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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Big Ben in London

What is Big Ben?

Big Ben is the nickname for the Queen Elizabeth Tower, a striking 19th-century clock tower which, when constructed, was the most reliable four-faced timepiece in the world.

Big Ben Tower

Big Ben History

While we fondly use the name ‘Big Ben’ to refer to the entire clock tower, strictly it denotes only the largest of its five bells, The Great Bell. Some think the name comes from Sir Benjamin Hall, the Welsh civil engineer and politician who oversaw its installation in 1858.

Others are confident it recalls the moniker for the popular heavyweight bare-knuckle boxing champion Benjamin Caunt. No one really knows, but it’s a nod to the way that Britons, rich or poor, developed an affinity with this 96-metre-high four-faced clock.

Thanks in part to its friendly name, Big Ben has become one of the most enduring icons of Britain and British democracy around the world. But what is it that draws us to this seemingly simple clocktower?

Sir Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, Big Ben’s ambitious and visionary designer, wanted to create something boldly original. This could only be achieved, he believed, by marrying the old with the new. To see the old, look closely at the row of six shields above each of the four dials, all emblazoned with the cross of Saint George, the patron saint of England.

Around them, carved in South Yorkshire Anston stone, are the floral symbols of the constituent parts of the family of nations that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the rose for England, the thistle for Scotland, the shamrock for Ireland (or Northern Ireland from 1921), and the leek for Wales.

Below each dial is a Latin inscription in gilded letters, which means: ‘O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First’. Beyond the 1,296 pieces of opal glass and the cast-iron spire is a simple message: here in stone is the supposed constancy of the political realm: nations, parliament, and monarchy.

To see the new, listen to the E-natural of The Great Bell and watch the 4.3-metre-long minute hands turn. At 13.7 tonnes ‘Big Ben’ was the largest bell in Britain when installed, requiring thirty hours to winch it into place.

Westminster and Big Ben

The clock, still wound by hand three times a week, is accurate to a second, making it the most reliable four-faced clock in the world at its construction. Astrological clocks tried to interpret the movements of heavenly bodies; artistic motifs on traditional clocks remind us of our mortality. Big Ben, similarly, was designed as more than just a timepiece: it was a proclamation of Victorian Britain.

Big Ben was Pugin’s last work, which he completed through a fog of nightmares just before he suffered from a mental breakdown. He was admitted to Bedlam psychiatric hospital and died at the age of 40 in 1852. A quintessential Victorian artist, he had a tumultuous and ephemeral life, but his contributions to the Gothic Revival outlived him. Architecture, in his eyes, was not just artisan construction, it was romantic art with a moral force. He hankered back to the medieval Gothic, not only because it felt like a true English aesthetic, but also because he sought the era’s ostensibly coherent, organic Christian society.

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