The Westminster Clock
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The Westminster Clock

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"Luckily I did care". E.B. Denison

The story of the great clock at the Palace of Westminster - the most famous in the world - starts badly. Before E. B. Denison took control it was a history of mismanagement, slovenly administration and simple jobbery.

The Board of Works had promised in 1844 that a great, an unequalled, clock would be added to the Palace's facilities. It should be remembered that at that period, the wearing of a timepiece was an unaffordable luxury for most people and consequently public clocks had great importance, not least because of the arrival of the railways. Barry was therefore told by the Board of Works to produce the great clock, at a time when, for the past ten years he had been supervising the entire building, and was about the most hard-pressed man in England. Barry was working under enormous pressure to restrict the costs to his original estimate of three-quarters of a million pounds and had had, in addition, foisted on him by the Board of Works, the self-professed ventilation expert Dr. Reid who viewed the Palace as a ventilation system with appendages. (Although Barry finally ousted him, Reid's system took up no less than one third of the entire volume of the building, and on completion was found to be unusable).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barry took the easy way out and wrote to the leader of the clockmaking profession, the Queen's clockmaker, Vulliamy. It was settled between them that Vulliamy should get the job, Vulliamy should decide the price and Vulliamy should produce the design. But Vulliamy was in no hurry and did nothing for a year and a half. He left it too long.

E.J. Dent was scorned by the staid clock-making profession, having made a fortune from improving marine chronometers and recently producing and then manufacturing a highly successful design of turret clock for the Royal Exchange. Dent wrote to the Office of Works, quoting testimonials from, amongst others, the Astronomer Royal, G.B. Airy, who stated that Dent's turret clock was the most accurate in the world. The Office then wrote to Airy who replied advising that they should go to Dent and set various conditions, one being that the striking of the first blow of the hour should be accurate to a second of time.

Much to Vulliamy's fury it was now an open competition with Dent quoting £1,600 and Vulliamy twice that figure. Dent's figure was less than the cost of manufacture but he knew that if he won, the turret clock trade, hitherto owned by Vulliamy, would be his. Whilst this was going on Barry was quietly handing out contracts to Vulliamy for all the other clocks at Westminster; however Dent heard of this and demanded that unless they were also open to competition he would withdraw from making the great clock. Barry was then ordered not to issue any more clock contracts and Dent re-entered the lists. A final insult to Vulliamy was dished out by Airy who pronounced that his design "would be a village clock of very superior character". It was at this point that an eminent lawyer, Edmund Beckett Denison wrote to the First Commissioner of the Office of Works championing Dent and offering his services free of cost, stating the while that Dent was under a "disadvantage in having the architect opposed to him" even though "his work is very superior to Vulliamy's".

The Office of Works found this all too difficult and did nothing for the next three years and meanwhile told Barry to get on with the Clock Tower.

Beckett Denison has been portrayed as an amateur clock designer - he was nothing of the sort. He was a mathematician with a strongly practical bent and a great interest in mechanics. He had studied clock design from an early age and by the late 1840's knew more about clockmaking than any man in England. He wrote the section on clocks in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and his design, manufactured by Dent, had won the award for turret clocks at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

After this period of inactivity, the Office of Works eventually decided that something must be done about the clock and asked Airy for his advice. Airy replied that Beckett Denison should work with him on the design (since his own knowledge of clocks was purely theoretical) and the pair produced a design and asked the Office to let Dent make it. Barry was informed that Dent's offer had been accepted and the lawyer, Astronomer Royal and architect inspected the clock tower which was by then at an advanced stage. It was immediately apparent that Barry had not allowed enough space for the clock mechanism as designed. Beckett Denison never forgave Barry, but nevertheless went off and re-designed the clock to fit in the available area.

However Vulliamy and the clockmaking profession were determined to fight a rearguard action and managed, with the connivance of one of the most incompetent First Commissioners of the Office of Works ever, together with its leading civil servant, to delay the production of the clock for a further three years. Inter alia they attempted to get Dent's contract rescinded, caused the Astronomer Royal to withdraw and insulted both Beckett Denison and Dent. During this period both Vulliamy and E. J. Dent died, the former mortified by the turn of events and the latter succeeded by his stepson Frederick Dent. Beckett Denison finally took matters into his own hands and instructed Dent to go ahead with the production of the clock on his own authority. At this, and having seen Dent's letter of protest against the contract being declared non-existent, the Law Officers of the Crown gave in and allowed that Dent's contract was valid all along.

The clock was now rapidly finished in 1854 and incorporated Beckett Denison's own three-legged gravity escapement, since described by an eminent authority (not E. Beckett Denison, for once) as "a masterpiece of applied mathematics". This device was subsequently used in all good turret clocks and Beckett Denison, later Lord Grimthorpe, credited with their design. Advanced Category Search

Keyword It had been ten years since the Office of Works had promised the country a great clock and in spite of their worst efforts, they had got one. Beckett Denison later summed-up the saga as "I was only brought into this business originally with the view of saving someone else trouble; as soon as it was found by the legal effect of the contract I had no power to direct the work, every possible effort was made to get rid both of it and me. No official who joined in these attempts cared three-halfpence how the clock was made. Luckily I did care, and knew what would become of it if I gave up".