July Artwork of the Month: Big Ben the Largest Bell Ever Cast in England

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1414-1-h Big Ben Crop

01 July 2019

On 11th July 1859 Big Ben, the name first given to ‘The Great Bell’ of the clock tower, chimed for the very first time.

The creation of the bell was ambitious, it was the largest to have ever been made in England, and was cast by Warner and Sons of Norton near Stockton-on-Tees and transported to London in 1857. When the bell first arrived it was hung in New Palace Yard and tested daily, but a crack appeared following testing so the bell needed to be recast.

George Mears at the Whitechapel Foundry cast the second bell, 2.5 tonnes lighter than the first, which had to be winched up to the tower in an operation which took 30 hours. In October 1858 the bell was finally in place alongside the four quarter bells, which chime on the quarter hour. Big Ben rang out on 11 July 1859 for the first time but a new crack which appeared in September 1859 silenced the bell for four more years.

In 1863 a solution was found by Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal. The crack in the bell was stopped by removing a small square section and the bell was turned by a quarter so that a new lighter hammer would strike in a different location.

Big Ben rang continuously until the start of a new restoration project which began in 2017 and is due to be completed in 2021.

1414-1-h Big Ben

Big Ben The Largest Bell Ever Cast In England

This print, published 1857 shows the original Warner and Sons bell being tested, alongside illustrations of the four smaller bells:

“The above illustration represents “Big Ben” as suspended for the various severe tests to which the referees subjected the bell. On the left is shown the experimental clock hammer, weighing 13 Cwt., raised by machinery, and allowed to fall on the bell with a weight and force equal to one and a quarter tons.

On the right is represented ten men, whose combined power pulled “Big Ben’s” monster clapper and caused so much motions at times that the bell often struck the fixed experimental hammer.”

    Image: detail of WOA 1414, BIG BEN THE LARGEST BELL EVER CAST IN ENGLAND, lithograph from the Parliamentary Art Collection

Further information

Find out more about the Elizabeth Tower conservation on the project’s webpages.

Find out more about the history of the Elizabeth Tower.

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