Anybody visiting Parliament Square at the moment will see a lot of disappointed tourists. One of the main things they will have come to see – the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, universally (but erroneously) known as Big Ben – is sheathed in scaffolding with only one face of the clock visible.
And if they were hoping to hear the famous Westminster chimes, and the bell that is actually called Big Ben ringing out the hours, then they are also unlucky. Owing to essential repairs, the tower will be sheathed and the chimes silenced until 2021, apart from on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve.
Perusing our archive, we came across a small entry – just one paragraph – full of interesting and very little known facts about the bell. The first eye-catching thing was that it was referred to as “Big Ben the Second”. There are no further details on why this should be so in the article itself, but a little research has uncovered some history.
The first bell for the tower, a 16.3 ton hour bell, was cast in Stockton-on-Tees on 6 August 1856, and the name of Sir Benjamin Hall, a Welsh civil engineer and politician who served as MP for Marylebone from 1837, and who oversaw the latter stages of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, was inscribed upon it. Sir Benjamin being a famously tall man of the time, it is thought that the bell was named after him and even then the tower was also known as Big Ben, though at the time it was properly named St Stephens Tower (it was officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012).
In fact, nobody knows whether this naming is true. Another story is that it was named after a contemporary heavyweight boxer called Benjamin Caunt. When the bell was cast, the tower was not yet finished, so it was mounted for testing in nearby New Palace Yard. During testing, however, the bell was cracked beyond repair. A new bell was ordered and the commission given to the Whitechapel Bell foundry near the Tower of London – still in existence and open for fascinating tours, although the foundry itself closed just over a year ago, holding the record as the oldest manufacturing company in Great Britain.
Enter Big Ben the Second. The Engineer tells us that the bell was nicknamed “Victoria” and was “tastefully ornamented with Gothic tracery in low relief”. Inscribed upon the bell were the words “This bell… was cast by Mr George Mears, of Whitechapel, for the clock of the Houses of Parliament, and the direction of Edward Beckett Denison QC in the 21st year of the reign of Queen Victoria, and in the year of our Lord MDCCCLVIII”. The weight, the article tells us, was 14½ tons, one and three-quarter tons less than its ill-fated predecessor (these are, of course, Imperial tons). It was 7ft and 3in high, and 9ft in diameter at its mouth. This was not smaller than the previous bell, but the shape was different. “The head is more rounded, and the waist more sloped in,” the article records.
The spot on the bell where the hammer was to strike was half an inch less in thickness than the old bell, we are told. Already at this point, The Engineer records that the bell was faulty in tone, ringing at nearly F rather than E natural. “The tone of the new bell is stated to be so full of sound that even a slight stroke with a common switch makes it ring with a tolerable tone, and the vibration, after being struck with the clapper, gradually settles down like the sound of a trumpet dying away.”
The clapper had also been cast, and weighed about six hundredweight, half as much as the clapper for the previous bell. Returning to our research, the new one cracked in September 1856: according to George Mears, immortalised on the bell’s inscription.
Denison (an irascible man, whose obituary we have also featured in our archive section) had used a hammer of more than twice the maximum weight specified to strike the bell. It was out of commission for three years and the hours struck on the lowest toned quarter bell instead while it was repaired.
The repair was a remarkable piece of improvisation: a square piece of metal was chipped out of the rim around the crack and the bell rotated so that the clapper struck in a different point. The tone of the bell changed irreversibly, and the crack is still in place to this day. Nobody calls it Victoria, though.