A Brief History
On April 10, 1858, the original bell called “Big Ben” in the clock tower at the North end of Westminster Palace was removed because it had cracked when tested. The giant 14.5 metric ton bell was replaced with a smaller version, weighing only 13.76 metric tons (or 30,300 pounds for Yankees), but also called Big Ben. Built by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the bell called Big Ben is often confused with either the tower the giant clock sits in or the tower itself. Big Ben is really just the bell that chimes the hours.
Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Colosseum in Rome, the Clock Tower in London is an iconic landmark that is virtually synonymous with the city itself, an unmistakable clue that you are indeed in London if you can see the famous clock tower. Completed in 1859, this London landmark is notable for being the largest 4 sided striking and chiming clock on the planet, and also the most accurate. How accurate? The clock is required to be within 1 second of the actual time upon the first chime of each hourly ringing. Big Ben is only 1 of 5 bells in the clock, but of course the largest of the bells. In fact, Big Ben remained the largest bell in the United Kingdom for the next 23 years. Formerly known as “The Clock Tower,” the familiar building is now called “Elizabeth Tower” since 2012, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, who happened to celebrate her Diamond Jubillee in 2012, marking her 60th year on the throne of the United Kingdom. An unofficial name for the tower used by journalists during the reign of Queen Victoria was “St Stephen’s Tower” as a reference to St Stephen’s Hall where Members of Parliament sat in those days.
The Elizabeth Tower rises a whopping 315 neo-gothic feet into the sky above London, requiring 334 steps from the ground floor to the belfry. Tall and spire shaped, the tower has a square profile, each side measuring 39 feet. The giant clock faces measure 23 feet in diameter and stand 180 feet above ground level. The other 4 bells chime on each quarter hour, while Big Ben chimes hourly. Although the clock still relies on its original 19th Century clockwork, an electric system has been installed as a backup should something break. As you might guess for such an iconic structure, the Tower has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
Although the tower has a slight lean (20 inches at the top), it is in no danger of becoming a famous “Leaning Tower,” as in Pisa, since engineers claim it would take between 4000 and 10,000 years for the tower to topple over. Meanwhile, foreign tourists are not permitted to visit the inside of the tower and must observe the landmark and tourist attraction from the outside. UK residents are permitted to take inside tours. (Snobbery?) Not only is the tower the most famous London/UK landmark, it is also the most often filmed scene in movies with a London setting.
One thing we cannot tell you about Big Ben, is how the giant bell got its (His?) name. One story has it that the name came from Sir Benjamin Hall, the engineer that supervised the installation of the bell. Another tale insists that the name derives from a heavyweight boxer named Benjamin Caunt, “Big Ben” being one of the champ’s nicknames.
A renovation of the clock and tower that began in 2017 is expected to last 4 years, and during the renovation the bells will remain silent, with the exception of each New Year’s Eve and on Remembrance Day (the British equivalent of American Memorial Day, which for the UK is held on the Sunday nearest to November 11, in honor of the Armistice that ended the fighting in World War I). On Remembrance Day it is tradition to ring bells half-muffled. Big Ben has also been used to chime in memory of newly deceased monarchs, one chime for each year of the King or Queen’s (so far only Kings) life. The renovation is expected to cost at least £61 million, about double the original estimate and likely to rise even more.
While Charles Barry was the chief architect of the new Westminster Palace (the previous version burned during the great fire of 1834), Augustus Pugin was tapped to design the clock and its bells. Sadly, Big Ben and its associated clock were the last of Pugin’s projects, as the man went mad and later died before ever working on another project. So far gone was Pugin toward his death, that when asked if he remembered designing the great clock, he said, “No, but it rings a bell!” (OK, I made up this last part!) Pugin died in 1852, at the age of 40, before the famous tower and clock were even finished. Barry died in 1860, only a year after the tower opened.
Questions for Students (and others): What do you consider the most iconic of all landmarks in any city? Have you been to London? If so, what did you think? Can you think of any other famous clocks or bells? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
MacDonald, Peter and Tam Dalyell. Big Ben: The Bell, the Clock and the Tower. Sutton, 2004.
McKay, Chris. Big Ben: the Great Clock and the Bells at the Palace of Westminster. OUP Oxford, 2010.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by User:Colin of The Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) from the dome on Methodist Central Hall, which is only open to the public once a year on Open House London weekend, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.