The Original Big Ben


Whenever we think of London, we’re probably thinking of that tall clock tower we all know as the ‘Big Ben’. But it may be a surprise to some of you, that the ‘Big Ben’ we have all come to love and know, isn’t the actual intended ‘Big Ben’.

Big Ben? Or The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster?

The Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, more known to most of us as the ‘Big Ben’, isn’t the original ‘Big Ben’! The nickname was actually coined for the huge great bell inside the tower, but as time passed on, the term ‘Big Ben’ was eventually extended to refer to not just the great bell, but the whole Clock Tower, too.

The tower was planned after a fire destroyed the old Palace of Westminster, where the British Parliament convened. The Parliament wanted a brand new clock tower to accompany the new palace which was to be built to replace the old one.

The Clock Tower was designed by two prominent Gothic Revival style architects, Charles Barley and Augustus Pugin. The tower was made up of bricks in limestone cladding. The cast iron-clad spires, gargoyles, quatrefoil motifs and ornate and dramatic features accentuate the tower’s Gothic style. Construction started on September 28, 1843, and ended on April 10, 1858.

The origin of the nickname ‘Big Ben’ is still being disputed, but the most likely story is that the great bells were named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the man who oversaw the building of the Clock Tower.

The Clock Tower has been featured in many films set in London. It has even been voted by Metro, a newspaper publication based in London, as the city’s most iconic film location. The most notable film that has featured the ‘Big Ben’ prominently is the spy-thriller film, The Thirty Nine Steps, in which the main character hung from one of the clock’s hands to prevent a bomb from detonating. Another film which has featured the ‘Big Ben’ is the Walt Disney animated movie, Peter Pan, where the main characters fly to one of the hands of the tower.

The Clock Tower as seen in Peter Pan

The tower, which measures 316 ft. high, does not have an elevator, so people entering the tower would have to climb the tower’s 334 limestone steps to get to the top belfry! Also, despite being a famous tourist attraction, the tower’s interiors are not open to the public; one has to be granted permission by a member of the parliament before he or she can enter the tower.

The Clock Tower up close

The great bell inside the belfry of the Clock Tower, or the supposed original ‘Big Ben’, weighs 13 and half tons, and is 7 ft. 6 in. tall and 9 ft. wide. The great bell rings every hour, and is accompanied by four smaller bells, which ring every quarter of an hour. A huge hammer that weighs 448 lbs. rings the great bell, and rings the note E, or Mi, for those familiar with the Do-Re-Mi.

The clock of the tower, which is officially named The Great Westminster Clock, was also designed by Pugin. Each of the clocks’ faces was made up of 312 pieces of opal glass, and its hands were made of gun-metal and copper sheet. Inscribed at each of the four clocks is “DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM” a Latin phrase which means ‘O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First’. The clock has been commended for its reliability and accuracy (it is accurate to within one second), and it, along with the bells, is run by a complex mechanism involving pendulums, gravity escapements and trains.

Recently, the Clock Tower been found out to be leaning north-west, with the tower sinking into the banks of the Thames River, mainly as a result of decades of underground excavation, and drying-out of the clay supporting the structure underneath. However, even though the rate of the tower’s leaning has been accelerating, it would take 4,000 more years before the tower crashes.

The British really take pride in the Clock Tower; they have even voted for it as their favorite landmark. The tower embodies not just the city, but the whole United Kingdom. There are so many things to be proud of with the Clock Tower, from its majestic and grand architecture, to its intricate engineering system of running the clock and the bells. It is also seen as a symbol of the British way of life, democracy and hope.

The Clock Tower, symbol of London, and of the United Kingdom

I really like the way how people see their country in a piece of architecture, similar to how the Clock Tower symbolizes the UK, or the Eiffel Tower symbolizes France. I think that having buildings serve as national symbols can bring about a sense of nationalism and appreciation for heritage among citizens. There is no doubt that such instance of having pride on buildings show how important architecture is to the development of national pride and culture.

Joshua M. Fajardo