Millions of people flock to London to see the historic sites every year, and Big Ben typically tops peoples’ must-see lists. But did you know that few folks have their facts straight about the iconic landmark?
Big Ben building basics
On October 16, 1834, a fire raged through the Palace of Westminster. Sparked by the burning of tally sticks no longer needed by the Exchequer, the inferno destroyed both Houses of Parliament. But thanks to firefighting efforts and a numinous change of wind direction, Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, Undercroft Chapel, the Cloisters, and Chapter House of St Stephen’s all escaped ruin.
After the fire, King William IV tried to offload Buckingham Palace, which he loathed, by offering it up to the parliamentarians. But they rejected the offer, and workers started rebuilding Westminster.
Construction started on the tower that houses Big Ben in 1843.
The bell is the thing
Here’s a nugget of London trivia: Big Ben is not the name of the famous clock nor the tower it calls home. Instead, Big Ben is the name of the giant bell inside the structure. A massive instrument, it weighs 13.7 tonnes. The current bell isn’t the original, which cracked. But it is old, having been cast in 1858.
Officially, the instrument’s name is the Great Bell.
How did Big Ben get its name?
Believe it or not, nobody is 100 percent certain how Big Ben got its name. Some people think its appellation honors Sir Benjamin Hall, the engineer responsible for managing the first bell’s installation. Other folks believe Benjamin Caunt, an old-timey heavyweight boxer, is its namesake.
So what’s the clock’s name, then?
The clock to which Big Ben is attached doesn’t have a formal name. However, the tower that the clock tops is called Elizabeth Tower. For hundreds of years, it was named St. Stephen’s Tower, but authorities changed it in 2012 as an homage to the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
Elizabeth Tower leans like Pisa
Pisa’s tower, in Italy, is probably the world’s most famous leaning building. But did you know that the Big Ben tower also slants? Its incline isn’t as noticeable as Pisa’s; in fact, it’s only about 0.04 degrees. But engineers and architects tend to notice it right away.
Big Ben’s multiyear facelift
Between 2017 and 2021, restoration workers and artisans spent their days sprucing up Big Ben. Their job was to reinforce eroding portions and restore fading artistic features.
Big Ben’s chime schedule and silencing timeline
In normal times, the Great Bell rings every hour on the note of E. Additionally, quarter bells chime every 15 minutes.
However, there have been several times throughout history when Big Ben went silent.
First Silencing: Back in the 19th century, a few short years after Big Ben made its debut, it cracked. The damage led to four years of silence.
Second Silencing: The next time Big Ben went silent was between 1939 and 1940, the first two years of World War II. Military authorities worried that the chime might help enemy attacks.
Third Silencing: Big Ben once again went silent in 1976 after a small break. It was out of commission for about nine months.
Fourth Silencing: Repairs once again quieted Big Ben between 1983 and 1985.
Fifth Silencing: In 2007, the old chiming bell in Elizabeth Tower went silent on account of refurbishment efforts.
Sixth Silencing: In 2017, British authorities announced that Big Ben would go silent for a long four years due to needed updates. Londoners bemoaned the news and groused that four years was way too long to quiet the iconic clock. Nevertheless, Big Ben shut down. However, as a compromise, on special occasions, caretakers let the chimes peal.