For nearly a century, a series of 24 St George’s crosses have been covered in black paint on Big Ben’s clockfaces.
But six shields repainted in red and white on the East Dial, which looks out over the River Thames, of the Westminster landmark have now become visible for the first time since the 1930s.
The face has been seen for the first time since its restoration, after the North Dial was revealed between March 2019 and July 2021 – with much of that period at the height of the pandemic when Central London was deserted.
Now, the North Dial has been covered up again for more works, and the new East Dial face uncovered amid the largest restoration in the Elizabeth Tower’s history – which has so far taken four years and will cost £80million.
The flags become visible across the Thames for the first time in nearly a century on the East Dial on August 13, three years after the plan to repaint them in colour angered some Scottish nationalists when it was revealed.
A row erupted in July 2018 when officials unveiled plans to paint the England flag on all four sides, which they insisted was merely returning it to the original Victorian colour scheme.
The decision drew dissent from some politicians in Scotland and Wales – despite authorities insisting the Scottish thistle, Welsh leek and Northern Irish shamrock symbols would also be present on the building.
At the time, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru politicians objected to the prominent display of the English flag, with one SNP MP saying: ‘Maybe they are assuming that in the future the Union will be dissolved.’
The St George’s flags had become blackened with the pollution and thick smog which smothered London in the Victorian era, and officials then decided in the 1930s to paint them black to save on upkeep.
Six of the new St George’s flag shields are seen under the scaffolding on the East Dial of the Elizabeth Tower in London today
On each side of the tower, above the clock face and Belfry and above the Ayrton Light, are rows of newly restored shields – including Scottish thistle, Welsh leek and Northern Irish shamrock symbols. The East Dial is pictured today
Before and after: The clock face of the Elizabeth Tower as it was seen before the restoration (left) and today (right)
The restored clock hands have been painted to match the original Prussian Blue colour scheme on the dials, pictured today
The refurbished tower has moved a step closer to completion in recent weeks with the restored shields and the return of the clock hands to Big Ben, now repainted in their original Prussian blue colour.
The 177-year-old landmark, which is part of the Palace of Westminster, has been covered in scaffolding since May 2017 when craftsmen began work to refurbish its stonework, reglaze the four clock dials and repaint the ironwork.
What shields will be visible on the restored Elizabeth Tower?
A row of six shields above each dial will display the St George’s flag, with a red cross on a white background.
On each side of the tower, above the Belfry and above the Ayrton Light, will be rows of newly restored shields. The eight shields between the stone arcaded belfry stage and the cast iron roof will represent the following:
- A combined emblem comprising the symbols of the three kingdoms: the red and white rose of Tudor England, thistle for Scotland and shamrock for Ireland, all assembled in one shield
- The shamrock for Ireland
- The thistle for Scotland
- The red and white rose of the Tudor dynasty
- The fleur-de-lis for France (England claimed the throne of France)
- The portcullis for the Tudors (Beaufort family, Henry VII’s mother)
- The leek for Wales
- The pomegranate for Catherine of Aragon (Henry VIII’s first wife)
- The red and white Tudor rose representing England appears at each corner.
And the restoration project is due to be completed next year after a six-month delay, when the famous 13-tonne Big Ben bell – which has been largely silenced while the work has been carried out – will chime again.
The clock hands and dial frames have now been restored to Victorian architect Charles Barry’s design, along with the addition of the St George’s flags.
But SNP MP Tommy Sheppard said at the time three years ago: ‘Maybe they are assuming that in the future the Union will be dissolved.’ And Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly member Simon Thomas said: ‘Well, that’s certainly telling the rest of us where to go.’
SNP MP Pete Wishart added: ‘This is a welcome boost for Scottish independence as Westminster prepares to become an England-only parliament. People will, however, be forgiven for thinking that transition began long ago – as Scotland continues to be sidelined and ignored on the biggest issues facing our country.’
However, Parliament’s architect Adam Watrobski said: ‘Using historic paint analysis and references including Barry’s original design watercolour we have recreated the original colour scheme. This will very much be the crowning glory of this important project.’
The project was announced in July 2018 while England were playing in the World Cup in Russia.
Speaking at the time, then Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, from the House of Commons Commission, said: ‘Restoring the flag of St George on Big Ben is fantastic timing with what we hope is England’s progression to the World Cup final.’
But Commons sources insisted in 2018 that the timing was pure coincidence, with one saying: ‘It’s been in the pipeline for ages – we had no idea how far England would get in the World Cup.’
It came after experts from Lincoln University looked at samples of the earliest paintwork of the clock face to establish a true picture of how the original tower completed in 1859 would have appeared.
The hands were restored off-site after being removed three years ago for urgent conservation work, and have now been painted to match the original Prussian blue colour scheme on the clock dials, first revealed in 2019.
The 177-year-old landmark in Westminster, which is pictured this morning, has been covered in scaffolding since May 2017
The East Dial, which overlooks the Thames, is seen today with the restored hands driven by an existing temporary mechanism
Construction teams have now reattached the original hands to the four dials – including replacing the temporary hands that have been displayed on the North Dial for over two years.
Victorian architect Charles Barry designed the original clock
The hands were blue until the 1930s but the effects of weathering and pollution had meant that decorators assumed the metalwork was black – until scientists analysed paint samples as part of the renovation.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, said in July: ‘The iconic Elizabeth Tower, with its distinctive clock-face, is a much-missed sight for most tourists as they emerge from Westminster Tube Station.
‘So to hear that we are a step closer to seeing it restored to its former glory is very exciting. The clock-dials, with their hand-cut glass faces and Prussian blue numerals and hands, are just beautiful. ‘
‘While we are all longing for the sound of Big Ben marking the time, and for the scaffolding to be removed from the tower – I think we will all agree at the unveiling next year, our patience has been worth it.
‘Thanks to the workmanship of people from across the country, our much-loved ‘Big Ben’ – which has survived whatever nature and the ravages of time could throw at it – will be ready to face the next 160 years.’
The clock hands have now been restored to Victorian architect Charles Barry’s design. The above picture was taken in 1865
The St George’s shields can be seen above the East Dial clock face on the tower when this photograph was taken in 1865
The North Dial was covered from July to give teams better and easier access to the site, and the hands were then brought up to the top of the tower, with the East Dial hands attached first.
Soon after, on August 13, the East Dial – which overlooks the River Thames – became the visible clockface, with the restored hands continuing to be driven by an existing temporary mechanism.
The remaining hands are being added with several weeks of testing due to take place once this is completed. More scaffolding will be removed from the upper sections later this year.
Early in 2022, the bells – including Big Ben itself – will be reconnected to the original Victorian clock mechanism and will ring out once again. The gantry will be removed before the site is fully cleared before next summer.
The Elizabeth Tower was previously known as the Clock Tower, its former official name, and St Stephen’s Tower, which was an unofficial moniker despite it actually being the name of a different tower over the public entrance.