Big Ben- The History and Cultural Significance

Big Ben is a classical landmark of London, so picturesquely sitting near the Palace of Westminster. It actually belongs to the Houses of Parliament. The atmosphere of the London Eye across is just so vibrant. Big Ben signifies the Great Bell that was finished in 1859. This fascinating clock tower has more than 13 tones. It’s actually more than 96 metres tall, covering 339 steps to the top.

The nickname probably comes due to the politician, Benjamin Hall, who gave supervision. Its original name is Clock Tower, but from 2012 is known as the Elisabeth Tower. The design by Augustus Pugin gives praise to the neo-Gothic style.

The title of UNESCO World Heritage Site belongs to Big Ben since 1987. The night gives an impressive shine to the clock tower.

See also: A Brief History of London

The Origins and Design

The New Palace of Westminster shines even more brilliantly with the adjacent Elisabeth Tower. A large fire destroyed the old palace in 1834. The design of the Palace belongs to Charles Berry. Augustus Pugin designed the clock tower in the neo-Gothic style.

The construction started in 1843 by Thomas Grissell and Morton Peto. The Gothic Revival style was popular in England during the 19th century. Lancet windows, dense ornamentation and natural materials characterise this style.

Big Ben & Westminster Palace with the river Thames
Big Ben & Westminster Palace with the river Thames- Credit: Livingnomads.com

The clock tower follows the iron-framed spire to top with a pinnacle. The lancet windows are pretty thin. The limestone cladding is the main material. The construction was finalized in 1859. 290 stairs lead to the clock room, including 45 to the belfry and 59 to the top.

52 shields with national emblems decorate the place above the belfry.

The Name

St Stephen’s Tower was its original name until 2012. Thanks to Elisabeth’s II Diamond Jubilee, it got a new name- Elisabeth Tower. This occasion glorifies the Queen’s 60 years on the British throne.

The large west tower of Westminster Palace has also been renamed to Victoria’s Tower. The naming ceremony happened in front of John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons.

The nickname Big Ben earns two different theories. The first one honours Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the first commissioner. The second one gives praise to the popular boxing champion Benjamin Caunt. He was also known as „Big Ben“.

History- New Palace of Westminster

The Great fire in 1834 destroyed the old parliament building almost to the ground. The remaining parts are the Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Cloister and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft.

The Royal Commission intended to organize a new design in the Gothic or Elizabethan style. That’s why they followed a public competition in 1835.

The Westminster Palace from above
The Westminster Palace from above- Credit: ArchDaily.com

The new design by Charles Barry included two towers: a royal entrance and a smaller clock tower. The medieval times with the clock tower inspired Barry’s design. The ancient tower existed till 1698.

The main source of Barry’s ideas was Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire. It was a masterpiece by Augustus Pugin, who became Barry’s collaborator. That’s why the clock tower became a 96-meter tall building. The famous clock tower was Pugin’s last design.

How the Elisabeth Tower Was Built

The construction started in 1848 thanks to the boat and road service from all over the country. Opal glass defines the clock dials. Stone was transported from Anston near Sheffield. Step and paving stones came from Hopton Wood near Matlock in Derbyshire. The interior was decorated with the stone from Caen in Normandy (France).

The particular approach in building the tower was from the inside out. The scaffolding was not used as the steam-powered winches did the job. The rooms for prisoners occuppied the lower levels. The Petitions Committee today took this room.

The bell frame was designed by Jabez James of Lambeth, including five bells. The iron dials on the roof were made by John Hardman of Birmingham.

The Early History of Big Ben

Precedent to the clock tower we know today 1290 marks the first clock tower on the site. There are no evident proofs and 1367 brings another tower. The clock tower took a repair in 1699. The original bell was sent to St Paul’s Cathedral.

The clock of the Elisabeth Tower
The clock of the Elisabeth Tower- Credit: Visitlondon.com

Due to the great fire at the Palace of Westminster in 1834, the new one started to rise. The clock tower owes its majestic appearance to the idea of Charles Barry. The first stone is laid in 1843.

The current design of the clock tower belongs to Edmund Beckett Denison. John Dent started building the clock tower in 1852. The New Palace of Westminster was opened the same year. The first ring was held in 1859.

The Changes to the Clock Tower

Electronic light took the first attempts in the 1870s. The Belgian inventor Zenobe Gramme installed the direct current dynamo that enlights the tower.

The Ayrton Light created further wonders from 1873. It’s a lantern above the belfry staying permanently. J. Edmundson & Co actually created the Ayrton Light. It was powered by gas jets. Electric power started to function in 1906.

During the Second World War, the Ayrton Light was turned off. The Palace of Westminster experienced great damage due to bombs that happened 14 times.

A small bomb broke all the glass on the south dial of the clock tower. The clock tower and bells remained in order. The bells became a symbol of freedom.

Inside Big Ben

Big Ben refers only to the largest bell among the five inside the tower. It was one of the largest towers at the beginning.

The only way to get to the top till now were the spiral stairs, 334 in total. Soon the elevator will come into use, but only for maintenance and security reasons.

Big Ben from inside with the London view
Big Ben from inside with the London view- Credit: World.edu

There’s not a lot of space at the first level. The Clock Room holds the mechanism that runs the clock. The final level leads to the belfry and five bells. The Quarter Bells is the name for the outside bells and each holds a different size.

Every 15 minutes, Westminster Chimes starts to play and produce the music. The largest bell rings every full hour. Seeing the bells from above gives an additional magic to the tour. The Ayrton Light is actually the top.

Dials

Each dial is made of cast iron, shaping the third largest frame in the UK (6,9m). The opalescent glass hides in 324 pieces. From the beginning of the 20th century, electric bulbs enlighten the dials.

The gilded decoration encircles the dials. Originally, the frame and hands were Prussian blue (a special dark blue pigment). In the 1930s, they got the black colour. During the recent conservation work, the original colour was installed.

How to Visit Big Ben

Due to refurbishments, the inside tours of Big Ben are currently closed. The newest construction started in August 2017. Seeing the work from Westminster Bridge gives a slight insight into the progress.

The renovation should be completed in the second quarter of 2022. Big Ben is silenced except for some special events, including New Year’s and Remembrance Sunday. In this way, the workers on the tower get protection. Scaffolding surrounds the tower.

A great bell of Big Ben
A great bell of Big Ben- Credit: Bbc.com

The damage that bombing did in 1941 was even greater than was initially discovered. Other work that needed repair included: asbestos in the belfry, broken glass on the clock dial and stone carvings that were deteriorated due to the air polution.

Visiting the Houses of Parliament will offer an alternative experience.

The colours of the clock are now totally different, resembling the original ones. The golden shine is more visible now.

The Symbolic Meaning of Big Ben

Big Ben symbolizes the cultural identity of United Kingdom which is linked with democracy. It’s what makes the British Parliament powerful and gives leadership a true voice. Big Ben gives honour to the country and its achievements. Representing English shine can be seen everywhere, from souvenirs to touristic brochures and visual media. Big Ben is playing the role that unites the British heart.

Big Ben & Westminster Palace enligted by night
Big Ben & Westminster Palace enlightened by night- Credit: Sworld.co.uk

Many film locations start with Big Ben throughout the years. The iconic films featuring Big Ben include Petar Pan and Marry Popkins. Many thrillers and action movies glorify Big Ben, like 39 Steps, London Has Fallen, Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows.

New Year celebrations in the United Kingdom are centred around Big Ben. Surrounded by fireworks, it’s such a magical moment. The iconic status of Big Ben defines it so majestically. The clock tower also symbolizes punctuality.

Big Ben in Classical and Modern Art

The wave of years couldn’t miss to feature the famous English landmark in the artwork. From Monet to modern art, it’s easy to blend with the English spirit through the years.

French impressionist Claude Monet expressed his vision of the tower in The Thames Below Westminster (1871). More than a century later, another Frenchman, Andre Derain marvels Big Ben in the painting of the same name (1906).

Claude Monet's painting "The Thames below Westminster"
Claude Monet’s painting “The Thames below Westminster”- Credit: Nationalgallery.org.uk

The American artist Sarah Morris depicts Big Ben in an abstract way in 2011. It represented the official Paralympic poster. An Art on the Underground selected this artwork to decorate the underground station, Gloucester Road.

The scaffolding of Big Ben inspires the Londoner Luke Adam Hawker. Nowadays, it belongs to the Parliamentary Art Collection.

Big Ben also gets its musical tune by Bill Fontana, a „sound sculpture“ that holds a place in the Parliamentary Collection too.

See also: The Artistic Scene in London

The Books About Big Ben

Big Ben takes a significant role in the pages of the books. In the children’s book Peppa Pig goes to London, Big Ben takes several pages. It also got an appearance in cartoons. The legendary Paddington in London has lovely covers with Big Ben.

Rupert and the Trouble with Big Ben tells the story of how Big Ben becomes the most accurate clock in the world. Little Ben’s Big Time steals children’s hearts with the story about growing up of Big Ben.

The Chimes

The chimes are tunes that Big Ben displays covering only four notes- G sharp, F sharp, E and B. Different parts of the tune play at the quarter hours. The Westminster Quarters is a melody that four quarter bells play in the quarter hours. Its original name was the Cambridge Quarters as it comes from Cambridge. In Cambridge, it took the first melody.

Big Ben during sunrise
Big Ben during sunrise- Credit: Happytovisit.com

The hammers produce the melody pulled by cables. Always repeating, it follows the 20-note sequence of rounds. E-major makes four changes.

The Cambridge Chimes made their first appearance at the Great St. Mary’s church in Cambridge. The words from the Psalm take place on a plaque on the wall of the clock room.

The Lesser Known Facts About Big Ben

Even the official name sounds unknown to the majority of people. The Elisabeth Tower covers 96 metres. Four clock dials cover the opal glass and each is 7m long. The copper sheet makes the minute dials. The hour hands are pretty heavy, around 300 kg.

Big Ben with the Westminster bridge
Big Ben with the Westminster Bridge-Credit: Visit-plus.com

The clock’s accuracy depends on the outside pressure. The hammers produce the sound from outside, rather than swinging.

Big Ben weights 13,7 tones, the hammer is 200 kg. Big Ben has rarely stopped, even after bombing during the Second World War.

The Latin words under the clock mean „O Lord, keep save our Queen Victoria the first“.

Similar Turret Clocks

Similar turret clocks appear across the world. Little Ben is a miniature tower made of cast iron, being only 6m. It stands close to the Victoria station in Westminster. This black tower was originally painted green. Little Ben was built due to the public convenience created by the Vestry of St. George’s Hanover-Square. Standing at the main crossroads, Little Ben would help people while going to the trains.

Little Ben at Victoria Station in London
Little Ben at Victoria Station in London- Credit: Lookuplondon.com

The clock tower of the Gare de Lyon in Paris has a pretty similar design.  Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower in Birmingham holds the size 5 times bigger. Baby Big Ben represents the capital of Wales- Cardiff.

The clock tower at the Queens Royal College Trinidad is one of the most elegant versions. The silver replica of Big Ben graciously decorates Mahe Island in Seychells.

Conclusion- The History and Cultural Significance of Big Ben

The Elisabeth tower reveals the ancient role of the Westminster Palace and its elegant appearance. Big Ben literally defines the changes in British politics. Vigilantly guarding the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben is a golden shine of history.

Big Ben is more than a touristic attraction that appears everywhere, from the souvenirs to books. It’s a powerful symbol of accuracy and the world behind Westminster Palace. Its symbolic status also gives meaning to light. The one above the clock shines whenever Parliament is in session. During the Battle of Britain in the Second World War that symbolism is even more apparent. The clock tower was undamaged and survived the bombing.

One of the main attractions of London represents peace in its golden nuances.

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