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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.
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.
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.
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!