The Truth Behind Big Ben

(Image credit: Wikipedia user Karrackoo)

Westminster Palace on the Thames river in London is the place where the parliament of the United Kingdom meets, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The palace, along with Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret's Church, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also a must-see for anyone visiting London. The first palace on the site was built in the eleventh century as a residence for royalty. A fire almost destroyed the palace in 1512. After that, the King or Queen lived elsewhere and parliament met in the rebuilt structure. Another large fire ruined much of the complex in 1834. The rebuild after that disaster (which incorporated surviving parts of the original palace) gave the Palace of Westminster the look it has today. The construction took decades. In 1844, parliament decided the new palace should have a bell tower with a clock, which became the iconic tower we all recognize.

(Image credit: Flickr user Jon McGovern)

The nickname "Big Ben" is specifically for the clock's hour bell (officially named the Great Bell), the largest of the five bells, but in common use also refers to the clock faces and the tower itself.

However, the proper name for the tower is the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster. It is also called St. Stephen's Tower, a name given to the tower by Victorian journalists who also called the hall of parliament "St. Stephen's Hall". The Chapel of St. Stephen was originally built inside Westminster Palace as a private church for the king in the 13th-14th centuries (it took 70 years to complete). In 1547, parliament moved in and the chapel became the Commons Chamber. The House of Commons met there until the fire of 1834, which explains the use of the term St. Stephen's Hall as used by journalists.

The Great Bell that became known as Big Ben first went into service in the tower in 1859. The first big bell cast for the tower weighed 16 tons and was hung in the yard in 1856, as the tower was not yet completed. It cracked and was recast as a 13 and a half ton bell in 1858, and was hung in the belfry in 1859. The process of hanging the bell, which some already called Big Ben, took a total of 18 hours over two days. It was first rung on May 31, 1859.

Soon afterward, that bell cracked as well, but instead of replacing it, the decision was made to repair the crack and use a smaller hammer to ring it. A wise decision, as the original hammer was twice as big as was recommended by the forge that made the bell! The bell was also rotated slightly so the hammer would not hit the repaired spot.

(Image credit: Flickr use Bill Timmins)

The clock itself was designed by Edmund Beckett Denison according to strict specifications from parliament, particularly for the accuracy of the clock, which was to be within one second per day -a tall order in 1851! The design was carried out by clock makers Messrs E.J. Dent & Co. and was ready by 1854. However, the works sat at the company for five years until the tower was ready. The official name of the clock and all four of its faces is the Great Clock of Westminster.

Who was the original Big Ben, anyway? Some believe the name came from British heavyweight boxing champion Benjamin Caunt. Caunt's career spanned from 1815 to 1845, although he participated in one fight in 1857 that ended in a draw as both men were exhausted. He was 42 years old by then. The bare-knuckled fighter stood over 6 foot 2 inches and weighed over 200 pounds -and was nicknamed "Big Ben" during most of his career.

Others say that the name Big Ben came from Sir Benjamin Hall, the Commissioner of Works from 1855 to 1858. The most common story is that Hall delivered a long speech to the House of Commons on what to name the bell. Hoping to end the diatribe, someone quipped, “Why not call it Big Ben?” which produced laughter throughout the hall. The only problem with this story is that there is no record of it actually happening. Another story is that the first bell forged had Hall's name inscribed inside, which led workers to refer to the bell as Big Ben. The name was not inscribed when the bell was recast in 1858, as Hall was no longer Commissioner of Works by then. No one knows for sure which, if any, of these stories is the real reason for the name Big Ben.

(Image credit: Flickr user Dominik Gubi)

Tourist sites refer to the tower and the clock as Big Ben, which is only natural as tourists want to see the clock tower and don't know the terms St. Stephen's Tower or Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster.

This post was inspired by the comments following a post on Big Ben's Twitter Feed. Thanks to all who contributed!

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Typos notwithstanding (we all make them!) an excellent article!

Just for interest, those of us who have occasion to work in and around the Palace of Westminster most commonly refer to it as St. Stephen's Tower. I'll admit it does get a little annoying when even the "locals" refer to the clock as Big Ben.

The other point is that all those versions of the "39 Steps", Disney's "Basil" and other films that have featured a scene in and around the clock faces, it is impossible to see the clock faces from the room where the clock mechanism lives! There are four fairly thick walls in the way! :-)
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As far as I know, the largest four-faced clock tower is the one at Allen-Bradley in Milwaukee, WI.
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Big Ben - the bell - was made in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Which in not much more than a tiny store front on Whitechapel Road (which is the cheapest road in the London version of Monopoly for good reason).

I only know that because it is around the corner from where I lived when I was in London. And one day when showing my friend where the bus stop was. I saw the Queen there visiting it. I was told why buy some of the massive crowd standing around for a glimpse of the old lady.
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