When visiting London for the first time, it can be a bit tricky knowing what to do, where to go and what to see. However, I imagine that for the vast majority of these people ... if not all, seeing 'Big Ben' is very probably incredibly near to the top of their 'must do' list. It's situated in Westminster and I've discovered recently, that many people (upon seeing Big Ben) are surprised that it's actually attached to another building. The many replica Big Ben's that line the shelves of the mildly rubbish souvenir shops in central London, very much give the false impression that it is a stand alone clock tower.
The second surprise that first time visitors get, is to learn that 'Big Ben' is not in fact the name given to either clock, or the tower (it was renamed last year, the Elizabeth Tower) but the massive hour bell inside. As with most things in London its very existence and indeed the nickname which is known throughout the world comes with a story, a bit of controversy and also a sprinkling of uncertainty.
To rewind the clock (pun intended) a few years, the medieval Palace of Westminster or the Houses of Parliament as it is known was burned down in 1834 (that's another story). The epic rebuilding was undertaken by a guy called Charles Barry and in 1844, it was decided that it might be nice if a rather grand tower and clock were to be added to one end. To make life even more difficult it was also decided that the first stroke of the hour bell should register the time, correct to within 1 second per day and telegraph its performance twice a day to be recorded at the Greenwich Observatory. For this reason, clock makers were understandably reluctant to get involved and it was 10 years before a certain Edmund Becket Denison finally had his design completed.
The bell or bells, were an entirely separate problem and Barry had specified that only a 14 ton hour bell would suffice. No one in Britain had ever cast a bell that large, but Denison (not known for his bell making skills) refused to be outdone and insisted on not only his own design for the great bell, but the recipe for the bell metal. Like the initial contract to design and make the clock, bell founders were not chomping at the bit to bid for the contract. Eventually it was made by John Warner & Sons at Stockton-on-Tees and not only did the bell end up being a whopping 16 tons, but it cracked upon being tested. The task of casting the bell, then fell upon the shoulders of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and its master bellfounder, George Mears.
It took two weeks to break up the old bell, three furnaces to melt it down and once the mould had been filled with molten metal, took twenty days for it to solidify and cool. Transporting the bell (just shy of 14 tons) to Westminster was a major event. Traffic was stopped and sixteen horses dragged it through the streets which had been decorated and were lined with cheering crowds. It rang for the first time on the 31st May 1859 and it is at this point that the name 'Big Ben' first seeped in to public consciousness. It is said that as Parliament were trying to settle on a suitable name for the bell, Benjamin Hall, a large man, who was affectionately known as 'Big Ben' gave a rather long speech on the subject. At the end, someone shouted out "Why not call it Big Ben and have done with it?". It would appear, the name stuck.
Two months later 'Big Ben' cracked. The cause, is thought to be because Denison had used a hammer more than twice the weight specified by the more qualified George Mears. The bell was out of service for the next three years, a lighter hammer was fitted and the bell turned to present an undamaged section to the hammer, which still gives it the same (apparently) distinctive sound that we can hear today. Denison refused to accept responsibility for the mistake and blamed Mears. The whole saga ended in court ... twice and Denison lost on both occasions.
However, the very famous nickname given to the bell is often disputed. Just the other day, a friend of mine said "So ... Big Ben ... who do you think it's named after?". He believes it was named after the Victorian bare knuckle boxer Ben Caunt, who as a rather large specimen and heavyweight champion, was known as 'Big Ben'.
Don't forget, you can still visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where they offer tours and an insight in to their unique 500 year history.
I've spent a fair bit of time recently showing people around Westminster, which is obviously a hot spot for tourists, as Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament (or the Palace of Westminster) are right next to each other. The latter also includes the iconic 'Big Ben' which everyone is familiar with. As I have mentioned before, 'Big Ben' is actually the name given to the bell inside the clock tower. I shall write a separate post about 'Big Ben', but thought that for now, I'd mention the company that made it, back in 1858. They're called the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
In case you're unfamiliar with London's geographical layout, Whitechapel is an area in east London, generally most associated with being the location of the infamous Jack The Ripper murders which took place in 1888. As you can see from the above photo, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry have been making bells for quite a long time, since 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I (and maybe actually even longer). In fact, they've been making making all sorts of bells for so long, that they've made it in to the Guinness Book of Records, listed as the oldest manufacturing company in Britain.
The company are still making bells of all sizes and inhabit a Grade II listed, 17th century building on a busy east London road, surrounded by much more modern neighbours. 'Big Ben' is probably the most famous bell they ever made and was also the largest one they've ever cast, weighing in at a whopping 13.5 tonnes. Back in 1752 they also made the Liberty Bell, which is in Philadelphia, itself pretty iconic and a symbol of American independence. Both, you might note are famously cracked. Obviously, not the fault of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
It hasn't always been plain sailing over their 444 year history and by the 1930's there seems to have been a bit of a bell slump. However, the Second World War had the strange effect of galvanising the company's fortunes. During the war, they temporarily stopped their fascination with bells and were charged with the task of casting parts for submarines, then due to the immense devastation heaped upon the country's churches during the Blitz, they were called upon to replace the bells that had been lost. The demand was so huge, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry had a three year waiting list.
More recently, the company made the bells rung during the Queen's Jubilee river pageant and of course the giant bell that featured in last years Olympic Opening Ceremony. They no longer have the capacity for casting such a large bell, and that particular one, inscribed with a quote from William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and reads "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises" was cast in Holland, to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry's specifications.
The good news, is that if you so desire, you can visit them. Monday to Friday you can mooch around their small museum and on a couple of weekends each month, they provide tours of the workshops and the foundry. The details for these are on their website. If you visit, you can't fail to notice that the entrance door is flanked by a cross section template of 'Big Ben', so it'll give you a good idea, just how big it really is.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.