Apart from red, double-decker buses, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and the pigeons of Trafalgar Square, one of the most iconic things about London is Big Ben. When you say the name, everyone thinks of the clock tower, but it actually refers to the bell inside – and it’s a familiar sound in Britain because its chimes are used at the beginning of BBC News every evening.
The tower was originally made between 1288 and 1290, during the reign of King Edward I, but like many other notable buildings and monuments, what you see on the site today was not the original structure. Indeed, the original tower held a bell called Great Edward which was later renamed Great Tom. Afterwards, a new tower replaced it in 1367 to become the first publicly chiming clock in the whole of England. This tower wasn’t looked after properly, and fell into disrepair and was demolished.
The next part of its story was a terrible fire at the Palace of Westminster (where the Houses of Parliament are) in 1834, which caused the whole building to be rebuilt. Shortly after, a clock tower was added in 1843. The specialist clock maker, Edmund Dent, began work on the Great Westminster Clock, only to die during its build so his stepson Frederick completed the work.
A revolutionary time-keeping mechanism was included called the Double Three-legged Gravity Escapement, designed to keep the clock accurate even in bad weather. The clock was finally installed in the tower in 1859, but didn’t work because the cast iron hands were too heavy, so lighter copper hands replaced them.
No one really knows why the giant 13.7 tonne bell was named Big Ben. There are two theories, the first being that it was the nickname of Sir Benjamin Hall, the First Commissioner for Works, and the second is that it is named after Ben Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer of the eighteen fifties. Either way, when it was installed, the bell promptly cracked and never made a noise for four whole years until it was rotated a quarter turn and a different part of it was struck but by a lighter hammer!
In 2009, the tower enjoyed its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary and is still attracting thousands of tourists every day. The 300kg hour hand and 100kg minute hand continue to turn, and the clock is accurate to within one second a day – its timekeeping is carefully regulated by a stack of coins placed on the huge pendulum. It has rarely stopped – even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber during the Second World War, the clock tower survived and Big Ben continued to strike the hours. The chimes of Big Ben were first broadcast by the BBC on 31 December 1923, a tradition that continues to this day.