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40 amazing facts about Big Ben – and the Elizabeth Tower

Big Ben Elizabeth Tower
Rarely seen but recognised by all, Big Ben stands within the Elizabeth Tower Credit: Fotolia

London will become a touch quieter this year, with the inimitable chime of Big Ben set to be silenced by extended renovation works. In tribute to the capital’s enduring and beloved icon, here are 40 fascinating facts about Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower.

1. Tourists and locals alike often say “Big Ben” when referring to the landmark tower at the Houses of Parliament. That's wrong. Formerly known as the Clock Tower, the structure was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. It is the bell within that is correctly referred to as Big Ben.

2. It is believed Big Ben was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner for Works, whose name is inscribed on the bell. Others attest that the bell was named after Ben Caunt, a champion heavyweight boxer.

The Elizabeth Tower and Houses of Parliament Credit: Fotolia

3. Warners of Norton near Stockton-on-Tees cast a bell for the tower in August 1856.

4. The bell was originally meant to be called Royal Victoria.

5. A great sense of ceremony surrounded its arrival in London. It was brought down the Thames by barge and then taken across Westminster Bridge by a carriage drawn by 16 white horses.

A sounding experiment is carried out in December 1856 Credit: Getty

6. That bell cracked during testing in October 1857. A second replacement bell was cast by George Mears at London’s Whitechapel Foundry in April 1858.

7. That bell broke too. A crack developed in 1859 but the problem was solved when the bell was turned a quarter clockwise and chimed with a lighter hammer.

8. Operating from the same Whitechapel Road premises since 1738, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is sadly to cease trading from May 2017.

Moulders at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London Credit: Telegraph

9. Big Ben chimed for the first time on July 11, 1859 but it would not ring for long. That September, a crack caused it to fall silent for four years. It has since been quietened on other occasions. For seven weeks in 2007 its chimes were snuffed out so repairs could be made. It also fell silent during nine months of repairs in 1976.

10. The BBC first broadcast Big Ben’s chimes to the country during a New Year’s Eve radio broadcast in 1923.

11. The bell’s strikes were broadcast internationally for the first time in 1932, during King George V’s Christmas broadcast on the Empire Service (later the World Service).

The illustrated News of the World on December 4, 1858 showed Big Ben in situ Credit: Getty

12. Big Ben and its chimes illustrate the difference between the speed of light and sound. Stand by the base of the Elizabeth Tower and you’ll hear the bell’s chimes about one-sixth of a second after the bell is struck. Those listening to a live transmission of the bell by radio, however, will hear the bells before you.

13. In 1940 the Silent Minute was introduced. Before the 9pm BBC radio news was broadcast each night, members of the public were encouraged to dedicate silent contemplation and prayer to those on the battlefields, for the 60 seconds that Big Ben would chime.

14. The bell is due to again fall silent. Commencing in 2017, extensive repair, conservation and refurbishment works are scheduled to last three years and for a period of several months over this time the clock mechanism will need to be stopped. This will mean an extended period without any striking, chiming or tolling, with exceptions being made for important events such as London’s New Year’s Eve celebrations and Remembrance Day.

Big Ben will lose its chime during repair work Big Ben will lose its chime during repair work
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15. Opportunities to admire the Elizabeth Tower during that period will be diminished too. The clock dials will be covered at certain points during the renovation works (though they will be covered consecutively rather than concurrently) and scaffolding will be visible around the tower for the entire three-year duration.

16. The Elizabeth Tower stands 315ft (96 metres) tall and holds 11 floors.

17. Its foundation stone was laid on September 28, 1843 and its foundations were dug 10ft (3 metres) deep.

Courageous window cleaners set about getting the clock face sparkling Credit: Getty

18. Its construction required 850 cubic metres of stone and 2,600 cubic metres of bricks, with building materials coming from Anston in Yorkshire; Caen in France; and Clipsham in Rutland (for restoration work that was carried out between 1983 and 1985).

19. Its construction fell five years behind schedule, completing in 1859.

20. The 150th anniversary of the Elizabeth Tower, the Great Clock and Big Ben was celebrated in 2009. So far, Big Ben has rung through the reigns of six monarchs.

21. Big Ben weighs 13.7 tonnes, stands 7.2ft (2.2 metres) tall and has a diameter of 8.9ft (2.7 metres). The hammer weighs 200kg.

Poppies and war poems light up Big Ben on Rememberance Day Poppies and war poems light up Big Ben on Rememberance Day
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22. The musical note it makes when struck is E.

23. There are four smaller bells beneath Big Ben that ring on the ‘quarter’ hours. They strike the notes G sharp, F sharp, E and B.

24. Currently ascending the Elizabeth Tower to see Big Ben necessitates walking up 334 steps to the belfry (and a total of 399 to the lantern or Ayrton Light above it). As part of the renovation works, a lift will be installed in one of the Tower’s internal shafts.

Big Ben renovation work being carried out in 2006 Credit: Getty

25. The renovation work will also provide the tower with its first toilet.

26. The tower leans. It has an inclination of about 1/250 (0.04 degrees) – just about noticeable to passersby who take the time to study its exterior closely.

27. Until December 2016 it was possible for UK residents to join free tours of the Elizabeth Tower, culminating with a visit to Big Ben. These tours have been suspended for the duration of the works and should recommence in 2020.

Big Ben gets a deep clean Big Ben gets a deep clean
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28. Each clock face is 23ft (seven metres) in diameter and composed of around 312 sections of opal glass. An hour hand is 9.2ft (2.8m) in length; a minute hand is 14ft (4.3m).

29. Each clock dial is illuminated by 28 energy-efficient bulbs at 85 watts each; each bulb has a lifetime of 60,000 hours.

30. You can tell when parliament is in session by looking at the clock face. Set above it, the Ayrton Light is illuminated during that time.

Bulbs behind the clock face

31. The latin words under the clockface read Domine Salvam Fac Reginam Nostram Victoriam Primam, which means "O Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria the First"

32. From 1939 to April 1945, the clock dials were unlit in compliance with wartime blackout rules.

33. On the night of May 10, 1941 a German aircraft released a bomb that hit the top of the clock tower. Ornamental ironwork and stonework at the structure’s piece was destroyed but attempts to destroy it completely were thankfully unsuccessful.

34. The clock itself is accurate to within one second.

Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower are admired by a global audience every New Year's Eve Credit: Getty

35. The clock was designed by Edmund Beckett Denison and Edward Dent. Surprisingly, Beckett Denison trained as a lawyer rather than as a clockmaker.

36. The Elizabeth Tower is one of London’s most enduringly famous film and television stars. It has featured in the likes of 28 Days Later, V for Vendetta, Lost, Doctor Who, Thunderball and Mary Poppins.

37. The idiom of putting a penny on, with the meaning of slowing down, sprang from the method of fine-tuning the clock’s pendulum.

A Keeper of the Clock admires London from his distinctive eyrie Credit: Getty

38. Adding or subtracting old penny coins from a pile on the pendulum has the effect of minutely altering the rate at which the pendulum swings. A single penny will change the clock’s speed by two fifths of one second per day.

39. The clock face’s time has been altered in other ways. In 1944, a flock of starlings rested on one of the hands and were sufficiently heavy in weight to slow the time-keeping mechanism. On New Year’s Eve 1962, meanwhile, heavy snow and ice caused Big Ben to chime in the New Year 10 minutes late.

40. Tourists who want to admire the clock tower close up might need to make do with Little Ben in Victoria. A 20ft (6m) metal replica of the Elizabeth Tower, it features a working clock but is a sombre black rather than the original’s golden hue.

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