How many facts about Big Ben do you know? Are you ready for more?
The greatest clock tower we have come to know is London’s Big Ben – as it is most commonly known all throughout the world.
Well-noted for being the most accurate clock tower and for having the gigantic hour bell, Big Ben is also one of the most iconic symbols of the English capital.
True to its name, the turret has a big clock on each of its sides and towers at over 96 meters high. And if you’re into working out, you can take all 334 steps going to the belfry and 59 more steps going up to the Ayrton light. Definitely, you’re in for a serious trek.
Those who are not locals, hence not privy to mandatory history lessons of England, might not be aware of some facts surrounding the magnificent tower. So without further ado, let’s start digging up some possibly fossilized truths regarding how the famous Big Ben and the tower that houses it came to be.
16 Fun Facts About Big Ben
Here are some fun facts about Big Ben worth checking out.
1. Big Ben is the Big Bell
Now admit it, that was a good pun.
But puns aside, the term “Big Ben” is, in fact, merely a nickname referring to the enormous hour bell within the clock tower and not the actual tower itself. And the ginormous bell is called “The Great Bell” befittingly.
2. Its old official name was not “Big Ben”
Its once official name is simply classic, like a book description on some English fantasy novel. You may even decide to later on call it the old way to add some drama and flare to it.
As simple as it may sound, for a bit shorter than 200 years the turret had actually been called “The Clock Tower.”
Bet you read that last bit in a British accent!
Its official name, however, was quite a mouthful: “The Great Bell of the Great Clock of Westminster.”
3. It was almost named in honor of Queen Victoria’s reign
In another more medieval timeline, the clock tower was almost officially named the Royal Victoria. The planning stage to build the clock tower started during the reign of Queen Victoria from between early to mid-1800s.
Queen Alexandrina Victoria had reigned far much longer – for about 63 years – over both the United Kingdom and Ireland and oversaw the reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster before her perish in 1901. Hence, the duration of her reign became what is known as the Victorian Era.
It was only during the long extensive construction over the years that Londoners started giving the famous tower its popular nickname “Big Ben.”
4. “Big Ben” is not an official name but a coined local nickname
The term has a playful backstory. There is a couple of theories that surround the origin of the name.
They say it was about the First Commissioner of Works, Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the later stages of the tower’s construction and the great bells installation itself. He was a tall big man and his nickname was “Ben.”
Meanwhile, there are also others that believe that it might have been named after the bare-knuckle prizefighter Benjamin Caunt who held the title as English Heavyweight Champion between 1838 and 1845. He also had another title as the Torkard Giant as he hailed from Hucknall Torkard, Nottinghamshire, England.
5. The tower was officially renamed yet again barely past a decade ago
Some time more recently in 2012, the clock tower has yet again been renamed. It has been proclaimed to bear the name “The Elizabeth Tower.”
This was done to commemorate the diamond jubilee or the sixtieth year of accession of the now late (HM) Queen Elizabeth II.
6. The Clock Tower is not a stand-alone structure
The clock tower doesn’t stand alone and is actually built on the north side of the reconstructed Palace of Westminster by the side of the River Thames.
The palace was considered as one Gothic masterpiece in the Victorian era. It serves to connect the House of Commons and the House of Lords, hence its other name the Houses of Parliament.
7. The Great Bell isn’t alone inside the Clock Tower
Big Ben wouldn’t be called “The Great Bell” if there were no others to compare it with.
The bell isn’t alone inside the turret.
Aside from the great bell whose diameter stretches at 2.7 meters, towers at 2.2 meters in height, and weighs 13.7 metric tonnes, there were other four smaller bells which weighed 1.4 tonnes each. They are called the Cambridge Quarters.
8. The bell’s bongs aren’t just random boings
The epic part about the bells within the clock tower is that each bell has its corresponding sound.
The Big Ben sounds the note E. Meanwhile, the four smaller bells chime the sounds of G sharp, F sharp, E and B and whose tunes play at a quarter past the hour, half past the hour, and at the quarter to the hour.
It was actually the great clock’s designer, Edmund Beckett Denison, who came up with the tune of the four smaller bells, which is why he named them the “Cambridge Quarters.”
9. The Elizabeth Tower wasn’t the original Clock Tower built in its place
There was a couple of old clock towers that were first built where the Big Ben is going as far back as the late 1200s which were not officially recorded.
There was even a time when the previous clock tower broke down and a sundial was assembled in its place. What a 180-degree turn from a much advanced (at that time) clock tower back to a more medieval version of a clock!
10. The Clock Tower’s construction was a result of a catastrophe
Looking back at the phenomenon which resulted in this famous tourist attraction, was the Great Fire that tragically took place on the 16th of October 1834.
Consequently, it resulted in the Palace of Westminster being almost burnt to the ground and therefore required careful attention to be rebuilt. It even called for a competition to choose for the palace’s design, which was won by the architect Charles Barry as per the House of Commons.
11. The chief designer of the Clock Tower was not a pro clockmaker but a lawyer
The competitions didn’t end with Charles Barry’s triumph over the design of the New Palace of Westminster, however.
They had to come up with yet another contest, which was to build a clock tower to merge with the design of Charles Barry’s that would have the accuracy (of chiming) within one second in striking the hour. And having that kind of intricate and detailed function was, of course, not an easy feat to achieve.
Possibly as early as that time they might have had the premonition of this project potentially becoming a great part of Britain’s history that a dispute even arose among the renowned clockmakers. One being the clockmaker of the Queen’s, Lewis Vulliamy. That being the case, Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, served as the referee for this next competition.
Edmund Beckett Denison was the one who worked on the design, being more of a lawyer and an amateur horologist, someone else had to handle the mechanical side of things.
In the end, by the year 1852, the clockmaker Edward John Dent was given the big task of building the great clock.
12. Edward John Dent died and couldn’t finish the job
Considering the tedious work they had to put into making the clock tower with just the planning stage taking several years, the clockmaker perished before they could finish the project. Hence, the design was said to have been modified and completed by Edmund Beckett Denison as the chief designer.
Fortunately, his talents must have been inherited. So with the help of Edward John Dent’s son – Frederick Dent – who took over the reins, the clock was finally put together.
By 1959 on May 31st, the Great Clock had to undergo a series of delicate tests to ensure that it could tell the time with acute accuracy using the chronometers. And thank heavens, the Great Clock did not disappoint and told the time as it is!
13. The Big Ben was cracked and still is to this day
Before the great clock even started, keeping time a lot of modifications had to be done.
After all, in order to achieve Charles Barry’s vision of a four-faced clock turret that chimes by the second of the hour, they had to pay attention to the littlest of details.
In addition to the Victorian Gothic finish of the Palace of Westminster, Edmund Denison was also going for extra drama by envisioning a four-faced clock tower with a loud bang to match it with. Literally.
So in October of the year 1857, there they went and got the Great Bell and the smaller quarter bells transported by rail and sea just to get to the tower. At one point they used a massive hammer at the base to strike the bell and tested it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, though, instead of a loud beautiful bang, it resulted in a big crack of 1.2 meters on the Great Bell.
Fast forward, Sir George Airy was able to come up with the solution to their big conundrum. In April of 1858, the bell was melted down in an attempt to fix the crack and to create and cast the new one which weighed at 13.5 tonnes and was lighter by 2.5 tonnes from the previous one. They tweaked the Great Bell’s position by 90 degrees so that the hammer would strike it on a different spot with lesser risk of damage.
They also made it so the Big Ben would only chime hourly and the four smaller bells to chime every fifteen minutes.
14. An operation during World War II was named after it
The “Operation Big Ben” referred to the V2 Rockets that Hitler used as a trump card which were indiscriminately launched in London in September 1944. The clock turret sustained damages along with countless casualties during the war against the Nazis.
15. The clock turret is tilted just like the Leaning Tower of Pisa
It was reported that the Big Ben was slightly leaning on the side that its golden torso is one feet off perpendicular to its body. Hence, it has become just a tad bit off the center of its gravity since the early 19th century, which is why some may think of it similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa of Italy.
16. UNESCO gave the famous Clock Tower a World Heritage Site status in 1987
Nothing could possibly give honor to all the hard work the makers poured into building the clock tower than it becoming one of the World Heritage Sites in London acknowledged by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Being named a Heritage Site should be more than enough to gain more exposure as a great tourist spot. Pretty credible recommendation being backed by such an organization!
After all the disputes among renowned clockmakers, it was just right that they had decided on it by way of a competition and ended up with a much gratifying outcome to the Big Ben that we now know and love.
If we ponder about it, the amount of time that has passed since it has been built, the famous term has naturally become the colloquial name for the tower as a whole.
Understandably, having to ask locals the directions to go to the Big Ben is much simpler compared to asking where The Great Bell of the Great Clock of Westminster is. So you may choose to go the easier route with the universally known term “Big Ben” as what everyone else is used to calling it.
In conclusion, the Big Ben (or the Elizabeth Tower, whichever way you decide to call it!) is comparable to life. It has gone through intricate process and faced many struggles and modifications. Just from coming up with the design, assigning tasks to the right people and down to the process of maintaining its whole Victorian Gothic glory.
Though our daily challenges may not be as physically heavy as a 200-kilogram hammer that strikes the Big Ben, admittedly there are times that they would feel as steep as the 334 steps of flight of stairs – and it’s a real struggle to get past them.
But no matter what may come, no matter how many times our knees may bend, just remember that we won’t be melted down when we crack like the bell. We just get up and work smarter and until we get things done! Then just like clockwork, at the right moment when we least expect it, everything will fall into its rightful place.