What’s The Time, London?


imagesFor a city that’s psychologically dominated by a very big grandfather clock* it’s appropriate that clocks and time feature so heavily in the city’s past and present. After all, London is the home of time itself, with the Greenwich Observatory setting Greenwich Mean Time. But there are many other London clocks of note.

Big Ben is not the largest clock in London, however. That place belongs to number 80 The Strand. Shell-Mex House faced a height restriction problem when it was built in 1930, but the restriction only applied to inhabited parts of a building, so a clock tower was exempt. It has two faces, best seen from Hungerford Bridge walkway.Social-and-Local-Palace-of-Westminster-Case-Study

I live within sight of two grand clocks. The first is the green and white Caledonian Market clock tower. The park in which it stands once housed London’s largest cattle market, and the tower was supposedly built to stand the force of a bull charge. It’s now open to the public. The second is the great clock-spire of St Pancras, which looks like a fairytale castle in silhouette.

I’ve always liked the art deco clock on Cambridge Circus, with four women balancing a clock like a beach ball, and the grand Queen of Time double clock that stands above the entrance to Selfridges, but Fleet Street and Holborn have an array of clocks, some hidden. St Dunstan-in-the-West has a clock installed five years after the Great Fire which features London’s great guardians Gog and Magog hitting the central bell with hammers.


The church of St George the Martyr in Southwark has its celebrated three-sided clock, with the fourth face blacked out because the residents of Bermondsey were not prepared to contribute to the church, so the church denied them time. Eventually they capitulated and put the clock face in, but blacked it out as a reminder that it wasn’t paid for.

Two of the most unusual modern clocks are the aquatic clock in Covent Garden that used to empty water onto passers by and the bird clock of the London zoo which squawks and swings and automates toucans, much like the Guinness Clocks of old did.

Churchill’s astronomical clock at Bracken House has his face at its centre, measures time by the heavens and is set in pink to reflect the colour of the newspaper it housed, the Financial Times. All further odd London clocks welcome!

*It’s typical that London’s icon has three names, so nobody knows what to call it; St Stephen’s Tower, the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben, the nickname for the bell, which is actually called The great Bell.


9 comments on “What’s The Time, London?”

  1. Denise Treadwell says:

    Big ben is the name of the bell. I remember Guinness clocks I was child then.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    It was St Stephen’s Tower – which housed the clock – but was renamed Elizabeth in honour of the current monarch. Why was it called St. Stephen’s Tower, though? Can you just drop a 200 year old name like that?
    I was always told that so called grandfather clocks are properly called “long case” clocks. The cases were necessary to hold the pendulums which kept the mechanism going at a regular speed.

  3. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – many years ago, I spent a year or so working for my Town’s museum. This is split in two halves – a beautiful Victorian Museum proper, with fascinating things in cases, including a magnificent stuffed Giraffe in it’s original Victorian glass case, which was so revolutionary when installed, it’s makers insisted that they work in secret, and, to this day, nobody really knows how it stays in place, and hasn’t shattered under it’s own weight. But I’m waffling. The other half of the museum is across town, and is an Elizabethan/Jacobean mansion sitting at the edge of a vast park, bang in the centre of town, which extends to the suburbs. I worked in this mansion, which is divided into lots of rooms, each room containing artefacts of a particular era. In the section which was depicting the Regency period, there were three long-case clocks, which I had to wind every morning. Each had it’s own crank, and I was shown, by the Curator how far to wind them. On the inside of their cases were chalked lines, beyond which, the top of the weight was never to pass. The curator then said that if I broke it, I’d bought it. I never knew when he was joking, so I was careful. Two of the clocks wound as smooth as silk, but the third always went up in a series of heart-stopping jerks. It was the only time, in any job, that I was fearful of breaking something.

  4. Jan says:

    St Ann’s Limehouse I reckon has one of London’s most interesting clocks. If I’m not mistaken the St Ann’s clock was used by merchant and Royal naval shipping for time setting as they sailed away from the Port of London toward the sea. Prior to the Meridian and adoption of Greenwich mean time which I think it just about precedes. Not 100% on this however so forgive me if I have messed up. One of the St Ann’s very large clockfaces directly faces the river.

    It’s an amazing church in a very interesting site there’s lots of little quirks like the church flagpole onto which was incorporated a large golden ball. (True – no Beckham quips forthcoming.) This golden ball was raised and lowered originally as an indicator of the Thames tides then in time as a sort of salute to shipping. In fact so connected is this church to the navy, the docks and shipping that it became the church at which Queen Ann’s government decided all births, deaths + important events which took place at sea should be registered. The shape of the pinnacle of its tower is reproduced on all R.N. Trinity House navigational charts. The church has the unique right to fly the white ensign of the Royal Navy 24 hours a day each day of the year.

    St Ann’s is a Hawksmoor church one of a series of churches created by Nicholas Hawksmoor and his master Wren with the intention of creating a magical protected space in which the C of L. could thrive and prosper. I think the adoption of the Royal Navy by this church and vice versa is a deliberate part of this strategy. Britannia did in fact rule the waves.

    I could Witter on about this Masonic magic all day. Each Hawksmoor church has a pyramid incorporated into its structure or close by. Here the pyramid marked”The wisdom of Solomon” is in the churchyard. There’s at least one book out there about the magical properties of the Hawksmoors churches. Most of which came to grief by fire and many of which were bombed in WW2. They are all worthy of study.

    Of course Limeouse was the site of London’s first China town i can remember going there in my late teens to eat Chinese it was still a food destination . Now of course Canary wharf and all its wealth is close by. Perhaps that spell is still ticking over!

  5. Ian Luck says:

    Hawksmoor’s churches are all odd. No, Weird. His church in Spitalfields has a pyramid in the graveyard, and purportedly, a maze of tunnels underneath. St. George’s in Bloomsbury, has a tower topped off with what appears to be a replica of the Mausoleum at Harlicanassus. One he built in Greenwich has what seems to be a pagan altar in front of it. His churches don’t feel right, either – most churches are welcome havens of calm. Hawksmoor’s always feel like there’s something going on that you’re not quite aware of, and a feeling of being chivvied along to leave. And this feeling came long before I had read Peter Ackroyd’s novel, Hawksmoor. I should point out that I’m an Atheist. I love the physical structures that are Churches, but not what goes on inside them. Hawksmoor is responsible for the renovation of the West Front of Westminster Abbey, by the way.

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    Timekeeping: When the Tyneside Metro rail system opened over 30 years ago all of the platforms had a large clock. The system became notorious for late or missing trains and people would comment ” I’ve been standing here for half an hour and the trains are supposed to be every 12 minutes” etc.

    The system’s management reduced complaints by removing all of the clocks….

  7. Jan says:

    They are all interesting places though Ian not the usual. atmosphere you would expect of a church but as i wrote earlier there’s good reason for that.

    I know i am a super London saddo but yes I have visited each and every one of the London Hawksmooor churches and the Pyramids which are either incorporated into their structures like St George’s Bloomsbury or separate structures freestanding in the graveyards. Spittalfields and St Ann’s are in that category. Treat all tales of tunnels etc with care.

    St Mary Woolnoth is particularly interesting in that one of the first London underground rail companies bought the crypt of the church where the ticket hall to what is now Bank station became sited. Bombed in WW2 and there was an earlier disaster at the site (possibly a WW1 bombing but I really can’t remember sorry) this ticket hall/ previously church crypt was supposedly haunted by a female ghost dressed in dark clothing. Lots of restructuring has been carried out at Bank whether the site is still supposed to be haunted I dunno. Obviously not far from the Bank of England and it’s underground stream. Wherever there’s ghost sightings there’s an underground stream not far away.

    Yes the Ackroyd novel is one of his best but my interest does predate Ackroyd. Ian Sinclair.(deceased) had some weird old ideas but having walked the routes he talks about in his book”Lud Heat”. – Ackroyds acknowledged inspiration for Hawksmoor I can only say Sinclair had extraordinary knowledge of a wide variety of sites in East London.

    Lousy St Luke’s is now BBC concert venue. This Hawksmoor church is famous for its weird carving in the tower that looked like a flea. All out of proportion it looks – but the acoustics are supposed to be very good. Wren and Hawksmoor knew their craft.
    Nicholas Hawksmoor is most famous for the fountains and waterways up.@ Castle Howard in Yorkshire.

  8. Jan says:

    Peter didn’t the re privatised rail companies come up with a variation on that theme when they “abandoned” the rail timetables at one point? If there’s no timetables cramping your style there’s no late running …no complaints.
    As scams go it is tops.

    I think the Newky Metro is a smashing system as it goes. And cheap. Like a sort of Aldis running the underground. Basic functional – clean.

    Up in Leeds I think it is there are abandoned tunnels of a never built underground rail network…..Oh Lord I’m off again.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    Jan, have you ever looked at the ‘Subterranea Britannica’ website? If not, you should give it a squint – I think that it would make you very happy. I spend hours looking at stuff there. If you look at the ‘sites by location’ area, pick an area near where you live, for example, you can tick a few hours off very easily.

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