If you spent World War Two in London, even just as a little boy like I was then, you will always be moved by one sound in particular. That sound is the chimes of Big Ben, the great clock on the end of the Houses of Parliament in London. The chimes were broadcast live at the start of the news bulletins on the radio throughout wartime. The sound was unique. It signaled hope and defiance. It suggested that, notwithstanding bombing and food shortages and bad news, it was all going to work out in the end. The sound of Big Ben meant stability and survival. It was so reassuring. The tune of the actual chimes is from a passage of Handel's Messiah. Pat and I made a rare visit to London in April 2009 and we visited Big Ben. Even though the events of which I speak above occurred over 65 years ago, the sound of the chimes still moves me. Like some of my family members, this clock is never wrong. I was pleased to see that the time shown on Big Ben exactly corresponded with the time displayed by my own watch - recently purchased by me for $10 at WalMart. So who needs a Rolex?
Bob and Big Ben
The Houses of Parliament, or the Palace of Westminster to give the correct name, were badly damaged in the great fire of 1834. However, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall nearby were not damaged. When the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster was planned, it was decided to match the new building with the Gothic style of the surviving buildings. That probably would not happen today, when architects take sadistic joy in placing unpleasantly contrasting styles next to each other. The plans for the new building featured a clock tower, over 300 feet in height, immediately adjacent to the River Thames. The clock, which was to be installed high up in that tower, had been built by 1854. However, the building of the tower itself had not been completed by then. The tower was not finished and the clock was not in operation until May 31 1859, which was the date of the State Opening of Parliament in that year. Pat and I therefore visited Big Ben a few weeks before its 150th birthday.
Click on player below to hear Big Ben chime for the last time before falling silent for repairs in 2017.
Strictly speaking, Big Ben is not the name of the clock tower. It is the name of the bell which produces those wonderful chimes at fifteen minute intervals. Yet, all over the world, everyone thinks of the tower and clock combined as Big Ben. The original name, The Great Clock of the Palace of Westminster, didn't catch on. But why Big Ben? The most likely source of the name is Benjamin Hall, who was Chief Commissioner of Works during the period of rebuilding. He was also the very popular MP for the nearby constituency of Marylebone and was 6ft 4ins in height.
About a third of the way up the tower, a prison cell was installed. The last MP to be imprisoned there was Charles Bradlaugh in 1880. Few prison cells in the world can have enjoyed such an impressive view. They only kept Bradlaugh in for one night. His crime? He refused to be sworn in on the Bible as a Member of Parliament. Bradlaugh was an atheist. Because of this, Bradlaugh was not allowed to take his seat for several years, despite having been elected as a member of the House of Commons, and he was punished because of his attempts to vote.
(Left) Charles Bradlaugh being arrested (Right) Bradlaugh takes his seat in Parliament
From 1886, he was allowed to take his seat and, in 1888, the law was changed to permit non-believers to affirm, instead of swearing on the Bible. Bradlaugh was a great campaigner for the independence of India, 60 years before it actually happened. He died in 1891 at the age of 57.
When speaking to somebody on their cell phone, the caller these days never really knows where the other person is. That is why Members of Parliament today love it when Big Ben chimes during their telephone conversations with constituents. It proves to the public that they are hard at work in their office in the Palace of Westminster and are not merely spending their time in some restaurant or bar elsewhere.
A clock tower of 300 feet is not a great height, but Big Ben looks taller. There are no competing tall buildings nearby and this fosters the appearance of a greater height. Yet, even at its present height, one must respect the achievement of those who erected it. They did so, in the mid-19th century, without any of the construction aids which are taken for granted today. Enormous care is taken to keep this 5 ton, 150 year old time piece running on time. Behind the clock faces are little heaters, which prevent the hands of the clock becoming impeded by ice and losing their exact timing. For example, in the bitter weather suffered by London a few weeks ago, the hands did not freeze up.
There is doubtless much more for me to say about the technical aspects of this remarkable piece of engineering, but let me instead conclude as I began. It is the emotion within one that is generated by the sound of those chimes that is so special.
This piece, written by Bob, was originally posted on our website on April 9, 2009.