Its sonorous chimes have been heard not just in London, but broadcast across the UK, even around the world. Today we wish a happy 160th birthday to Big Ben!
The famous London clock tower commonly known as “Big Ben” rang out over the Houses of Parliament for the first time on May 31st, 1859. Much of the Palace of Westminster – home to the House of Commons and House of Lords – had been destroyed in a major fire in 1834. A large tower with a four-faced clock at the top was a key part of the design for the rebuild, which took 25 years.
So it was that the 320-foot high St Stephen’s Tower was built – renamed the “Elizabeth Tower” in 2012 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The huge clock at the top of the tower was designed and built for pinpoint accuracy, checked twice-a-day with the Royal Greenwich Observatory.
Its massive main bell, weighing more than 13 tons, was dragged through London by a team of 16 horses. Its first chimes were cheered across the capital, but just two months later the heavy striker cracked the bell and it fell silent for three years while the crack was repaired and a lighter striker installed.
The bell quickly became known as Big Ben, possibly after London’s famously longwinded Commissioner of Works Sir Benjamin Hall, or maybe after popular heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt, renowned for his powerful stature.
Over time, the name Big Ben has come to refer to the whole clock tower, whose chimes are broadcast around the world by the BBC World Service, and especially at midnight on New Year’s Eve. It survived the blitz during the Second World War Two and has been a constant feature of London life, except for periods of routine maintenance and for two years during the First World War.
Unfortunately, Big Ben will not celebrate his 160th birthday by booming out across London, as he’s been (mostly) silent since noon on August 21st, 2017. The Elizabeth Tower, and the huge clock mechanism within it, are currently undergoing a comprehensive restoration expected to last four years. It was originally costed at £29 million, but some MPs have suggested the true cost of the renovation programme could soar above £50 million.
The bells cannot chime during the restoration as it would be deafening for those working in and around the tower, contravening health and safety rules. However, a few exceptions have been made, with the famous chimes still ringing in the New Year in 2018 and this year, and marking 11am on Armistice Day each year. With the Great Clock dismantled for renovation, a bespoke electric mechanism has been built to power the bell’s 200kg striking hammer.
Apart from such notable occasions, it will be 2021 before Big Ben and its quarter bell chimes return to duty full-time. When they do so, it will bring to an end the longest period in the clock’s 160-year history that it has been out of action.