Why Big Ben's bongs must be paused

15 August 2017

On Monday 21 August at noon, Big Ben’s famous bongs will sound for the last time before major conservation works are carried out. The Elizabeth Tower, home to the Great Clock and Big Ben, is currently undergoing a complex programme of renovation work that will safeguard it for future generations. While this vital work takes place, the Great Bell’s world famous striking will be paused to ensure the safety of those working in the Tower. Parliament’s specialist clock makers will ensure that Big Ben can still bong for important national events, such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday.

We understand how important this national icon is to the UK public and to those visiting London. Our priority is to fulfil our responsibility to the public and to ensure that this irreplaceable landmark is maintained for future generations, whilst also protecting the safety of those tasked with carrying out this vital work.

As part of this intricate series of works, the Great Clock itself will be dismantled piece by piece with each cog examined and restored. This work on the Great Clock is expected to take around 2 years. As it is the clock mechanism which drive the bells, Big Ben’s bongs would be silenced during this time anyway. However, to ensure that the public are still able to set their watches by this most important of time pieces, one working clock face will remain visible at all times throughout the works. As the clock mechanism itself will be temporarily out of action, a modern electric motor will drive the clock hands until the Great Clock is reinstated.

The preparatory work for this complex project included a rigorous risk assessment process which was undertaken in line with legal requirements. Part of the reason for this work was to ensure that those working to protect and preserve this important national icon are able to work safely.

Parliament has a duty of care to those on site and our priority is to ensure the safety of those carrying out the work and in the immediate vicinity. Constant proximity and prolonged exposure to the chimes would pose a serious risk to the hearing of those working on the scaffolding or in the Tower. The Elizabeth Tower is 96 metres tall, and the scaffolding will reach a height of 100 metres.

Whilst hearing protection provides a suitable short term solution to the 118 decibel chiming and striking of the bells, it is not acceptable for those working for long periods in the vicinity of Big Ben. In addition, it is vital for workers to be able to communicate with one another on site, or to raise an alarm should the necessity arise. This would not be possible were the bells to continue to sound throughout the works. Workers on the scaffolding could also be startled by the loud sudden noise, with consequences for their own safety and those of other people in and around the tower. The only way to ensure people’s safety is to temporarily stop the Bell.

Parliament’s team of clock makers have a well-practiced method of stopping the bells. The striking hammer is locked and the bells can then be disconnected from the clock mechanism. The weights are lowered within the weight shaft to the base of the tower and secured in a safe position. The whole process is expected to take approximately half a day to complete. It would not be practical or a good use of public money to start and stop the bells each day. In addition, as we cannot fully predict the times that staff will be working on this project, it would be impossible to reconnect the bells on a regular basis.

Big Ben’s bongs are an integral part of parliamentary life and we will ensure that they can resume their role as the nation’s timekeeper as soon as possible.

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