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Cleaning Big Ben

Image: Big Ben by Simon Taylor

The clock in St Stephen's Tower, Westminster, affectionately called Big Ben, began keeping time 150 years ago on May 31st 1859. Big Ben, the bell which gave its name to the tower, began to boom on the same day, according to Whitechapel Foundry. Whitechapel took over when the first bell, cast by another foundry, cracked irreparably.

In 1844, Parliament had decided that the new buildings for the Houses of Parliament, by then under construction, should incorporate a tower and clock. The commission for this work was awarded to the architect Charles Barry, who asked AWN Pugin, the creator of the Gothic Revival, to design the tower and clock face.


The Houses of Parliament - brilliant.

Image: David Iliff, Wiki, Commons License

Barry invited just one clockmaker to produce a design and quotation, but the rest of the trade objected, demanding the job be put out to competitive tender. So the Astronomer Royal, George Airy was appointed to draft a specification for the clock. One of his requirements was that
the first stroke of the hour bell should register the time, correct to within one second per day. . .
Most clockmakers considered such accuracy unattainable. . .and lobbied for a lesser specification. However, Airy was adamant that the first specification be adhered to. Due to this impasse, Parliament appointed barrister Edmund Beckett Denison as co-referee with Airy. Edmund Beckett Denison (later Sir Edmund Beckett, the first Baron Grimthorpe), was a difficult man. He was described by one writer as a
. . .zealous but unpopular, self-accredited expert on clocks, locks, bells, buildings, as well as many branches of law, Denison was one of those people who are almost impossible as colleagues, being perfectly convinced that they know more than anybody about everything - as unhappily they often do.
Denison decided to apply himself to the problem of the clock. It was 1851 before he came up with a design which could meet the exacting specification. The clock Denison designed was built by E.J. Dent & Co., and completed in 1854.

The five-and-a-half ton clockwork mechanism keeps the time accurate to the second. (On top of the clock's pendulum is a small stack of old penny coins, which are laid on or removed to alter the pendulum and keep the clock precise.)

The casting of Ben involved molten metal and horse manure (its open, fibrous structure allows air to escape) goat hair, sand and clay. This ‘loam’ was used for the bell's cope or outer cast and was built up on bricks to form the inner core mould as well. After the two moulds are oven-dried, ‘the cope is lowered over the core and sealed at the bottom, and molten metal is poured into the gap between’ (Telegraph). It took Big Ben 20 days to cool. Afterwards, delicate pieces of metal were shaved off to adjust its tone. All well and good, but Ben was about to face a monumental crisis.


Disaster stalked Big Ben and the quarter bells.

Image: Westminster Guide

The 13-and-a-half-ton bell looked good, but its first months, after a processional parade through London and slow ascent up the Tower, were problematic. The metal was intentionally brittle - to give it a hum - but the hammers installed by the baron to smite the bell were too heavy. The bell cracked. This was a disaster, which ended happily.

Ben was repaired and ever after has had a personal bong to its tone. Every quarter hour, the quarter bells chime. Bell, clock and tower have withstood tempests of ice and snow and the blast of war. Big Ben continued to boom even when the House of Commons was destroyed by German bombs, and seemed to many to signal Britain's undaunted spirit.

You can hear Big Ben here.

George Mears, the master bellfounder and owner of Whitechapel who undertook the casting, estimated £2401 for the cost, but this was offset by the metal he was able to reclaim from the first bell. The actual invoice for Big Ben was £572. He and Pugin, Airy and Barry and Baron Grimthorpe had made a fine team.

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass