Big Ben – St. Stephen’s Parliament Clock Tower
St. Stephen’s Tower is the formal name of Parliament’s clock tower, better known to the world as “Big Ben.” The clock tower takes its name from its largest bell, the one that proclaims the hour by striking the note E. The tower Big Ben shares its belfry with four smaller bells that play on the quarter hour.
History is a bit murky on whether the 13.8-ton bell was christened in honor of Sir Benjamin Hall, a rather rotund and well-liked politician of the day who served from 1855 to 1858 as the First Commissioner of Works (a cabinet position of the time), or whether it was named after Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight boxing champion of the period.
The fact that Sir Benjamin’s name is inscribed on the bell would seem to lend more credence to that story. However, Benjamin Caunt stood 6 feet 2 1/2 inches tall and weighed well over 200 pounds, and the vernacular of the day called anything large and heavy “Big Ben.” Big Ben was cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
The clock tower stands 316 feet high. The four clock faces, each 23 feet in diameter, are made up of an iron framework and opal glass, which is similar to stained glass. Each hour hand is 9 feet long and each minute hand is 14 feet long. The clock faces are 180 feet from the ground. Erected during the rebuilding of Parliament, the tower’s clock went into service on September 7, 1859.
In addition to the main bell there are four quarter bells that chime G sharp, Fsharp, E and B. The bells play the Westminster Quarters on the quarter hour. A microphone in the turret connected to Broadcasting House allows the BBC to broadcast the chimes which it has been doing since December, 31 1923.
When Parliament is in session after dark, the lantern at the top of the clock tower is lit. The lantern is called “Ayrton Light” after Thomas Ayrton (another First Commissioner of Works), who had the lamp installed. Big Ben’s clock is a remarkably accurate device, rarely off by more than two seconds in a day. Its designer, Edmund Beckett Denison, and its clockmaker, Edward John Dent, deserve much of the credit.
In addition to its three-times-a-week winding, the clock does require a certain old-fashioned and inexpensive remedy to maintain its precision—pennies. Old pennies (those taken out of circulation in the early 1970s) are added to or removed from the clock’s pendulum to maintain the timepieces’ accuracy.
Follow Victoria Street from the Houses of Parliament to its intersection with Vauxhall Road at Victoria Station and you will find a much smaller iron clock tower that mimics the design of Big Ben.
Erected as a “gesture of Franco-British friendship,” a rhyming couplet on Little Ben explains why the time displayed is correct for British Summer Time half the year and Central European Time in the winter:
My hands you may retard or may advance
my heart beats true for England as for France. J.W.R.
A weathervane sits atop the clock known as Little Ben.
by Katie Calvert