the story of the two Big Bens

The following illustration and story are from The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 27th December 1856:

Experiment upon the Great Bell - Illustrated London News – 27th December 1856


Every stage of the manufacture and erection of this magnificent Bell for the Clock of the new Houses of Parliament is replete with interest. Indeed, from the extraordinary attention paid to the fabrication of the Bell, and its involving several new theoretical views, it may be doubted whether, within memory, experimental science has been brought to bear to a like extent upon this class of manufacture.
In order fully to understand the subject of the Illustration upon the preceding page, it may be as well to explain that the Bell, when placed in the Clock Tower, will be struck at each hour by means of a hammer; while the quarters will be struck upon four smaller bells.
The scene we have represented is the first experiment made (on Saturday week) to determine the proportionate weight of the striking hammer of the large Bell, and the space through which it should fall upon the bow of the Bell. The trial was made in New Palace-yard, at the foot of the tower, and here were assembled Mr. Denison ¹, who designed the Bell; Mr. Dent, the maker of the Bell; and Mr. Quarm, the able clerk of the new Palace works. There were also present a few privileged spectators. To make the experiment the ponderous hammer, of nearly, or quite, a half ton weight, was placed on a stout framework of wood, at an inclination of about forty-five degrees, and slightly touching the Bell; the hammer was then raised from this position some inches, at various times, by means of a crab, which was then thrown out of gear, and the massive hammer-head fell by its own weight, striking the Bell with great precision, and bringing out the sound to its fullest extent. We believe the experiment to have been quite satisfactory. The raising of this Bell will be the next stage for our Illustration; and when the whole work is accomplished we trust it will redound to the credit of those several gentlemen into whose hands this herculean labour has fallen.

(¹ Edmund Beckett Denison (1816-1905))





Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell in the clock tower (Elizabeth Tower) of the Houses of Parliament, in London. The name is often associated with the clock in this tower and with the tower itself.

hourly chime and hourly strikes 





In October 1856, several British newspapers reported that the bell had been named after the Welsh politician and civil engineer Benjamin Hall (1802-67), who, as First Commissioner of Works and Public Buildings from 1855 to 1858, oversaw its installation; for example, the following is from The Times (London, England) of Wednesday the 22nd:

Big Ben of Westminster.—The Wave was yesterday morning safely delivered of her monster burden alongside Messrs. Maudslay’s wharf, near Westminster-bridge, those gentlemen having kindly granted the use of their crane, &c., to Mr. Jabez James, of Broadwall, for that purpose. The great bell, which, as our readers are aware, was founded by Messrs. Warner and Sons, was afterwards conveyed on a low truck, drawn by 16 horses, over Westminster-bridge, and safely deposited in Palace-yard ². Mr. Quarm, clerk of the works of the new Palace, superintended the arrangements, and Professor Taylor and Sir Charles Barry wore both present. The crowd collected in Palace-yard after its arrival was so great that the police had considerable difficulty in keeping the approaches to Palace-yard clear. In the course of the afternoon the bell was lifted from the truck and swung under the massive frame erected for the purpose at the foot of the Clock Tower. It was then tested once or twice, and, having been pronounced entirely free from crack or flaw of any kind, it was propped up with timber to take the immense strain off the chains by which it is suspended, and so left to repose in silence after its journey for the night. All bells, we believe, are christened before they begin to toll, and on this occasion it is proposed to call our king of bells “Big Ben,” in honour of Sir Benjamin Hall, the President of the Board of Works, during whose tenure of office it was cast.

(² The Great Bell was hung in New Palace Yard because the construction of the clock tower, which fell five years behind schedule, was only completed in 1859.)

In October 1857, a crack appeared in the bell, as reported for instance by The Morning Post (London, England) on Monday the 26th:

Accident to “Big Ben.”—Our readers will hear with regret that an accident has occurred to “Big Ben,” which has deprived him of that voice and tone to which they had already become familiar, and which it was hoped would be heard for many years from the lofty clock-tower of the New Palace at Westminster. For some time past it has been the custom to toll the bell a short time at one o’clock on Saturdays. Yesterday the proceedings were commenced as usual, and after the hammer had struck the third time, it was found that the sound was not the old familiar E natural, but a cracked and uncertain sound. The superintendent of the works immediately gave orders for the suspension of the performance, and a close examination of the bell took place. No flaw could, however, be discovered in the first instance. The search was renewed, and a lighted candle was taken inside the bell, and while being moved slowly round, the outside was carefully watched; at length, to the dismay of all the persons present, light shone through the thick metal, and there was no further room for doubt that the bell was cracked. The “crack” in the bell rises perpendicularly from the rim or lower lip, to about halfway up the side, and it is directly opposite to the spot on which the bell was struck by the large hammer. For some time past grave doubts have been expressed as to the propriety of continuing the Saturday performances on the bell in the position in which it was hung. Situated at the foot of the clock tower, and surrounded by a close hoarding, the friends of “Big Ben” complained strongly of the unfair treatment to which he was subjected by being struck in a position where he had no room to develop his power, and not a few have considered that he was not struck fairly by the blows of the huge square and clumsy hammer which fell upon his metal side. Whether it be true or not that “Big Ben” was hung unfairly, or struck unfairly, the fact unfortunately is that his voice is for ever silenced, and not until he has been broken up, again melted and cast, may we expect to hear “his once familiar voice.” The accident occurring at the present moment is the more to be regretted, inasmuch as it was expected that a short time only would elapse before he would be placed in the belfry for which he was destined. Everything had been prepared for his reception in the lofty eminence of the “Clock Tower,” the “cradle” for carrying him up and the chains for hanging him were all ready, and Sir Charles Barry waited only the arrival of the four small bells for striking the quarter hours, when the clock, which in the factory of Mr. Dent has for months past been keeping the most exact time, would be put in its place, and “Big Ben” would be elevated to these regions where the boom of his mighty voice could be heard over the whole metropolis to proper advantage. The quarter bells are cast, and it was expected that by the meeting of Parliament the whole arrangements would have been completed. Several months must now elapse before the bell can be re-cast and placed in its position.

The second bell was cast in 1858, but it, too, cracked; this cri de cœur is from The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 2nd October 1859:


It is with great regret that we announce that “Big Ben” tolled his last yesterday afternoon. The bell, like its predecessor, is cracked, and its heavy doleful E natural will never again be heard booming over the metropolis. For some time past the state of the great bell has caused considerable anxiety; his voice has been less sound and vigorous than formerly, and the catastrophe has at length occurred which must doom the metal of the great bell once more to the furnace. There cannot be much doubt as to what will be the verdict of the country upon the inquiry which must take place as to the cause of this untimely death. It was bad enough when a commission reported that there was no one in England who could make a bell, and ordered distinguished savans [sic] to visit every country in Europe to learn something about bell making; but it is far worse to have it proved upon two occasions that we are wholly incompetent to the work. Will no Frenchman, German, Russian, or Turk come to our help and teach us how to make a bell that will not crack its own sides at the sound of its voice? The clock must be taken to pieces to get the broken bell down, and, of course, it cannot be put together again until a new bell has been cast, and hung in its place. So there will be more delay, more expense, in connection with these never ending Westminster clock and bells. The public is heartily sick of the whole question. We would recommend that Mr. Denison should be compelled to reside in the clock chamber, or belfry, of the tall tower, and himself strike the hours upon some large gongs until a proper bell is provided to do the work.

No new Great Bell was cast however, but the second Big Ben was silent for four years. During that time, the hour was struck on the fourth quarter bell. In 1863, a solution was found by the English mathematician and astronomer George Airy (1801-92): Big Ben was turned by a quarter turn so the hammer struck a different spot, the hammer was replaced by a lighter version, and a small square was cut into the bell to prevent the crack from spreading.

According to the website of the British parliament,

The total cost of making the clock and bells and installing them in the Elizabeth Tower reached £22,000.

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