Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell of the clock at the north
end of the Palace of
Westminster in London and is usually extended
to refer to both the clock and the clock tower. The official
name of the tower in which
Big Ben is located was originally the Clock
Tower, but it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to mark the Diamond
Jubilee of Elizabeth II.
The tower was designed by
Augustus Pugin in a neo-gothic style. When
completed in 1859, it was, says horologist Ian Westworth, "the prince
of timekeepers: the biggest, most accurate four-faced striking and
chiming clock in the world". It stands 315 feet (96 m) tall,
and the climb from ground level to the belfry is 334 steps. Its base
is square, measuring 39 feet (12 m) on each side. Dials of the
clock are 23 feet (7.0 m) in diameter. On 31 May 2009,
celebrations were held to mark the tower's 150th anniversary.
Big Ben is the largest of five bells and weighs 13 1⁄2 long
tons (13.7 tonnes; 15.1 short tons). It was the largest bell in the
United Kingdom for 23 years. The origin of the bell's nickname is open
to question; it may be named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw its
installation, or heavyweight boxing champion Benjamin Caunt. Four
quarter bells chime at 15, 30 and 45 minutes past the hour and just
Big Ben tolls on the hour. The clock uses its original
Victorian mechanism, but an electric motor can be used as a backup.
A British cultural icon, recognised all over the world, the tower is
one of the most prominent symbols of the United Kingdom and
parliamentary democracy, and it is often used in the establishing
shot of films set in London. The clock tower has been part of a
Grade I listed building
Grade I listed building since 1970 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site
On 21 August 2017, a four-year schedule of renovation works began on
the tower, which are to include the addition of a lift. There are also
plans to re-glaze and repaint the clock dials. With a few exceptions,
New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve and Remembrance Sunday, the bells are to be
silent until the work has been completed in the 2020s.
2.3 Malfunctions, breakdowns, and other incidents
2.3.1 20th century
2.3.2 21st century
3.1 Great Bell
5 Cultural significance
6 2017 renovation
7 See also
9 External links
Audio description of the tower by Gary O'Donoghue
Elizabeth Tower, previously called the Clock Tower but more popularly
known as Big Ben, was raised as a part of Charles Barry's design
for a new palace, after the old Palace of
Westminster was largely
destroyed by fire on the night of 16 October 1834. The new
parliament was built in a neo-gothic style. Although Barry was the
chief architect of the palace, he turned to
Augustus Pugin for the
design of the clock tower, which resembles earlier Pugin designs,
including one for
Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire. The design for the
tower was Pugin's last design before his final descent into madness
and death, and Pugin himself wrote, at the time of Barry's last visit
to him to collect the drawings: "I never worked so hard in my life for
Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell
tower & it is beautiful."
The tower is designed in Pugin's celebrated
Gothic Revival style, and
is 315 feet (96.0 m) high. The bottom 200 feet (61.0 m)
of the tower's structure consists of brickwork with sand-coloured
Anston limestone cladding. The remainder of the tower's height is a
framed spire of cast iron. The tower is founded on a 50 feet
(15.2 m) square raft, made of 10 feet (3.0 m) thick
concrete, at a depth of 13 feet (4.0 m) below ground level. The
four clock dials are 180 feet (54.9 m) above ground. The interior
volume of the tower is 164,200 cubic feet (4,650 cubic metres).
The Palace of Westminster,
Big Ben and
Despite being one of the world's most famous tourist attractions, the
interior of the tower is not open to overseas visitors, though United
Kingdom residents were able to arrange tours (well in advance) through
their Member of Parliament before the current repair works.
However, the tower currently has no lift, though one is being
installed, so those escorted had to climb the 334 limestone stairs to
Due to changes in ground conditions since construction, the tower
leans slightly to the north-west, by roughly 230 millimetres
(9.1 in) over 55 m height, giving an inclination of approximately
1/240. This includes a planned maximum of 22 mm increased tilt
due to tunnelling for the
Jubilee line extension. It leans by
about 500 millimetres (20 in) at the finial. Experts believe the
tower's lean will not be a problem for another 4,000 to 10,000
years. Due to thermal effects it oscillates annually by a few
millimetres east and west.
London skyline with
Big Ben and environs, including the
Portcullis House, Parliament Square, and St Margaret's Church
Journalists during Queen Victoria's reign called it St Stephen's
Tower. As MPs originally sat at St Stephen's Hall, these journalists
referred to anything related to the House of Commons as news from "St.
Stephens" (the Palace of
Westminster contains a feature called St
Stephen's Tower, a smaller tower over the public entrance). The
usage persists in Welsh, where the
Westminster district, and
Parliament by extension, is known as San Steffan.
On 2 June 2012,
The Daily Telegraph
The Daily Telegraph reported that 331 Members of
Parliament, including senior members of all three main parties,
supported a proposal to change the name from Clock Tower to Elizabeth
Tower in tribute to Queen
Elizabeth II in her diamond jubilee year.
This was thought to be appropriate because the large west tower now
Victoria Tower was renamed in tribute to
Queen Victoria on
her diamond jubilee. On 26 June 2012, the House of Commons
confirmed that the name change could go ahead. The Prime Minister,
David Cameron, announced the change of name on 12 September 2012 at
the start of Prime Minister's Questions. The change was marked by
a naming ceremony in which the Speaker of the House of Commons, John
Bercow, unveiled a name plaque attached to the tower on the adjoining
The dial of the Great Clock of Westminster. The hour hand is 9 feet
(2.7 m) long and the minute hand is 14 feet (4.3 m) long.
The clock and dials were designed by Augustus Pugin. The clock dials
are set in an iron frame 23 feet (7.0 m) in diameter, supporting
312 pieces of opal glass, rather like a stained-glass window. Some of
the glass pieces may be removed for inspection of the hands. The
surround of the dials is gilded. At the base of each clock dial in
gilt letters is the
DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM
Which means O Lord, keep safe our
Queen Victoria the First.
Unlike most other
Roman numeral clock dials, which show the '4'
position as 'IIII', the Great Clock faces depict '4' as 'IV'.
The rear of the clock face
The clock's movement is famous for its reliability. The designers were
the lawyer and amateur horologist Edmund Beckett Denison, and George
Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Construction was entrusted to clockmaker
Edward John Dent; after his death in 1853 his stepson Frederick Dent
completed the work, in 1854. As the tower was not complete until
1859, Denison had time to experiment: instead of using the deadbeat
escapement and remontoire as originally designed, Denison invented the
double three-legged gravity escapement. This escapement provides the
best separation between pendulum and clock mechanism. The pendulum is
installed within an enclosed windproof box beneath the clockroom. It
is 13 feet (4.0 m) long, weighs 660 pounds (300 kg),
suspended on a strip of spring steel 1/64 inch in thickness, and beats
every 2 seconds. The clockwork mechanism in a room below weighs 5
The clock mechanism
On top of the pendulum is a small stack of old penny coins; these are
to adjust the time of the clock. Adding a coin has the effect of
minutely lifting the position of the pendulum's centre of mass,
reducing the effective length of the pendulum rod and hence increasing
the rate at which the pendulum swings. Adding or removing a penny will
change the clock's speed by 0.4 seconds per day. The clock is hand
wound (taking about 1.5 hours) three times a week.
On 10 May 1941, a German bombing raid damaged two of the clock's dials
and sections of the tower's stepped roof and destroyed the House of
Commons chamber. Architect
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed a new
five-floor block. Two floors are occupied by the current chamber,
which was used for the first time on 26 October 1950. The clock ran
accurately and chimed throughout the Blitz.
Malfunctions, breakdowns, and other incidents
1916: For two years during World War I, the bells were silenced and
the clock faces were not illuminated at night to avoid guiding
attacking German Zeppelins.
1 September 1939: Although the bells continued to ring, the clock
faces were not illuminated at night throughout World War II to avoid
guiding bomber pilots during the Blitz.
10 May 1941: A German bombing raid damaged two of the clock's dials.
3–4 June 1941: The clock stopped from 10:13 p.m. until 10:13
the following morning, after a workman repairing air-raid damage to
the clock face dropped a hammer into the works.
1949: The clock slowed by four and a half minutes after a flock of
starlings perched on the minute hand.
13 January 1955: The clock stopped at 3:24 a.m. due to drifts of
snow forming on the north and east dials. Small electric heaters were
placed just inside these two dials which faced the full fury of the
winter's blast, and this measure has helped to reduce instances of
freezing in recent years.
New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve 1962: The clock slowed due to heavy snow and ice on the
hands, causing the pendulum to detach from the clockwork, as it is
designed to do in such circumstances, to avoid serious damage
elsewhere in the mechanism – the pendulum continuing to swing
freely. Thus, it chimed-in the 1963 new year nine minutes late.
30 January 1965: The bells were silenced during the funeral of
statesman and former prime minister Winston Churchill.
5 August 1976: First and only major breakdown. The air brake speed
regulator of the chiming mechanism broke from torsional fatigue after
more than 100 years of use, causing the fully wound 4-ton weight to
spin the winding drum out of the movement, causing much damage. The
Great Clock was shut down for a total of 26 days over nine
months – it was reactivated on 9 May 1977. This was the longest
break in operation since its construction. During this time BBC Radio
4 broadcast the pips instead. Although there were minor stoppages
from 1977 to 2002, when maintenance of the clock was carried out by
the old firm of clockmakers Thwaites & Reed, these were often
repaired within the permitted two-hour downtime and not recorded as
stoppages. Before 1970, maintenance was carried out by the original
firm of Dents; since 2002, by parliamentary staff.
30 April 1997: The clock stopped 24 hours before the general election,
and stopped again three weeks later.
The south clock face being cleaned on 11 August 2007
27 May 2005: The clock stopped at 10:07 p.m., possibly because of
hot weather; temperatures in
London had reached an unseasonable
31.8 °C (90 °F). It resumed, but stopped again at
10:20 p.m., and remained still for about 90 minutes before
29 October 2005: The mechanism was stopped for about 33 hours to allow
maintenance work on the clock and its chimes. It was the lengthiest
maintenance shutdown in 22 years.
7:00 a.m. 5 June 2006: The clock tower's "Quarter Bells" were
taken out of commission for four weeks as a bearing holding one of
the quarter bells was worn and needed to be removed for repairs.
During this period,
BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4 broadcast recordings of British bird
song followed by the pips in place of the usual chimes.
11 August 2007: Start of 6-week stoppage for maintenance. Bearings in
the clock's chime train and the "great bell" striker were replaced,
for the first time since installation. During the maintenance the
clock was driven by an electric motor. Once again, BBC Radio 4
broadcast the pips during this time. The intention was that the clock
should run accurately for a further 200 years before major maintenance
is again required; in fact the repairs sufficed for ten years.
17 April 2013: The bells were silenced as a mark of "profound dignity
and deep respect" during the funeral of former Prime Minister Margaret
August 2015: The clock was discovered to be running 7 seconds fast,
and coins were removed from its pendulum to correct the error, which
caused it to run slow for a time.
21 August 2017: Start of 4-year silencing of the chimes during
maintenance and repair work to the clock mechanism, and repairs and
improvements to the clock tower building. During this time, dials,
hands, and lights will be removed for restoration, with at least one
dial—with hands driven by an electric motor—left intact,
functioning, and visible at any given time. The bells, however,
will still chime for events such as
New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve and Remembrance
The second "Big Ben" (centre) and the Quarter Bells from The
Illustrated News of the World, 4 December 1858
The main bell, officially known as the Great Bell but better known as
Big Ben, is the largest bell in the tower and part of the Great Clock
The original bell was a 16 ton (16.3-tonne) hour bell, cast on 6
August 1856 in
Stockton-on-Tees by John Warner & Sons. The bell
was possibly named in honour of Sir Benjamin Hall, and his name is
inscribed on it. However, another theory for the origin of the
name is that the bell may have been named after a contemporary
heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt. It is thought that the bell was
originally to be called Victoria or Royal Victoria in honour of Queen
Victoria, but that an MP suggested the nickname during a Parliamentary
debate; the comment is not recorded in Hansard.
Since the tower was not yet finished, the bell was mounted in New
Palace Yard but, during testing it cracked beyond repair and a
replacement had to be made. The bell was recast on 10 April 1858 at
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a 13½ ton (13.76-tonne)
bell. The second bell was transported from the foundry to the
tower on a trolley drawn by sixteen horses, with crowds cheering its
progress; it was then pulled 200 ft (61.0 m) up to the Clock
Tower’s belfry, a feat that took 18 hours. It is 7 feet
6 inches (2.29 m) tall and 9 feet (2.74 m) diameter.
This new bell first chimed in July 1859; in September it too cracked
under the hammer. According to the foundry's manager, George Mears,
the horologist Denison had used a hammer more than twice the maximum
weight specified. For three years
Big Ben was taken out of
commission and the hours were struck on the lowest of the quarter
bells until it was repaired. To make the repair, a square piece of
metal was chipped out from the rim around the crack, and the bell
given an eighth of a turn so the new hammer struck in a different
Big Ben has chimed with a slightly different tone ever
since, and is still in use today with the crack unrepaired. Big Ben
was the largest bell in the British Isles until "Great Paul", a
16¾ ton (17 tonne) bell currently hung in St Paul's
Cathedral, was cast in 1881.
A recording from the
BBC World Service
BBC World Service radio station of the
Westminster Chimes and the twelve strikes of Big Ben, as broadcast at
midnight, New Year's Day 2009.
Along with the Great Bell, the belfry houses four quarter bells which
Westminster Quarters on the quarter hours. The four quarter
bells sound G♯, F♯, E, and B. They were cast by John Warner &
Sons at their Crescent Foundry in 1857 (G♯, F♯ and B) and 1858
(E). The Foundry was in Jewin Crescent, in what is now known as The
Barbican, in the City of London. The bells are sounded by hammers
pulled by cables coming from the link room—a low-ceiling space
between the clock room and the belfry—where mechanisms translate the
movement of the quarter train into the sounding of the individual
The quarter bells play a once-repeating, 20-note sequence of rounds
and four changes in the key of E major: 1–4 at quarter past, 5–12
at half past, 13–20 and 1–4 at quarter to, and 5–20 on the hour
(which sounds 25 seconds before the main bell tolls the hour). Because
the low bell (B) is struck twice in quick succession, there is not
enough time to pull a hammer back, and it is supplied with two wrench
hammers on opposite sides of the bell. The tune is that of the
Cambridge Chimes, first used for the chimes of Great St Mary's church,
Cambridge, and supposedly a variation, attributed to William Crotch,
based on violin phrases from the air "I know that my Redeemer liveth"
in Handel's Messiah. The notional words of the chime, again
derived from Great St Mary's and in turn an allusion to Psalm
37:23–24, are: "All through this hour/Lord be my guide/And by Thy
power/No foot shall slide". They are written on a plaque on the wall
of the clock room.
One of the requirements for the clock was that the first stroke of the
hour bell should be correct to within one second per day. The
tolerance is with reference to
Greenwich Mean Time
Greenwich Mean Time (BST in
summer). So, at twelve o'clock, for example, it is the
first of the twelve hour-bell strikes that signifies the hour (the New
New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve at midnight). The time signalled by the last of
the "six pips" (UTC) may be fractionally different.
The origin of the nickname
Big Ben is the subject of some debate. The
nickname was applied first to the Great Bell; it may have been named
after Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the installation of the Great
Bell, or after English heavyweight boxing champion Benjamin
Big Ben is often used, by extension, to refer to
the clock, the tower and the bell collectively, although the nickname
is not universally accepted as referring to the clock and
tower. Some authors of works about the tower, clock and
bell sidestep the issue by using the words
Big Ben first in the title,
then going on to clarify that the subject of the book is the clock and
tower as well as the bell.
In August, 2017, satirical news site
The Rochdale Herald
The Rochdale Herald published a
spoof article stating that the bell was to be renamed "Massive
Mohammed". Many people mistook this for a genuine news story and were
widely ridiculed on social media. This even inspired the
creation of two online petitions.
Double-decker buses frame a busy
Big Ben in the
The clock has become a cultural symbol of the United Kingdom,
particularly in the visual media. When a television or film-maker
wishes to indicate a generic location in the country, a popular way to
do so is to show an image of the tower, often with a red double-decker
bus or black cab in the foreground.
In 2008 a survey of 2,000 people found that the tower was the most
popular landmark in the United Kingdom. It has also been named as
the most iconic film location in London.
Big Ben's dials and belfry are illuminated at night.
The sound of the clock chiming has also been used this way in audio
media, but as the
Westminster Quarters are heard from other clocks and
other devices, the sound is by no means unique.
Big Ben is a focal
point of New Year celebrations in the United Kingdom, with radio and
television stations airing its chimes to welcome the start of the New
Year. To welcome in 2012, the clock tower was lit with fireworks that
exploded at every toll of Big Ben. Similarly, on Remembrance Day,
the chimes of
Big Ben are broadcast to mark the 11th hour of the 11th
day of the 11th month and the start of the two minutes' silence.
Londoners who live an appropriate distance from the tower and Big Ben
can, by means of listening to the chimes both live and on analogue
radio, hear the bell strike thirteen times. This is possible because
the electronically transmitted chimes arrive virtually
instantaneously, while the "live" sound is delayed travelling through
the air since the speed of sound is relatively slow.
ITN's News at Ten opening sequence formerly featured an image of the
tower with the sound of Big Ben's chimes punctuating the announcement
of the news headlines of the day. The
Big Ben chimes (known within
ITN as "The Bongs") continue to be used during the headlines and all
ITV News bulletins use a graphic based on the
Westminster clock dial.
Big Ben can also be heard striking the hour before some news bulletins
BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4 (6 p.m. and midnight, plus 10 p.m. on Sundays) and
the BBC World Service, a practice that began on 31 December 1923. The
sound of the chimes is sent live from a microphone permanently
installed in the tower and connected by line to Broadcasting
At the close of the polls for the 2010 general election the results of
the national exit poll were projected onto the south side of the
tower. On 27 July 2012, starting at 8:12 a.m,
Big Ben chimed 30
times, to welcome in the
London Olympic Games (i.e. the 30th
Olympiad), which officially began that day.
Scaffolding was put up in 2017.
The tower is undergoing a major renovation which began in August 2017
and is expected to last four years. Big Ben's chimes were silenced
at noon on 21 August. Essential maintenance will be carried out on
the clock, which will be stopped for several months, during which
there will be no chimes. Striking and tolling will be maintained for
important events such as
New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve and Remembrance Sunday. Big
Ben will resume striking and tolling in 2021.
The aim of the renovation is to repair and conserve the tower, upgrade
facilities as necessary, and ensure its integrity for future
generations. The last significant renovation work was carried out to
the tower in 1983–85. The most significant addition to the tower
will be the addition of a lift. The clock faces are to be repainted
and re-gilded, and many broken panes of glass are also being
replaced on the dials.
Originally, the renovation was estimated to cost between £29 million
and £45 million; however, in September 2017, the figure increased to
Some Conservative MPs want
Big Ben to chime at the moment of
29 March 2019.
Big Ben Aden
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Big Ben from News at
Ten titles". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 13 August 2012.
Big Ben Microphone". BBC. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
^ "General election results beamed onto Big Ben". UK Parliament.
Archived from the original on 11 November 2010. Retrieved 30 April
Big Ben strikes to celebrate start of 2012 Olympics". YouTube.
Retrieved 27 July 2012.
^ Reuters Staff (August 21, 2017). "Britain's
Big Ben falls silent for
four years of renovation work". Reuters.com. Retrieved August 21,
^ Watson, Leon; McCann, Kate; Horton, Helena (21 August 2017). "Big
Ben: Why has Westminster's Great Bell been silenced - and for how
long?". The Telegraph. Retrieved 21 August 2017.
^ "Elizabeth Tower contract awarded". UK Parliament. 29 September
2017. Retrieved 19 November 2017.
Big Ben to be silenced for months by tower and clock repairs". The
Guardian. Press Association. 26 April 2016. Retrieved 19 November
Big Ben tower repair costs double to £61m". BBC News. 29 September
2017. Retrieved 29 September 2017.
^ "Tory MPs want
Big Ben to bong us out of the EU at midnight on the
day we Brexit". 19 August 2017.
Find more aboutBig Benat's sister projects
Definitions from Wiktionary
Media from Wikimedia Commons
Texts from Wikisource
Travel guide from Wikivoyage
Data from Wikidata
Official website of
Big Ben at UK Parliament
The Palace of
Westminster at UK Parliament
Big Ben at Whitechapel Bell Foundry
Big Ben's Clapper at Houghton-le-Spring Heritage Society
Interior photos of the tower at UK Parliament's Flickr
A tale of Two Towers:
Big Ben and Pisa transcript of a lecture by
Prof. John Burland
The Mechanical Genius of
Big Ben (2017) documentary by Discovery
Big Ben's a Hundred (1959) newsreel by British Pathé
Big Ben's Clean Up (1955) by British Pathé
Big Ben (1948) by British Pathé
Bell tower / Campanile
Full circle ringing
Ring of bells
Geert van Wou
Gillett & Johnston
Hatch bell foundry
John Taylor & Co
McShane Bell Foundry
Meneely Bell Foundry
Pieter and François Hemony
Petit & Fritsen
Royal Eijsbouts bell foundry
Rudhall of Gloucester
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
Bolognese bell ringing art
Russian Orthodox bell ringing
Veronese bellringing art
List of heaviest bells
Bell of Good Luck
Great Bell of Dhammazedi
Ivan the Great Bell Tower
Japanese Peace Bell
World Peace Bells
Yongle Big Bell
The Ringing World
Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers
Glockenmuseum Stiftskirche Herrenberg
Liberty Bell Museum
Freedom Bell, American Legion
Hungerford Bridge and Golden Jubilee Bridges
Empire, Leicester Square
Odeon, Leicester Square
Wembley Stadium (national stadium)
Craven Cottage (Fulham)
The Den (Millwall)
Emirates Stadium (Arsenal)
Loftus Road (Queens Park Rangers)
London Stadium (West Ham United)
Selhurst Park (Crystal Palace)
Stamford Bridge (Chelsea)
The Valley (Charlton Athletic)
White Hart Lane
White Hart Lane (Tottenham Hotspur)
England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club
The Championship Course
The Championship Course (rowing)
Crystal Palace National Sports Centre
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
The Oval (cricket)
Twickenham Stadium (rugby)
Royal National Theatre
Royal Opera House
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Royal Albert Hall
Royal Festival Hall
10 Downing Street
Bank of England
Palace of Westminster
Royal Courts of Justice
Imperial War Museum
Museum of London
National Maritime Museum
Natural History Museum
Royal Academy of Arts
Tower of London
Victoria and Albert Museum
Places of worship
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
Bevis Marks Synagogue
Methodist Central Hall
Regent's Park Mosque
St Paul's Cathedral
Fortnum & Mason
The Mall Wood Green
One New Change
Petticoat Lane Market
Westfield Stratford City
Partly occupied by
the Royal Family
St James's Palace
Hampton Court Palace
The Queen's Gallery
Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace
1 Canada Square
8 Canada Square
25 Canada Square
1 Churchill Place
20 Fenchurch Street
St George Wharf Tower
30 St Mary Axe
Crystal Palace transmitting station
Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain
Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain ("Eros")
Charing Cross station
Clapham Junction station
King's Cross station
Liverpool Street station
London Bridge station
St Pancras station
Victoria Coach Station
Emirates Air Line cable car
Battersea Power Station
St Bartholomew's Hospital
Hampton Court Park
St. James's Park
Horse Guards Parade
Charing Cross Road
Kensington High Street
Tottenham Court Road