Just outside Victoria Station is a tall black clock tower, often nicknamed Little Ben, and while often described as a small-scale replica of the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) down the road, there are so many differences that it can be best be described as inspired by the design.
The clock tower was commissioned by the Vestry of St. George’s Hanover-Square as a public convenience, sitting conveniently next to another sort of public convenience – an underground lavatory.
There’s a suggestion that it may have also been used to conceal a ventilation shaft from the toilets!
The location, at the junction of Victoria Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road, was also chosen specifically as it was where people hurrying for a train would lose sight of Little Ben’s bigger brother in Westminster.
Built by Gillett & Johnston of Croydon, the clock tower was unveiled at noon on 14th March 1892, the Chairman of the committee at St George’s Vestry responsible for the clock tower, Mr Maurice Piper.
Now here’s a surprise for you — the clock tower’s current black and gold colour is wrong.
It was originally painted green. Three shades of green, although the gold detailing is as it was originally. It’s also a registered design, as the clockmakers thought they would get a lot of sales later on – although only a handful were eventually sold, one of which survives in South Norwood and a famous example in Seychelles.
The clock mechanism is also not where you might expect it to be, as it’s not behind the clock faces. In fact, it’s in the bottom of the tower, and a rod runs up the middle to the clock faces to turn the hands. There was also originally a thick glass panel in the side of the tower to show the clock mechanism. It’s conjecture, but that is likely to have been where a metal plate is a today, with an inscription on it about recent restoration works.
An exciting development for the time was that the gas lantern behind the clock faces was lit and extinguished automatically by the action of the clock — saving the municipal gas lighter the additional job every day.
When the clock tower was first erected in 1892, it was slightly to the south of the current location on a small traffic island next to underground toilets.
In June 1923 it was suggested that Little Ben might be moved to County Hall, as Big Ben was proving to be a bit unreliable at the time. The proposal was rejected as too expensive.
In July 1962 the roads were widened with a new pedestrian waiting area in the middle of the road, and the clock tower was taken down. It was reported at the time that the tower was removed to the council depot at Gatliff Road.
It remained in storage until it was found in 1981 and given a £35,000 restoration. Westminster City Council with sponsorship from Elf Aquitaine “as a gesture of Franco-British friendship” paid for the restoration and it was unveiled again on 6th December 1981. The involvement of the French company was due to the Clock Tower being a popular meeting point for French people in London catching the boat-train from Victoria to Calais in Victorian times.
There is a rhyming couplet Apology for Summer Time signed “J.W.R.” affixed to the body of the clock:
My hands you may retard or may advance
my heart beats true for England as for France.
The couplet is a reference to the plan that the clock be permanently on Daylight Saving Time leading to the time being correct for France during the winter months and correct for the UK during the summer. However that no longer happens, as the clock was restored by Smith of Derby again in 2016 during the works to upgrade Victoria tube station, and when it was put back, the time zone oddity was not restored as well.
It’s now a standard UK time clock, albeit on the day I took these photos, the clock was stuck on 4:55, which was at least 5 hours off.
Apart from the panel with the explanatory text, the decoration is a rich selection of black roses, but do look carefully at the gilt work, as on each side is a small representation of Father Time.
As a final note, while regularly called Little Ben, there’s no written record of that name being used until its restoration in 1981. It was always called the Clock Tower in records until it was removed in 1964. Whether it was nicknamed Little Ben before its removal in the 1960s is unclear, but if not, then someone in Westminster Council’s marketing dept probably came up with the nickname in 1981, and it’s stuck ever since.
So unlike its bigger brother up the road, this Clock Tower can now officially be called Little Ben.
1] The Times – Tuesday 15 March 1892
5] The Times – Monday 7 December 1981