This Day in History (31-May-1859) – The Big Ben Is Inaugurated

The Big Ben is the name by which the clock bell of the famous tower clock of London is known. On May 31, 1859, the Big Ben rang out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster for the first time. Located at the top of the St. Stephen’s Tower, towering at a height of about 320 feet, the Big Ben is perhaps London’s most iconic structure and a symbolic representation of the city across the world. The idea of the Big Ben came about as a prominent feature of the new design for the Palace of Westminster. Sir George Airy, the British royal astronomer, envisioned a tower with a clock which would be used for reference across the city of London. To fashion out exceptionally accurate time mechanism (“correct to within one second per day”).  Most of the city clock-makers found this too much of a challenge.

The clock bell was required to be cast twice. The first bell weighed 16 tons and was cast by John Warner and Sons in 1856. The bell was then hung in the Palace Yard to await completion of the tower. The bell began to crack. In 1858, the bell was recast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. George Mears, the master bell-founder and owner of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry undertook the casting himself. This new bell weighed about 13.5 ton but in July 1859 this bell started to crack as well. This time, however, the crack was repaired and a lighter hammer was added. Transportation of this massive bell posed the next big problem. The bell was dragged through by 16 horses, with onlookers crowding around for a closer look. The bell was soon installed and Big Ben first struck its chimes on May 31, 1859. The Big Ben was probably named after Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner for Works.

Even after the infamous bombing of the chamber of the House of Commons during World War II, St. Stephen’s Tower, which housed the Big Ben, remained untouched. Known for its accurate timekeeping, the clock grew in repute. Though the name Big Ben is often used to describe the tower, the clock and the bell but the name was first given to the Great Bell.



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