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Stop all the clocks: Cleaning the south face of Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben (Simon Taylor CC BY-2.5)


A Commons report reveals that Big Ben’s clock urgently needs a £29.2 million restoration. With “structural defects” to the clock tower, the bearings in poor condition, and the gunmetal hands at risk of dropping off, the clock may need to be put to sleep for four months as a rescue operation is performed. 

The last time Big Ben ceased to chime — for cleaning in August 2014 — we couldn’t keep our eyes off it. With its long hands hovering at 12 o’clock, it was a sleeping beast, over which little men clambered with ropes, like the citizens of Lilliput.  

There is something about a stopped clock. When Big Ben falls silent, the space beneath it becomes eerie and hollow, as though someone has paused the CD at a dinner party, leaving nothing to absorb the awkwardness of human sound.

We are so accustomed to the chimes ringing out over Westminster that the silence is strangely compelling. When a smaller municipal or parish clock stops, the buzz of those living beneath it may ebb away to more depressing long-term results.  

Communities were once held together by their collective sense of time. At one point in the 18th century, people were taxed on their watches and domestic clocks, leaving many to resort to consulting the nearest clock tower to keep time. There was no scrambling about, heads stooped, eyes averted from other people’s movements. The town clock carried workers and worshippers from morning to night in mutual purpose. Young television viewers of the 1960s will remember Trumpton Town Hall Clock, “Telling the time for Trumpton.”

In a world of watches and phones with digital clocks, there is obviously no longer the same need for town and village clocks. In that sense Big Ben, too, has lost its function — yet few would dispute the need to preserve it. The justification for the expense of doing so — the history, the science, the monument’s ability to symbolise the throbbing heartbeat of British life — ought to be applied more fervently still to our little city clocks, which are falling silent at an alarming rate.At a recent count, four out of five of Nottingham’s loveliest town clocks had stopped or lost time.

Such is the speed of decline that a website was set up in 2007 to record the UK’s stopped clocks. A stroll through a single square mile of London yielded a sad total of 11. And then the website stopped too.

It is not only that, when left alone, stopped clocks can cause damage (the weights can fall over the pulleys). There are enough abandoned shops on our high streets already to make ghost towns of many corners of Britain. To abandon their clocks, too, is to despair of life’s progress. Just think of Miss Havisham: “The days have worn away, have they?”

While clock museums are still flourishing (one has just opened at London’s Science Museum), municipal clocks are in danger of becoming outdoor museum pieces without the punters to appreciate them.

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