Tag Archives: houses of parliament

The Leaning Tower of Westminster

So anyway, one of the significant stories this week revolving around Our Fair City is the discovery that Big Ben is, in fact, leaning. Some reacted with indifference, some with curiosity, those angry guys you see in the Wetherspoon’s at 2pm with a clenched fist of triumph. Some pointed out that technically Big Ben isn’t leaning, because the clock tower isn’t actually called that.

I have to admit, Big Ben (I am going to call it that, pedantry be damned) is not a landmark I feel any great affection for. That might be partly because I used to work opposite it, so it was just another part of my daily routine. I’m also not a huge fan of the architecture, which to my eye is just a bit too “busy,” if you know what I mean. Still, I’m not going to deny that it’s a significant part of our skyline and we’d all miss it if it was gone. After all, how would you establish that characters from American movies had arrived in Britain if not for a shot of Big Ben and a couple of bars of ‘Rule Britannia?’ Not easily, that’s for sure.

The clock tower was completed on 10th April 1858, part of Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament. The Gothic style being very much in fashion then, that was the architecture plumped for by the Powers that Be. The clock tower at the end was farmed out to Augustus Pugin, who you may see on the left there. Pugin was a noted architect of the Gothic style, and when not busy designing spooky buildings, he supplemented his income by looting from shipwrecks (I am not making this up).

After completing his design, he went mad, probably as a result of syphilis, and died in 1852. Students of architecture will note that this is a surefire way to ensure that your building includes lots of non-Euclidian geometry and possibly summons the Elder Gods, but there has been no sign of that thus far. It would certainly liven up the parliamentary debates.

As I said at the start, Big Ben is not the name of the clock tower, but the big bell, the one that sounds the bongs. The official name for the bell is the rather less interesting “Great Bell” (how long did it take you to come up with the name for that, guys?). It was originally cast in Yorkshire and brought down to London by water, its size nearly wrecking the boat carrying it. On arrival, the bell was found to be defective. It was melted down and recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, from whence most of London’s bells originate. The method used to cast “Big Ben II” was an unusual method of casting, unique at the time and now used for bells all around the world. Oddly enough, Big Ben is actually cracked, resulting in its very distinctive tone. I’m sure a campanologist could tell us more.

The origin of the nickname is disputed. The official story has it that it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the Royal Commissioner for Works at the time of the tower’s construction. Another has it that it was named after Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight boxer of the time who was himself nicknamed “Big Ben.”

The clock is famed for its accuracy. However, should the necessity arise, it is possible to adjust the swing of the pendulum and thus change the time. On top of the pendulum is a little stack of old pennies. By removing or adding a penny, the speed of the pendulum is changed. You’d expect something a bit more hi-tech, or at least legal tender, but I suppose it’s worked this long.

The most recent news, to return to the start of this entry, is that the tower is actually leaning. In fact, this is not particularly new news, and I’m not sure why it should particularly come to prominence now. Thanks to all the many different tunnels dug under Westminster since 1858, the ground isn’t as firm as once it was, and so a degree of lean is to be expected. Wake me if it actually falls.

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Number Ten

Well, chums, it’s election time again. Yr Humble Chronicler must confess to being uncertain who to vote for. I have no confidence whatsoever in the major political parties and that nice Mr Saxon isn’t running this time (what happened to that guy, anyway?)

I’ll probably just end up writing an obscene message on the ballot paper. Why don’t we have the “None of the above” option like they do in Australia?

Well, I suppose I might as well write something vaguely politics-related. So let’s talk about Downing Street, shall we?

Westminster has been the home of British politics, one way or another, since the 11th century. The misprint-inviting King Cnut was believed to have been resident here during his reign, long before it was even called Westminster. At that time, it was known as Thorney Island for two very obvious reasons. Firstly, it was thorny, secondly, it was an island. Originally simply a royal residence, the Palace of Westminster was sited where it was simply in order to have access to the river – then by far the quickest way of getting from place to place. Under Henry VIII, who had just acquired some fancy new digs from Cardinal Wolsey at Whitehall, its function became primarily a meeting place for Parliament. In 1834, the much-altered Houses of Parliament were burnt down when a clearout went horribly wrong (we’ve all been there, amirite?). Despite William IV’s suggestion that Parliament move to Buckingham Palace, the new house that he hated, Charles Barry’s new Gothic-style buildings were constructed at Westminster. John Soane’s proposal for a neo-Classical building (which can be seen in his house) was turned down, despite Soane’s work on the old buildings.

So that’s a brief history of Parliament at Westminster. From this, we may conclude that a) tradition was important and b) monarchs saw Parliament as a handy way of filling houses they didn’t want any more.

Sir George Downing in an extremely pimp outfit.

As for Downing Street, that was built in the early 1680s by Sir George Downing, a deeply shifty figure described by Samuel Pepys as a “perfidious rogue” – and not in a good way. He was undoubtedly a capable politician, but he was also something of a turncoat when it suited him – he served under both Cromwell and Charles II, claiming to the latter that he had been undergoing some sort of incredibly long moment of madness. He also made a heinous amount of money in property, although I suppose it would be churlish to hold that against him.

Sir Robert Walpole in an extremely pimp coat.

Number 10 Downing Street, as we know it today, was originally three houses. The house behind Number 10 was owned by the Crown from 1733 and, by coincidence, the Crown also had a lease on Number 10 itself at the time. These, together with the house next door (owned by the delightfully-named Mr Chicken) were given to Sir Robert Walpole by King George II in gratitude for his services. Walpole was not technically the first Prime Minister, as the title didn’t exist as such, but as near as dammit. His actual titles were First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. He was offered these titles in 1721, in large part due to the fact that he was one of the few major politicians not to have played some nefarious part in the notorious South Sea Bubble, and held office for 21 years. If you assume him to be the first Prime Minister, that also makes him the longest-serving Prime Minister.

Back to the address. Walpole semi-refused George II’s gift. He said that he would take it on condition that it was a present to the First Lord of the Treasury rather than to him personally. George agreed. The three houses were joined together to form the massive residence that exists today, and they have been the traditional home of the Prime Minister ever since.

In fact, passing time would show the houses in Downing Street to have been rather badly constructed, prone to subsidence. Few of the Prime Ministers (or First Lords, or whatever) actually lived there – in any case, most of them already had much nicer houses of their own. It was only really in the mid-19th century that it became effectively de rigeur for Prime Ministers to actually live there.

The present Number 10 is not, technically, the original building given to Walpole. Further architectural problems were becoming evident throughout the 20th century, and in 1960 the whole lot was pulled down and replicated on site with better foundations using as much original material as possible. Even then, there were extensive problems with dry rot in the “new” building, and work was undertaken to address this in the late ’60s and early ’80s.

One of the oddities of the current building is that, as you can see, it’s built of dark grey bricks. Except it’s not. It is, and always has been, built of yellow Kentish bricks. But what with over a century of pollution, the bricks had been stained quite black with soot. This was discovered during the 19th century rebuild when the bricks were cleaned up. In order to maintain a sense of consistency, the cleaned bricks were painted black. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, happy voting tomorrow, as long as you’re not voting for any of the people I hate.

Further viewing

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdXfML9gUmU – If politics is depressing you, here is a video of an Italian woman singing about potatoes.

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Prior to tomorrow’s actual entry, I’ve been surfing YouTube for documentary footage. I love old public information films and I can’t explain why. Here are some items that may be of interest to London-liking folk.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fABILtla_lE&feature=channel – Blackfriars Bridge, 1896

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJi7x2QIO-8&feature=channel – London Bridge, thirty years later, in colour. Gives you a brief snapshot of just how busy the Pool of London was in those pre-war days.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9_gjh_YTJ0&feature=channel – The Houses of Parliament, 1926, again in colour. Surprisingly little has changed since this was filmed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipAYUpqDVNI&NR=1 – Some Bright Young Things in Hyde Park. This colour footage was all shot by Claude Friese-Green for a film called ‘The Open Road’.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzeBDcmrjjY&feature=channel – Petticoat Lane, London. Some fine footage of what the gentleman-about-town was wearing in the Roaring Twenties. Hats, mostly.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwvX8P0ZRKE&NR=1 – Taking in the sights at St James’s Palace.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LGavykBbxM&feature=channel – ‘Colour on the Thames’ from 1935. Highlights include Richmond and construction of the ugly Hungerford Bridge. The heavily industrialised Pool of London is unrecognisable but for the few landmarks that survive. As for the Docklands, you wouldn’t know it was the same place today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Slk1KCQPolE&feature=related – The London Underground in 1963, including Upminster Depot, Loughton Station and signalling at Camden Town.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B92MnoPVtGs&feature=related – Coffee shops in London in the 1960s. Some fine footage of Soho. I particularly like the square narrator trying to be “down with the kids” and the supremely wooden proprietor complaining about overheads.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvFeZqv7WuQ&feature=related – King’s Road, Chelsea, 1967.

That’s all for now, chums, but stay tuned tomorrow for another exciting installment of London Particulars! G’bye now!

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Bonfire Night explained

Twice over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked by colleagues at work what November 5th is all about. Being from Russia and Australia, and relatively recent arrivals in this country, they were unfamiliar with the concept. Therefore, I dedicate this entry to them. This is Bonfire Night, explained for the benefit of everyone who isn’t British.

It all started with the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. She died childless, and so the throne went to her distant relative, James VI of Scotland. Importantly, James’ mother had been Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic monarch who had been executed (reluctantly) by the Protestant Elizabeth. The Catholic population of Britain therefore assumed that with James on the throne, they could expect a bit more tolerance. Unfortunately, it was not to be – James had been raised Protestant, like many Scottish nobles at the time. Additionally, the government of England was largely unchanged from Elizabeth’s reign, and James had little interest in domestic policy.


The Gunpowder Plotters. Bates tries not to laugh at Winter's hilarious outfit.

A group of wealthy Catholics, led by Robert Catesby, essentially said “Buggre thys for an Game of Soldiers,” and decided to take drastic action. They intended to bomb the opening of Parliament in 1605. This would take out the King, most of the nobility and the senior bishops of the Church of England. This in turn, the conspirators hoped, would allow them to rise up and take control, installing a Catholic monarch (James’ daughter Elizabeth, who was 9 at the time and probably couldn’t give a damn either way).

Guy Fawkes, the best-remembered of the plotters, was a former soldier and explosives expert, and therefore central to the plan. The plotters had, by chance, found a house with a cellar directly under the House of Lords. Parliament was due to open on November 5th, and Fawkes would be there to set th explosion off. There were 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to completely destroy the Palace of Westminster and devastate the surrounding area.

Unfortunately, the plotters were betrayed, possibly by one of their own number. Lord Monteagle, a Member of Parliament, received an anonymous letter which essentially said, “Yoe Dude, ye may wish to staye awaye from the Openynge of Parliament, be-cause I have heard that Somethyng Bigge is going downe.” He, fairly predictably, had this note read out and a search was arranged. Fawkes was duly captured and arrested, initially using a pseudonym of “John Johnson” and claiming to be a lone nut.

Under torture – which even in those days was viewed as an extreme and distasteful measure – Fawkes confessed all. The plotters were rounded up and then hanged, drawn and quartered. This was followed by an anti-Catholic backlash and, from 1606 onwards, it was officially made the custom to celebrate the failure of the plot and the deliverance of His Majesty. The tradition of a Halloween bonfire was turned into a November 5th bonfire.

There’s some debate over whether the plot would have succeeded. Many historians take the view that, without foreign support, the planned uprising could never have gone ahead. There’s even the persistent suggestion that the whole thing was a conspiracy by the anti-Catholic minister Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. However, as with most conspiracy theories, there’s a drastic shortage of actual evidence.

These days the occasion is still celebrated, although frankly it’s more an excuse to let off fireworks than a commemoration of King James’ survival. An effigy of Guy Fawkes – known simply as the guy – is burnt on a bonfire, sparklers are distributed to children and baked potatoes are usually involved. Also mulled wine, if you’re lucky.

vendettaInterestingly, Fawkes’ cultural status has changed in recent years, largely due to Britain’s succession of crappy governments. He’s gone from a symbol of treachery to a symbol of dissent. There’s a popular political blogger named Guido Fawkes (Guy’s name when fighting in Spain). The ambiguous hero of V for Vendetta takes his likeness from Fawkes. In turn, the online anti-organisation Anonymous, best known for their attacks on the Church of Scientology, wear V masks to protests.



On a more mundane note, have you ever referred to someone as a “guy?” You’ve got Fawkes to thank for that, too. A guy, in the sense of an effigy of Fawkes, was a ragged and often strangely-dressed dummy. In the nineteenth century, this came to be used as a term for a ragged or strangely-dressed man, and later became slang for any chap you might see.

Enjoy Bonfire Night, kids. Here’s hoping it’s a good one.

Your swell pal,


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Ebenezer Scrooge versus Sweeney Todd versus Big Ben

christmas-carol-poster-2You may have seen these posters around the place. Yes, they’ve made yet another version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which I swear must be the most filmed book in the  entire world ever. This version, as you can see, stars Jim Carrey in 3D motion-capture glory (I hear he switched the lights on in Oxford Circus last night, good for him). He also appears to be getting some sort of sexual pleasure from that bollard there. No doubt this will be explained in the film itself. I won’t be going to see it, having already seen the versions starring Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, Bill Murray, Ross Kemp and Scrooge McDuck.

But I’m wandering from the point I started with, which is that the British posters feature, very prominently, the sight of Big Ben under construction. I have my own theory as to why this is, quite apart from the fact that Big Ben is shorthand for “You Are In London.” You may recall the Tim Burton-directed Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago. The publicity campaign for this ran into a little trouble over this image:


If you take a look to Mr Depp’s right, you’ll see Big Ben emerging from the fog of Olde Londone Towne. This caused consternation among certain historically-minded folk, who pointed out that Big Ben (or, if you want to be pedantic, the Clock Tower) wasn’t built until 1859, and the story of Sweeney Todd is set at some point in the 1840s. The poster was pulled. The scene in which Todd sails under the 1894-built Tower Bridge was left in, which strikes me as a far greater anachronism (the filmmakers’ excuse was that it is depicted as still being under construction, builders at the time apparently being shite). One might also point out that the ship that brings him in would have docked at Rotherhithe rather than into the heinously busy Pool of London. One might further point out that Tim Burton’s version of London in Sweeney Todd is a Disneyfied vision of 19th century Olde Englande marketed towards weekend Goths, and actual historical accuracy might freak them out. Frankly we’re lucky Sherlock Holmes didn’t step in to save the day.

I actually quite liked the film, I should point out.

So anyway, yes. That, in my characteristic rambling style, is why I think the London version of the posters for Yet Another Christmas Carol make a scaffolding-clad Big Ben bigger than the main character – to show that they’ve actually done a bit of research unlike some we could mention. Of course, if you want my opinion, and you’re going to get it whether you want it or not, I think these people could save themselves a lot of trouble if they just went with St Paul’s Cathedral as the London landmark. It’s a better symbol for London than Big Ben, which isn’t even in the goddamn City.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/well-at-least-he-didnt-die-poor/ – The real-life historical figure that was the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge.

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