Initial tests to begin on Big Ben and the quarter bells
31 January 2022 (updated on 31 January 2022)
Big Ben and the four quarter bells will strike intermittently over the next three weeks ahead of their return to full service later this year.
A team of engineers will be testing and making adjustments to the bells and hammers to ensure they sound as they did when the clock mechanism was installed in Victorian times. This means that over the next three weeks, Big Ben and the smaller quarter bells will strike at random times and will be heard around Westminster.
Further tests may be required, before the bells once again sound out their resonant strikes and famous Westminster Quarters melody throughout the day as they did before restoration of the Elizabeth Tower began in 2017. The bells have been largely silent over the last five years, with a temporary mechanism used to strike the bells for special occasions such as Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve.
The 1,000 plus pieces of the clock mechanism were removed to preserve them from the dust and debris created by the renovation work, while also allowing them to undergo the biggest cleaning and conservation operation in their 160-year-old history.
Adjustments and repairs to the hammers
Adjustments have been made to the bells’ six hammers to ensure they meet their original specifications. Big Ben and three of the quarter bells each have one hammer; the fourth quarter bell has two because it plays two notes in rapid succession. New rubber buffers, pivots and other parts have also been installed, requiring the engineers to ensure the notes that the bells produce are balanced with each other - with the quarter bells sounding as loud as possible, while Big Ben sounds out as loudly as ever.
Working without the use of modern technology, the engineers will rely on the same techniques as their Victorian predecessors to ensure the notes that the bells produce an authentic sound. They will be guided, in part, by a document written by engineer Jabez James in 1859 which specified the amount of lift required from each hammer to sound the bells correctly.
The team must also ensure that the cables and other connections between the belfry and the mechanism room two floors (10m) below are working efficiently. Each time a bell hammer is lifted or an individual link to a bell hammer is adjusted, the engineers may need to sound the bells again – hence the apparently random chiming.
Keith Scobie-Youngs, the Cumbria Clock Company’s director and co-founder, said: “At each linkage point we have to test because each linkage will alter the amount of lift that the hammer gets and the added connections affects the manner in which the hammer strikes the bell.
“Even though we can get the bell sounding correct when we’re right beside the bells, by the time we go to the clock - with lost motions and connections - we might have to then go back up and balance them at the top.”
“The Parliamentary clock team are well versed in the sound of the clock and will ensure it sounds the way it always has done; we’ll be setting the rhythm exactly how the Victorians would have set it,” said Mr Scobie-Youngs.
Next steps in the conservation
Later this year, the bells – including Big Ben itself – will be reconnected to the original Victorian clock mechanism and will permanently ring out once again. The gantry, which has protected the Palace of Westminster throughout the works and supported the complex scaffolding structure, will also be removed before the site is fully cleared in the summer.
At that point, Parliament will start to prepare the Tower for future use. Preparations, including the installation and testing of a new exhibition space and tour route, are expected to complete towards the end of this year. We are excited to welcome our first visitors back inside the tower soon after.
Big Ben is coming back. For the latest updates, visit the website or subscribe to the Elizabeth Tower newsletter.
Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor