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Big Ben was designed by Charles Barry in 1856, and chimed its first note on the 31st May 1859.
Contrary to popular belief, ‘Big Ben’ is not the name of the clock tower itself, but the name of the big bell inside the belfry. What people commonly call ‘Big Ben’ is actually the Elizabeth Tower, named after Queen Elizabeth II. Prior to the year 2012 it was simply called the ‘Clock Tower’, but was re-dedicated to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Nobody knows for sure how Big Ben got its name. Some people claim that it was a nickname for a famous heavyweight boxer of the day, called Benjamin Caunt. But it was more likely an affectionate tribute to Sir Benjamin Hall, who supervised its installation.
Many people believe that Big Ben is the heaviest bell in England, but it’s not even the biggest bell in London. It actually comes in third behind ‘Great Paul’ in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and ‘Great George’ in Liverpool Cathedral.
The clock mechanism was designed by London’s top barrister of the day, Edmund Beckett Denison (later Lord Grimthorpe), and was quite revolutionary. It was easily the biggest clock of its time, and remains one of the world’s largest timepieces today.
The clock faces are made up of iron rails and 312 pieces of opal glass, 23-feet in diameter. The individual numbers are 2-feet tall.
At the base of each clock face is the Latin inscription DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which translates as “Lord save our Queen Victoria I”
Big Ben actually consists of one big bell, plus four smaller bells on each corner. The big bell is 8-feet in diameter and weighs an incredible 13½ tonnes.
The big bell is decorated with the Royal Arms and Portcullis of Westminster, and has an inscription around the rim that reads: “This bell was cast by George Mears of Whitechapel for the clock of the Houses of Parliament under the direction of Edmund Becket Denison QC in the 21st year of the reign of Queen Victoria in the year of our Lord MDCCCLVIII”.
Although there are no official lyrics to the bell’s chime, some simple words have evolved over the years: “All through this hour, Lord be my guide/And by thy power, no foot shall slide”.
Big Ben’s first breakdown came just three months after installation, when the bell itself cracked. Denison had used a hammer more than twice the recommended weight, and a hefty smack sent it back to Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
Denison blamed the foundry for messing up the metal, prompting an expensive court case. The foundry rightly won the case, and Denison’s reputation took a dent (along with the bell!). Three years later he was still seething about the case and libelled them again. That case ended up back in court – and he lost again.
Instead of re-casting the bell a decision was taken to refill the hole and just use a lighter hammer. When it was re-hung it was also given a quarter-turn to keep the damaged section safe. It is this damage, that still remains today, that is believed to give the bell its distinctive sound.
The clock has broken down on numerous occasions since: the most famous time being in December 1962. Heavy snows affected the mechanism’s temperature, causing it to sound out New Year ten minutes late. Metal fatigue caused it to stop for another nine months in August 1977, and also on the 30th April 1997 – the night before the General Election.
> Read Craig’s review of the Big Ben tour “I climbed up Big Ben today to see the bell. It’s not as easy to get into Big Ben as it is to get into Parliament. You can’t just turn up and ask for a tour. What you have to do is write a letter to your local MP and ask for a ticket. They make you fill out a little spreadsheet with all your personal details as well, so they can perform a security check. And that’s before you even step through the door and have your photo taken… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the Houses of Parliament “I love this place. I even love the politicians inside it (well, most of them). If you come to London and don’t go to the Summer Opening at the Houses of Parliament then you’re basically nuts. It will have been a wasted trip. It’s like going to Rome and not seeing the Vatican. A tour of this place will make your holiday. This is the one you’ll be talking about for months afterwards. They open it up to the public every summer… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of a Saturday tour of Parliament “I haven’t been here for a while so I thought I’d better just check the politicians are behaving themselves. You know what they are like… if we don’t keep our beady eyes on them they start getting drunk and having fist fights. You might be under the impression that you can only have a tour of parliament during the Summer Opening, but that’s not true. There are actually three more ways to sneak a peek inside. The first way is to stand as an MP and get 50,000 people to vote for you at the next general election… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of a Saturday self-guided tour “This is the only event that I haven’t yet done at the Houses of Parliament – an audio tour. I’ve done everything else that a tourist can do – I’ve climbed up Big Ben, been to see the PM in Downing Street, fell asleep in the House of Lords, seen the protesters banging pots about in Parliament Square – this is the last one. So after this they should put a statue of me up in Parliament Square… continued.”
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If you enjoy visiting Big Ben then why not go inside the Houses of Parliament itself? It’s usually open every week for guided tours on Saturday. You can also watch the politicians inside the House of Commons and House of Lords. If you send a letter to your local MP then you might be able to get a ticket for PMQs. Read our complete guide to political events and political attractions in London for lots more good ideas.
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