Big Ben  

Facts and information

Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, Westminster,
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Big Ben and the Houses of ParliamentBig Ben, and Houses of ParliamentA close-up of Big Ben’s clock faceBig Ben’s clock face

Did you know… The timing is maintained by placing pre-decimalised pennies onto the balance. Adding one causes the clock to gain two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.

The Big Ben clock towerBig Ben clock tower

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Big Ben was designed by Charles Barry in 1856, and chimed its first tune on the 31st May 1859. It took thirteen years to complete, and stands at one end of the Houses of Parliament.

Contrary to popular belief, ‘Big Ben’ is not the name of the tower itself but the bell that chimes the tune. Some people claim that it borrowed its name from the heavyweight championship boxer, Benjamin Caunt. But it was more likely an affectionate tribute to Sir Benjamin Hall, who supervised the installation.

The clock tower faces

Big Ben’s 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 combined weight of the clock-faces is over five tonnes. They are made up of iron rails and 312 pieces of opal glass. The dials are 23-feet in diameter, and the numbers are two feet tall.

At the base of each face is the Latin inscription DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM which translates as Lord save our Queen Victoria I.

The bell’s chime lyrics

Big Ben consists of one big bell and four smaller bells at the side. The big one is eight feet in diameter and weighs an incredible 13½ tonnes. Many people think that it is the heaviest bell in Britain – but it actually comes in third behind Great Paul in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Great George in Liverpool.

The bigger bell is decorated with Royal Arms and portcullis of Westminster. It also has an inscription around the rim which 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 real lyrics to the tune, some simple words have evolved over the years: All through this hour, Lord be my guide; And by thy power, no foot shall slide.

History of Big Ben’s breakdowns

The clock has broken down numerous times – the most famous occasion being in December 1962. Heavy snows affected the mechanism’s temperature, causing it to chime in New Years Eve ten minutes late. Metal fatigue caused it to stop for a further nine months in August ’77, and also on the 30th April 1997 – the night before the General Election.

The bell itself was cracked just three months after installation. Denison had used a hammer more than twice the recommended weight, and a hefty smack sent it back to the foundry. A decision was then taken to refill the hole and use a lighter hammer. It was also given a quarter-turn to keep the damaged section safe.

Denison blamed the foundry for messing up the metal, prompting an expensive libel court case. The foundry rightly won the case, and Denison’s reputation took a knock. Three years later he was still seething about it and libelled them again. That case ended up back in court – and he lost again!

>> Drummerboy’s blog – Big Ben

  • Drummerboy – “I climbed up Big Ben today to see the bell, which was pretty cool. It’s not as easy to get into Big Ben as it is to get into Parliament, which is a bit wierd. 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. It’s well worth it though. But when I got the letter they made it sound a little scarier than it actually is. It’s 334 spiral steps to the top – which is 20 more than The Monument. And I remember having problems climbing up the Monument with my dodgy knees, so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to this after reading that letter. But it turns out that I had nothing to worry about… continued.”

Events at Big Ben…

Climb up Big Ben, and stand in the belfry – from 2nd Jan 2014

>> See all events at Big Ben

>> Events taking place near Big Ben

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