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English history

Big Ben !

Big Ben is an instantly recognisable symbol of London. But how much do you really know about this British icon?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

British icon

Did you know that the name Big Ben, strictly speaking, only designates the bell that strikes the hour from inside the tower? The tower itself was named the Clock Tower, and then renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. That said, most of us refer to the whole structure as Big Ben, probably because it trips off the tongue much more easily.

How old is Big Ben ?

The Palace of Westminster (a.k.a The Houses of Parliament) was badly damaged by a fire in 1834. The following year a Royal Commission was established to find an architect who could design a new palace in line with the surviving buildings of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall. Yes, you may remember that a time existed when projects were not just given to government cronies……

Anyway, the committee appointed a guy called Charles Barry and his collaborator, Augustus Pugin. Barry had included a clock tower in his plans, but it did not yet resemble the Big Ben we know and love today. Augustus Pugin was a Gothic revivalist and already had plans to redesign Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire, including a 100 foot tower.

Scarisbrick Hall. Remodelled by A.W. N. Pugin. c. 1837-45; altered by Edward Pugin, 1860 onwards. Near Southport, Lancashire. Photo by Rob Scarisbrick.

Pugin’s influence

Although Charles Barry was the chief architect, it was Augustin Pugin who was mainly responsible for the design of the clock tower in London. Wikipedia quotes Pugin as saying “”I never worked so hard in my life [as] for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole machinery of the clock.”[ 

Mr Barry, however, did not deign to give any credit to Augustus for his undoubted contribution to both Big Ben and the interior design of The Houses of Parliament. Pugin’s son, Edward, (who incidentally would carry out his father’s project for Scarisbrick Hall) issued a statement in 1867 after both men had died , affirming that the “true” architect had in fact been his father, and not Charles Barry.

Augustus had re-designed the clock tower to be taller and more imposing, dominating the Parliamentary skyline. He added the symbols of the four nations of the British Isles – the rose, the leek, the thistle and the shamrock, as well as the portcullis which is the symbol of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. seen below.

Sadly, Augustus died at the age of 40, and never saw the clock tower completed.

https://www.parliament.uk/contentassets/beacbf5d8ec14cdfa75c28d28cd8f463/dsc_4938_jt-min.jpg Public domain Wikipedia Commons

Did you know…?

Big Ben is known to be an extremely accurate clock and its mechanisms have been copied in many high tower clocks. It is reliable to within a few seconds a week.

Since 1859, the pendulum was controlled by a pile of pre-decimal penny coins which were added or removed as necessary to keep time-keeping punctual. In 2009 some of the pennies were replaced by 5 pound coins, specially produced for the London Olympics in 2012, and depicting, you guessed it, Big Ben.

Big Ben has stopped at various times due to heavy snow, including at New Year of 1962/3 when the New Year was chimed in nine minutes late.

The clock faces were not illuminated during some periods of World War I and the whole of World War II in order not to guide German bomber pilots. A German bomber did actually damage two of the clock dials in 1941.

Big Ben leans around 0.26 degrees to the north-west, but experts say this will not be a problem for thousands of years. ( 0.26 degrees is around one sixteenth of the tilt of the Tower of Pisa. )

A flock of starlings decided to sit on a clock hand in 1949, making it slow down by four and a half minutes. I would make a joke about a bird on the hand, but then again, maybe not…

In 2005 one of Big Ben’s clock faces stopped for a short period of time, possibly due to the high temperatures of 31.5 degrees C ( 90 degrees F). Global warming is real, people.

The London Olympics in 2012 were celebrated Big Ben chiming 30 times – it was the 30th Olympìc event.

Big Ben is currently undergoing a long period of maintenance which began in 2017 and is scheduled to finish in March 2022, athough this date currently appears to be in question. The original designs for the clock face have been sourced and the details on the clock face will be repainted to their orginal Prussian blue, replacing the black that we have always seen before, which was actually used to disguise pollution. The heraldic shields of each nation will be restored to their original colours, along with the roof and stonework.

A vindication of Augustus Pugin? I like to think so.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a6/Big_Ben_Clock_Face.jpg/1024px-Big_Ben_Clock_Face.jpg

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

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