On this date in 1859, Big Ben in the clock tower at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London started chiming the hours. As every smarty pants knows Big Ben is NOT the name of the clock nor of the clock tower. Big Ben is the nickname (not the official name) of the bell that sounds the hours. Its actual name is Great Bell. The tower is officially known as the Elizabeth Tower, renamed as such to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II (prior to being renamed in 2012 it was known as simply “Clock Tower”). The tower was completed in 1858 and had its 150th anniversary on 31 May 2009, during which celebratory events took place. The tower has become one of the most prominent symbols of the United Kingdom and is often in the establishing shot of films set in London.
Clock Tower was raised as a part of Charles Barry’s design for a new palace, after the old Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire on the night of 16 October 1834. The new Parliament was built in a Neo-gothic style. Although Barry was the chief architect of the Palace, he turned to Augustus Pugin for the design of the clock tower, which resembles earlier Pugin designs, including one for Scarisbrick Hall. The design for the tower was Pugin’s last design before his final descent into madness and death, and Pugin himself wrote, at the time of Barry’s last visit to him to collect the drawings: “I never worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful. The tower is designed in Pugin’s celebrated Gothic Revival style, and is 315 feet (96.0 m) high.
The bottom 200 feet (61.0 m) of the tower’s structure consists of brickwork with sand colored Anston limestone cladding. The remainder of the tower’s height is a framed spire of cast iron. The tower is founded on a 50 feet (15.2 m) square raft, made of 10 feet (3.0 m) thick concrete, at a depth of 13 feet (4.0 m) below ground level. The four clock dials are 180 feet (54.9 m) above ground.
Due to changes in ground conditions since construction, the tower leans slightly to the north-west, by roughly 230 millimeters (9.1 in) over 55 m height, giving an inclination of approximately 1/240. This includes a planned maximum of 22 mm increased tilt due to tunneling for the Jubilee line extension. Due to thermal effects it oscillates annually by a few millimeters east and west.
Journalists during Queen Victoria’s reign called it St Stephen’s Tower. As MPs originally sat at St Stephen’s Hall, these journalists referred to anything related to the House of Commons as news from “St. Stephens” (The Palace of Westminster contains a feature called St Stephen’s Tower, a smaller tower over the public entrance). The usage persists in Welsh, where the Westminster district, and Parliament by extension, is known as San Steffan.
The clock and dials were designed by Augustus Pugin. The clock dials are set in an iron frame 23 feet (7.0 m) in diameter, supporting 312 pieces of opal glass, rather like a stained-glass window. Some of the glass pieces may be removed for inspection of the hands. The surround of the dials is gilded. At the base of each clock dial in gilt letters is the Latin inscription:
DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM
O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.
Unlike most other Roman numeral clock dials that show the ‘4’ position as ‘IIII’, the Great Clock faces depict ‘4’ as ‘IV’. The dial also has an adapted ‘X’, used for number ‘9’, ’10’, ’11’ and ’12’. This is due to Pugin and his dislike of the numeral ‘X’. You’ve gotta love eccentric Brits.
The clock’s movement is famous for its reliability. The designers were the lawyer and amateur horologist Edmund Beckett Denison, and George Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Construction was entrusted to clockmaker Edward John Dent; after his death in 1853 his stepson Frederick Dent completed the work, in 1854. As the tower was not complete until 1859, Denison had time to experiment: Instead of using the deadbeat escapement and remontoire as originally designed, Denison invented the double three-legged gravity escapement. This escapement provides the best separation between pendulum and clock mechanism. The pendulum is installed within an enclosed windproof box beneath the clockroom. It is 13 feet (4.0 m) long, weighs 660 pounds (300 kg) and beats every 2 seconds. The clockwork mechanism in a room below weighs 5 tons. On top of the pendulum is a small stack of old penny coins; these are to adjust the time of the clock. Adding a coin has the effect of minutely lifting the position of the pendulum’s centre of mass, reducing the effective length of the pendulum rod and hence increasing the rate at which the pendulum swings. Adding or removing a penny will change the clock’s speed by 0.4 seconds per day.
The main bell, officially known as the Great Bell, is the largest bell in the tower and part of the Great Clock of Westminster. The original bell was a 16 ton (16.3-tonne) hour bell, cast on 6 August 1856 in Stockton-on-Tees by John Warner & Sons. The bell was supposedly nicknamed in honor of Sir Benjamin Hall, and his name is inscribed on it. However, another theory for the origin of the name is that the bell may have been named after a contemporary heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt who was called “Big Ben” which became a name for anything that was biggest in its class. It is thought that the bell was originally to be called Victoria or Royal Victoria in honor of Queen Victoria, but that an MP suggested the nickname during a Parliamentary debate; the comment is not recorded in Hansard.
Since the tower was not yet finished, the bell was mounted in New Palace Yard. Cast in 1856, the first bell was transported to the tower on a trolley drawn by sixteen horses, with crowds cheering its progress. Unfortunately, it cracked beyond repair while being tested and a replacement had to be made. The bell was recast on 10 April 1858 at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a 13½ ton (13.76-tonne) bell. This was pulled 200 ft (61.0 m) up to the Clock Tower’s belfry, a feat that took 18 hours.
It is 7 feet 6 inches (2.29 m) tall and 9 feet (2.74 m) diameter. This new bell first chimed in 1859. In September it too cracked under the hammer, a mere two months after it officially went into service. According to the foundry’s manager, George Mears, Denison had used a hammer more than twice the maximum weight specified. For three years Big Ben was taken out of commission and the hours were struck on the lowest of the quarter bells until it was repaired. To make the repair, a square piece of metal was chipped out from the rim around the crack, and the bell given an eighth of a turn so the new hammer struck in a different place. Big Ben has chimed with a slightly different tone ever since and is still in use today complete with the crack. At the time of its casting, Big Ben was the largest bell in the British Isles until “Great Paul”, a 16¾ ton (17 tonne) bell currently hung in St Paul’s Cathedral, was cast in 1881.
Along with the Great Bell, the belfry houses four quarter bells which play the Westminster Quarters on the quarter hours. The four quarter bells sound G♯, F♯, E, and B. They were cast by John Warner & Sons at their Crescent Foundry in 1857 (G♯, F♯ and B) and 1858 (E). The Foundry was in Jewin Crescent, in what is now known as The Barbican, in the City of London. The quarter bells play a once-repeating, 20-note sequence of rounds and four changes in the key of E major: 1–4 at quarter past, 5–12 at half past, 13–20 and 1–4 at quarter to, and 5–20 on the hour (which sounds 25 seconds before the main bell tolls the hour). Because the low bell (B) is struck twice in quick succession, there is not enough time to pull a hammer back, and it is supplied with two wrench hammers on opposite sides of the bell. The tune is that of the Cambridge Chimes, first used for the chimes of Great St Mary’s church, Cambridge, and supposedly a variation, attributed to William Crotch, based on violin phrases from the air “I know that my Redeemer liveth” in Handel’s Messiah. The notional words of the chime, again derived from Great St Mary’s and in turn an allusion to Psalm 37:23–24, are: “All through this hour/Lord be my guide/And by Thy power/No foot shall slide”. They are written on a plaque on the wall of the clock room.
One of the requirements for the clock was that the first stroke of the hour bell should register the time, correct to within one second per day. So, at twelve o’clock, for example, it is the first of the twelve hour-bell strikes that signifies the new day (the New Year on New Year’s Day at midnight).
The great British brown sauce for steaks, sauces, chops, pies, or whatever found in British pubs and cafes is HP sauce® I suspect that few people realize that HP stands for “Houses of Parliament,” although it ought to be obvious given the image on the label (with Big Ben prominent). You could do worse, therefore, than make yourself a roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread with HP sauce® to celebrate the day.
Or, here is a simple marinade for BBQ from the HP kitchen:
¼ cup HP steak sauce
¼ cup dry wine (red or white, your choice)
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
Here’s the main site for HP recipes: