The Great Bell - Big Ben

Officially, the Elizabeth Tower's bell is called the Great Bell though it is better known by the name 'Big Ben'.

There are two theories for this name's origin. These are that the Great Bell was:

  • named after Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner for Works 1855-1858
  • named after Ben Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer of the 1850s

The first theory is thought to be the most likely.

The name 'Big Ben' is often associated with the Elizabeth Tower and the Great Clock as well as the Great Bell. It was to the Great Bell that the name originally was given.

Making the Great Bell

Warners of Norton near Stockton-on-Tees cast the new bell in August 1856. It was transported by rail and sea to London. On arrival at the Port of London, it was placed on a carriage and pulled across Westminster Bridge by 16 white horses.

The bell was hung in New Palace Yard. It was tested each day until 17 October 1857 when a 1.2m crack appeared. No-one would accept the blame. Theories included the composition of the bell's metal or its dimensions. Warners blamed Denison for insisting on increasing the hammer's weight from 355kg to 660kg.

Warners asked too high a price to break up and recast the bell so George Mears at the Whitechapel Foundry was appointed. The second bell was cast on 10 April 1858.

This bell was 2.5 tonnes lighter than the first. Its dimensions meant it was too large to fit up the Elizabeth Tower's shaft vertically so Big Ben was turned on its side and winched up. It took 30 hours to winch the bell to the belfry in October 1858. The four quarter bells, which chime on the quarter hour, were already in place.

Big Ben rang out on 11 July 1859 but its success was short-lived. In September 1859, the new bell also cracked and Big Ben was silent for four years. During this time, the hour was struck on the fourth quarter bell.

Fixing the Great Bell

In 1863, a solution was found to Big Ben's silence by Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal.

  • Big Ben was turned by a quarter turn so the hammer struck a different spot
  • the hammer was replaced by a lighter version
  • a small square was cut into the bell to prevent the crack from spreading

The total cost of making the clock and bells and installing them in the Elizabeth Tower reached £22,000.

Apart from occasional stoppages Big Ben has struck ever since.

Big Ben on YouTube

View Big Ben, and other Parliament video clips, on YouTube