THE HISTORY OF BIG BEN

The fireThe Clock TowerThe illustrations on this page were created by students at St. George's Primary School in Camberwell, London, as part of our "Happy Birthday, Big Ben!" project. These illustrations were previously published in a booklet about the history of Big Ben.

On 16th October 1834, the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a fire. A HUGE fire. Londoners came out to watch it, and legend has it, Charles Barry (whom we’ll meet in a moment) was passing by in a coach and stopped to watch for a while.

There were so many spectators, they actually hampered the firemen’s efforts to douse the flames.

When the flames were put out, there wasn’t much left. Only Westminster Hall. Parliament had nowhere to meet and they had to cancel their session.

In November 1835, 13 months later, they set up a committee to re-build and they held a competition for designs.

More than 400 designs were submitted by more than 90 architects.

In the end, the committee chose the design of Charles Barry, but here's a little secret: His original design did NOT include a clock tower! They asked him to revise it and to add a clock tower, of course with a clock inside!

Working with his trusty (but somewhat highly strung) assistant, Augustus Welby Pugin, Charles Barry added a clock tower to his design, along with four faces, and really big bells!

But Charles Barry, quite rightly, asserted that HE was an architect, not a clockmaker. So he asked Benjamin Lous Vuillamy, clockmaker to the Queen, to design a clock.

By this time, it was 1841, so you can’t blame Charlie for wanting to get on with his project. However….ALL the expert clockmakers across Britain were upset that he had asked Benjamin Louis Vuillamy to design the clock, without so much as an open competition.

One clockmaker, Edward Dent, wrote to George Airy, Astonomer Royal, asking him to recommend him for the job. Of course, George Airy did so, and, as a result, the committee decided that George Airy should write up a list of requirements for the Great Clock. They asked him to choose the design and the clockmaker to boot!

George Airy was really excited about his job, and he wrote up a list of requirements that had never been seen before. It was a long list, but the most important requirement was this:

"The Great Clock should be so accurate that the first strike for each hour shall be accurate to within ONE second of time."

Whew! Nobody had EVER required a clock to be that accurate. Much less a clock in a CLOCK TOWER, with FOUR HUGE FACES, and such LARGE HANDS!

The expert clockmakers stopped grumbling and started whinging. They felt George Airy's specification was IMPOSSIBLE! They thought it could never be done.

One man thought it was worth a try. His name was Edmund Beckett Denison (who later became Lord Grimthorpe). He was a cantankerous sort of fellow – a persistent, single-minded kind of chap who didn't take "no" for an answer.

Here’s my favourite part of the story: Edmund Beckett Denison wasn't even a clockmaker! He was a lawyer! Clockmaking was his HOBBY.

So here’s this AMATEUR (albeit a very intelligent amateur), telling all the EXPERTS, "Yes, it can be done."

Edmund Beckett Denison set his mind to the task. Perhaps CANTANKEROUSNESS has its benefits.

He worked with Edward Dent, the clockmaker, to design the clock which would become the Great Clock in the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster.

The key to the Great Clock of Westminster is the ESCAPEMENT. In fact the key to ANY turret clock is the ESCAPEMENT. The ESCAPEMENT is the part which regulates the going train of the clock, and allows the energy to escape to the pendulum. Without an ESCAPEMENT, a wound clock would unwind uncontrollably. In this case, Edmund Beckett Denison designed a "double three-legged gravity escapement." The escapement works with the pendulum; each swing of the pendulum opens one of the gravity arms, which in turn regulates the GOING TRAIN.

Well, all that time, while the clockmakers were grumbling and then whinging and then jealously watching Edmund Denison and Edward Dent achieve the impossible, the clocktower had been under construction.

And the Illustrated London News had been following the story like stickiness on marmalade:

"The history of this already famed Clock dates as far back as 1844.... The escapement used by Mr. Denison is a remontoir, or gravity escapement, being more independent of the causes of vibration for the position this clock will occupy."

(You can read the WHOLE STORY as reported by the Illustrated London News on the page called BIG BEN's STORY.)

Of course, the Great Clock needed bells. Big bells. One bell for the hour, plus four bells to chime the quarter hours. They wanted the bells to chime a tune based on an aria from Handel’s Messiah. It's the famous "Westminster Chime" that you hear just before Big Ben strikes the hour.

So they asked foundries to submit a cost for casting all those bells, and Warners of Cripplegate won the contract.

The first bell cracks!They cast all five bells. The big one was cast on 6th August 1856, in Stockton-on-Tees. It was transported to London on a steamship, because the bell was too big for the railway. It came up the River Thames on a barge, and then was loaded onto a carriage drawn by 16 white horses and brought across Westminster Bridge.

It must have been quite a sight – all those horses! Wouldn't you HATE to have to clean up after that!

The clock tower wasn’t quite finished, so they hung the massive bell in the yard and every so often, they’d hit it with a hammer to test it.

The Big Bell was SUPPOSED to be called "Victoria", after the Queen, but Londoners being Londoners, they nicknamed it "Big
Ben" and the name stuck.

There are two theories who “Ben” was. One was Benjamin Caunt, a bareknuckle boxer, and the other was Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the Commissioner of Works during the construction of the new Palace of Westminster.

Now, where were we? Of course, we were hitting the bell with a hammer to test it.

Wouldn’t you know it? On 17th October 1857, the bell cracked!

You can imagine the controversy, with Edmund Beckett Denison pointing his cantankerous finger at Warners and Warners pointing their grimy fingers at the guy who held the hammer and the Illustrated London News pointing their journalistic fingers at EVERYBODY.

Big Ben is deliveredThey broke up the bell – smashed it into a lot of tiny pieces – and hauled them over to Whitechapel Bell Foundry where, on 10th April 1858, they cast a new Big Ben. A bit smaller this time, a mere 13 and a half tons, it took the second Big Ben TWO weeks to cool down! They tuned him and finished him and when he was ready, they put him on a cart and hauled him back to Westminster. Londoners cheered him all along the way.

Guess what! The clock tower was STILL NOT FINISHED. And when they did finish, they discovered that Big Ben was too big to fit up the shaft into the belfry. The bell is wider than it is tall. What a mess!

Fortunately, someone figured out that they could turn him on his side, put him in a cradle and pull him by rope up to the belfry. It took a team of men THIRTY hours to get that job done.

With all the bells in place, they installed the Great Clock, and it started working in May 1859. And on 11th July 1859, Big Ben chimed the hour for the first time. At last!

But our story does not end there. On 1st October 1859, disaster struck! Big Ben was cracked by the hammer strike, and they couldn't move him out of the belfry. After all, the Great Clock had been installed below the belfry. So to remove Big Ben, they would have had to remove the Great Clock and ALL the mechanisms.

So Big Ben was silent for a number of months while the arguments ensued. Yet again, there was A LOT of finger pointing and blaming each other. Edmund Beckett Denison thought that Whitechapel Bell Foundry had cast an inferior bell, and Whitechapel Bell Foundry thought that Edmund Beckett Denison had designed a hammer that was too large and well, there was A LOT of finger pointing.

Ultimately, George Airy came up with a solution: Turn Big Ben a quarter turn, so that the hammer will strike a different spot. And that's just what they did - turned Big Ben so that the hammer strikes a different spot. Even today, when you visit the belfry, you can see the big crack in Big Ben. We think it adds to his charm!

Our story does not have an ending, because Big Ben and the Great Clock are hard at work every single day. Even now!

They’ve marked time throughout the reigns of 6 monarchs, the tenure of 25 prime ministers and the visits of countless tourists who show up at Westminster just to admire Augustus Pugin’s fantastic decorations and to hear Big Ben chime the hour.

Download a copy of our booklet "Happy Birthday, Big Ben!"

Big Ben Booklet