate some event. The clock atop Manchester Town Hall is one of theirs, and the South Norwood clocktower, and the company has also maintained the historic timepieces at Windsor Castle, Hampton Court and Liberty's of London. Their foundry was located just off Whitehorse Road, on the way to Selhurst, but the company moved out to Bletchingley in Surrey in 2012. But enough of them. Here's their Victoria clock in 1900.

Located on a busy traffic island at the junction of Victoria Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road, the clocktower became a favoured meeting point for French travellers heading back to Paris. The boat train left from Victoria several times a day, the most prestigious of these being the Golden Arrow, a deuxe Pullman service connecting to a French counterpart, the Fleche d'Or. This ran daily via Dover from 1929 to 1972, in its later years departing at 10 in the morning and reaching Paris by six that evening. But Little Ben had to be removed in 1964 when a programme of road widening was undertaken in the Victoria area, so les voyageurs had to rendezvous elsewhere.

Which might have been the end of the clocktower's story, except that Charles and Di got married. To commemorate the occasion, or more likely as a timely coincidence, Westminster council decided to restore Little Ben to its island amid the gyratory. Its cast iron casing was spruced up and the machinery within repaired by a different clockmakers - Smiths of Derby Ltd. The upgrade process didn't come cheap, so was funded to the tune of £30000 by French petroleum company Elf Aquitaine in "a gesture of Franco-British friendship", commemorating the many years that travellers home had assembled here.

And in a rather nice touch, the clock was set permanently to British Summer Time. That meant in the summer it kept London time, but in the winter it was one hour ahead so kept Paris time instead. OK, so the proportions weren't quite fifty-fifty, the French only got five months from October to March while the Brits got the other seven. But the idea perfectly matched the idea of Franco-British friendship, plus the hands didn't need changing twice a year which was a bonus.

The story then jumps ahead to February 2012, when Little Ben was removed. Once again the issue was the remodelling of the road junction, but this time for the benefit of tube trains rather than cars. TfL have a massive engineering project underway at Victoria station, adding a new northern ticket hall under Bressenden Place, enlarging the existing southern ticket hall and burrowing a new connecting passageway between them. Nine new escalators are being added, plus eight lifts to bring step-free access to the platforms for the first time. It's a six year project costing £700m, not helped by the water-bearing soil in this part of Westminster making digging underground difficult.
Existing tunnels are shallow – the crowns of the District & Circle line tunnels are just 2.5m below street level in some areas. The crown of the Victoria line is about 14m below ground. Threaded between them, the new tunnels will be constructed at the interface between London Clay and overlying, water bearing river terrace gravels. Secant piles forming the walls of the North ticket hall will be within 3m of the Victorian culvert carrying the River Tyburn. The passenger tunnel linking the North ticket hall to the Victoria line ducks under the culvert and scrapes over the southbound Victoria line platform tunnel with limited clearance. An escalator squeezes between the twin bores of the Victoria line north and southbound platform tunnels with a mere 300mm clearance.
Little Ben stood directly above the tracks on the District and Circle line platforms, so had to be moved out of the way while work took place underneath. Again it was sent off to Smiths of Derby for restoration, grasping the opportunity provided, the only question being when it would return. 2015 was originally pencilled in, with reinstatement works due at Easter, and 'final redressing works of Little Ben Island to restore maximum capacity for pedestrians' in June. However Thames Water still had issues over whether the lining arrangements for one of their sewers would allow excavation to take place alongside, so Little Ben's return slipped to October, then to December.

In the end it was 28th February before Little Ben finally took its place once again in front of the Victoria Palace Theatre. A couple of local councillors popped down for a photo opportunity in front of the gleaming ironwork, now with an updated plaque to mark the double restoration. The clocktower's still behind protective barriers at the moment, as indeed are a lot of the surrounding streets, as major roadworks blocking off several circulatory lanes continue. But access to the one remaining side of the island will be unblocked at the end of the year, at around the same time as the new northern ticket hall at Victoria is opened.

Which should all be a happy ending, except that when I visited Little Ben yesterday morning the time was wrong. That's to say the time was correct, it really was five to ten, whereas the clock should have been showing five to eleven instead. Somebody's set the time on Little Ben to GMT rather than BST, in ignorance of tradition, and invalidated the gold inscription partway down. Or maybe somebody's decreed that it wouldn't do to have a clock somewhere so central telling the wrong time for five months of the year - imagine the complaining emails, sarky tweets and Instagram jibes from passers-by who don't know the history. But I'd hope that someone sees sense and shifts the hands forward an hour before the clocks go back, so Little Ben once again beats true for France as for England.

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