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  • Writer's pictureJoel Robinson

Big Ben - The Elizabeth Tower

What is Big Ben?


Big Ben is one of the phrases most associated with London, but most people visiting the city are unaware that they will never actually see Big Ben, for it is not the name of the world famous clock tower they imagine, but the bell inside the Tower. Its history can be traced back to 1841, when a devastating fire engulfed the Palace of Westminster, which left the medieval palace a wreckage. From the embers, Parliament was rebuilt in a grandiose Neo-gothic style, incorporating the surviving remnants of the old building but adding new towers at either end. The chief architect, Charles Barry, collaborated with engineer Augustus Pugin to design a medieval clock tower that would adorn the rebuilt Palace, officially called the Great Clock of Westminster. In 1856 the tower’s bell was cast in Stockton-on-tees but was cracked during testing, so a second bell was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and installed in the tower, first chiming on 11 July 1859. Initially, called the "Hour Bell", it quickly became known by the nickname "Big Ben". The reason is debated, but most now believe it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw its installation.


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Who made Big Ben?


The clock itself was designed by Edmund Beckett Denison, an amateur horologist, who collaborated with George Airy, the astronomer royal, and Edward Dent, a clockmaker. The clock is famous for its unerring accuracy, thanks to a genius mechanism called the double three-legged gravity escapement, which ensures that the pendulum is unaffected by any external factors such as wind, temperature, or pressure. The clock has four faces, each with a diameter of 7 metres, and each face is made of 312 individual pieces of glass. The hour and minute hands are 2.7 and 4.3 metres long, respectively. The clock strikes the hour with the sound of the Big Ben bell, followed by a melody of four smaller bells, which play the Westminster Quarters, a nod to Handel's Messiah. The chimes of Big Ben have been broadcast by the BBC since 1924, and remain a potent symbol of London and Britain, used to mark important occasions, such as the end of the World Wars, Remembrance Sunday and the coronation of a new monarch.


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Was Big Ben bombed in WWII?


During the Second World War, the clock tower was damaged by several aerial bombing raids, but remained standing, cementing its reputation as a symbol of British fortitude. However, to prevent enemy pilots from using the clock tower to guide their attacks, the clock faces were temporarily blacked out. The sound of Big Ben tolling was broadcast over the airways to France during the Nazi occupation to ensure they knew they were not alone.


Restoration work has taken place at regular intervals, ensuring its structural integrity, most recently between 2017 and 2021 when the bell was removed, and the tower was covered by scaffolding, partly repairing damage from the Second World War, as well as modernising the building and removing asbestos and lead paint. In total the restoration work is estimated to have cost more than £80 million.


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Why is 'Big Ben' called the Elizabeth Tower?


In 2012 the clock tower was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, and both the tower and the bell remain ever present as symbols of Britain.


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Can I visit Big Ben?


There are two ways to visit Big Ben, you can see it from the outside on our Royal Westminster Tour, or if you want to go inside the see the iconic bell up close, you can book a tour here. Tickets must be purchased in advance, and they usually release tickets on a monthly basis.

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