For nearly a century, a series of 24 St George’s crosses have been covered in black on all four sides of Big Ben.
But six shields on each side have now been unveiled to the eyes of Westminster repainted in red and white, as part of the largest restoration in the Elizabeth Tower’s history, which has so far taken four years and cost £80million.
The refurbished tower has moved a step closer to completion in recent weeks with the series of 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 in 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.
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.
Six of the new St George’s flag shields can be seen under the scaffolding on the Elizabeth Tower in Westminster today
Before and after: The clock face of the Elizabeth Tower as it was seen before the restoration (left) and today (right)
The East Dial, which overlooks the Thames, is seen today with the restored hands driven by an existing temporary mechanism
It comes after a furious row erupted in 2018 when officials unveiled plans to paint the England flag on all four sides on Big Ben, which they insisted was merely returning it to the original Victorian colour scheme.
The decision drew howls of anger from politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – despite authorities insisting the Scottish thistle, Welsh leek and Northern Irish shamrock symbols would also be present.
The St George’s flags had become blackened with the pollution and thick smog which smothered London in Victorian times, and officials then decided in the 1930s to paint them black to save on upkeep.
The clock hands and dial frames have been restored to Victorian architect Charles Barry’s design, with the addition of the St George’s flags announced in July 2018 while England were playing in the World Cup in Russia.
Speaking at the time, then 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 SNP MP Tommy Sheppard said: ‘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.’
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 refurbished tower has moved a step closer to completion in recent weeks with the series of restored shields
The 177-year-old landmark in Westminster, which is pictured this morning, has been covered in scaffolding since May 2017
The restoration project is due to be completed next year after a six-month delay, when the Big Ben bell will chime again
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.
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.
The Big Ben bell has been largely silenced while the work has been carried out (pictured today) but will chime again in 2022
A runner passes through an archway opposite the Elizabeth Tower today as the restoration work continues on the structure
Early in 2022, the bells – including Big Ben itself – will be reconnected to the original Victorian clock mechanism
‘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 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, in early August, 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 were added over the following weeks with that work now completed and several weeks of testing now due to take place. 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.