You may have seen a story in the news that there is an early day motion being set down in the House of Commons for the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster (officially ‘St Stephen’s Tower’ but better known as “Big Ben”, which is in fact the name of the Hour Bell) to be renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honour of HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year. The proposal comes hot on the heels of the presentation to HMQ of a stained glass window which will be installed in the north window of Westminster Hall to commemorate the 60th anniversary of her accession.
Presumably the idea is that the name “Elizabeth Tower” will complement the Victoria Tower at the opposite end of the Palace: the great square neo-gothic skyscraper built as a home for the Parliamentary archives and completed in 1860. However, it’s worth pointing out that the Victoria Tower was originally called “the King’s Tower” by Barry and Pugin in their 1836 designs, and was then renamed only after Victoria had come to the throne in 1837. In between both towers is the central spire of the Palace of Westminster, which is, in fact, a ventilation shaft. It is situated directly over the central lobby, close to St Stephen’s Hall on the footprint of the old House of Commons which had been the former chapel of St Stephen’s of the royal palace.
Interestingly, but not unexpectedly, the BBC News story (and others) describe the Victoria Tower as being the ‘West’ Tower of the Houses of Parliament. It’s not. It is in fact the South Tower of the Palace. So the Clock Tower is at the North, not East, end of the building. People, including journalists, get confused about orientation at Westminster, partly because of the name, West-minster. And also because the view below is very much in their heads when they think of the building (they think left to right; London stretches from WESTminster to EAST End; therefore the Thames flows from west to east here). They also get confused because of the diagrammatic layout of the London underground map which wrongly orientates Westminster east-west against the Thames.
But, they forget that the Thames runs north from Chelsea Bridge and then makes a sharp swerve eastwards at Charing Cross as it runs towards the sea (Charing, or cerring, is Anglo-Saxon for ‘bend’). Take a look at this map, if you don’t believe me:
So remember, the Palace of Westminster is orientated North-South, not West-East. May come in useful for pub quizzes.