And so the day has finally arrived. Following its usual bonging at midday today, the famous bell nick-named Big Ben has now controversially fallen silent as what have been described as “critical” conservation works are carried out.

How long the 13.7 tonne bell, which sits at the top of Elizabeth Tower (formerly known as the Clock Tower) at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster (also known as the Houses of Parliament) and is officially known as the “Great Bell”, will be silent remains something of a mystery.

Following uproar over the initial announcement that the bell would be silent for four years (until 2021), officials have now said that the plan will now be reviewed. There have also been claims that the bell will continue to toll for significance events such as Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve (Conservative MPs also reportedly want the bell to toll as the UK leaves the EU on 29th March, 2019).

It should be noted that while the mechanism which strikes the bell will be stopped from doing so during works to protect the ears of those working on it, the clock faces on the tower will continue to show the time.

The giant bell, which was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, went into action on 11th July, 1859, and has been bonging almost continually since. It apparently stopped for two years during World War I for fears it would attract Zeppelins to the site and was silent during the funerals of former PMs Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. It was last silent in 2007 when maintenance was carried out.

PICTURE: Athena/Unsplash

 

 

 

Clock-tower

 

The Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament, home to Big Ben. For more on it, see our earlier posts on the Palace of Westminster, the Clock Tower and Big Ben PICTURE: Tony Kerrigan.

Lion

Dwarfed by the towering form of Nelson’s Column in the southern part of Trafalgar Square, the four lions at the base of the column’s plinth – known to some as Landseer’s Lions – are now a favourite of tourists and Londoners alike. But it wasn’t always so.

While the column was erected in 1843 and the fountains in 1845, it wasn’t until 1867 that the lions – designed by Sir Edwin Landseer – appeared in the square. The reasons for the delay were apparently several including arguments over the artistic vision of the sculptures and funding and Landseer’s own ill-health.

Indeed, Landseer, best known as a painter of animal subjects, wasn’t the first choice as sculptor but was only commissioned after the models of the first sculptor – Thomas Milnes –  was rejected (there’s a terrific painting by John Ballantyne of Landseer working on the lions in the National Portrait Gallery).

As a result when the lions were eventually unveiled, they were held to general ridicule when they finally arrived, costing thousands of pounds more than what had been budgeted for them.

While the lions were initially going to be made of granite, Landseer’s 20 foot long lions were cast by Baron Marochetti in bronze at his Kensington studio. The form of the lions was apparently modelled on a dead lion which, according to Ed Glinert in The London Compendium, were brought to his studio in St John’s Wood by cab from the London Zoo, although all four lions have distinct faces.

Legend has it that the Grade I-listed lions will come to life if Big Ben chimes 13 times.

There has been concern in recent years about the damage people are doing to the lions in climbing on them with one report recommending that the public be banned from climbing on them.

For more, see our previous posts on Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square.

For more on London’s monuments, check out Peter Matthews’ London’s Statues and Monuments (Shire Library).

Commonly thought to be older than it actually is due to its Gothic stylings (although, to be fair, parts of it do date from medieval times), the Palace of Westminster – or, as it’s more commonly known, the Houses of Parliament – didn’t actually take on much of its current appearance until the latter half of the 19th century.

The need for a new building for parliament arose after 1834 when a fire, caused by the overheating of two underfloor stoves used to incinerate the Exchequer’s obsolete tally sticks, tore through the former complex, leaving only some structures from the old palace intact. They included the 11th century Westminster Hall (the largest in Europe when it was built), 14th century Jewel Tower and a chapterhouse, crypt and cloisters, all of which was once attached to the now gone St Stephen’s Chapel.

Houses-of-Parliament2While King William IV offered the use of Buckingham Palace for Parliament, the idea – along with a host of other options – was rejected as unsuitable. Instead, a competition was held for a new design and after almost 100 entries were considered, architect Charles Barry and his design for a new palace in the perpendicular Gothic style was chosen. Interestingly, while Barry was a classical architect, under the terms of the competition, designs were required to be in a Gothic style, thought to embody conservative values .

Incorporating some of the remains of the old palace – including Westminster Hall but not the Jewel Tower which to this day stands alone – the design was based around a series of internal courtyards with the House of Commons and House of Lords located on either side of a central lobby (first known as Octagonal Hall). The design involved reclaiming some land from the Thames so the building’s main river-facing facade could be completed.

Towers stand at either end of the complex – the Victoria Tower over the Sovereign’s Entrance at the southern end of the complex (for many years the tallest square stone tower in the world) and the narrower tower formerly known as the Clock Tower which houses the bell Big Ben, at the northern end – and there is a central Octagonal Tower which stands directly over the Central Lobby. The Clock Tower, incidentally, was renamed the Elizabeth Tower last year in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee (for more on it and Big Ben, see our earlier entries here and here).

Other towers include the Speaker’s Tower (located at the northern end of the building on the waterfront, this contains a residence for the Speaker), the Chancellor’s Tower (located at the southern end, it too contained a residence originally used by the Lord Chancellor) and St Stephen’s Tower – located in the middle of the building’s west front, it contains the public entrance to the building. Significant other rooms in the palace complex include the Robing Room – where the Queen puts on her ceremonial robes and crown before the State Opening of Parliament – and the Royal Gallery, used for state occasions.

The foundation stone (the building was constructed out of sand-coloured limestone from Yorkshire) was laid in 1840 and construction of the monumental building – which features more than 1,100 rooms and two miles of passageways – wasn’t completely finished until the 1870s although most of the work had been completed by 1860 (the year Barry died). The House of Lords first sat in their new chamber in 1847 and the House of Commons in 1852 (it was at this point that Barry was knighted for his work).

The cost, meanwhile, originally estimated at less than £750,000, ended up coming in at more than £2 million.

Much of the interior decoration owes its appearance to the Gothic revivalist Augustus Pugin who designed everything from wallpapers, to floor tiles and furnishings. Pugin also helped Barry with the external appearance but like Barry died before the project was completely finished (in 1852).

The palace was bombed numerous times in World War II – in one raid, the Commons Chamber was destroyed as firefighters opted to save the much older Westminster Hall instead. It was later rebuilt under the direction of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and completed by 1950. Other aspects of the building have also been restored.

A Grade I-listed building classified as a World Heritage Site, Barry’s Houses of Parliament remain one of London’s most iconic structures. We’ll be looking in more detail at some of the building’s features in future posts.

WHERE: Houses of Parliament (nearest Tube stations are Westminster, St James’s Park and Embankment); WHEN: Tours (75 minutes) are run from 9.15am to 4.30pm on Saturdays (also six days a week during summer opening); COST: £15 adults/£10 concessions/£6 children five to 15 years (children under five are free). Prices go up after 1st April – check website for details and to purchase tickets (tours for UK residents, including climbing the Elizabeth Tower, can also be arranged through your MP); WEBSITE: www.parliament.uk.

For more, see Robert Wilson’s guide to the The Houses of Parliament or David Cannadine’s indepth,  The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture. For more on the story of the fire in 1834, see head parliamentary archivist Caroline Shenton’s recent book The Day Parliament Burned Down.

London’s oldest manufacturing company is the same as Britain’s oldest and is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

The company was established in 1570 (although founders have been discovered operating in the area as far back as 1420) and, according to its website, still concentrates solely on the manufacture of bells and their fittings with large church bells accounting for 80 per cent of the company’s business. The remainder of the business is involved in manufacturing handbells and other smaller bells.

The foundry’s current buildings, apparently originally used as a coaching inn named The Artichoke, date from 1670 and are presumed to have replaced structures consumed in the Great Fire of London. The foundry had earlier been located in smaller premises on the other side of Whitechapel Road.

The foundry has typically operated under the name of the master founder and owner but since 1968 has apparently operated under its current name.

The most famous bells cast at the foundry include the Liberty Bell (1752) – the symbol of American independence which cracked when first rung and was recast in Philadelphia, the Great Bell of Montreal Cathedral, ‘Great Tom’ of Lincoln Cathedral, and, of course, Big Ben (1858) – at 13,760 kilograms, the largest bell ever cast at the foundry.

Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral also feature bells cast at the foundry and replacement bells for St Mary-le-Bow and St Clement Danes made here following their destruction in World War II and bells from the foundry have been sent as far afield as Australia and India.

Among the most recent bells to be cast at the foundry are the Royal Jubilee Bells, used in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant and now housed at St James Garlickhythe in the City of London (each of the bells, which bear the Royal Arms, is named after a member of the Royal Family – Elizabeth being the largest with others named Philip, Charles, Anne, Andrew, Edward, William and Henry.)

There is a small exhibition on bell-making in the foundry shop looking at the history of the foundry and bell-making in general, and one-and-a-half-hour tours of the foundry run Saturdays (booking well in advance is usually required). Additional tours are being held every day during the Olympics.

WHERE: 32/34 Whitechapel Road; WHEN: Tours are usually held on Saturdays when no work is being undertaken – see website for dates – but special tours are being held daily from 10am to 5pm, 28th July to 12th August, 2012; COST: The exhibition/museum is free but tours are usually £12 a head for over 14s (Olympic period tours are £10 a head/£25 a family – children under 14 not admitted without adult supervision) – see website for more details on purchasing tickets; WEBSITE: www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk.

The tower at the northern end of the Houses of Parliament is known to many simply as Big Ben – what isn’t often realised is that (as was pointed out in this earlier article) Big Ben actually refers to a bell inside the tower and not the tower itself. The tower, rather, has the rather plain moniker of The Clock Tower. But in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, that’s all about to change.

News broke this week that politicians have decided to rename the tower the Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth II. The move does have precedent – the great southern tower which stands over the Sovereign’s Entrance to the House of Lords was once known as the King’s Tower but was renamed the Victoria Tower in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (Queen Victoria is the only other British monarch to have celebrated a Diamond Jubilee).

The 96 metre high tower, part of the Houses of Parliament (officially known as the Palace of Westminster), is not the first clock tower to stand on the site of the palace. The first, located on the north side of New Palace Yard, was built in 1288-90 in the reign of King Edward I and contained a bell and clock.

It was replaced in 1367 with a tower that featured the first public chiming clock in England. This second tower was demolished in 1707 after falling into disrepair and replaced with a sundial.

Following a fire which destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster in 1834, architect Sir Charles Barry was selected to design new buildings to house Parliament but interestingly his initial designs didn’t include a clock tower – this was added to the plans in 1836.

Construction of the new Clock Tower, which was built from the inside out and clad in Yorkshire Anston stone and Cornish granite, began in September 1843 but wasn’t completed until 1859 following considerable delays. The ‘lantern’ at the top is known as the ‘Ayrton Light’, named for Acton Smee Ayrton, an MP and the First Commissioner of Works in the 1870s. Not installed until 1885, it is lit up when either House is sitting at night.

The clock was constructed by Edward John Dent and his stepson Frederick to the designs of Edmund Beckett Denison. It included a “revolutionary mechanism” known as the ‘Grimthorpe Escapement’ (Denison was later created Baron Grimthorpe), which helped ensure the clock’s accuracy despite external factors like wind pressure on the clock’s hands and which was adopted in many subsequent clocks. The design of the dials were a collaboration between Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin.

The clock was installed in April 1859 but the cast-iron hands were too heavy and had to be replaced with copper ones. It began keeping time on 31st May, 1859.

It’s worth noting that the tower tilts at 0.26 degrees to the north-west but experts say this is apparently not going to be a major structural problem for 10,000 years.

For more on the Clock Tower including a terrific virtual tour, see www.parliament.uk/bigben. It is possible to tour the Houses of Parliament – including climbing the 334 steps to the top of the Clock Tower – but this is only open to UK residents (and they book up months in advance). For more on the tours, see www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/ukvisitors/bigben/.

Often used to describe the clock on the Houses of Parliament (or the tower in which it is located), the name Big Ben was actually first given to the bell that resides within.

Officially known as the Great Bell, it is believed the popular nickname of Big Ben came from Sir Benjamin Hall,  First Commissioner for Works (there is an alternative theory that it was named after Ben Caunt, a popular heavyweight boxer in the 1850s but the parliamentary website describes this as “unlikely”).

The initial bell intended for the clocktower of the Houses of Parliament was cast by Warners of Norton, near Stockton-on-Tees, in August, 1856. Transported to London, it was tested in Palace Yard (where a clock tower had stood in medieval times) but a crack appeared during testing and so the bell had to be recast.

With Warners apparently asking too much for the recasting, George Mears at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was appointed instead. The new bell was cast on 10th April, 1858.

With a diameter of 2.7 metres, the bell was too big to fit up the clocktower’s shaft vertically so it was turned on its side and the 13.7 tonne bell was winched up to the belfry in October that year. Four quarter bells, which chime on the quarter hour and varying in weight from 1.1 to 4 tonnes, were already in place (interestingly, all of the bells are fixed in position and struck on the outside rather than being allowed to swing and have a hammer strike the inside).

Big Ben debuted on 11th July, 1859 (the clock had been started on 31st May), but in September that year the second bell also cracked. It took four years to find a solution (during that time, the bell was struck on the fourth quarter bell) and it was the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, who found it.

The solution involved turning the bell a quarter turn so the hammer didn’t restrike the crack site and replacing the hammer with a lighter one (the current hammer still weighs 200 kilograms!). A small square was also cut into the bell’s crack to prevent it spreading.

Apart from occasional stoppages, the bell has struck ever since.

For more on Big Ben, visit www.parliament.uk/bigben. Tours are only available to UK residents and can be arranged via local MPs (see here for more) or there are virtual tours for those who either don’t live in the UK or can’t get there (see here for more).

IMAGE: Big Ben with a quarter bell in the fourground. PICTURE: Courtesy of UK Parliament.

An area of the East End of London which has become synonymous with the Jack the Ripper murders of the late 1880s, the origins of the name Whitechapel actually lie much further back in history.

The name dates back to the 14th century when the church of St Mary Matfelon (or Matfelun) was built on what is now the corner of Whitechapel High Street and Adler Street. The church, which was known as the “white chapel” apparently thanks to the white stone used in the walls, was apparently first constructed the mid 13th century and is said to have been named after a prominent local family. It became the parish church of Whitechapel in the 14th century.

Rebuilt and extended several times over the ensuing centuries – including in 1673 and the 1870s, it was bombed during the Blitz in 1940 and ultimately finally removed in 1952. The site where it once stood is now the Altab Ali Park, named after a young Bangladeshi man who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in Adler Street in 1978.

Whitechapel originally stood along the road, which from Roman times ran from London to Colchester. The fact it stood outside the city walls meant it to became home to some of the city’s more undesirable businesses including slaughterhouses, tanneries and breweries.

Greater numbers of poor came into the area from Middle Ages onwards and by the mid-1800s it was one of London’s most crowded, poorest and disease ridden areas, known for its immigrant population and for its rising levels of crime.

This reputation was only solidified in 1888 when the killings of the so-called murderer Jack the Ripper garnered worldwide attention for the brutal slayings of at least five women (some believe the figure should be much higher). Speculation still surrounds the Ripper’s identity.

These days, Whitechapel – along with many inner city areas – is undergoing a gentrification process and is now known as something of a hub for art and music as well as home to a street market in Brick Lane.

Ripperology aside, other notable landmarks include The Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel Road (it was here gangster Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell in 1966; its sign is pictured above) and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (described in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, it was founded in 1570 and among the most famous bells cast there are the US Liberty Bell (1752) Big Ben (1858) – stay tuned for our upcoming ‘London’s Oldest’ entry).

The area is also home to the internationally renowned Whitechapel Gallery on the corner of Brick Lane and Whitechapel High Street and the East London Mosque, one of the largest in the UK.