London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Big Ben - London's Favourite Landmark - Part Two

28/03/2006, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 23477 votes

Construction would find designers and builders struggling to overcome a number of problems including lack of space for the clock mechanism and a main bell that was two tons heavier than the design had called for which in turn meant that a heavier ball hammer to strike the bell was used. In 1857 the main bell was cracked beyond repair and a new bell weighing thirteen and a half tons was cast. This is the bell still in use today.

The main bell and the smaller quarter bells were installed in 1858 followed by installation of the clock mechanism in the clock room located beneath the belfry. The clock became operational in September of 1859. A month later tragedy struck again when the hour bell cracked. After two years of argument over who was a fault it was decided that instead of recasting the bell a second time the solution would be turn the bell a quarter turn so that the hammer would not strike the crack. In 1862 Londoners again heard the sound of Big Ben chiming each hour.

Over the years Big Ben would come not only to symbolize London but would serve as a symbol of hope and fortitude. During the dark days of the blitz during World War II the sight of Big Ben along with St. Paulís Cathedral would remind embattled Londoners that theirs was a war worth waging, a war for all that was right and good and that the foe represented all that was wrong and evil. During the war the sound of Big Ben on the BBC World Service was a sign to nations around the globe that Britain stood fast.

In 1923 the sound of Big Ben was first broadcast on the radio and for years at the top of each hour listeners to the BBC would hear the chimes from St. Stephenís Tower. Today at certain hours of the day listeners on Radio 4 still hear the chimes from London. Big Ben could also be heard in past years as part of the opening for News at Ten and each new year radio and television broadcasts from Britain feature the sound of the chimes. Itís not the new year in Britain until Big Ben says itís the new year.

The tune played before striking the hour is known worldwide and is called ďWestminster Quarters.Ē Itís actually based on a segment from Handelís ďMessiahĒ and was originally composed for another clock but has become famous as the sound of Big Ben.

In 1976 metal fatigue caused part of the clock mechanism to fail which resulted such severe damage that the entire chiming train had to be rebuilt, a process which took nearly a year.

An interesting fact is that Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the firm that recast the great bell still used today is the same foundry that cast the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia; so two of the most famous bells in the world can claim a common heritage. Another fact you might not be aware of is that the clock movement is controlled by placing old pennies in the clock mechanism.

In the past Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster presented a grey look brought on by the years and by Englandís reliance on coal for power but the switch to natural gas throughout much of the British Isles as well as a massive project to clean the Parliament buildings means that today visitors to London are greeted by a clock tower and buildings that gleam with a golden appearance. In the 21st century it is a fresh and youthful Big Ben that gazes down upon London town.

David McIntosh

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