When you think of Big Ben, many of us think of a tower in London…or at least I did. The reality is that Big Ben isn’t the tower at all…it’s the bell. The tower is actually called the Elizabeth Tower…at least since 2012 when it was renamed that in honor of the current Queen Elizabeth. Prior to 2012, the tower was just called “the clock tower.” That was it’s official name, but it was nicknamed Saint Stephen’s tower. It’s funny that we can associate a specific name or idea to something, and have the whole thing totally wrong. The tower name is an interesting story, but that is not the only oddity when it comes to Big Ben.
As interesting as that was to me, I find it even more interesting to find out that there is actually a prison in the tower. A third of the way, or 114 steps up inside the tower is the Prison Room, where MPs in breach of codes of conduct were imprisoned. The prison room was last used in 1880 when newly elected MP Charles Bradlaugh, who was an atheist, refused to swear allegiance to Queen Victoria on the Bible. He was kept in the prison room overnight. These days there is a pub named after him in Northampton. I’m not sure how many more people were imprisoned there, but it is certainly a strange use for a clock tower.
There are 334 steps over 11 floors up to the belfry…399 up to the lantern of the Elizabeth Tower. Each clock face measures 23 feet in diameter. The minute hand on each clock face is 14 feet long, and the hour hand is 9 feet long. The main bell weighs 13.7 tons and is 9 feet in diameter. There are four quarter bells that are smaller. These have different dimensions to enable them to hit different notes. At the top of the tower is an extra light called the Ayrton Light. It was installed so Queen Victoria could see when the members of parliament were sitting after hours.
The current bell is not the original bell. The original bell was famously cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The contract to create the bell went to a company called Warners of Norton in Stockton-on-Tees. A 16.5 ton bell was created and delivered to London before the clock tower was ready. For several months, the bell was tested outside the tower. It was working fine until the man who designed it, Edmund Beckett Denison, decided he wanted it louder so added a much larger hammer. Three weeks later the bell broke. It was sent to Whitechapel Bell Foundry in pieces and melted down to create the new 13.5 ton bell. Once complete, it took 32 hours to winch it up the tower. Just two months after the bell named Big Ben first went into service in 1859, it was cracked. The hammer that was installed to ring the bell was roughly twice the size it should have been for a bell of that size. Nevertheless, the damage was done. The bell remains flawed to this day. A lighter hammer was fitted, and the bell was rotated slightly so that the hammer no longer hits the cracked section. The clock uses penny weights to keep the time accurate.
I think most people have heard of Big Ben, the famous clock tower in London, but what you may not know is that originally, there was no clock and no tower. The Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower, most often called Big Ben, are among London’s most iconic landmarks and favorite London attractions. Big Ben is actually the name that was given to the massive bell inside the clock tower, which weighs more than 13 tons, not to the clock or the tower. At night the four clock faces are illuminated, and the effect is spectacular.
The British Parliament is located in the Palace of Westminster. In October of 1834, a fire destroyed much of the palace and it had to be rebuilt. At that time it was decided that there would be an spectacular addition of a clock at the top of a tower. The clock is magnificent. Each dial measures almost 23 feet in diameter. The hands are 14 feet long and weigh about 220 pounds, including counterweights. The numbers on the clock’s face are approximately 23 inches long. There are 312 pieces of glass in each clock dial. When parliament is in session, a special light above the clock faces is illuminated. Big Ben’s timekeeping is strictly regulated by a stack of coins placed on the huge pendulum. Big Ben has rarely stopped. Even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber during World War II, the clock tower survived and Big Ben continued to strike the hours. The chimes of Big Ben were first broadcast by the BBC on December 31, 1923. It is a tradition that continues to this day. The Latin words under the clock face read Domine Salvam Fac Reginam Nostram Victoriam Primam, which means “O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.” In June 2012 the House of Commons announced that the clock tower was to be renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
A massive bell was required and the first attempt made by John Warner and Sons at Stockton-On-Tees cracked irreparably. Big Ben first rang across Westminster on May 31, 1859. A short time later, in September 1859, Big Ben cracked. The metal was melted down and the bell recast in Whitechapel in 1858. A lighter hammer was fitted and the bell rotated to present an undamaged section to the hammer. This is the bell as we hear it today, and the real owner of the name Big Ben. Elizabeth Tower stands at more than 105 yards tall, with 334 steps to climb up to the belfry and 399 steps to the Ayrton Light at the very top of the tower.