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.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.