Big Ben is an iconic London landmark, synonymous with all things British. Often when watching the news, journalists can be seen standing in front of the Houses of Parliament delivering their reports with the obligatory red London bus or black cab sailing behind them.
Big Ben is not a building at all, but is in fact the huge bell housed inside the clock tower, which since the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2012, has been called ‘The Elizabeth Tower’. The clock itself is enormous; 7 foot high, 9 foot in diameter, weighs a huge 13 tons, was constructed in Whitechapel and cast by a George Mears in 1858 at a cost of £572. It took 20 minutes to fill the mould with molten metal, and 20 days for the metal to cool and solidify. When the bell was finally finished, it was moved from the foundry to the Houses of Parliament, mounted on a wagon drawn by 16 beribboned horses. The streets were decorated with flags and crowds cheered Big Ben wildly as it was transported along the route.
Fire had destroyed the Palace of Westminster in 1834 (nothing to do with Guy Fawkes who tried and failed to do the same 230 years earlier). Thankfully the beautiful Westminster Hall, dating from the 11th Century, survived and the Parliament of the day decided that the new Houses of Parliament would incorporate a swish clock tower. The Astronomer Royal, George Airy drafted the first specification. The first attempt was made at Stockton-on-Tess, but unfortunately cracked during testing in the Westminster grounds, so the metal was melted down again and the bell was finally recast in Whitechapel.
Big Ben was first heard in 1859 and has been pretty much part of the London landscape ever since, even after a bomb destroyed the Commons chamber during the Second World War. The clock tower survived the bomb and Big Ben rang defiantly on. In December, 1923, the chimes of Big Ben were first broadcast, a tradition that has continued to this day. Brits of a certain age associate the ‘bongs’ with the on the hour BBC radio news. On July 27th, 2012, starting at 8:12, Big Ben chimed 30 times, to welcome in the London Olympic Games which officially began that day.
How did ‘Big Ben’ get its name? Some say it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, a large man who was the first commissioner of works. Others think the clock tower was named after a contemporary heavyweight boxing champion, ‘Big’ Benjamin Caunt. Either way, the nickname stuck and now this famous clock is recognised all around the world.
No New Year’s Eve party would be complete without everyone crowding around the television waiting for Big Ben to chime in the New Year, or better still being there live, watching the fireworks go off all around Big Ben, the Thames and the London Eye.