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Big Ben

Elizabeth Tower
Elizabeth Tower

Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London,[1] and often extended to refer to the clock and the clock tower.[2] 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 simply as "Clock Tower"). The tower holds the second largest four-faced chiming clock in the world (Minneapolis City Hall having the largest).[3] The tower was completed in 1858 and had its 150th anniversary on 31 May 2009,[4] during which celebratory events took place.[5][6] 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.


  • Elizabeth Tower 1
  • Clock 2
    • Dials 2.1
    • Movement 2.2
    • Malfunctions, breakdowns, and other interruptions in operation 2.3
  • Bells 3
    • Great Bell 3.1
    • Chimes 3.2
  • Nickname 4
  • Cultural importance 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Elizabeth Tower

The Elizabeth Tower (previously called the Clock Tower or St Stephen's Tower), named in tribute to Queen Elizabeth II in her Diamond Jubilee year,[7] more popularly known as Big Ben,[5] 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.[8][9] 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."[10] The tower is designed in Pugin's celebrated Gothic Revival style, and is 315 feet (96.0 m) high.[11]

The Palace of Westminster, Elizabeth Tower and Westminster Bridge
Elizabeth Tower and environs, including St Margaret's Church, Parliament Square, Portcullis House, and the London Eye

The bottom 200 feet (61.0 m) of the tower's structure consists of brickwork with sand coloured 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. The interior volume of the tower is 164,200 cubic feet (4,650 cubic metres).

Despite being one of the world's most famous tourist attractions, the interior of the tower is not open to overseas visitors, though United Kingdom residents are able to arrange tours (well in advance) through their Member of Parliament.[12] However, the tower has no lift, so those escorted must climb the 334 limestone stairs to the top.[11]

Due to changes in ground conditions since construction, the tower leans slightly to the north-west, by roughly 230 millimetres (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 tunnelling for the Jubilee line extension.[13] Due to thermal effects it oscillates annually by a few millimetres 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).[8] The usage persists in Welsh, where the Westminster district, and Parliament by extension, is known as San Steffan.

On 2 June 2012, The Daily Telegraph reported that 331 Members of Parliament, including senior members of all three main parties, supported a proposal to change the name from Clock Tower to "Elizabeth Tower" in tribute to the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year. This is thought to be appropriate because the large west tower now known as Victoria Tower was renamed in tribute to Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee.[14] On 26 June, the House of Commons confirmed that the name change could go ahead.[7] The Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the change of name on 12 September 2012, at the start of Prime Minister's Questions.[15] The change was marked by a naming ceremony in which the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, unveiled a name plaque attached to the tower on Speaker's Green.[16]



The dial of the Great Clock of Westminster. The hour hand is 9 feet (2.7 m) long and the minute hand is 14 feet (4.3 m) long

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:


Which means O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First.

Unlike most other Roman numeral clock dials, which 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'.


The rear of the clock face.
The clock mechanism.

The clock's Astronomer Royal. Construction was entrusted to clockmaker Edward John Dent; after his death in 1853 his stepson Frederick Dent completed the work, in 1854.[17] 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), suspended on a strip of spring steel 1/64 inch in thickness, 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.[6]

On 10 May 1941, a German bombing raid damaged two of the clock's dials and sections of the tower's stepped roof and destroyed the House of Commons chamber. Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed a new five-floor block. Two floors are occupied by the current chamber, which was used for the first time on 26 October 1950. Despite the heavy bombing the clock ran accurately and chimed throughout the Blitz.

Malfunctions, breakdowns, and other interruptions in operation

The south clock face being cleaned on 11 August 2007
  • 1916: For two years during World War I, the bells were silenced and the clock face not illuminated at night to avoid guiding attacking German Zeppelins.[11]
  • 1 September 1939: Although the bells continued to ring, the clock faces were not illuminated at night through World War II to avoid guiding bomber pilots during the Blitz .[11]
  • 3–4 June 1941: The clock stopped from 10:13 p.m. until 10:13 the following morning, after a workman repairing air raid damage to the clock face dropped a hammer into the works.[18]
  • 1949: The clock slowed by four and a half minutes after a flock of starlings perched on the minute hand.[19]
  • New Year's Eve 1962: The clock slowed due to heavy snow and ice on the long hands, causing the pendulum to detach from the clockwork, as it is designed to do in such circumstances, to avoid serious damage elsewhere in the mechanism – the pendulum continuing to swing freely. Thus it chimed in the new year 10 minutes late.[20]
  • 30 January 1965: The bells were silenced during the funeral of statesman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.[21]
  • 5 August 1976: First and only major breakdown. The air brake speed regulator of the chiming mechanism broke from torsional fatigue after more than 100 years of use, causing the fully wound 4-ton weight to spin the winding drum out of the movement, causing much damage. The Great Clock was shut down for a total of 26 days over nine months – it was reactivated on 9 May 1977; this was the longest break in operation since its construction. During this time BBC Radio 4 broadcast the pips instead.[22] Although there were minor stoppages from 1977 to 2002 when maintenance of the clock was carried out by the old firm of clockmakers Thwaites & Reed, these were often repaired within the permitted two-hour downtime and not recorded as stoppages. Prior to 1970 maintenance was carried out by the original firm of Dents, and since 2002 by Parliamentary staff.
  • 30 April 1997: The clock stopped 24 hours before the general election, and stopped again three weeks later.[23]
  • 27 May 2005: The clock stopped at 10:07 p.m. local time, possibly because of hot weather; temperatures in London had reached an unseasonable 31.8 °C (90 °F). It resumed, but stopped again at 10:20 p.m. local time and remained still for about 90 minutes before resuming.[23]
  • 29 October 2005: The mechanism was stopped for about 33 hours to allow maintenance work on the clock and its chimes. It was the lengthiest maintenance shutdown in 22 years.[24]
  • 7:00 a.m. 5 June 2006: The clock tower's "Quarter Bells" were taken out of commission for four weeks[25] as a bearing holding one of the quarter bells was worn and needed to be removed for repairs. During this period, BBC Radio 4 broadcast recordings of British bird song followed by the pips in place of the usual chimes.[26]
  • 11 August 2007: Start of 6-week stoppage for maintenance. Bearings in the clock's chime train and the "great bell" striker were replaced, for the first time since installation.[27] During the maintenance works the clock was driven by an electric motor.[28] Once again, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the pips during this time. The intention is that the clock should run accurately for a further 200 years before major maintenance is again required[29]
  • 17 April 2013: The bells were silenced as a mark of "profound dignity and deep respect" during the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.[30]
  • August 2015: The clock was discovered to be running 7 seconds fast, and coins were removed from its pendulum to correct the error, which caused it to run slow for a time.[31]


Great Bell

The second "Big Ben" (centre) and the Quarter Bells from The Illustrated News of the World, 4 December 1858

The main bell, officially known as the Great Bell but better known as Big Ben, is the largest bell in the tower and part of the Great Clock of Westminster.[32]

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.[1] The bell was possibly named in honour of Sir Benjamin Hall, and his name is inscribed on it.[33] However, another theory for the origin of the name is that the bell may have been named after a contemporary heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt.[34] It is thought that the bell was originally to be called Victoria or Royal Victoria in honour of Queen Victoria, but that an MP suggested the nickname during a Parliamentary debate; the comment is not recorded in Hansard.[35]

Since the tower was not yet finished, the bell was mounted in

  • Official Big Ben website from UK Parliament
  • 19th-Century-Press Articles About Big Ben & the Palace of Westminster
  • UK Parliament pages on the history of the Palace of Westminster, including the clock
  • Whitechapel Bell Foundry on Big Ben
  • UK parliament's interior photos of Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower
  • A tale of two towers: Big Ben and Pisa PDF (762 KB) – "Innovative engineering to control Big Ben's tilt" - Pro John Burland's technical paper, from R Academy of Engineering and R Society of Edinburgh
  • Big Ben's old clapper was forged in Houghton-le-Spring, Co Durham

External links

  1. ^ a b c d e f "The Story of Big Ben". Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Archived from the original on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 19 October 2008. 
  2. ^ a b  
  3. ^ Building Location Details
  4. ^ Sugden, Joanna (10 July 2009). "Big Ben rings in its 150th year".  
  5. ^ a b "Join in the anniversary celebrations". UK Parliament. 
  6. ^ a b "Great Clock facts". Big Ben. London: UK Parliament. 13 November 2009. Archived from the original on 7 October 2009. Retrieved 23 November 2009. 
  7. ^ a b Rath, Kayte (26 June 2012). "Big Ben's tower renamed Elizabeth Tower in honour of Queen". BBC. 
  8. ^ a b "Frequently asked questions: Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower". UK Parliament. 
  9. ^ "1289-1834: Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower". UK Parliament. Retrieved 9 July 2014. 
  10. ^ Hill, Rosemary (3 March 2009). God's Architect: Pugin & the Building of Romantic Britain. Yale University Press. p. 482. Retrieved 9 July 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Bong! Big Ben rings in its 150th anniversary".  
  12. ^ "Clock Tower tour". UK Parliament. 21 April 2010. Retrieved 30 September 2010. 
  13. ^ "Tunnel Vision" (PDF). Post Report Summary. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. January 1997. 
  14. ^ Hough, Andrew (2 June 2012). "'"The Queen's Diamond Jubilee: 'Big Ben to be renamed Elizabeth Tower. Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 9 July 2014. 
  15. ^ "Questions to the Prime Minister". House of Commons Hansard Debates for 12 Sept 2012. Hansard. Retrieved 13 September 2012. 
  16. ^ "Elizabeth Tower naming ceremony". 12 September 2012. Retrieved 9 July 2014. 
  17. ^ "Denison, Dent and delays". Building the Great Clock. London: UK Parliament. 13 November 2009. Archived from the original on 4 December 2009. Retrieved 23 November 2009. 
  18. ^ "Big Ben stopped by hammer". The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton). 6 June 1941. Retrieved 11 May 2014. 
  19. ^ "Big Ben's big clean". BBC News. 21 August 2001. 
  20. ^ Namih, Carina (11 August 2007). "Big Ben silenced for maintenance". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  21. ^ "Big Ben to be silent for Baroness Thatcher's funeral". BBC News. 15 April 2013. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  22. ^ MacDonald, Peter (25 January 2005). Big Ben: The Bell, the Clock and the Tower. The History Press.  
  23. ^ a b "Big Ben chimes stoppage mystery". BBC News. 28 May 2005. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  24. ^ "In pictures: Big Ben's big turn off". BBC News. 29 October 2005. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  25. ^ Hutton, Robert (4 June 2006). "Big Ben's Chime Won't Sound the Same to Londoners for a While". Bloomberg. Retrieved 30 September 2010. 
  26. ^ "The Editors: Bongs and Birds". BBC News. 2006. 
  27. ^ "Big Ben silenced for repair work". BBC News. 11 August 2007. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  28. ^ "Big Ben 1859 – 2009 – Keeping the Great Clock ticking". UK Parliament. Archived from the original on 3 June 2009. Retrieved 27 May 2009. 
  29. ^ The Clock of the Long Now, Stuart Brand
  30. ^ Watt, Nicholas (15 April 2013). "Margaret Thatcher funeral: Big Ben to be silenced as mark of respect".  
  31. ^ Phipps, Claire (25 August 2015). "Clockwatchers ticked off as Big Ben's chimes run seven seconds fast".  
  32. ^ a b "The Great Bell — Big Ben". UK Parliament. Retrieved 9 July 2014. 
  33. ^ "Big Ben of Westminster".  
  34. ^ a b "The Great Bell – Big Ben". Living Heritage. UK Parliament. 13 November 2009. Retrieved 28 July 2012. 
  35. ^ "Big Ben – How did Big Ben get its Name?". Icons of England. Archived from the original on 24 January 2010. Retrieved 30 September 2010. 
  36. ^ The actual weight quoted by the founders is 13  tons 10 cwtsqtrs 15 lbs
  37. ^ "The History of Great Paul". Bell foundry museum, Leicester. Archived from the original on 6 April 2008. Retrieved 19 October 2008. 
  38. ^ "The New Houses of Parliament".  
  39. ^ Phillips, Alan (1959). The Story of Big Ben. Her Majesty's Stationery Office. p. 13. 
  40. ^ Starmer, William Wooding (1910). Quarter Chimes and Chime Tunes. London: Novello. pp. 6–8. 
  41. ^ Milmo, Cahel (5 June 2006). "Bong! A change of tune at Westminster". The Independent (London). Retrieved 8 April 2008. 
  42. ^ Lockyer, Herbert (1993). A devotional commentary on psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Christian Books. p. 149.  
  43. ^ "The Story of Big Ben". Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Retrieved 9 July 2014. 
  44. ^ Betts, Jonathan D. (26 November 2008). "Big Ben". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Archived from the original on 2 November 2008. Retrieved 27 October 2008. 
  45. ^ "Big Ben". The Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. July 2001. Archived from the original on 10 October 2008. Retrieved 27 October 2008. 
  46. ^ "Big Ben". Encarta World English Dictionary [North American Edition]. Microsoft Corporation. 2009. Archived from the original on 31 October 2009. Retrieved 14 January 2009. 
  47. ^ "Big Ben and the Westminster Clock Tower". Retrieved 27 October 2008. 
  48. ^ "Big Ben: The Bell, The Clock And The Tower". Retrieved 27 October 2008. 
  49. ^ Patterson, John (1 June 2007). "City Light".  
  50. ^ "'"Big Ben 'UK's favourite landmark. BBC News. 9 April 2008. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  51. ^ "Big Ben most iconic London film location". 
  52. ^ "Fireworks going off at the London Eye and Big Ben to welcome 2012 in London".  
  53. ^ "Remembrance Day across the UK". BBC News. 14 November 2004. Retrieved 13 August 2012. 
  54. ^ "How to make Big Ben's clock strike 13". BBC News. 4 November 2010. Retrieved 13 August 2012. 
  55. ^ Robinson, James (22 October 2009). "ITV to drop Big Ben from News at Ten titles".  
  56. ^ "Big Ben Microphone". BBC. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  57. ^ "General election results beamed onto Big Ben". Archived from the original on 11 November 2010. Retrieved 30 September 2010. 
  58. ^ "Big Ben strikes to celebrate start of 2012 Olympics". YouTube. Retrieved 27 July 2012. 


See also

On 27 July 2012, starting at 8:12 a.m, Big Ben chimed 30 times, to welcome in the London Olympic Games (i.e. the 30th Olympiad), which officially began that day.[58]

At the close of the polls for the 2010 General Election the results of the national exit poll were projected onto the south side of the tower.[57]

ITN's News at Ten opening sequence formerly featured an image of the tower with the sound of Big Ben's chimes punctuating the announcement of the news headlines.[55] The Big Ben chimes (known within ITN as "The Bongs") continue to be used during the headlines and all ITV News bulletins use a graphic based on the Westminster clock dial. Big Ben can also be heard striking the hour before some news bulletins on BBC Radio 4 (6 p.m. and midnight, plus 10 p.m. on Sundays) and the BBC World Service, a practice that began on 31 December 1923. The sound of the chimes are sent in real time from a microphone permanently installed in the tower and connected by line to Broadcasting House.[56]

The sound of the clock chiming has also been used this way in audio media, but as the Westminster Quarters are heard from other clocks and other devices, the unique nature of this sound has been considerably diluted. Big Ben is a focus of New Year celebrations in the United Kingdom, with radio and TV stations tuning to its chimes to welcome the start of the New Year. As well, to welcome in 2012, the clock tower itself was lit with fireworks that exploded at every toll of Big Ben.[52] Similarly, on Remembrance Day, the chimes of Big Ben are broadcast to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and the start of two minutes' silence.[53] Londoners who live an appropriate distance from the tower and Big Ben can, by means of listening to the chimes both live and on analogue radio, hear the bell strike thirteen times. This is possible due to what amounts to an offset between live and electronically transmitted chimes since the speed of sound is significantly slower than the speed of radio waves.[54] Guests are invited to count the chimes aloud as the radio is gradually turned down.

In 2008 a survey of 2,000 people found that the tower was the most popular landmark in the United Kingdom.[50] It has also been named as the most iconic film location in London.[51]

The clock has become a symbol of the United Kingdom, particularly in the visual media. When a television or film-maker wishes to indicate a generic location in the country, a popular way to do so is to show an image of the tower, often with a red double-decker bus or black cab in the foreground.[49]

Elizabeth Tower at Legoland Windsor
Double-decker buses frame a busy Whitehall with the Elizabeth Tower in the background

Cultural importance

The origin of the nickname Big Ben is the subject of some debate. The nickname was applied first to the Great Bell; it may have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell, or after boxing's English Heavyweight Champion Benjamin Caunt.[1][32][34] Now Big Ben is often used, by extension, to refer to the clock, the tower and the bell collectively, although the nickname is not universally accepted as referring to the clock and tower.[2][44][45][46] Some authors of works about the tower, clock and bell sidestep the issue by using the words Big Ben first in the title, then going on to clarify that the subject of the book is the clock and tower as well as the bell.[47][48]


One of the requirements for the clock was that the first stroke of the hour bell should be correct to within one second per day.[43] So, at twelve o'clock, for example, it is the first of the twelve hour-bell strikes that signifies the hour (the New Year on New Year's Day at midnight).

The quarter bells play a once-repeating, 20-note sequence of rounds and four Handel's Messiah.[39][40] 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.[41][42]

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.[38]

A recording from the BBC World Service radio station of the Westminster Chimes and the twelve strikes of Big Ben, as broadcast at midnight, New Year's Day 2009.
Big Ben


[37], was cast in 1881.St Paul's Cathedral Big Ben has chimed with a slightly different tone ever since, and is still in use today with the crack unrepaired. Big Ben was the largest bell in the British Isles until "Great Paul", a 16¾ ton (17 tonne) bell currently hung in [1] 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.[1]

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