London Guide : Big Ben and It's Clock Tower

Big Ben and it's clock tower are situated at the Palace of Westminster, London's Houses of Parliament.Big Ben and it's clock Tower are situated along the banks of the River Thames.

The great bell known as Big Ben, and its famous clock tower in the city of London, are one of the most prominent landmarks in the world, with the chime of the bell instantly recognised by any Briton.

Today it stands on the site of the United Kindom's Houses of Parliament and House of Lord's and is officially called the Palace of Westminster.

But, for all it's distinction, few Britons and even less of our foreign friends, know of it's history and subsequent developement into Britain's most cherished monument.


Twas during a dark and stormy night of the Winter of 785, that a hooded stranger bade a ferryman, ' take me across the river to the Chapel of King Serbert on Thorney Island'.

In the settlement of Londinium, the River Tamys ran fast and cold that night, and the Island of Thorney was a quagmire of dangerous marsh and thorn bush.

It was the last place that ferryman Erdicus wanted to go on a night such as that, but go he did,along with his mysterious passenger.

He followed the stranger into the portals of the tiny and isolated chapel there, and as they did so, candles sprang into flame and a chorus of angels burst into song in praise of St Peter.

The terrified Erdicus was soon to discover that his eminent fare of that night, was non other than St Peter the Apostle him self.

Because of the visitation of that night, the monks of Thorney Island were to see their tiny chapel turn into a place of pilgrimage, bringing prosperity to the once desolate and awful place.

In 960 a great Abbey dedicated to St Peter had been built on the site of the lowly chapel, with an order of Benedictine monks santioned to watch over it.

In the 11th century, following many Viking raids in the area, it was here that Danish Viking, King Canute famously commanded the great tidal River Thames to obey him.

The river, quite oblivious to it's regal commander, held true to it's course, ignoring the ramblings of the vain royal.


 The island by now was a place of cultivated fields and meadow blooms, so beautiful in appearance that it caught the eye of King Edward the Confessor, who chose the island to build his great Palace of Westminster, incorporating the Abbey of the great apostle who had brought so much prosperity to the site.

Edward's successor, William the Conqueror, began to build an even grander palace than his predecessor, bringing unto the site fine building materials from all over the land and the continent of Europe.

There was no permanent seat of government at this time, the government was located where ever the King happened to be in residence.

So it was William's son Rufus, that began to turn the luxurious palace into ' a fitting place for the greatest in the lande, to govern the greatest lande '.

He started work on the Great Hall ( the room that is now the House of Commons, seat of the British government, that houses the ' Bench ' and' Speakers Throne ' ) in 1097, resulting in the largest and grandest hall in the then, known world.

The Palace then went from just being a royal residence, to the land's seat of government, and with the bringing of all the King's jewels, treasure, ancient transcripts and documents from it's previous home in Winchester, the location of the London Vault and Treasury.

The Palace had become the most important building in the land.


During the early evening of a windy October the 16th,1834, a young fire officer was enjoying a cup of sweet tea in his warm office, whilst reading an article in his favourite ' Monthly ' magazine, by eminent young writer Charles Dickens.

At his feet lay Chance, a mongrel dog with a glossy black coat who was keen of nose and even keener of intellect.

Chance reared his glossy, black head and wrinkled his wet nose. His heckles now risen, he gave a long, low resonating growl.

Since puppyhood, Chance had ridden with the firefighters of London, a fearless mascot upon their bright red fire engine.

Chance knew fire when he smelled it, and knew too, that somewhere here abouts, there was fire this night.

And fire there was, the most spectacular fire to hit the nation's capital since the carnage of that fateful night in Pudding Lane in 1666.

But, unlike the orange glow that lit up the sky above London 200 years previously, this time the orange glow came from the Palace of Westminser.

The Palace, The Houses of Parliament and the House of Lords, were all on fire, and before the end of that night, the people of London would witness hundreds of years of their history go up in flames.

Several people during that day had witnessed a smell consistent with smouldering wood, but it was left unchecked until the restless actions of that instinctive hound.

Rumours abounded for weeks afterwards as to what could have started such a fire.

From rumours of Irish terrorists, to activists intent on overthrowing the government, to newly released prisoners seeking revenge on judicious Lords, the capital was awash with them.

However, the real cause was nothing so glamorous, as the fire had been started by an overheated boiler setting light to a stack of tally sticks in the boiler room above the House of Lords.

Tally sticks were small slithers of wood used as an aid to accountancy, hence the word tally as another meaning for the word total.

One week after the blaze, a competition had been arranged for restructure of the new Palace and Parliament buildings.

Two stipulations had to be adherred to, 1) That the architect be an amatuer, so as not to cause any professional jealousies, and 2) that the building be restructured in it's former Gothic / Elisabethan style.

Miraculously the Great Hall had remained largely intact, save for the destruction of it's roof, leading town planners to indulge in bringing back the building to it's former glory.

The overall winner of this competition was a little known architect of the day, Charles Barry, who presented his plans for a complete restructure of the old building, complete with 3 new towers.

A church like steeple that would rise from the centre of the building, a massive square turret like tower called the Victria Tower at the south side of the building, and a clock tower on the north side of the building.

This clock tower, simply known as The Clock Tower, would go on to be the most instantly recognisable landmark in the world.




The first clock tower at the Palace was built in 1365 by Henry Yevele, builder of Westminster Hall.

It had been built with Yorkshire Stone that had reacted badly to the poisonous air of middle ages London, yielding it quite unsafe by builder Christopher Wren, who had it pulled down in 1698, after an unsuccessful attempt at repairing the tower's crumbling stone work.

It's original bell, Great Tom, had tolled the hour every day for over three hundred years, when it was removed and installed into St Paul's Cathedral, where it remains to this day, and is used only on the rare occasion that Big Ben is unable to chime.

Charles Barry had to consider certain aspects of the new tower before work could begin in 1844.It had to be a tower large enough to house what would be the world's largest bell and hammer, inside, and the world's largest clockface, to all four sides of the tower on the outside, as well as housing a prison on it's groundfloor. 


                                                                                         Charles Barry.

The prison was used for imprisonment of members of parliament that did not conform to policy strategy, something that was commonplace in those days.

The prison room still exists today, as a rest room, and is still officially a prison of Her Majesties Prison Service.

During the tower's 14 year construction, local residents and tourists were rendered in awe as the new tower took form and rose above the remainder of the building work, as if by magic, as it's exterior walls showed no scaffolding.

The tower was built from the inside, using great platforms worked by steam pistons, that rose up as the tower grew.

This was considered an engineering and construction feat of massive proportions for it's day.

It was this pulley / platform system that was instrumental in the raising of the mighty 16 ton bell that was first used in the new tower.Unfortunately this bell cracked and had to be replaced.

Unlike church bells, the great Westminster bell does not chime by means of a clapper inside, but by the use of a large hammer striking upon it's outer shell.It is thought that this huge hammer had been too heavy, causing a 4 foot crack to appear down one side of the bell.

Another bell was caste by the Mears Foundry in the Whitechapel area of London, from the broken up pieces of this previous one.

This bell had been made too large for the pulley / platform mechanism to lift it, which meant the great bell, weighing 13 tons had to be lifted by hand winch.It took 8 men 36 hours to raise the mammoth bell, before it was able to be fitted into it's place in the tower belfry by means of two massive iron girders.

However all was still not well, within a few short months, this bell also cracked, even though the mighty hammer had been reduced to a mere 4 hundredweight.

This time after enumerable complaints had been made about the reckless making of the bell, workmen solved the problem of the crack, by giving the bell a quarter turn and cuttting out a small part of it's frame, to retune it.

This seemed to do the job, as still today Big Ben chimes out all over London town, complete with crack.

It is beleived the bell took it's name from a prize fighter of the day, a Benjamin Caunt. Although no one really knows for sure, and no one today really cares who it was named after, especially as the name Big Ben is wrongly attributed to the tower more times than to the bell. 

                                                                          One of the massive four dials of the Clock Tower.


                                                                                        Cleaning of the clockface in 2007.

The great clock of Westminster, constructed in it's day to be the biggest clockface in the world, was designed by horologist Edmund Becket Dennison.

The clocks four dials are 23 feet in diameter and each roman numeral is two feet long.

Each minute hand is 14 feet long and each hour hand 9 feet long.

Today the clock face is the 17th largest in the world and the world's largest chiming clock face.

When the tower was first constructed the vast face was lit at night by gas lamp, which has now been replaced by electricity.

The clocks mechanism weighs five tons, with 2 1/2 ton weights, that are electronically wound, which are attached to massive spindles that are joined to the centre of the back of each clock face.

The north and west facing dials are heated in the winter months to keep the hands from freezing, or being clogged up by snow.

The entire project of restructuring the Palace and Houses of Parliament took 25 years to complete at a cost of over two million pounds.

It's original architect Sir Charles Barry never lived to see the completion of his work, which was taken over by his son Edward.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1860, situated just over the road from the Palace, which is honoroured by a statue of him in the foyer of the Palace.


1916 - 1918. The bell was silenced and the clockface blacked out during the last two years of W.W.1.

5 August 1976.The speed regulator of the chiming mechanism broke, causing shut down of the clock for 26 days.

27 May 2005.A heatwave caused the clock to stop for 90 minutes.

29 October 2005. The clock was stopped for 33 hours to allow the clock to have it's first major overhaul in 130 years.

11 August 2007. The clock was stopped for 6 weeks to allow for maintenance on bell hammer and clock drive train, and for specialist cleaning of the clock face.


                                                                           Aeriel view of the Palace of Westminster.

                                                                                     © D.B.Bellamy.February.2010.

                                                                      More articles about London by the same author.







Add a comment

0 answers +0 votes
Post comment Cancel
lucia anna
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Apr 1, 2011
M 5446
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Apr 17, 2010
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Feb 25, 2010
Erik Van Tongerloo
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Feb 25, 2010
Johnny Dod
This comment has 0 votes  by
Posted on Feb 24, 2010