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

 

 

 

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The origins of the name of this pub apparently lie in something of a mistake (well, sort of).

St-Stephens-TavernLocated at 10 Bridge Street on the corner of Canon Row – just across the road from the clock tower at the north end of the Houses of Parliament, its name apparently lies in mistaken belief that the tower was named St Stephen’s Tower.

It never was, at least not officially. Prior to recently being renamed the Elizabeth Tower – in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne, the tower, which contains the bell known as Big Ben, was simply known as the Clock Tower (another common error has been to call the tower itself Big Ben).

The name St Stephen’s Tower apparently was the fault of Victorian journalists. They had the habit of referring to stories relating to the goings-on in the House of Commons as “news from St Stephen’s” because MPs, prior to the destructive fire of 1834, used to sit in St Stephen’s Hall (the entrance to the hall can be found down the road opposite Westminster Abbey).

Hence we have St Stephen’s Tavern, a favoured watering hole of many politicians – including apparently PMs Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Harold MacMillan.

The pub has been around since at least Victorian times – it was demolished in 1868 when Westminster tube station being built and rebuilt a few years later. In 1924, the pub was expanded to take over the Queen’s Head next door.

It closed in the late 1980s but was reopened in 2003 with many of the original fittings restored. These include one of only 200 parliamentary division bells, located above the bar, which calls MPs back to parliament when it’s time for them to vote (tourists apparently often think it’s a fire alarm and flee when it goes off).

For more, see www.ststephenstavern.co.uk.

PICTURE: Ewan Munro/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped)

London-sunset

Taken by Murray, this picture captures some of the city’s iconic attractions as it looks across the River Thames to Elizabeth Tower (formerly known as the Clock Tower) at the northern end of the Houses of Parliament just as the sun is setting. Westminster Bridge can be seen to the right while pictured in the foreground, in the middle of a garden located at St Thomas’ Hospital, is the Grade II*-listed sculpture/fountain, Revolving Torsion, which is the work of Russian-born artist Naum Gabo and has been on long-term loan to the hospital since the mid-1970s. Says the photographer: “Funnily enough, I shot this picture handheld and spontaneously as I though I might miss the shot. I then tried to take better ones with a tripod etc – but I think this was my best effort. Spontaneous pictures are always the best…I used to work in St Thomas’ which is behind me in the picture and looked out at this view constantly during the daytime.” PICTURE: Murray/www.flickr.com/photos/muffyc30/.

This massive Gothic revival structure would have dramatically changed the skyline of Westminster but, perhaps thankfully, never got further than the drawing board.

Westminster-Abbey-eastThe proposal was mooted in the early 1900s apparently amid concerns that, thanks to the number of monuments and memorials being placed within its walls, Westminster Abbey was becoming overcrowded. It was also apparently proposed as a memorial to Prince Albert.

The designs were the work of John Pollard Seddon – architect for the Church of England’s City of London Diocese – and another architect Edward Beckitt Lamb. They consisted of a 167 metre (548 foot) high tower and adjoining vast reception hall and numerous other galleries which sat at a right angle to the eastern end of the abbey minster (pictured).

Given the Clock Tower containing Big Ben is only 97.5 metres (320 feet high), the structure would have completely dominated its surrounds.

The project was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1904 but, requiring an enormous and impractical budge (not to mention its dominating aesthetics), was never pursued any further.

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.

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.

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.