You cannot visit London and not take photos of Big Ben. It is as iconic as the red London buses, Buckingham Palace and the Tube.
It is a common misconception that the tower by the Houses of Parliament is called Big Ben. In actual fact, the tower is called Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben is the name of its bell, although the official name is the Great Bell. The tower was completed in 1859 and the clock started to tick on 31 May of that year with Big Ben starting to strike for the first time on 11 July 1859 on the hour, with the quarter bells first chiming on 7 September 1859.
As always in London, the tower we see today is not the first one to have been build on this spot. The original tower was built in 1288 and completed two years later during the reign of King Edward I. This tower also contained a clock and a bell; the bell was first named “Great Edward” and was later known as “Great Tom”. A second tower replacing the original stood here in 1367, but by 1707 had fallen into disrepair and was demolished; a sundial was put in its place.
The fire of 1834, which destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster, necessitated new designs for a new building. The original design of the Palace did not include a clock tower, but was added later during 1836.
The tower was constructed so that no scaffolding was visible from the outside, i.e. they built it from the inside out. Materials arrived from all over the UK and France; Yorkshire Anston stone, granite from Cornwall, iron roofing plates from Birmingham, Caen stone from Normandy.
As is the norm when planning to build something of public interest, a competition is held. The commission to design and build the clock of the Elizabeth Tower was eventually handed to Charles Barry, who was no specialist clockmaker, so he enrolled his friend Benjamin Lewis Vaullamy, who was the Queen’s Clockmaker. However, other prominent clockmakers wanted a piece of the cake and disputes broke out. In 1846, you guessed it, another competition was held to decide on who should build the clock. High standards were set by the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, who was appointed referee. His criteria were as follows:
- the first stroke of each hour to be accurate to within one second
- the clock’s performance to be telegraphed twice a day to Greenwich Observatory
These high standards (and others) caused a seven year delay. Eventually Dent was appointed to build the clock, on his death in 1853, his stepson, Frederick, completed the clock in 1854 – total cost GBP2,500. A delay with the clock tower building meant that the clock could not be installed when it was completed, having to wait for its tower. The clock was finally installed in April 1859, but things did not start of smoothly for the clock. It’s cast-iron minute hands were too heavy to work, so they were replaced with lighter copper hands, the clock started ticking on 31 May 1859.
The tower bell was cast in Stockton-on-Tees in 1856 and when it arrived in London was pulled across Westminster Bridge by 16 white horses (just imagine that scene for the moment – 16 white steeds pulling a massive bell!).
It was tested every day until 17 Oct 1857 when a 1.2 meter crack appeared. A lighter hammer was installed, the bell repaired and it has chimed ever since then.