Big Ben: The time machine

Credit: PjrTravel / Alamy

Big Ben, the world’s most famous clock has been under wraps for four years, its iconic bell silenced. This year, restored to its former glory, Big Ben once again shows its face

Words by Rose Shepherd

At 12.01pm on August 21, 2017, something went missing from the soundscape of London. Big Ben, The 13.7-tonne bell that had tolled the knell of passing day for 154 years, through the reigns of six monarchs, fell silent, to be heard only on Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve, as work began on the restoration of the most recognised clock tower on the planet. Since then, hundreds of specialist craftsmen and women – stonemasons, glass artists, painters, gilders and horologists – have brought their skills to the £80 million conservation project.

Big Ben
Big Ben’s new look is revealed. Credit: Chris Mouyiaris / AWL Images

The clock and tower have stood the test of time remarkably well, despite decades of wear and tear, bomb damage, snow and ice, wind and rain, the ‘pea soupers’ of Victorian times, and modern air pollution.

The effects of such pitiless conditions were keenly felt by conservation teams, working at dizzying heights on narrow gangways, when, in 2018, with the cold snap known as the ‘Beast from the East’ on the rampage, the temperature dropped to -8C, only to soar to 45C in the following year’s heatwave.

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Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. English architect and designer who championed the gothic style. Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

Originally named St Stephen’s Tower, and rechristened the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, to mark Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the edifice colloquially known as ‘Big Ben’ was largely the creation of the driven genius Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, his most iconic contribution to Charles Barry’s Palace of Westminster and its crowning glory.

Completed in 1859, standing 96 metres tall, with 334 steps from ground to belfry, and with the world’s largest and most accurate four-faced striking and chiming clock, this was to be Pugin’s last project. “I never worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry,” he wrote in February 1852 to his friend John Hardman, “for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole machinery of the clock.”

Aged just 40, Pugin was descending into madness, possibly from mercury poisoning. He would die that September, never to see his plans realised for this beacon of democracy and symbol of the Mother of Parliaments. His letter was only partially coherent. “What he meant to write, in his deluded state,” according to Rosemary Hill, author of God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain, “was that he was to design the mechanism… But what he actually wrote was the truth.”

Big Ben is pure Gothic, pure Pugin, and it is his monument. Big Ben, or ‘the Great Bell’, the largest of the tower’s five bells, was cast in bronze at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London, established in 1570, whose name resonates from Philadelphia to St Petersburg. The Whitechapel foundry cast the bells of St Clement Danes of Oranges and Lemons fame. It cast the original Liberty Bell, symbol of American Independence, and the 9/11 Bell, a gift from the City of London to the people of New York.

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Big Ben is broken up to be recast in 1858. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library 2013

The Whitechapel Great Bell was not, however, the first to be hung in Pugin’s tower. In 1856, with the building incomplete, a bell cast by John Warner & Sons of Stockton on Tees, Co. Durham, made its debut. Predicted to bong in the key of E, it required “six or eight lusty artisans” to tug at the clapper rope. “The vibration penetrates every vein in the body,” The Times reported, “it strikes every nerve, it attacks and tries every fibre in the muscle, it makes your bones rattle and your marrow creep.”

It was as well, then, that, after 11 months, the infernal bell cracked beyond repair. Its lighter replacement arrived from Whitechapel by Thames barge, crossing Westminster Bridge in a carriage drawn by six white horses, as crowds flocked to see it. Initially, it was judged to be little better than its predecessor, its song “so unearthly, sepulchral and miserable, that one would suppose it was tolling the funeral dirge of the whole human race”.

After it, too, cracked, repairs rendered it more subdued, and from November 1863 it rolled out its solemn pronouncements for five miles in all directions, until that August day in 2017 when, for Londoners, it was as if Father Time himself had fallen mute.

This is an extract of an article printed in the latest issue of BRITAIN (July/August 2022).
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