The Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament is often referred to as Big Ben but in fact it is just that, the Clock Tower. The name ‘ Big Ben’ is strictly only for the name given to the largest bell in the Tower.
The first bell was cast by John Warner & Son of Stockton on Tees in 1856 and weighed 16 tons. Unfortunately it developed a crack and could not be used.
The Government then gave the authority for a new bell to be cast and gave the overall responsibility to a lawyer Edmund Beckett Denison who went on to become a QC. He commissioned the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to take on this task. In order to save money they retrieved the old bell but because of its enormous size it took many days to break it up. When at last it was ready for melting three furnaces were needed to contain all the metal. The cast took place on April 10th in 1858 and weighs 13 and half tons. It stands 7’ 6” tall and is 9” wide. Because of its weight the bell is static and not rung. Instead it is hit with a hammer.
But it too cracked after just two months and taken out of service. It was not until three years later when the repairs were completed that Big Ben was able to be re-hung and as a result the sound is no longer pure but slightly off key which is why its chime has become so very distinctive. This event led to a court case where the Whitechapel accused Denison of a bad design and Denison accused Whitechapel of faulty forging. Denison lost his case.
The sound of Big Ben is most famously heard on the BBC and is broadcast worldwide. The melody used for the Quarter Bells chime is called ‘The Westminster Chimes’ and is taken from an aria in Handel’s Messiah and so it is not surprising that Handel declared that : “Bells were the sound of England.”
(Big Ben was the largest bell in Britain until 1881 when Great Paul, weighing in at 16 and three quarter tons was hung in St. Paul’s Cathedral)
No self-respecting city would go without a bell of some sort and none came larger than that of London as befitted the capital of the Nation. Big Ben caught the public’s imagination its reputation having spread due to the notoriety of the first bell from Stockton having cracked from the beginning. When the time came for the second Big Ben to leave Whitechapel Foundry it was led through the streets to a cheering crowd carried on a trolley with a team of sixteen horses all decked out in bright colours and flags. It wound its way slowly through the City and finally reached Westminster where it was greeted with a sense of awe and wonderment, as if gifted with a magic aura.
‘Great George’ in Bristol was named after King George V, the architect George Oatley, and George Wills who built the Memorial building that houses it as a memorial to his father and is part of Bristol University. The bell was cast in 1924 weighing just over 19.5 cwt and is the sixth largest in Britain. It has the ring of E-flat and reputed to be one of the deepest sounds which can be heard nearly 12 miles away.
Nottingham is famous for its local hero Robin Hood whose favourite Lieutenant was called Little John in deference to his large stature. It is with this connection that the bell was named ‘Little John’. It is hung in the great dome of the Council House in Market Square in the centre of the city and weighs 10 and half tons. Within this dome is also a clock which was made in 1926 by William Cope the nephew of the founders of G. & F. Cope. ( clockmakers of Nottingham). He managed to combine the movement of this clock to the striking of the bell from which time it has chimed on time constantly and is considered the largest most accurate electric chiming clock in the world.