Big Ben: The former record holder of the largest chiming clock in the world
Located at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London, England, the huge clock located in Westminster Palace is commonly known as Big Ben. However, it’s important to note that the name “Big Ben” technically refers to the Great Bell housed within the Clock Tower, which was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II. The clock itself is officially called the Great Clock of Westminster.
The clock tower, often referred to as the Big Ben Clock Tower or the Elizabeth Tower, is an iconic symbol of London and is located at the north end of the Palace of Westminster.
Below, we shed light on what is arguably London’s most famous iconic structure, including some facts that most Brits don’t even know, including a time when Queen Victoria used the Ayrton light of tower to determine whether members of the House of Commons were meeting.
The Elizabeth Tower, formerly known as the Clock Tower, is an iconic landmark located at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London, England. It is often referred to as Big Ben, which is actually the nickname for the Great Bell housed within the tower.
The Elizabeth Tower stands at a height of 96 meters (316 feet) and features a distinctive neo-Gothic architectural style. It was completed in 1859 and was designed by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. The tower is named in honor of Queen Elizabeth II and serves as a symbol of the British monarchy and parliamentary democracy.
One of the notable features of the Elizabeth Tower is the large clock face located on its eastern side. The clock face is 7 meters (22.5 feet) in diameter and is adorned with Roman numerals, which are prominently displayed to indicate the hours. The clock mechanism is driven by a set of weights and regulated by a pendulum, ensuring accurate timekeeping.
The Elizabeth Tower and its famous clock have become enduring symbols of London and are recognized worldwide. The chimes of the Great Bell, known as Big Ben, have become synonymous with the concept of time and are a familiar sound to residents and visitors alike.
The four nations of the UK – England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales – are represented with shields on the tower. The 52 shields are above the belfry and Ayrton light of the tower. They are the rose, thistle, shamrock, and leek for those countries, respectively. For example, the Red and White Rose – from the Tudor dynasty – is often used as the national emblem of England.
Furthermore, the fleurs-de-lis (i.e. a decorative lily) on Big Ben symbolizes English monarchs’ past claim to the territory of France. On the other hand, the portcullis on the tower symbolizes both Houses of Parliament.
Due to its location in Westminster, which is the home of Parliament, Elizabeth Tower, and by extension Big Ben, has often symbolized parliamentary democracy.
Big Ben’s Famous Clock
The designers of Big Ben’s Clock (the Great Clock of Westminster) were English astronomer Sir George Biddell Airy (1801-1892) and English horologist Sir Edmund Beckett Denison (1816-1905).
Actual construction of the clock was done by English watchmaker Edward John Dent (1790-1853). His untimely death in 1853 meant that the completion of the task was left in the hands of his stepson Frederick Dent, who improved on the designs by using a double three-legged gravity escapement. That innovation helped to reduce the effects of the weather on the dials’ movement.
Occasionally, heavy snow build-up causes the clock to stop working. This was seen a number of times in the 20th and 21st century.
Silencing of the bells of Big Ben
City authorities in London did not toll the bells for two years during World War I. Also, the face of the clock was not lit at night so as to avoid it being a target for German attacks. This action was also taken in September 1939 during World War II, especially during the Blitz.
During the state funeral of renowned British statesman Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) on January 30, 1965, the bells of Big Ben were silenced.
On April 17, 2013, the bells were also silenced during the ceremonial funeral of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), Britain’s first female prime minister.
The first time the bell’s striker of Big Ben was replaced since its installation was in 2007.
Big Ben often ranks as the most popular landmark in the United Kingdom. The iconic tower has appeared countless number in scenes of films.
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The Chimes of Big Ben
Since the 1910, at the funeral of King Edward VII (reigned: 1901-1910), the chimes of Big Ben have been used to commemorate the life of a deceased British monarch.
Every chime of Big Ben represents one year of the monarch’s life. Edward VII received 68 chimes; George V (reigned: 1910-1936) in 1936 was honored with 70 strokes; George VI (reigned: 1936-1952) was honored in 1952 with 56 strokes; and on September 8, 2022, at the funeral of Elizabeth II (reigned: 1952-2022), Big Ben was chimed 96 times.
On July 27, 2012, Big Ben was chimed 30 times at 8:12 a.m. to welcome the world to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The international multi-sport event was the 30th Olympiad.
Restoration of Big Ben
During restoration works beginning in August 2017, Big Ben’s chimes were silenced for four years. This was done in order to protect the hearing of the restoration workers on the project. The cost of the restoration to the British taxpayer was in the region of £80 million.
The chimes of Big Ben on Remembrance Day
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of November (i.e. Remembrance Day), the chimes of Big Ben are broadcast. It is also marked with two minutes’ silence.
Remembrance Day, also known as Armistice Day or Poppy Day, is observed on November 11th each year in various Commonwealth member countries around the world. It is a day to honor and remember the members of the armed forces who lost their lives in conflicts, particularly during World War I.
The significance of November 11th dates back to 1918 when an armistice was signed, effectively ending World War I. On this day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns fell silent, marking a moment of peace after years of war.
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Big Ben – nickname for the Great Bell of the Great Clock of Westminster
Big Ben (i.e. the Great Bell) is just one of five bells of the tower. However, weighing at almost 14 tons, it is by far the largest of the tower’s five bells. And for close to a quarter of a century, Big Ben was the largest bell in the UK.
Origin of the nickname “Big Ben”
The nickname “Big Ben” probably came from the name of Sir Benjamin Hall (1802-1867), the Welsh civil engineer who supervised the mounting of the bell. Some historians claim that the nickname came from Benjamin Caunt (1815-1861), a 19th-century English bare-knuckle boxer and later heavyweight boxing champion. Caunt went by the nicknames “Big Ben” and “Torkard Giant”.
Big Ben’s Prison Room
There is an oak-paneled Prison Room located in Big Ben. The prison can only be accessed from the Lower House of the British Parliament. English political activist and member of parliament Charles Bradlaugh was the last person to be held in the prison room.
The incident occurred in 1880, when Bradlaugh, known for his staunch atheism, made a huge ruckus over MPs swearing religious oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria. Bradlaugh was temporary imprisoned by the Serjeant at Arms, a parliamentary official in charge for order in the House of Commons.
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Today, Big Ben’s Prison Room is used as an office for the Petitions Committee, a parliamentary committee in charge of petitions submitted to the legislative body.
Did you know…?
Installed in 1878 British barrister Acton Smee Ayrton (1816-1886), the Ayrton Light has been lit anytime the House of Commons has a session after dark. In the Victorian era, it is said that the Queen would look out from her window at the Buckingham Palace to see if the House of Commons were meeting.
Other interesting facts about the Clock Tower – officially known as Elizabeth Tower
The Clock Tower (officially called Elizabeth Tower) was designed by an English architect and artist Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) using neo-Gothic style. The London-born designer is also famed for designing the interior of the Palace of Westminster as well as quite a number of churches in across Britain.
The Clock Tower was completed in 1859. At the time of its completion, the clock (i.e. the Great Clock of Westminster) was the largest chiming clock in the world.
The Elizabeth Tower stands at a height of 316 feet (96 m) tall.
On May 31, 2009, the city of London and all of the UK celebrated the 150th anniversary of the tower, which is one of the most iconic British structures.
In 1987, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Victoria Tower versus Big Ben (Elizabeth Tower)
The Victoria Tower, which is a 98.5-meter-long tower at the House of Lords, is located at the south-west end of the Palace of Westminster in London. It is slightly taller than Big Ben, which stands at 316 feet (96 m). Built in 1860, Victoria Tower was named in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.