Craig recommends… Here’s my review of the Big Ben tour. You can also have a tour of the Houses of Parliament itself – it’s usually open for guided tours every Saturday. Watching the politicians inside the House of Commons and House of Lords is definitely worth doing, and 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.
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 to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee.
Some people claim that Big Ben was a nickname for a famous boxer 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 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 is the Latin inscription DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM, which means: “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”.
There are no official lyrics to the bell’s chime but some 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.
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