LondonLife Special – Big Ben falls silent…

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

 

 

 

Where’s London’s oldest…manufacturing company?

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.

Treasures of London – Big Ben…

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.

What’s in a name?…Whitechapel

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.