Day 876: Big Ben – The Boisterous Bell In The Belfry

originally published May 25, 2014

If your first instinct when you looked at the above photo was that you were looking at London’s famous Big Ben, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Bemused Brits would scoff and toss old scones at you. Chances are you’ve never seen Big Ben. Until 2012 that structure was known simply as “the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster”. That year it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of our present queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But ‘Big Ben’ is not the tower, and it’s not even the clock mechanism within it. Big Ben is just the bell.

The structure that Big Ben calls home is probably the best-known building in the entirety of England – the one structure you can safely use as an establishing shot if the next scene of your movie takes place in London. But the bell in its innards is the real star of the show; “Big Ben” represents London and London alone. Well, and Pittsburgh, but that’s a different Big Ben.

My wife asked me a question the other day, knowing full well I’d be using Google and not my musty, decaying storeroom of a memory to produce an answer: how the hell did they get Big Ben to the top of that tower using 19th century technology? I did my due diligence and found the solution, and along the way I learned all sorts of strange things about this brilliantly cliché piece of architecture.

Augustus Pugin was not the first architect called when the Palace of Westminster burned almost to the ground in 1834; Charles Barry did the majority of the work. But Pugin was the Judd Apatow of Gothic Revival mastery, in that everything he touched seemed to please and delight his target audience. Charles Barry (who was probably known by his friends as ‘Chuck Barry’) handled the big picture, but the guts of the palace – the wallpaper, the furnishings, the snuggly little details – that was all Pugin. In 1852, Barry asked Pugin for one more touch: the clock tower.

Shortly after designing the thing, Pugin went mad. Modern biographers attribute a possible case of hyperthyroidism (and maybe the lingering effects from a bout of syphilis), but at the time no one knew what to diagnose. Hell, doctors back then didn’t even know to wash their hands – medical science was still in the dark ages. But by the summer of 1852, literally a few short months after designing the tower, Pugin couldn’t recognize his wife, he was babbling incoherently, and death was only a few months away. His final work was the unnamed clock tower at Westminster Palace.

If you want to hike up the 334 limestone stairs to take a selfie next to the famous bell, you’re out of luck if you come from my neck of the woods. British citizens can contact their MP to arrange a tour of the facility but out-of-country folk aren’t permitted. I’d feel a bit slighted at this, had I any desire to walk up 334 stairs to look at a bell. It seems to me I could just purchase a normal-size bell and hold it really close to my face for a similar experience.

The 16-ton original bell was cast in 1856 and hauled by sixteen horses through the streets of London to the palace. While it was being tested, it cracked beyond repair and a second bell was commissioned. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry cooked up a 13.5-ton replacement and sent it over. It only took two months of use for the second bell to crack, likely from the use of an excessively heavy hammer. Or maybe it was the foundry; Whitechapel was the same place where that other famously cracked bell was made, the Liberty Bell.

The bell’s crack remains to this day; they simply twisted the thing 1/8th of a rotation and used a lighter hammer. But hauling the thing up there – that’s the tale that released this topic on my fingertips so I’d best put that to bed.

The process of lifting the massive bell into place involved 18 hours of grueling labor. An 1,800-foot chain was wound over huge drums in a giant windlass. Eight men turned the windlass and excruciatingly slowly they raised the timber cradle holding the bell. The cradle was outfitted with guide wheels to slide up some restraining timbers to keep the thing from swinging back and forth.

Once the bell reached the clock chamber, it was turned upright and removed from its cradle. It was simply a matter of lugging it twenty additional feet up to the belfry and Big Ben was ready to chime. The first sonorous tones rang out on May 31, 1859.

Strung up around the headliner of the tower are four smaller bells, known as the quarter bells, and not – as I would have expected – the Little Bens. They are tuned to the key of E, specifically to the E, G#, B, and F# notes. The tune they play – which will forever be embedded in my brain as the soundtrack to my grandparents’ novelty doorbell – is known as the Westminster Quarters. There are five different permutations of those four notes in the tune, with one played at the quarter-hour, two at the half-hour, three at 45 minutes after the hour, and four on the hour (followed by Big Ben’s regal clangs, denoting which o’clock it happens to be). The tune is actually a set of variations on a portion of Handel’s Messiah.

The songwriting credit for the Westminster Quarters goes to Dr. Joseph Jowett, a professor of civil law at Cambridge, though it’s believed he had help from the music prof, Dr. John Randall. Also, it’s believed that Dr. Randall’s brilliant pupil, William Crotch (or “good ol’ Billy Crotch” as I’d like to think he was known) may have assisted. It was written for the clock tower at St. Mary the Great, the Cambridge University church, but only after it became the theme song for Big Ben (and his orchestra) did the Westminster Quarters become the standard clock-tune on grandfather clocks and home-based wall clocks all around the world.

It’s not perfectly clear why the bell came to be known as Big Ben. Some believe it was named after civil engineer Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the later stages of the rebuild at the Houses of Parliament, but a more interesting thought is that it was named after Benjamin Caunt, the one-time heavyweight boxing champion of England. It’s more likely the former, since he was active in the bell’s installation while Ben the boxer had been retired for nearly two decades at that point, but I like the boxer story more.

The Elizabeth Tower is a beautiful piece of architecture, and Big Ben’s authoritative chime truly helps to define the vibe of being in London. The tower is, however, tilting a little to the northwest – roughly 9.1 inches, actually. This is mainly due to the construction of the Jubilee Line of the London Underground in the 90’s. It has a ways to go before the tilt becomes a concern, but I’d expect to see some work being done on the place before the matter gets too out of hand.

Hopefully they don’t crack the damn bell again in the process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s