Big Ben
Monday, 30 November -0001

25 things you (probably) didn’t know about Big Ben

It may be one of Britain’s most famous landmarks, but Nell Turner reveals…

Written by Nell Turner
1 Elizabeth Tower and the Great Clock are commonly known collectively as ‘Big Ben’, but the nickname originally only applied to the Great Bell.

2 The name Big Ben is thought to have been inspired by Sir Benjamin Hall, Commissioner of Works when the Great Bell was installed.

3 There were 97 designs submitted for the reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster after its neartotal destruction by fire in 1834. The winning design by Sir Charles Barry did not feature a clock tower; he added this in 1836, and was assisted in its design by Augustus Pugin.

4 It took 16 years to build the whole tower. The foundation stone was laid on 28 September 1843, but work fell five years behind schedule and the tower wasn’t completed until 1859.

5 Formerly known as the Clock Tower, the Elizabeth Tower was rechristened in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

6 The tower has 11 floors and is 315ft high. You have to climb 399 steps to reach the Ayrton Light at the top.

7 The tower leans towards the northwest by about nine inches. This is partly due to nearby tunnel excavations.

8 The original main bell was cast by Warners of Norton, near Stockton-on-Tees, but this cracked during testing before it was installed. The second, current, bell was cast at the Whitechapel Foundry.

9 The bell’s 9ft diameter meant it had to be turned on its side to be winched up the tower. It took 30 hours to raise it to the belfry in 1858.

10 Big Ben first chimed on 11 July 1859.

11 The bell cracked just two months into its use. It was then silent for four years before the heavy hammer, blamed for the crack, was replaced with a lighter one and the bell was turned so it struck a different spot. A square was cut into the bell to stop the crack spreading.

12 The crack gives the bell its unique tone, slightly off an E.

13 The bell weighs over 13 tons.

14 Big Ben was the largest bell in the UK until the 17-ton ‘Great Paul’ (currently hung in St Paul’s Cathedral) was cast in 1881.

15 Big Ben can be heard within a radius of up to five miles, although it is difficult to hear in certain areas of the Parliament building itself.

16 During the Second World War, the broadcasting of the chimes told the world that Britain had not been defeated.

17 Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal in 1846, specified that the Great Clock’s first stroke of each hour must be accurate to within one second per day.

18 Clockmakers check the Great Clock’s accuracy about three times a week, and adjust the speed of the pendulum by adding or removing pre-decimal pennies (adding a penny speeds it up; removing one slows it down). It’s not known when this practice began. Currently there are also two silver coins on the pendulum – a 1977 Silver Jubilee coin, and a £5 coin commemorating Big Ben’s 150th anniversary in 2009.

19 Roughly every five years the four clock faces are washed and necessary maintenance work is carried out.

20 There is a golden inscription in Latin at the base of each clock dial: ‘Domine Salvam Fac Reginam Nostrum Victoriam Primam’, meaning ‘O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First’.

21 There are 312 pieces of glass in each of the four clock dials.

22 The four on the dial is denoted by ‘IV’ rather than the ‘IIII’ commonly used on other clocks.

23 The minute hands are over 13ft long and weigh about 220lb each. Every year they travel around 118 miles.

24 In 1949 Big Ben slowed by four-and-ahalf minutes when a flock of starlings perched on the minute hand.

25 The Great Clock’s quarter bells vary in weight from around one to four tons, and sound the notes G sharp, F sharp, E and B.


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