With the breaking news this week that one of London’s most globally recognised landmarks Big Ben, is going to be ‘bong-less’ for an estimated period of 4 years whilst essential restoration work is undertaken – I thought that I would pay a ‘culture’ visit down to Westminster to see what’s going on, and to learn a little bit more about the history of the tower, before the suspension of its ‘bongs’ on the 21st August.
As with all of London’s rich history, there are many interesting aspects and facts concerning Big Ben which I would assume that not even a hardened Londoner would necessarily be aware of – so I shall attempt to summaries some of the more interesting facts of this iconic landmarks history.
On 16th October 1834, the Palace of Westminster (e.g. the Houses of Parliament) was ravaged by a huge fire – and when the flames were eventually put out, there wasn’t much left of the building, only Westminster Hall.
In 1835 a Government committee was set-up specifically for the purpose of reviewing proposals for its re-design and re-construction. Over 400 designs were submitted from more than 90 architects
The committee eventually chose a design submitted by one Charles Barry – but with the strict proviso that a big ‘clock’ must be added to the building – So Charles Barry went away and came back with a proposal for a ‘Great Clock’ with 4 faces, where the hour was sounded by a set of big bells.
The trouble was Charles Barry was not a clockmaker – and therefore there was a lengthy delay in construction whilst a suitable designer was found who would be qualified and up for the job.
By 1841 the decision had finally been made to appoint one George Airy (who was the Astronomer Royal) to draw up final specification and requirements for the Great Clock – which were extremely complex for the time – and the actual clock itself was to be built by the chosen clockmaker Edward Dent. George Airy made one specific design requirement, which was “The Great Clock should be so accurate that the first strike for each hour shall be accurate to within one second of time.”
Nobody had ever required a clock to be that accurate before – especially a clock with 4 large faces and massive hands, and the opinion of experts and the media of the time, was that it just couldn’t be done.
The clock needed some extremely big bells – one to strike the ‘hour’ and four for the ‘quarter hours’ – which were required to chime to the tune of Handel’s ‘Messiah’.
The 5 bells were cast up north in Stockton-on-Tees and were transported by ship down to London, and then up the Thames by barge to Westminster Bridge.
The big bell was supposed to be called ‘Victoria’ after the Queen – but a poll of Londoners conducted at that time, decided that it should be called ‘Big Ben’ – and that was the name that stuck.
There are two theories as to who “Ben” actually was. One was possibly Benjamin Caunt, a very popular bareknuckle boxer of the time – and the other was Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the Commissioner of Works during the construction of the new Palace of Westminster……both were extremely ‘large’ men.
Because the clock tower wasn’t quite finished, they hung the new massive bell in the yard at Westminster, and every so often they’d hit it with a hammer to test it. However, after a period of constant ‘testing’ throughout 1857, the bell actually cracked – and it hadn’t even been put in the Tower yet!!!
So – a decision was taken to break it up into little pieces, and then transport these pieces to the ‘Whitechapel Bell Foundry’ just down the road in East London – where they cast a new bell which weighed over 13 tones. It was then hauled by cart through the streets of London, back to Westminster.
When the construction of the Tower was finally finished, it was discovered that the Big Ben bell was too big to be hauled up the inside of the Tower’s shaft to the belfry – and so it had to be laid on its side and winched up.
The Tower and the Great Clock were finally finished in May1859 – and Big Ben chimed the ‘hour’ for the very first time on the 11th July 1859.
However, in October 1859 the Big Ben bell cracked yet again (the crack can still see to this very day) – and so it remained silent for a few months whilst they made slightly smaller hammer and then rotated the bell slightly, so that the hammer did not land on the cracked bit – and as a result, Big Ben and the Great Clock, have been hard at work every day since!!!
The Clock Tower itself was originally named the St. Stephens Tower – but was officially changed to the ‘Elizabeth Tower’ in 2012 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. The clock is simply named the Great Clock.
The Elizabeth Tower has 334 steps over 11 floors up to the belfry.
Each clock face has a 7m diameter. The minute hand on each clock face is 4.2 meters long, and the hour hand is 2.7 meters long.
The main bell weighs 13.7 tonnes and is 2.7m in diameter. The four quarter bells are smaller, with different dimensions to enable them to hit different notes.
A third of the way (or 114 steps) up inside the tower is a Prison Room, where MPs in breach of codes of conduct were imprisoned. It was last used in 1880 when newly elected MP Charles Bradlaugh, an atheist, refused to swear allegiance to Queen Victoria on the bible. He was kept in the prison room overnight. (There is actually a pub named after him in Northampton).
The Big Ben bell has marked time throughout the reign of 6 monarchs, 26 Prime Ministers – and countless millions of visitors and tourists – who simply come to admire the Tower and the Great Clock and to hear Big Ben chime – and hopefully, after this forthcoming 4 years suspension – long may it continue to do so
Hope you enjoy the photos