Big Ben: Westminster's First Medieval Clock Tower

Big Ben is one of the most iconic landmarks of London's skyline. Construction of Westminster’s first Medieval clock tower took place in the 13th century, although it was replaced in the 19th century by the building we know today. It has also been known as the Elizabeth Tower since 2012, to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee.

At a mighty 315 feet tall, the clock tower has a gruelling climb of 334 steps from ground level to the belfry. The square base of the tower measures 39 feet on each side. The dial of the clock measures a massive 23 feet in diameter. With five bells, Big Ben refers to the largest one in the clock tower at 13.7 tonnes.

© Photocreo Bednarek / Adobe Stock

Big Ben's history

At the north end of the Palace of Westminster, the first clock tower on the Big Ben site was built during 1289 and 1290. It was the forerunner to the clock we know and love today. The original clock had only one bell and one face.

In 1367, the original clock tower was replaced with a new one and it became England's first chiming clock. It remained unchanged for more than 300 years, but by 1699, it had fallen into a state of disrepair.

The bell from the clock was removed to be transported to St Paul's Cathedral, but it proved disastrous, as it was broken on the way. In 1707, it was decided to pull down the medieval clock tower. A giant sundial was built in its place.

A new bell was cast for St Paul's Cathedral's south-west tower in 1716, using the cast from the original bell in Big Ben's clock tower. Even today, if the bell from Big Ben is ever unable to strike, the one in St Paul's rings out instead.

Latest design

In 1834, a massive fire almost completely destroyed the Palace of Westminster. Construction of a new palace began in 1840, designed by architect Charles Barry, who included a new clock tower in his blueprint. In 1843, construction of the clock tower began.

In 1846, a competition judged by Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, was launched to see who would build the clock. It was seven years before the design was finalised because it had to be so accurate. Eventually, in 1852, Edmund Beckett Denison was chosen to design the clock and it was to be built by John Dent.

In the same year, the new Palace of Westminster was opened by Queen Victoria. The clock was completed in 1854 and the first new Big Ben bell was manufactured by Warner's of Norton, in the Stockton-on-Tees region. Initially, the bell was going to be called Royal Victoria, but its name was changed to Big Ben.

Faulty bell

Unfortunately, the first Big Ben bell proved to have a fault. In 1857, during testing, it developed a four-inch crack. Warner's condemned it, but there was a disagreement over who was responsible. Warner's blamed the designer Denison, who in turn blamed the manufacturer.

The bell had to be re-cast in 1858. This time, the contract went to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. It was finally transported to the new palace by a carriage that was pulled by 16 white horses. It was raised and secured in the belfry.

The clock started keeping the time in May 1859. The new Big Ben first chimed in July the same year. However, later that year, the bell fractured again, this time in two places. Engineers sought a solution to the problem, but it was 1863 before they came up with a tenable idea.

Sir George Airy suggested that Big Ben must be turned by one-eighth and that the size of the hammer should be reduced to allow it to safely strike the hour. The adjustments did the trick and the same giant bell has been used ever since without problems.

Famous events

The sound of Big Ben chiming at midnight on New Year's Eve is a familiar one today. It was way back in 1923 that the chimes first rang out on the special night.

In 1932, thanks to the BBC's Empire Service radio broadcast, which later became the World Service, Big Ben's chimes rang out across the whole of the UK for the first time during King George V's Christmas show.

Apart from between 1939 and 1945, when they were blacked out to comply with regulations during World War II, the clock dials have been lit continually.  As soon as the war ended and the blackout regulations were lifted, the clock's dials were lit up again.

The clock suffered a setback on 10th August 1976, when a mechanical failure caused a pendulum malfunction. It took almost nine months to repair the damage.

In 2009, Big Ben celebrated its 150th anniversary. Three years later, during Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the clock tower was renamed the Elizabeth Tower.

Renovation work

The clock has become one of the world's biggest tourist destinations, although only UK residents can arrange a tour of the interior of the building. Overseas visitors must make do with viewing the structure from the outside.

Residents can write to their MP to arrange a visit via the House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1A 0AA. An estimated 75,000 Brits take the clock tour each year.

In August 2017, Renovation work began on the monument. There is scaffolding on the side of the tower and the clock has not been chiming or striking, apart from to commemorate special events, such as Remembrance Sunday and New Year's Eve. The work is expected to continue until 2021.

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