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A brief history of Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower

Did you know that there was a clock tower at Parliament before the tower we know and love today was built? Below is a very brief history of Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower - and the clock towers that came before it. 

1290s: The first clock tower is said to have been built on the site but there are no records of it. 

1367: The early clock tower (if there was one) is replaced with a new tower and clock. This was the first public chiming clock in England.  

1698: The medieval clock tower is pulled down and a sun dial put up in its place. 

1699The clock tower had fallen into disrepair. Its bell is sent to St Paul's Cathedral but broke on the way.  

1716The bell from the clock tower is recast and later hung in the South West Tower of St Paul's Cathedral. If Big Ben is ever unable to strike, the bell in St Paul's is heard instead.  

1834The Palace of Westminster is almost completely destroyed by fire.  

1840Construction of the New Palace of Westminster begins. Architect Charles Barry wins the commission to design the new palace and includes a clock tower in his final designs. He hires Augustus Welby Pugin to help bring the palace’s Gothic Revival style to life.  

1843Construction begins on the Clock Tower. Foundation stone laid.  

1846A competition is held to decide who should build the clock. The Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy is named referee. Stipulations for the clocks accuracy meant it took seven years before the designs were finalised.  

1852John Dent is appointed to build the clock to the designs of Edmund Beckett Denison. This is the same year that the New Palace of Westminster was opened by Queen Victoria at the State Opening.  

1854The clock mechanism is completed.  

1856The first 'Big Ben' bell is cast at Warners of Norton near Stockton-on-Tees. The bell was originally to be called 'Royal Victoria'.  

1857The first 'Big Ben' develops a 1.2m crack during testing. Warners, the bell's manufacturer, and Edmund Beckett Denison, designer of the Great Clock, clash over who is responsible for the damage.  

1858In April, the second 'Big Ben' is cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London. It is transported to New Palace Yard on a carriage drawn by 16 white horses and raised to the belfry.  

1859The Great Clock starts ticking on 31 May and the Great Bell's strikes are heard for the first time on 11 July. Later that year, Big Ben is found to be fractured againBig Ben remains silent with the largest quarter bell striking the hourly chime.  

1863At the suggestion of Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal, Big Ben is turned 90 degrees and the hammer size reduced, allowing Big Ben to strike the hours once more. 

1923BBC Radio first broadcasts Big Ben's chimes to the United Kingdom on New Year's Eve.  

1932Big Ben's strikes are broadcast internationally for the first time by the Empire Service (later the World Service) as part of King George V's Christmas broadcast.  

1939From this date until April 1945, the clock dials remain in darkness to comply with blackout regulations during the Second World War.  

1945The clock dials are re-illuminated when wartime blackout regulations were lifted.  

1976In the middle of the night on the 5 August, a mechanical failure causes serious damage to the Great Clock. The pendulum weights spiral out of control down the weight shaft and the clock mechanism explodes. Big Ben is silent for nearly nine months. The repairs are completed in time for the bells to ring out to mark the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee visit to Westminster Hall in May 1977.  

2007Big Ben and the quarter bells are silenced from 11 August to 1 October while the Great Clock undergoes essential maintenance work.  

2012The Clock Tower is renamed the Elizabeth Tower to honour HM Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.  

2017The largest and most extensive conservation of the Elizabeth Tower begins to preserve the clock tower for future generations.

2022: Big Ben is brought back into regular service, with the conservation completing the same year. 

Learn more about Big Ben and its history

Designing a New Palace of Westminster

Building Elizabeth Tower

Constructing the most accurate clock in the world

How the clock tower has changed over the decades