September 07: Ringer

2016/09/07 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1859 all the bells–the Great Bell and its little family of four “quarter bells”–in the Clock Tower of the new Palace of Westminster were officially put into service.

We usually think of buildings as mute things, but sometimes they speak.  The voice of the British Parliament has, for a century and a half, been the melodious clanging of five that includes the one nicknamed Big Ben. However, this was not Ben’s original moniker, nor is it the first bell intended for the Tower.  The very first Great Bell, probably nicknamed “Big Ben” in honor of Sir Benjamin Hall (the engineer who over saw the last stages of construction at the Parliament), was cast on 6 August 1856.  Weighing 16 tons, Ben the First traveled to the construction site on train tracks reserved for its own use since its great width prohibited any train from passing it.  However, before being lifted into place, the bell cracked by over-zealous tests of its sound and strength.

Primo Ben was broken to pieces that were taken to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to be recycled.  The new casting required a sand mold that was formed in a thirteen-foot-deep hole in the ground.  Three furnaces were required to melt the requisite 18 tons of metal (including the chunks of Old Broken Ben).  The mold took 20 minutes to fill; the casting required two weeks to cool.  Once it was excavated and finished, the bell (7′-6″ tall and 9′ in diameter) was named “Victoria” (a popular name, for obvious reasons) and paraded into London with great fanfare.  A specially made chain hoisted it up 200 feet into place–an eighteen-hour process–in the Clock Tower, built mostly of iron-reinforced masonry topped with an iron frame.  Maybe the Brits were just too used to calling the bell Ben, or maybe they didn’t like calling the hefty clanging thing the same name as their beloved queen, and immediately started calling it Big Ben.  We suspect Her Majesty did not mind having one fewer thing named after her–she does get a whole huge tower named after her, after all.

Before long, Big Ben was joined by the four smaller bells that together sing, in their peculiar particular clangy way, their fusty metallic tune.  Called the “Westminster Chimes” (you can hear it here), the peal is so familiar that one imagines a silent London, bereft of its chimes, only with the same difficulty as picturing the city without its double-decker busses, fog, or indeed the Clock Tower itself.

Image: ‘Arrival of the new bell “Victoria” at the clock tower, new Palace of Westminster’ from the Illustrated London News, 5 June 1858 (from this source)

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