Interviewer: Shall we just get a few details straight. So we’re going to have to climb how many feet?
John Steel: All together to the belfry 205.
Interviewer: And how many steps is that?
John Steel: 334
Interviewer: So you’ve got to be pretty fit.
John Steel: Yes
Interviewer: What about the actual title of the place. We think of it as Big Ben, the tower of Big Ben. Is that actually the title for it?
John Steel: No, it’s the Clock Tower. Says so on the door here.
Interviewer: So where did Big Ben come from?
John Steel: Big Ben is the nickname of the Great Bell. Official name Great Bell but everybody calls the big bell Big Ben. [Sound of door opening under shutting followed by footsteps up stone stairs.]
Interviewer: It’s a wonderful spiral staircase with this wrought iron balustrade and looking up goodness it’s the opposite of vertigo. You’re looking up layer after layer after layer of this spiral staircase. I think you’ve got to have a head for heights.
Interviewer: So John when was the Clock Tower built?
John Steel: It was completed 1859.
Interviewer: And who designed it?
John Steel: Barry. Charles Barry together with Augustus Pugin, he was interested in the decorative side of it.
Interviewer: [out of breath] Let’s save our breath for the climb.
Interviewer: Phew. We’ve arrived at moderately level ground. Where are we now John?
John Steel: Right we’re in the Prison Room.
Interviewer: Prison Room?
John Steel: Yeah. 114 steps so far. About a third of the way. This is called the Prison Room. This is because we kept an MP here one night when he wouldn’t behave himself. It’s true. Ah, when you become elected a MP in this country you can’t take your place in the chamber or take part in proceedings unless you first swear allegiance to the queen or king. In 1880 Charles Bradlaugh, he was elected MP for Northamptonshire and when it came to swearing in he said I can’t do that, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the bible. Can I please affirm or promise my loyalty. They said no you can’t. So in return he refused to leave. He interrupted the proceedings he tried to swear himself in and basically they got fed up with him, arrested him and kept him up here overnight. A couple of years later they passed the Affirmation Act which now allows MPs to swear on the bible or not. They can swear on any religious item they want or not, as long as they promise their allegiance. [sound of more footsteps up stairs followed by jangling of keys]
Interviewer: Phew. How far above ground are we here?
John Steel: Right if you look in the door here, on the floor you’ll see the figure 182. A hundred and eighty two steps so far. Just about half way. Big Ben is the name of the Great Bell or the hour bell and we had two attempts at making that. We wanted a 14 tons bell which at that time would have been the biggest bell in the country. So they went to a foundry, a place called Norton near Stockton-on-Tees, cast the Great Bell up there. It came in at 16 and a half tons. The tower wasn’t ready for it so they put it up in the gantry and they tested it and that was alright until a few months later along came Mr Denison. He’s the man who designed it and he wasn’t happy. He wanted a bigger sound so he doubled the hammer size to half a ton and after three weeks it broke. We’d had it for ten months so we had to go out to tender again and this time Mays of Whitechapel give us a 13 and a half tons bell. And they took the Great Bell up in one lift. It took thirty two hours continuous winding by eight men at a time and its up there now.
We’re at the clock mechanism room. [sound of clockwork clicking] This is the great clock or the Westminster Clock. It’s the largest, most powerful, most accurate public clock in the world. Mechanical of course.
Interviewer: There’s a wonderful inscription in raised metal along the frame of the clock. “This clock was made in the year of our Lord 1854 by Fredrick Dent, of the Strand and the Royal Exchange, clockmaker to the Queen, from the designs of Edmund Beckett Denison Q. C. Fixed here 1859.”
John Steel: Correct. Its 15 feet long, 4 feet wide, 18 inches on the bed plate and total weight is 5 tons. This section here, this set of wheels, is known as the strike train. All that does is operate the hammer for Big Ben. If you come over this way this one’s going to work shortly. This one’s called the quarter train or the chiming train. This is the one that actually plays the tune. Like that. [sound of bells chiming]
Interviewer: That's the quarter hour?
John Steel: That's the quarter hour yes. When they decided to have a clock up here one of its criteria was it had to be accurate to a second a day. Now this was unheard of in Victorian times. In Victorian times if you had a turret clock running at a minute or two minutes a day accuracy it was considered to be a pretty good clock. Now if you have a look on the thing down there you'll see a stack of pennies.
Interviewer: These are old copper pennies?
John Steel: Old copper pennies. Now if you put one of these pennies on that stack you'll speed the clock up by two-fifths of a second a day. If you take a penny off you'll slow it down by two-fifths of a second a day. [sound of footsteps climbing stairs followed by clock chiming]
Interviewer: That's loud. Wow coming through a door suddenly here we are behind the big glass roundel of the clockface. It's stunning.
John Steel: So have a look by number nine up there. Can you see the shadow of the minute hand? It moves every two seconds and that's because we have a two second pendulum. Everytime the clock goes tick the hand moves. Interviewer: And there it goes inch by inch.
John Steel: And the hour hand is up there as well. The face itself is 23 feet across. Made out of cast iron sections and there are 312 bits of glass in it. The weight of each face is four tons. The minute hand is 14 feet long, it's a hollow copper tube. The hour hand is solid bronze at nine feet. If you'd like to look that way at the lighting originally we used to burn gas and that's what the hoops in the wall are for, for the gasman to climb up and light the gases 'cause the lights go on at sunset and switch off at sunrise. 1906 we put electric light bulbs in and then in 1994 we put these in. These are low energy high efficiency long life bulbs. We went green long before anybody else did.
Interviewer: So at night that glowing clockface that you see on the skyline is powered by these bulbs.
John Steel: 28 of them. Now we clean these faces about every five years.
Interviewer: I can imagine it's relatively easy to clean the inside of the face but the outside might present one or two problems.
John Steel: What we do is get all of half a dozen young fellas, tie ropes round them and push them off of the top. They abseil down on the outside. [sound of footsteps up stairs] Well done you made it!
Interviewer: Whoa. So this is the top. Here's the bell. Here's Big Ben and there's London all around us on a rainy day. Of course there's not just the one bell there's several to ring the chimes.
John Steel: Yes, four quarters and the Great Bell. Keep an eye on number three bell up there. That's the first hammer to move. As soon as that moves you've got half a second to plug your ears otherwise you will jump. Right so this is Big Ben. Seven foot six high. Nine foot wide. Eight inches thick. Weighs 13.5 tons. Three months after this one was put up here it cracked.
Interviewer: What effect does that have on the chime?
John Steel: None. The crack doesn't go all the way through the bell. It's only about an inch and a quarter deep. He's supposed to ring E-below-middle-C but unless you've got perfect pitch you wouldn't find out he's just ever so slightly flat. It's not the biggest bell in the world. It's no longer the biggest bell in the country. But it's the most famous bell in the world and that's because millions of people listen to it every day and can recognise it. We transmit the sound live on the BBC at 6pm and midnight and millions of people listen to it. [Sound of bells chiming. Big Ben strikes 5.] [Transcript ends]